USA: ALASKA 2006

In Anchorage, Alaska, we rented a recreational vehicle (RV) in late August for 24 days to experience unique Alaskan culture, glaciers, fjords, fall colors, hiking, and the northern lights. This photo-filled article gives trip itineraries, map, and book recommendations for South-Central Alaska. Also read about our longer RV trip in 2019 to Southeast Alaska via the Alaska-Canadian Highway.

Favorite images from Alaska 2006 & 2019


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Suggested Alaska itinerary

We flew Northwest Airlines from Seattle to Anchorage and rented an RV for 24 days August 15 to September 8, 2006. I also shared a rental car and backpacked inexpensively July 5-23, 2002 near Anchorage, Girdwood, Chugach Mountains, and Kenai Peninsula.

Keep your schedule flexible and listen to the latest 2-day weather forecasts. Good forecasts let us book sunny days for the spectacular ***Phillips 26-Glacier College Fjord Cruise from Whittier and ***Denali flightseeing with Talkeetnaair.com from Talkeetna. In 2006, a steady downpour washed out the Parks Highway between Anchorage and Denali for 2.5 days. By flexibly reversing our planned route and first visiting Valdez and Fairbanks, the Parks Highway was reopened by the time we looped through back to Anchorage.

Key to activity ratings:   *** Must do.   ** Do.   * Maybe if time allows

TIP: If you have 1 week in Alaska

Fly to Anchorage, rent a camper or RV, and drive for a week or more (about 600+ miles) to see everything on the Kenai Peninsula, which is a great microcosm of Alaska. Or instead of RV rental, many people enjoy the Alaska Railroad train, which connects Anchorage to Kenai Peninsula (Whittier), Denali National Park, and Fairbanks. If weather is clear, *** flightsee over the amazing glacial wilderness over Denali from Talkeetna (Talkeetnaair.com) or Anchorage Airport.

Seward Highway to Kenai Peninsula


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  • Girdwood: Visit the fun town of Girdwood (40 minute drive from Anchorage), which has a good ski resort, nice hiking and historic mining ruins. ** “The Bake Shop” has great pizza, fresh bread, cinnamon rolls, healthy breakfast, lunch, and dinner near Alyeska Resort. Sunday Craft Market.
  • Whittier:
    • Whittier is a major cruise ship and train gateway to Anchorage. Pay a toll and drive through Whittier Tunnel (Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel), the longest combined vehicle-railroad tunnel in North America (2.5 miles, one lane wide, shared with train).
    • The excellent *** Phillips 26-Glacier College Fjord Cruise departs from Whittier and traverses 145 miles through the pristine passageways of Alaska’s Prince William Sound (College & Harriman Fjords). Cruise from 1:00-5:30pm to see whales, sea lions, sea otters, Kittiwake Rookery, plus spectacular tidewater glaciers. “Catamaran with no seasickness, money back guarantee.” Price includes a good hot meal. September discount. (For comparison, from Valdez, the separate Columbia Glacier tour with Stan Stephens features a glacier that is receding and declining in scenic impact.)
    • Easily hike ** Portage Pass and Glacier, 2 to 4 miles with 700 feet gain, to see a spectacular glacier tumbling ice bergs into a lake. Turn right on a national forest road just a few hundred yards east of the Whittier Tunnel for free parking at trailhead. (If you drive the couple of miles further into Whittier, parking costs at least $5 per day.)
  • Seward:
    • ** Alaska Sealife Center gives a good introduction to coastal ecosystems.
    • *** Hike Exit Glacier, 1 to 8 miles round trip, up to 3000 feet gain. Don’t miss my favorite hike in Alaska — a well graded trail with ever-improving glacier views as you ascend. Make noise and watch for bears. Example of climate change in Alaska: From 1815-1999, Exit Glacier retreated 6549 feet, melting an average of 35 feet per year (according to www.nps.gov/kefj/).
    • ** Kenai Fjords National Park has an attractive cruise to Northwestern Fjord & Glacier. Tom cruised to the impressive Aialik Glacier in 2002, seeing whales, Steller sea lions, and bird life.
    • Camp on Seward’s waterfront for a fee, or park your RV in a free pullout overnight on the road to Exit Glacier.
  • Ninilchik & Kenai: * Russian Orthodox Churches
  • Homer, 5 hours one-way drive from Anchorage:
    • ** Wander through this artsy town at the “end of the road.” Walk beaches and tide pools from Homer or Homer Spit. Try your luck at the “Alaska Halibut Fishing Capital of the World.” Pratt Museum of Sealife covers art, natural history, native cultures, homesteading, fishing, marine ecology, and Exxon Valdez oil spill.
    • *** Kachemak Bay State Park requires a water taxi ride across Kachemak Bay to Glacier Spit.
      • ** Hike Grewinkgk Glacier & Lake: Walk 5 miles (500 feet gain), from Glacier Spit to Saddle for pick-up, or 6.5 miles (150 feet gain) round trip from Glacier Spit.
      • *** Hike Alpine Ridge Trail for views into deep glacial valleys. Day hike 5-14 miles (2000-4000 feet gain). Optionally tent near start.
      • Overnight lodging options for Kachemak Bay State Park:
        • Camp overnight at Rusty’s Lagoon.
        • Hike a short way with a backpack to camp on the beach at Glacier Lake.
        • Reserve rental cabins on Halibut Cove Lagoon and Tutka Bay. $65 peak and $50 non-peak as of 2011. Bring your own pads, sleeping bags, stove, toilet paper, lights. No electricity. Wood stove for heat.

