• Megs

Traveling by RV in Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula: Embracing the Unexpected

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Anal-retentive. This isn’t a nice word, but it is a word that is often used to describe me. I like to call myself organized, prepared, or type A. The term anal-retentive sounds rigid and unwavering. I’m not always that way; on occasion, I can be somewhat flexible—or perhaps a better term is mildly agreeable. My husband is quite the opposite of me. Pat is laid back and tends to just go with the flow of things. Balancing out my tenacity, patiently, is one of his better characteristics. It is why we work so well together. He is the stark contrast of me, except when it comes to planning a vacation, and then together we become Little Miss Bossy Pants and Mr. Strong Willed. For some reason, planning RV vacations is something he must plot from beginning to end. His rigidity began on our first RV motorcycle trip to Sturgis, South Dakota, where he planned out each day, every ride, and every site we would see, and he’s been a power-hungry dictator ever since. Planning a trip to Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula was no different for us. The list making and detail planning personalities emerged, and we scratched out a plan to traverse Alaska by way of an RV. We planned almost every second of our two-week trip down to the last brewery we’d guzzle craft beers at, as well as the very last place we could stop to slurp up seafood bisque. After spending some time in Alaska, however, we quickly realized that meticulous planning wasn’t what made our motorhome vacation fun. Fun was the unexpected. Exciting was the uncertainty of knowing if we would or would not have a place to park for the night. Although we were in uncharted territories with regards our comfort levels, breaching the zone of contentment and choosing adventure over a firm itinerary is what made our Alaskan RV adventure most memorable, and if I could offer any bit of advice to potential Alaskan RVers, that advice would be: allow some of the adventure to find you. Plan time to not plan a thing: you will be glad you did.

Why not Alaska? Alaska is the Last Frontier. During the summer, Alaska is the home of the midnight sun, which means late nights and extended daylight for rugged adventure. Alaska is breathtaking and is the perfect backdrop for RV travel. It is wild and impossible not to love. Every RV enthusiast should plan at least one Alaskan vacation in his or her lifetime if not many different Alaskan vacations. For three years Pat and I have dreamed of an RV adventure in Alaska, and eight months ago, just before we got married, we fastidiously began to plan our summer escape. In true Meagan and Pat form, this trip needed to be planned from the moment the plane’s wheels touched down in Anchorage to the very last second before our plane left the Alaskan soil and headed for home. Avid travelers, we both have been lucky enough to visit Alaska before. Dreaming of our future vacations, we almost always reminisced about our Alaskan trips, and as much as we enjoyed our past visits, we wanted to form new memories together as husband and wife. Using our past experiences as well as our copy of the Alaskan bible, the Milepost, we began to build our itinerary. A note about The Milepost: this book is the most important book for Alaskan RV travelers to have in their possession. The Milepost is a mile-by-mile guide of Alaska and focuses on the most traveled highways and scenic byways. It offers information on fuel stops, RV dump stations, tent camping, RV parks, maps, and main attractions. This book was our best friend while we planned our trip and became our faithful companion on the road when we uncharacteristically decided to deviate from our strict route.

Renting an RV

            Before we headed out on the road, we needed to find a rental RV. Renting an RV can be a scary process, especially if you’ve never driven one before. It’s hard to know what you and your family will need, but asking the right questions or doing your research ahead of time can make the process easier. Thankfully, the RV rental facilities work with novice RVers all of the time, so they have many processes in place to help beginner RVers feel comfortable on the road as well as feel comfortable with the water and the septic tanks. Since we own an RV toy hauler at home, we knew we wanted something bigger and self-contained. We aren’t little people. Pat is six feet six inches tall, and I am almost five eleven. Normal RV beds aren’t always comfortable, and we often end up with our feet several inches off the bed, and sometimes Pat’s feet end up in a closet. Better yet, our heads won’t always fit inside the showers, or our knees won’t allow us to close the doors when we use the commode. Space is important to us, so we chose a class C rental. A class C is a driving RV with an extra bed that is located over the driving cab. The size of the class C RV varies depending on how many people can sleep inside. Even though there were just two of us on the trip, we chose a 31-foot vehicle because it offered more pop outs and more room to maneuver, which for us meant we could pass each other in the hallway without turning sideways. Upgrading to a bigger RV was one of the things we chose to splurge on because comfort is one of the most important things for us. Splurging doesn’t have to break the bank. Because we booked our rental six months before our trip, we saved close to $2,000 on the RV rental alone! That savings allowed us to have the bigger size, and we were comfy both inside and outside of the RV.

