Sep 042011

Whether you arrive by ship or fly direct to Anchorage it is definitely worth taking a few days (or more) to explore the area around Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula.  We spent a little over a week in the area and felt like we barely scratched the surface.   Depending on what else you are doing on your visit to Alaska with teens or tweens you can pick and choose from our top ten list or try to fit them all in.   Each of the links below will take you to a more detailed article about our experiences traveling around the area.  Each article includes lots of photos as well.

Best Teen and Tween Activities in and around Anchorage

Best Teen and Tween Activities in Whittier and the Kenai Peninsula

Hints for a Successful and Sane Alaska Trip with Teens and Tweens

Teens at the top of Mt Alyeska

As with any family vacation that packs a couple of parents and their teens and tweens into cars and hotels for days on end, be sure to build in down time, book lodging situations that will give everyone some room to breath, plan to be outside a lot, and let the teens and tweens have a say in the itinerary.  We also recommend asking the teens and tweens to help out on the photo crew – our #1 Son took many great shots that we might not have noticed, including some really nice ones of Alaska’s summer wildflowers, as well as most of our photos from the Flattop Hike and the Coastal Trail bike ride.

Note that we paid our own own way for all activities and lodging on the entire  trip and were pretty happy with all our arrangements.  However,  there are a couple of folks we just have to give extra kudos including:

  •  The Alaska Serenity Lodge in Soldotna.  On a lake and just off the beat track it was the perfect place to chill out, roast marshmallows, enjoy the hot tub, and be totally amazed about how it never gets dark out in late June and early July.
  • High Adventure Air in Soldotna made our fishing/bearviewing/flightseeing day a major success.  We particularly appreciated their waiting when we forgot our fishing licenses and had to rush back to the lodge to get them first thing in the morning!

We also recommend checking out some of the discount coupon books that are available online.  We purchased the Northern Lights book for about $50 and saved hundreds with two for one discounts on museums, raft rides, tram rides and the glacier cruise.  Just looking through its pages can give you some great ideas on activities and outfitters.

Finally, if you plan to do any amount of driving around the state be sure get a copy of The Milepost guide which is likely to have a better idea of where you are going than many GPS systems.  We found it to be very helpful, particularly when we made the spur of the moment decision to drive to Willow via Hatcher Pass rather than the main highway.

We’d love to hear if reading our blog influences your choice of what to do with your teens and tweens when your family visits Alaska.  Please leave a comment or drop us an email to let us know how you do!

Sep 022011

The summer growing season in Alaska is short, but the longer days and warmer weather provide perfect conditions for wildflowers in late June and early July.  #1 Son kept an eye on the flora and fauna during our visit to Alaska.  This photo essay showcases some of his favorites starting with wildflowers seen on his hike to the summit of Flattop Mountain.

Wildflowers at Flattop Mountain

 Bike riding along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail provided many opportunities to stop and smell the roses.

Wild rose along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail

At the top of the Mt. Alyeska tram ride we found flowers growing next to snow fields.

Flowers growing near snow field atop Mt Alyeska


We were surprised to find such delicate blooms in such rugged terrain.

Close up of flowers on Mt Alyeska

The lower elevations of the Kenai near Soldotna bloomed as well.

Wildflowers near Soldotna, AK

Next time you travel with your teens and tweens be sure they have a camera in hand.  You never know what they will see!  Leave a link to photos on your blog!  In the meantime, you can also check out lots of other fun family travel photos at the Delicious Baby Photo Friday site where we included a link to this article.

Aug 292011

Most of our time in Alaska centered around spending time with cousins in Anchorage and exploring the Kenai Peninsula.  We did however, find one day to explore north of Anchorage, combining a visit to the historic Independence Gold Mine, a drive through the high altitude Hatcher Pass and a float trip on Willow Creek.  It was quite a day!   If you go, be sure to leave early, bring your rain gear, and check to be sure the pass is open.  We drove it in early July and it had only opened a few days before we arrived.  Heading north on the Palmer-Fishhook Road out of Palmer,  make sure your gas tank is full as you won’t see gas stations for several hours.  The mine is located at about 3,000 foot elevation and the summit of Hatcher Pass is even higher so conditions can be wet and raw even in the middle of the summer.