TIP: If you have 2 to 3 weeks in Alaska

Do the above week, and add a 1200+ mile RV driving loop seeing Valdez, Fairbanks, and Denali National Park (map at bottom).


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Along the Parks Highway: ***Denali State Park
  • is closer to Anchorage than Denali National Park and gives dramatic front-lit views of Mt. McKinley/Denali from the highway or trails. Weather for best photography is often better at sunrise than at sunset.
  • Hike ***Kesugi Ridge: At Parks Highway milepost 147, camp at Byers Lake Campground, where trail starts. Hike 8.5 miles round trip with 2100 feet gain from Byers Lake to Tarn Point. Or loop Byers Lake. Get USGS 1:63,000 map.
  • Hike ***Little Coal Creek Trail at north end of park. Hike any distance 2 to 10+ miles for great views and pretty terrain.
Talkeetna
  • The town of Talkeetna inspired the quirky television series “Northern Exposure” (set in fictional Cicely, Alaska and filmed in Roslyn, Washington) and has a good distant view of Denali and the Alaska Range.
  • If weather is clear, don’t miss ***flightseeing over Denali from Talkeetna. Expect $195 to $300+ per person for 1 to 3 hours (2011). Try Grand Circle Denali with an exciting glacier landing (which adds ~$75). Talkeetnaair.com gave us clear bubble windows and expert feather-smooth landings. Flightseeing from Anchorage Airport adds $100.
*** Denali National Park
  • Trains and buses arrive from Anchorage, but a rental vehicle is more flexible and a camper/RV is delightful. Driving distances:
    • From Denali, driving to Valdez via Fairbanks is the same distance (489 miles) as to Valdez via Palmer.
    • Denali Park to Fairbanks (121 miles) to Valdez (368 miles)
    • Denali Park to Wasila (195 miles) to Palmer (12 miles) to Valdez (262 miles).
  • Seasonal timetable for wildlife, mountain views, and Alaskan fall colors:
    • Best fall colors and moose watching are in late August***. Watch for the Northern Lights (aurora borealis) in the middle of the night.
    • Weather: Mt. McKinley/Denali (20,320 feet) is only visible 1 out of 3 days. Rain falls as light showers or drizzle for half the time in summer. Least cloudy time is early morning, which requires overnight tenting at Wonder Lake.
    • Photography is best on Denali National Park road in early or late daylight hours because Denali is backlit much of the afternoon. (From Denali State Park (see below), the mountain is fully front lit.)
    • In early September, moose bash antlers amongst the spruce & willow shrubs, hoping to win breeding rights, along the first 15 miles of Denali Park Road and on Horseshoe Lake Trail. At this time, temperatures are in mid-30’s to 60’s, averaging 58° F.
    • August 20 to early September display peak fall colors at Denali NP. Color varies greatly around the park and changes fast:
      • Peak #1: August 28 is the usual peak date for tundra colors/reds at >2500′ elevations. **Hike through red colored landscapes around Highway Pass/Stoney Hill and Polychrome Pass. The tundra peak color usually lasts until September 3-5, depending on elevation, wind, rain. Some color persists longer in Wonder Lake and lower Savage.
      • Peak #2: September 10 (plus or minus 3 days) is the usual color peak of golden aspen along Nenana Canyon.
    • In early September, a week after Denali park’s peak color, **Chena River State Recreation Area (east of Fairbanks) reportedly has great red tundra colors in the fall.
    • Yellow tree leaf fall colors on Kenai Peninsula change a few days after Denali, with aspen golds usually peaking Sept 15-18th. Glenn Highway has great gold aspens against rugged mountain background. Just a few days after Kenai comes the Anchorage area’s color peak, the last in south-central Alaska.
    • Third week of September: snow closes Denali Park Road.
  • *** Denali National Park Green Shuttle Bus:
    • To travel past Mile 20 on the Denali Park Road, you must ride one of the several types of shuttle bus (Green, Camper, or Tour). The Green and Camper buses are cheapest and most flexible, plus you get more of a tour.
    • Denali National Park’s Green Shuttle Bus takes 11 hours round trip from the Wilderness Access Center (WAC, near park entrance) to Wonder Lake, 86 miles one way.
    • From the bus you are likely to see lots of wildlife, including Dall sheep, moose, brown bears (“grizzlies”), foxes, wolves, and so forth. A “Grand Slam” means seeing moose, caribou, wolf, and bear on one bus ride (rare). We saw 15 brown bears on each of two days riding the Green Shuttle bus. Spot Dall Sheep around Polychrome Pass (hiking) and Igloo Creek Campground (mile 34).
    • The earliest bus has the best wildlife viewing. For Denali views, sit on left side outbound and right side inbound. There is no time on the shuttle for hikes at Wonder Lake unless you go early, get off for a few hours, then take the last shuttle out, a 14-hour day, or reserve tent camping overnight.
    • Riding the shuttle all day is very tiring unless you get off and walk for a few hours along the road or in the wilderness, or camp overnight.
    • The bus starts at the Wilderness Access Center and picks people up at campgrounds. 2 people per seat, overhead racks for soft & lightweight items & jackets. Beginning at mile 20, a visitor can exit a bus to do some day hiking or exploring, then return to the road when ready and re-board the next shuttle (green) bus that has space available. During peak hours/peak season this can be a wait up to an hour or more. The bus stops every 1.5 hours for restroom break.
    • Tip: Shave 3 hours on the round trip bus to Wonder Lake by staying at Teklanika Campground in a hard-sided RV/camper:
  • *** Teklanika Campground, Denali National Park 
    • Camping at Teklanika makes the shuttle bus round trip to Wonder Lake 3 hours shorter (making a more tolerable 8 hours round trip). Enjoy remote wilderness in the comfort of your hard-sided RV.
    • Drive to Denali Road Milepost 29 at Teklanika River, the furthest allowed for private campers (except for end-of-season lottery winners).
    • Rules: 3 nights minimum stay. RV or hard sided vehicles only. Once arrived, RV cannot move until exiting (back to Milepost 20 and further towards the park entrance). 8 people per site max. Open May 20 – Sept. 17. Use dump station at Riley Creek Campground before driving to Teklanika.
    • Prior to driving in, Teklanika Pass (“Tek Pass” $31.50 as of 2011) is required for shuttle bus transportation during your 3-day stay. Tek Pass admits you onto the park shuttle on unlimited standby basis (with first day guaranteed).
    • When booking a Teklanika Pass, schedule a Shuttle Bus for your first full day in Denali (the first day you actually “wake up” at Teklanika Campground) – preferably choose a Wonder Lake or Kantishna Shuttle Bus for your Tek Pass. (If you reserve Polychrome, Toklat, Eielson or Fish Creek for your Tek Pass, you will have to switch buses on a space available basis to Wonder Lake/ Kantishna.)
** Richardson Highway, Valdez to Fairbanks