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Denali

            Once we landed in Alaska, our first destination for our RV trip was Denali National Park. Even though Denali isn’t located in the Kenai Peninsula, we still wanted to visit the park before heading south. Denali, once named Mt. McKinley, is the tallest mountain in North America and stands at 20, 310 feet above sea level (“Denali: Facts About America’s Tallest Mountain”). After picking up our rental, and engaging in a three-hour Wal-Mart shopping extravaganza (guided, of course, by a meticulous pre-trip planned shopping list), we left Anchorage and headed north to stay in Wasilla for the night. Wasilla is only 44 miles from Anchorage, but we wanted a night to familiarize ourselves with the RV and be close to another Wal-Mart before heading to places with limited grocery stops. It’s always a good idea to have one night in your motorhome before heading out to the wilderness to make certain you are prepared to be far away from civilization. Being the planners we are, we only had a few things to pick up the next day, but we were grateful for the trial run before getting on the road. After leaving Wasilla, we headed 194 miles north to the area that boasts breathtaking scenery and immense wildlife. Anticipating seeing the peak as we approached Southern Denali Scenic Viewpoint, we pulled into the parking spot and grabbed our cameras and binoculars. Sadly, Denali wasn’t to be seen. In fact, the entire trip to Denali the only views we had were rain, low clouds, and a cold mist. We didn’t get too bummed about the lack of views because we learned that on summer days there is only a thirty-three percent chance of having a clear day to see the mountain in its entirety and only a forty percent chance of seeing a partial view of the mountain. Because of the lack of things to do and see, we tolerated the cold weather until we developed a massive leak in the ceiling of our RV. An icy stream of water dripped right on top of Pat’s head, and straight down the back of his pants while driving. By the time we were able to line the bunk with towels, poor Pat looked like he’d taken a shower. There was nothing we could do at this point, so all we could do is laugh and hope the deluge of water wouldn’t continue to drench Pat as we headed into the park.

Denali isn’t like other National Parks. Visitors can only drive seventeen miles into the park before they have to turn around. To see more of the park, there are numerous tours that people can take via bus. Denali Park doesn’t let individual cars or motorhomes drive further into the park in order to preserve the landscape and protect the wildlife. It’s a bummer that even though you are on an RV vacation, you will have to leave your RVs behind! We contemplated taking a tour, but after seeing the school bus style tours, we knew sitting on a bus for eight or eleven hours wasn’t our style. We stopped at the Visitor’s Center, picked up some coffee, and drove into the park until the turn around point. We hiked in the vicinity, but we were cut short by another rainstorm. Racing back to the RV with our raincoats over our heads, we stopped when we saw something move along the trail. Loving all animals, I whispered, “baby birds.” And two Willow Ptarmigans stared us down at us as they ushered their chicks into the underbrush. The Willow Ptarmigan is the Alaska state bird and changes colors from light brown in the summer to bright white in the winter to camouflage itself against predators (“Willow Ptarmigan”). These birds and their babies were so beautiful. We just stared at them from a distance until the momma bird started to give us the stink eye and hiss at us. Recognizing the defensive sound, we knew where we weren’t wanted, and we left the little birds and headed back to the RV.

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Even though we had our first experience with wildlife, we were frustrated. This wasn’t the vacation we had romanticized in our minds for years. This trip was like any ordinary rainy Colorado day, and the scenery was a sub-standard Estes Park knock-off.   We wanted to get out of Denali sooner rather than later, but our stinking itinerary had us in the Denali vicinity for another day. Cold, wet, and irritable, we didn’t know what to do, but we knew staying in Denali would make us even more miserable. Stick to the plan, or plan to deviate from the plan? The choice was simple. Chuck the plan, and get out of Denali. Still a little uncertain of our decision to stray from these plans we made months back, we nervously made a call to the place we were supposed to be staying the next night, Trapper’s Creek. Staring at Pat while he made the phone call, I desperately tried to read his body language. Even though I agreed to leave Denali, I still had trouble letting go of this perfect travel plan. I was still scared to admit that we’d boogered up the itinerary. What if we couldn’t find a place to sleep for the night? What happens if we get to the next stop and it’s a dump where we are packed in the RV like sardines, and we can hear the kids screaming bloody murder and running back and forth inside the RV next to us? All of the what-ifs ran through my mind, but Pat’s calm face listening to the person on the other end of the phone said everything I needed to know. Thankfully, Trapper’s Creek had a full hook up site available (power, water, and sewer). Pat smiled at me and said, “Let’s go!” and I knew that together we had made the right decision. Giddy, we both felt an excitement that would later be our motto: Do the unplanned and expect the unexpected. Equipped with giant grins and our new carefree attitudes, we drove down the highway. As we chatted about this moment being the best moment of the trip so far, the rain stopped, and our roof’s leak slowed and we had our first moose sighting. More babies: this time it was a moose cow and her two calves. I was in wildlife heaven. It seemed as if once we let go of our stubborn attitudes our luck finally turned around.