The Independence Mine State Historical Park

The State of Alaska maintains the historic site and staffs a small visitors center that offers snacks, some historical information and a place to warm up after exploring the site in the fog, rain and wind (which are common even in July).   In its peak year it included 27 buildings, covered more than 1,300 square miles of claims, employed 200 people and produced more than $1 million of gold (at a time when gold sold for a lot less than it does now).  It was the largest operation in the Willow Creek gold mining area and was active from 1906 to 1951.   In recent years, as the price of gold had climbed, several small operators have been active in the area although there are no plans to re-open the Independence.

The abandoned buildings of the historic Independence Mine

Just south of the entrance to the historical park is the turn off for the Hatcher Pass road which travels 49 rugged, mostly gravel road miles through largely undeveloped mountains and former gold mining areas. 

Taking in the view on the Hatcher Pass Road

You will drive by the Summit Lake State Recreation Site at elevation 3,886 feet.    At lower elevations you will pass alpine meadows and the  Little Susitna River.  Hiking trails and nature viewing opportunities abound but on the July 4th weekend, the area was crawling with campers and fisherman anywhere near the river.

Lake at the summit of Hatcher Pass

Coming off the Hatcher Pass road we headed south into Willow to meet up with the cousins and the Susitna Valley River Guides for a float trip on Willow Creek.   Willow Creek is a low key flat water affair that turned out to be little on the placid side for the teens. 

Rafting at Willow Creek

Our guides said it was not uncommon to run into bears or moose in the course of the 8 mile trip.   Of course, the beginning of July is also the beginning of the salmon run on Willow Creek so instead of seeing wildlife we got an up-close view of combat fishing with every fishing hole along the river overtaken with fisherman of all ages. From singles, to families to grandparents or teens it seemed like all of Anchorage was fishing that weekend.

In early July there are more fishmen than wildlife on Willow Creek

Despite the crowds we enjoyed the trip and we would definitely recommend the Little Susitna Valley River Guides.  We were running late since the Hatcher Pass drive took longer than we expected and they were very accomodating.  Once again, a discount coupon from the Northern Lights book came in  handy and helped to make the 3-hour  trip very affordable.  We would travel with them again, but maybe not at the height of fishing season!

Take Time to Visit Girdwood, Mt. Alyeska and Turnagain Arm

 Posted by on August 28, 2011  Comments Off
Aug 282011

In making the tour of Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula, we used Girdwood, AK as a base camp for a couple of nights.  Girdwood is a delightful ski town anchored by the Mt. Alyeska Resort and ski area.  Since we were paying our own way and wanted room for the teens to spread out we opted to rent a condo rather than pay big bucks for a cramped hotel room at the resort.  Girdwood has that old time ski town feel and is the perfect jumping off point for day trips to the sights along the Turnagain Arm, Whittier, and of course, the ride up the Mt. Alyeska Aerial Tram.

Beluga Point on the Turnagain Arm near Girdwood

Turnagain Arm is an extension of the Cook Inlet that flows for miles all the way to Anchorage.  Because of tides that regularly hit 30 feet, the area is marked by extensive mudflats – which are extremely dangerous and can act like quicksand.  We obeyed the signs and stayed off the mudflats, but took the time to enjoy the views from the major lookout points such at Beluga Point and Bird Point.   Beluga Point is named for the hundreds of white Beluga whales that can sometimes be seen following the salmon up the Arm and feeding in the area.  Bird Point is known as an excellent vantage point to see the powerful tidal-wave like bore tide which flows a few times a month.  Unfortunately, we didn’t see either. We did, however, get to enjoy excellent views of Turnagain Arm both at sea level and from the 2,500 ft level of Mt. Alyeska.