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  • ** Valdez has a very spectacular fjord and mountain setting, despite the bustling oil industry.
    • ** The last thirty miles of Richardson Highway south to Valdez has beautiful sweeping vistas, canyons, and waterfalls.
    • ** Worthington Glacier State Recreation Site: Step out of the car and/or hike at Thompson Pass just outside Valdez in Chugach Mountains, Chugach National Forest.
    • Reserve Valdez RV campgrounds in advance, due to summer popularity.
    • * Columbia & Meares Glacier cruise with “Stan Stephens” Columbia Glacier is declining in beauty. Instead try ***Phillips 26-Glacier College Fjord Cruise from Whittier (see above).
  • **Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark and quirky McCarthy make a worthwhile side trip off Richardson Highway.
    • Kennecott is one of America’s wildest & most photogenic ghost towns, a copper mining town dating from 1889-1938.
    • Use the Kennecott Shuttle to avoid 120 miles round trip on a rough potholed road (although the road has improved over the years).
    • Chitina is a native American village, located 325 miles from Anchorage, with views of the Wrangell Mountains. My wife stayed with the RV at the public Copper River Campground across the long bridge near Chitina, while I took the Kennecott Shuttle for 60 miles one way to McCarthy for an overnight stay.
  • **Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve was proclaimed a national monument in 1978 and a world heritage site in 1979. In 1980, it was established as a national park and preserve, the largest in the USA.
    • The **Park Visitor Center is well worth visiting at Richardson Highway Milepost 106.8, between Glennallen and Copper Center. See the spectacular movie presentation.
    • **Nabesna Road offers spectacular scenery and access to a seldom seen, wild corner of Alaska, in the headwaters of the Copper River.
      • 42 miles long, paved for the first 4 miles, then 2wd gravel, but stream crossings may require high clearance or 4wd: Trail Creek (Mile 29), Lost Creek (Mile 30.8), Boyden Creek (Mile 34.3) — all are usually dry or have only a shallow flow over the road surface, some with soft bottoms.
      • ** Primitive free campgrounds: Mile 6.1 Rufus Creek. Mile 12.2 Copper Lake Trailhead. ** Mile 16.6 great view of peaks. Mile 17.8 Dead Dog Hill Rest Area. Mile 21.8 Rock Lake Rest Area.
      • ** Mile 15-18: notice the prominent Wrangell Mountains, built from the Wrangell Lavas 10 million years ago to present. The conspicuous high glaciated conical summit to the southwest is Mount Sanford, the fifth highest mountain in the United States (16,237 feet), a strato-volcano (or composite cone). Mount Wrangell is the more distant, rounded and glacial covered dome southeast of Mount Sanford, with its summit of 14,163 ft, the largest andesite shield volcano in North America, the park’s only active volcano, releasing occasional steam plumes. Shield volcanoes have more frequent, but less violent eruptions. North of Mount Sanford and nearer to the road is the jagged prominence of Capital Mountain 7,731 ft, an eroded shield volcano, like Tanada Peak 9,240 ft (the jagged dark colored ridge north and east of Mt. Wrangell), formed between one and two million years ago and eroded only during the last million years. On a clear day, Mount Jarvis can be seen over the right shoulder of Tanada Peak. Flowing northward from the great ice fields of Mount Wrangell is the Copper Glacier, melting into the Copper River which flows northward, then westward along the end of the Wrangell Range, then southward to the Gulf of Alaska near Cordova, cutting through the coastal barrier of the Chugach Mountains, and marking most of the Park’s western boundary.
      • Mile 24.7 Watershed Divide (3,320 ft). Leaving the Copper River watershed which drains into the Gulf of Alaska and entering the Yukon River watershed which drains into the Bering Sea.
  • Follow the Trans-Alaska Pipeline (an amazing engineering feat) northwards and cross the impressive **Alaska Range.
  • Fairbanks: **Museum of the North, at the University of Alaska.


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Glenn Highway (Anchorage to Glennallen)


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  • Drive 304 miles from Anchorage to Palmer to Glennallen to Valdez.
  • Anchorage
    • camp at *Eagle River Campground (Glenn Highway Milepost 11.6) for a beautiful natural setting close to the city. Moose are common.
    • * Alaska Zoo.
  • Palmer
    • The * Musk Ox Farm makes a fun visit (near Palmer at Glenn Highway Milepost 50, open in the summer from 10-6pm). A “musk ox” (ovibos moschatus) is not an ox and has no musk glands! Instead, it is a relative of sheep and goats. 3000 musk ox live in Alaska and 100,000 more live worldwide in the far north. Due to their habit of huddling together in a circle (with calves in the center) when threatened, the species nearly went extinct after the invention of guns.
    • * Knik Glacier & Pioneer Ridge Trail: Hike 2200 feet up to the first picnic table on Pioneer Ridge trail, a fairly steep 4 miles round trip, for a good view of the Knik Glacier and River.


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Southeast Alaska: the Alaska Panhandle

Read about our RV trip in 2019 to Southeast Alaska via the Alaska-Canadian Highway. In 2019, instead of driving to the Prince Rupert ferry (which had fully booked several months in advance), we ferried our RV from Haines to Juneau for 5 nights in Mendenhall Campground, then ferried from Juneau to Skagway.

Southeast Alaskans say April/May has best weather and fewer tourists than summer. In Southeast Alaska, you could save money by driving to Prince Rupert, Canada, then ride ferries (without a vehicle) round trip to Juneau. Board ferries spontaneously as passengers without a car. Bus or rent a car at various ferry stops. Ferrying a vehicle costs hundreds of dollars and requires reservations 4-6 months in advance.

Alaska: Haines Highway


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Alaska: Juneau & Tracy Arm


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Alaska: flightseeing over Glacier Bay National Park


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Alaska: Skagway


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Key to above activity ratings:   *** Must do.   ** Do.   * Maybe if time allows.

Alaskan animal and wildlife photos


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Recreational vehicle rental in Alaska

To experience the great Alaskan outdoors, driving an RV (recreational vehicle or motorhome) or camper has big advantages over tenting or lodging.