Ride the Aerial Tram to the top of Mt Alyeska

Tram tickets are a bit expensive at $20 for adults and $17 for teens and tweens, but we had two-for-one discount coupons from the Northern Lights book which definitely made the cost reasonable.  We rode the tram with the Alaska cousins and the teens and tweens had a great time making snowballs  in June.  The view of the Turnagain Arm in the distance was pretty good too!

Snow in June at Mt Alyeska

From the tram observation deck at the 2,500 foot level there are additional trails that can be explored higher up the mountain.  Of course the teens had to see how far they could get.  They didn’t make it to the 3,900+ foot headwall but did find some additional snowfields further up the mountain.

Teens at the top of Mt Alyeska

The tram ride is about 10 minutes each way.  There is a restaurant and gift shop at the tram landing,  but we opted for lunch back in the main Girdwood village which is about a 5 minute drive from the mountain. 

The Mt Alyeska Aerial Tram rises 2,300 feet in about 10 minutes

Whether you stay for a few nights or are just passing through between Seward and Anchorage, be sure to plan a couple of hours to explore Girdwood, Mt. Alyeska and the Turnagain Arm.  If you want to extend your visit there are hiking trails and opportunities for jetboating, dog sled rides and float trips in the area.

Aug 222011

Once you get outside of Whittier or Seward, most of the towns on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula are pretty small and lodging options mostly consist of campgrounds, local owned and operated motels and small fishing lodges.  For our two nights in Soldotna we wanted someplace affordable (since we paid out of our own pocket), clean, off the main road, with enough space that the teens and parents wouldn’t feel cramped.  We found the Alaska Serenity Lodge on TripAdvisor and after reading the rave reviews booked the top floor of the main lodge building.

The Alaska Serenity Lodge in Soldotna, AK

For the price of a night at the Residence Inn we got a homey apartment with a full kitchen, dining room, living room, two bedrooms, a deck,and  a grill.

We felt right at home at the Alaska Serenity Lodge

We also got access to an outdoor hot tub and fire pit, a beautiful lakeside view, use of a fish fillet station and lots and lots of rabbits to keep us company! 

Roasting marshmallows at the Alaska Serenity Lodge

The location and facilities were so inviting that we decided to buy some steaks and cook dinner for ourselves that evening, which gave us a chance to enjoy the property – a night before the upcoming holiday weekend we had it almost to ourselves.  We enjoyed roasting marshmallows over the fire  — and found time for the hot tub too. Given that it really didn’t get dark out at night, it was a long relaxing family evening.

View of the grounds and the lake at the Alaska Serenity Lodge

Owners Dave and  Katie Richardson were easy to deal with on the phone and via email. They even arranged for our flightseeing and fishing adventure with High Adventure Air. They answered all our questions and made us feel right at home.

One of the many bunnies seen at the Alaska Serenity Lodge

Besides the amazing number and variation of the rabbits on the property, the only quirk to remember is that, since they cater to fishermen, the Lodge doesn’t supply much in the way of bathroom soaps, shampoos or even a hair dryer – so plan to bring your own or make do!  Linens are provided but there is no daily maid service.  There were no additional cleaning charges at the end – we appreciated all the fees being included in the rate.

We give the Alaska Serenity Lodge a big thumbs up.  If you are traveling with a family we recommend the top floor of the lodge.  We didn’t get to see the inside of the cabins so can’t comment on them.  If you have stayed there please leave a comment and let us know what you thought.

Aug 172011

Many visitors motor straight through Soldotna, Alaska on their way to Homer and the other  picturesque fishing hamlets along the Kenai Peninsula’s western coast.  We were in town to go fishing and bear viewing but with a little time to kill we decided to stop by the Soldotna Homestead Museum at 461 Centennial Park Road near the Soldotna Visitor Center.  The visit ended up being a highlight of our week in Alaska with the teens.

Don't miss the Soldotna Homestead Museum

The museum consists of about a half dozen historical structures moved from various locations on the Peninsula.  Most were built in log cabin fashion although we learned that there were several different techniques, as each cabin took a different approach to constructing corners.   The buildings include a school, a community hall and several homesteader cabins.