  • Campground slots are much easier found spontaneously than hotel lodging. The only campgrounds we needed to reserve (from August 15 to September 8, 2006) were Teklanika (RV) and Wonder Lake (tent) in Denali NP.
  • Camping puts you in closer contact with nature than a hotel room. An RV is just as comfortable and more convenient than a hotel.
  • Unpack luggage just once into an RV, instead of repacking every day to and from hotels.
A. RV versus pickup camper

ClippershipMotorhomes.com gave us excellent value RV rental in 2006:

  • Clippership Motorhomes gives free airport pick up (907) 562-7051 or 800-421-3456. 8-5 pm every day.
  • 20 or 22-foot Economy Class $2200 for 24 days August 15 – September 8, 2006 = $90/day plus gas (includes 8% MOA tax & 3% state tax), 2400 free miles then $.15/mile. Housekeeping package $15 each. Reserve with deposit $250, then upon arrival pay $250 more deposit. Aside from gravelled campgrounds or short access roads, all gravel roads are prohibited. Highway fuel inefficiency is 9 miles per gallon of gasoline.
  • Includes: Sheets, blankets, pillows, towels, pots and pans, knife, fork and spoon for each traveler, pancake turner, measuring cup, baking pan, scrubber, cooking spoons, can opener, grater, colander, paring knife, butcher knife, coffee pot, mixing bowls, pot holders, cutting board, potato peeler, broom, dust pan, water hose, level, trash can and instruction manual. Add the convenient housekeeping package: $15.00 per person: dishes, glasses, pitcher, kitchen towel, dish cloth, first aid kit, dish soap, paper towels, toilet paper, bath soap, toilet chemical, matches and hangers.

Small RV and pickup camper rentals may cost equally, even off season.

  • A pickup camper gets better gas mileage than an RV, but its daily rental rate can be higher than a small RV.
  • Save 20 to 30% on your motorhome RV rental by renting before or after high season, which runs from about July 1 to August 15.
  • A pickup mounted with a camper shell will take you over rougher roads to more places than a motorhome or RV.
  • As priced in 2006, pickup campers offered no off-season price savings.
B. Flying versus driving to Alaska

Renting a vehicle in Anchorage saves 4000+ miles of driving from the Lower 48 States. Much of the famous Alaska-Canadian (ALCAN) Highway is through monotonous forest. Driving from Seattle to Anchorage (5300 miles round trip) would have added two weeks of driving expense. Driving your own vehicle from the Lower 48 may be worthwhile for trips of 4 weeks or more. For trips of 1-3 weeks, fly and rent a vehicle.

C. Car + tenting

Sleeping in your own tent is the cheapest accomodation in Alaska, but wind, rain and bugs (which bite mid June to mid July) make tenting uncomfortable for all but the young and hardy.

D. Car + lodging

Car plus lodging costs about as much as renting an RV. Lodging often must be reserved well in advance in popular areas of Alaska. Lodging can be scarce in the beautiful areas where you may most want to experience nature, whereas RV camping or overnight parking areas are much more plentiful.

South Central Alaska map, USA, 24 days by RV (Recreational Vehicle) including Anchorage, Denali National Park and Preserve Park Road, Mount McKinley flightseeing from Talkeetna, Parks Highway, Kenai Peninsula, Sterling Highway, College & Harriman Fjords cruise from Whittier, Seward, Homer, Glenn Highway, Richardson Highway, Valdez, McCarthy, Wrangell Mountains, Fairbanks, North Pole. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Above: A map of South Central Alaska shows our 24-day itinerary in a rented RV (recreational vehicle): starting at Anchorage, see Kenai Peninsula, College and Harriman Fjord day cruise, Valdez, McCarthy, Fairbanks, Denali, and Alaska Range flightseeing from Talkeetna.

Weather and when to visit

  • May 10 to September 15 is generally a good time to visit most parts of Alaska.
  • Alaska Time Zone = Seattle (or Pacific Time Zone) minus one hour.
  • Long daylight: June 21 is the longest day of the year, with 19 hours of daylight in Anchorage, 22 in Fairbanks, and 18 hours in Southeast Alaska. Any time between Spring and Fall equinoxes, the days are significantly longer in Alaska than at lower latitudes.
  • Peak tourist season is mid-June to mid-August. Before and after that are “shoulder season” discounts 10 – 25% at some hotels and tours.
  • Hiking season: Snow in high country or Arctic regions does not melt until about late June. June is “post-hole” season, so named for each step falling through melting snow.
  • Fall colors: Peak fall colors of the red tundra in Denali are late August to early September. On the Kenai Peninsula, aspen tree yellow & gold leaf fall colors usually peak September 15-18th, a few days after Denali National Park. The Glenn Highway (from Anchorage to Glennallen) has great gold aspens against rugged mountain background. Just a few days after Kenai comes the Anchorage area’s yellow color peak, which is the last turning of leaf colors in south-central Alaska.
  • May is generally drier in Alaska, with about a 25% chance of measurable rain on the average day. Alaska gets rainier as the summer progresses. By August, the chance of rain increases to about 50% on a given day.
  • Climate zones:
    • Rainiest areas are on the ocean side of mountain ranges.
    • In south-central Alaska‘s summer (Anchorage & Homer), expect rain one third of the time, cloudy one third, and sunny one third. Peak mosquito season is the end of June and the first part of July in marshy lowlands, but no problem on breezy alpine ridges. Bugs are no problem after late July. South-central Alaska has 70% of the state’s population and the most roads and hiking trails. The varied climate transitions from the mild and wet southern coast, to the colder and drier interior to the north.
    • Fairbanks and the interior north of the Alaska Range have significantly sunnier weather than further south. The snow melts faster in the interior in Spring than in south-central Alaska. Early summer season has thunderstorms and forest fires. The interior of Alaska has more mosquitoes than south-central Alaska, starting in mid-June, but the bugs die away after the first frosts in late July. The best interior hiking is in the Alaska Range and the Yukon-Tanana uplands near Fairbanks.
    • Southeast Alaska (Juneau to Ketchikan) is the rainiest area in Alaska (with local variability). Locals say April/May has the best weather with the least rain and fewer tourists.
    • Southwest Alaska (including Katmai National Park) is wet and windy, and stretches 1400 miles down Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian Islands.
Global warming: climate change in Alaska

Over the past 50 years, Alaska’s winters have warmed by 6.3°F (3.5°C) and its annual average temperature has increased 3.4°F (2.0°C) (Karl et al. 2009). Alaska has warmed more than twice as fast as the continental United States. As stated by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2007): Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global sea level. This warming is very likely (more than 90% certain) related to anthropogenic (human caused) greenhouse gas emissions.  Read more about global warming and climate change.

Bring to Alaska

  • NOAA weather radio. Or get weather forecasts via cell phone/internet. Many walkie-talkies can receive NOAA weather radio (updated every 6 hours) within about 10-15 miles of main cities. Hikers and backpackers should check two-day weather forecasts frequently.
  • compass
  • binoculars for wildlife viewing
  • Sleep mask – even on September 1, skies are surprisingly light for 16 hours in Anchorage!
  • DEET insect repellant wards off the mosquito “unofficial state bird”: If mosquitoes worry you, complete your trip before they hatch in mid-June, or visit the last week in July or later when the first night frosts eliminate most insect problems. If visiting during mosquito season (mid-June to mid-July), DEET is the only proven repellent.
  • Motion sickness remedy (a prescription patch works best) for sea & air (though we didn’t need it).
  • If camping overnight at Wonder Lake or elsewhere, bring camping gear: tent, stove, pots, sleeping bag, pad, backpack, safety matches, etc.

Recommended Alaska guidebooks

Search for latest “Alaska travel books” on Amazon.com (look for updates every 1 to 3 years).

2013: 2012: 2012: 2012:
2012: 2009:

USA: ARIZONA: Havasu Canyon, Falls, Supai

Beautiful Havasu Canyon flows into the Colorado River, and is part of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. River rafters can hike a long rough trail up to visit Supai, but the normal access is via an 8-mile dusty horse trail from a car park at Hualapai Hilltop (or via helicopter).

Havasupai (or Havasu ‘Baaja) means “people of the blue-green water,” and their people have tended fields in the Grand Canyon for at least 700 years. The Havasupai also lived at what is now called Indian Garden on the Bright Angel Trail in the main Grand Canyon, but they were evicted by the National Park Service in the 1920’s. Their brush shelters (wickiups) and gardens were destroyed at Indian Garden, leaving the Havasupai Tribe just 518 acres in Havasu Canyon. In 1975, a more the enlightened time, 187,500 acres of canyon and rimland were returned to the tribe. As of 2005, about 450 of the tribe’s 650 members live in the village of Supai. As of 1999, Supai is the only town in the United States which still receives its mail by mule train.

See also my separate Southwest USA articles: ArizonaUtah, and Nevada.

Tom and Carol Dempsey in Havasu Canyon, April 1999

Having registered for camping permission from the Havasupai Tribe (external link) a few weeks in advance (as recommended), Carol and I parked our car in the dirt lot at Hualapai Hilltop and backpacked the 8-mile dusty trail downhill into Supai Village. About 25,000 tourists visit each year, so advance reservations are recommended. We checked in at the tribal office, then hiked 2 more miles to the campground, passing the wonderful Havasu Falls, one of the most surprising desert oasis experiences in the world. Impressive Mooney Falls was a short walk further downstream. Thank you very much, Havasupai people, for sharing your very special canyon with visitors.