Typical Alaskan Homesteader cabin at the Soldotna Homestead Museum

Rustic is the only way to describe how the homesteaders lived while they worked the land to earn a patent on their 40 acres.  The Museum’s map of the original homestead plots showed how the early birds got the best access to water while the later arrivals had to haul theirs in.

Wood stoves were the order of the day

Coming from New England, the teens were surprised to learn that homesteading in this part of Alaska lasted until the mid 1950s.  As a result, the artifacts on display included many items they might have found in their grandparent’s basements such as canning jars and vintage cookware.  Some were a bit more unusual like the  dentist drill powered by a foot pedal and a wood stove made from an oil drum.  The native animal and bird taxidermy collection was fun too!

Stuffed owl on display at the Soldotna Homestead Museum

One of our favorite buildings was the one room schoolhouse, which reminded Camera Guy of his youth in Central Vermont.

One room homesteader school house

We thought the 1950s metal lunch boxes and the Dick and Jane reading books were a nice touch!

Soldotna Homestead Museum school room

The highlight of the visit, however, was the opportunity to talk with the two wonderful historical society members who were staffing the museum that day.  Their parents had been homesteaders and these ladies brought to life the days before the main highway through town was paved and recalled the excitement of Alaska gaining statehood. The teens thought is was cool, but  Mom and Dad had a hard time believing hardy Alaskan homesteaders were raising families in log cabins off the grid at the same time we were watching cartoons on black and white TVs!

The Museum does not have a web site and is only open May to September but be sure to stop by if you are in the area for a glimpse at a unique slice of 20th century Americana.

Aug 142011

In between fishing, flying and cruising, we also found time to visit two of Anchorage’s major museums during our recent family vacation visit to Alaska.  The Anchorage Museum is home to the Smithsonian’s Arctic culture collection as well as a number of local and travel exhibits.  We spent an hour or two there on a rainy afternoon.   By comparison, the teens and their parents found the Alaska Native Heritage Center to be much more engaging because of the opportunity it provided to talk with representatives of eleven of Alaska’s native peoples.  If you only have time for one, we recommend spending a few hours at the Alaska Native Heritage Center.

Native peoples perform at the Alaska Native Heritage Center

The Center houses a relatively small collection of indoor displays that showcase native cultures, the pressures they face and the ways the different native groups have adapted since Alaskan statehood was recognized.   In addition, an indoor performance space hosts a non-stop series of dancing, singing, instrumental, and athletic demonstrations. The real highlights for us, however, were the six authentic life-sized Native dwellings located around a small lake in back of the main building.

Totems representing the Eyak, Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures are on display

Each of these dwellings was staffed by natives of the culture represented by the dwelling.  They were extremely generous in sharing their personal stories and taking the time to answer our many questions.

Traditional dwelling for native peoples from Northwest Coastal Alaska

Many of the cultural representatives grew up actively participating in their cultural traditions.  They also spoke about the lives of their parents and grandparents, many of whom had lived in traditional style dwellings until the 1930s.

The traditional homes of the Unangax and Alutiiq peoples were built to weather harsh winters and wet maritime climates

The teens were fascinated to learn about the ways that small handbuilt kayaks were used to hunt whales and fish.  They even got to try their hands using some of the traditional tools.

Native peoples hunted whales from small kayaks similar to these

We also enjoyed hearing the stories one young woman shared about her summers spent hunting and skinning moose while living the traditional Athabascan lifestyle.

A representative of the Athabascan people recounts her childhood summers spent at traditional hunting camps

We opted to tour the native dwellings on our own rather than joining an escorted tour around the lake.  In many cases we were the only ones inside a dwelling and had ample opportunity to ask questions.  This is a great activity for families visiting Anchorage with teens, but be sure to budget a couple of hours in order to get the most out of your visit.  If you have visited the Center let us know what you thought about it.