To more fully experience the isolation of this desert oasis, I strongly recommend walking to Supai, instead of riding a horse or helicopter. But next time we’ll consider having the mule train carry our packs, to make the desert walk more comfortable. Helicopters also carry in people and supplies, but the loud chop-chopping roar disturbed my appreciation of this beautiful natural setting. Out of nowhere, a porta-potty suddenly flew over our heads. Helicopters repeatedly flew full porta-potties, one at a time on a very long cable, out of the heavily-used campground, for disposal elsewhere. A composting toilet would seem to be a more cost effective solution. The densely-packed and worn campground in this narrow canyon would have benefited by further restricting the number of visitors per day.


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Recommended Arizona guidebooks from Amazon.com:

Search for latest Arizona travel books at Amazon.com (look for updates every 1-3 years):

2011: 2004: 2012:
2012: 2010:

Canon PowerShot G9 versus Canon 40D DSLR with f/2.8L IS lens

For family travel, Tom compares a big f/2.8L IS lens on heavy Canon 40D DSLR to a compact Canon PowerShot G9 camera on tripod:

Asia Contemporary: A demon guards at the bottom of a gilded chedi (or stupa), at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew), which is a shining complex of buildings within the grounds of the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand. The Grand Palace (or Phra Borom Maha Ratcha Wang, in Thai) in Bangkok, Thailand, was built on the east bank of the Chao Phraya River starting in 1782, during the reign of Rama I. It served as the official residence of the king of Thailand from the 18th century to the mid-20th century. Photo by Carol Dempsey. Published in "Light Travel: Photography on the Go" by Tom Dempsey 2009, 2010. (© Carol Dempsey / Photoseek.com)

Asia Contemporary: A demon guards at the bottom of a gilded chedi (or stupa), at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew), which is a shining complex of buildings within the grounds of the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand. Photograph by Carol Dempsey, using a Canon Powershot SD700 IS ELPH, which is a camera about the size of a deck of playing cards.

Photographer Tom Dempsey replies to Raul Panelo’s message (shown at bottom) March 03, 2008:

Dear Raul, You probably already know that your skills as a photographer are much more important than the camera you choose. That being said, your high quality Canon 40D (and 20D) DSLR outfit has some important differences versus the 13-ounce Canon Powershot G9:

Here are the main advantages of your excellent DSLR camera outfit:
  • Prints larger than about 16 inches will be noticeably sharper and less distorted from the DSLR, versus from the Canon G9.
  • The shutter response is instantaneous on a DSLR, whereas the G9 has a slight delay of 0.4 to 0.6 seconds. (Workaround: half-press the shutter to pre-focus, then click at the right moment).
  • On the DSLR, for a given image noise/quality level, you can hand hold shots in 2 to 4 stops dimmer light using ISO 800-3200 (versus the G9 set at ISO 100-200; assuming you turn on IS image stabilization in both cameras for sharpest hand held performance). Using these settings, images may be indistinguishable in quality from DSLR versus G9, when viewed on any High Definition HD monitor or projector, or when printed less than about 12 inches in size. Your f/2.8L lenses for your Canon 40D are so good and sharp, that your personal judgement is required to determine the G9 breakeven point for print size, which I estimate at between 16 and 8 inches. Larger prints will look sharper from the Canon 40D.
  • DSLR cameras perform much better in dimmer light, because their larger lens glass diameter focuses much more light onto a sensor 6 times larger in area than in the G9.
  • Your proposed 1.4x lens extender loses a stop, but costs less than buying a new lens, and reduces bulk versus carrying an extra lens. Offhand I don’t know the actual quality difference when you extend your 70-200mm 2.8L IS by 1.4x. The tele extender might duplicate the effect (and quality?) of your Canon 75-300mm 4-5.6 IS, thus saving you extra bulk of carrying the 75-300mm when traveling.

…versus the Canon Powershot G9:

  • The G9 can work around many of its low light limitations by shooting always at ISO 100-200 (even 400 looks surprisingly good), and by mounting on a tripod, in the case of low light shots that exceed its excellent 2-4 stop hand-held “IS” capability. You may not see much difference between G9 images and DSLR images when you compare shots at ISO 100-200 and prints smaller than about 12 inches.
  • The G9 has big advantages of portability, fun factor, movie & sound recording, and good built in macro focusing down to 1 cm (very useful small macro image area 17 x 22 mm, better magnification than your DSLR lenses, unless you have a dedicated DSLR macro lens).
  • Underwater camera: The $170 Waterproof Case WP-DC11 converts the Canon G9 into a high quality underwater camera for snorkeling Maui, Hawaii, Galapagos Islands, Belize, Mexico, the Caribbean Sea or other great destinations. However, our camera’ s waterproof housing fogged up in the cold Galapagos waters. Instead, get a dedicated underwater camera listed on my BUY page.
  • Compact cameras are great for traveling with family, because they are more portable and faster to whip out, as you juggle family gear and interact socially. (However, to capture better quality in dim light, the G9 needs a tripod about 2 to 4 f/stops sooner than DSLR cameras with APS-C size sensors, such as the Canon D40.)
  • With the G9 shooting RAW, you can capture publication quality images up to about 12 inches (maybe larger).

  • To put this discussion in perspective: using a JPEG image from the Canon SD700IS ELPH (which has image quality lower than the Canon G9), I printed one of my wife’s Bangkok Grand Palace shots 16×12 inches for display in our living room, and the quality looks the same as my own prints using better cameras! In my mind, that infers the G9 quality on par with your DSLR up to 16 inches, in good daylight shooting.

Recommended travel tripod for compact or DSLR cameras:

  • I love my travel tripod, which I have tested 2005-2008 with both small and DSLR cameras:
  • Slik “Sprint Pro GM” Tripod ($90), which weighs only 2 pounds and is great for travel, superior to other travel tripods that I’m aware of (including Velbon MAXi343E, Manfrotto, or even Gitzo tripods costing three times more).
  • For quickest on/off camera mounting, add the Manfrotto 3299 Quick Change Plate Adapter ($35, quick release).
  • The stiff aluminum legs are sufficiently stable for cameras up to 3 or 4 pounds (especially if you don’t extend the bottom leg section; or if you hang on extra weight) and have very fast locking levers (of sturdy plastic). At this good price, simply buy a new tripod if it breaks.
  • The Slik “Sprint Pro GM” tripod rises to eye level (64 inches), collapses to 19 inches (or 16 inches if you remove the quick-release ball head). The metal ball head swings 90 degrees each way, to two vertical positions, and turns freely around, all tightened with one effective lever. Legs can optionally splay out independently in 3 locking positions down to 6.4 inches off the ground. For macro, the center column can be reversed underneath for great shooting flexibility at ground level, and unscrews into a short section (saving 3.5 ounces). Leg tips convert from spike (outdoor) to rubber (indoor use) with a simple lockable twist.

Tom’s 2008 equipment:

  • My own travel preference is to carry the lightweight Nikon D40X (with image quality equal to the more expensive Nikon D200) mounted with just one do-everything lens, the Nikkor AF-S DX VR 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G IF-ED (2-4 stops hand held vibration reduction), which makes a good quality 38-ounce camera+lens system carried in a chest bag.
  • Compared to using a Canon G9, this Nikon D40X system eliminates most tripod use, shoots faster in dimmer light, shoots a wider angle and longer telephoto (27mm-300 equivalent Nikkor lens; versus 35mm-210 for Canon G9) and captures better quality, sufficient for me to sell 24 inch or larger prints (when viewed at 24 inches or further).
  • The 13-ounce G9 is still very attractive as a camera for family travel and 16-inch prints. I would not mind having a G9!

Have a great trip in Maui!
— Tom Dempsey, photographer, Seattle, Washington

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Above, Tom answers the following questions … From Raul Panelo, March 03, 2008 To: tom @ photoseek.com
Subject: Travel Advice Needed

Hi Tom! First of all, thank you for sharing your expertise in travel photography. I have learned a lot from your site www.photoseek.com I need advice on what equipment to bring on my upcoming vacation to Maui. I currently have the following: Canon 20D, Canon 40D cameras; lenses: Canon 16-35mm 2.8L, Canon 24-70mm 2.8L, Canon 70-200mm 2.8L IS, Canon 50mm 1.4, Canon 75-300mm 4-5.6 IS. I want to shoot landscapes, people and macro shots. After reading your website, I’m now thinking of buying the Canon G9 for a take it anywhere camera. Do you think this is a good choice for me? I’m also thinking of buying the 1.4x extender for the 70-200mm to extend my range. Lastly, I am looking for the best tripod to use with either my SLRs or the G9 if I end up buying it. I’m traveling with my wife and 2 daughters ages 6 & 11. I’d like to travel as light as possible but at the same time have the ability to capture wonderful images. Thanks in advance for your help. — Raul Panelo

———– Reply from Raul March 03, 2008: —————————————
Tom, Thank you so much for your quick and detailed response. Based on your answer, I’ll definitely take my SLR in case I capture something I’d like to print and hang on the wall later. I’ll also check your tripod recommendation. The price on the Sprint Pro GM is definitely reasonable given your description. You may post my question and your answer on your blog. Your blog is a great resource for many and if your answer helped me, I’m sure many more will benefit. Thanks again for being so generous with your expertise. — Raul