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Girdwood

After staying the night in Trapper’s Creek, we headed toward the Kenai Peninsula. We were a few days ahead of schedule, so we looked at our itinerary and decided that we’d stop in Girdwood now instead of at the end of our vacation like we had originally planned. Feeling good about flying by the seat of our pants, we decided to just take the next day as it came. To get to Girdwood, we would need to pass through Anchorage, where we stopped at the RV rental place to get the leak in our roof fixed. The forecast, unfortunately, predicted rain for the next week, so stopping for repairs was a necessity. To get to Girdwood you must head south on the Seward Highway along the shorelines of the Turnagain Arm waterway, a body of water that is juxtaposed against the jagged, snowy Chugach Mountain Range. Not only is the drive breathtaking, the Turnagain Arm has a unique tide that is visible from the highway or many of the scenic view turn-offs like Beluga Point or Bird Point. Luck would have it that we would be on the highway when the bore tide came through. A Bore tide “is a tidal phenomenon in which the leading edge of the incoming tide clashes with the flow of the outgoing tide to form a wave that travels up a river or narrow bay” (“Alaska Public Lands Information Center”). The tide isn’t just something for tourists to see, it is also a place for Alaskans to surf. While we watched the tide roll in, we saw girls and guys in wetsuits riding the incoming wave on paddle boards and kite boards. Adventurous as we are, we’re not adept at extreme water sports, so we were content watching these surfers and taking in the wall of water passing through the waterway. It was like the Alaskan version of California surfing.

Once the bore tide came, though, we headed to Girdwood. Girdwood is a town nestled amongst the Chugach Mountain Range and is home to the Alyeska Resort, the largest ski area in the state. On my last Alaska trip, we accidentally bypassed the town and we didn’t end up turning around to go back. This trip, I was determined to stop and see the place I regretted not seeing seven years ago. Based on the recommendations of friends, we parked the RV at the Alyeska Resort and wandered the hotel and the town, and stopped for some local beer at Chair 5 Restaurant. Aside from the views, shopping, and eating, we didn’t find much more to do in Girdwood. If we were to stay the night, we could rent bikes and see Girdwood on two wheels, but we felt like we could see everything we wanted to see from the RV. One downfall of Girdwood is there isn’t an RV park there, and as adventurous as we were trying to be, a night in the parking lot at the hotel with no hook-ups just wasn’t our style, so we grabbed our Milepost book and headed south.

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Seward

            Serrated mountains and The Kenai Fjords National Park surround Seward, a waterfront town located on Resurrection Bay. It is known for its fishing, sea life, and is a popular port for many cruise lines. Seward is one of my favorite places to visit, and I was excited to get there a day early and show Pat the town I’d remembered so vividly. I recalled the last time I was in Alaska with my family. We loved Seward so much that we actually came back to the town after leaving for a few days. Maybe it was the icy waters and the jagged peaks, or perhaps the barking sea lions in the bay, but whatever it was, this place was a little piece of wilderness heaven, and Pat and I were almost at this amazing town. Thankfully our choice to head to Seward early worked out in our favor. We were able to find a place to stay and were excited when we woke up the next morning to a clear, sunny sky. Since the sun was out, we visited Exit Glacier, a glacier that is close to town and accessible by an easy day hike. The opposition of the blue and teal tinted glacier against the rocky tree-lined mountains was breathtaking. After our hike, we had a “Bucket of Butt” (Fresh Halibut) at Thorn’s Showcase Lounge and walked across the street to the Alaska SeaLife Center to see some of the sea life that is native to the Seward area. My favorite parts of the SealLife center are the baby otters and baby sea lions. There is nothing cuter than an otter! I’m glad Pat humored me and let me go back to the otter playpen a few times before leaving the aquarium. Because it almost never gets dark out, things are open much later in Seward than in many towns in the Lower 48, so we ventured back into town to test out one of the local breweries, Seward Brewing Company. After taste-testing a flight of beer, we headed back to our RV site and had a campfire directly on the mountain-framed bay. As we sat by the fire and grilled brats, we knew we had made a good decision to get to Seward a day early.

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Sadly, the next few days were cold and rainy, which we were quickly learning was status quo during the summer. After our first day in Seward, we were excited to fish, kayak, and see some of the local hangouts. We ate at Red’s Burgers, a local hangout where diners can eat their meals in a repurposed school bus. Pat liked that he could eat a bison burger on a bus seat singing the song “My Girl” to his favorite girl (me) who sat across the school bus from him! Slurping my soda through a straw I couldn’t help but grin and dance in my bus seat next to my favorite guy. Even though the bus was fun, we couldn’t stay inside there all day. The rain just didn’t want to let up, and we were beginning to get antsy again. Bored, we walked around town in our raingear and found our way into the local hardware store, which was more of a one-stop-shop than hardware, and we started asking about fishing. After about an hour in the store, we left with poles, fishing licenses, and crude directions to a place where we could stand in the bay and snag Red Salmon. Even though it was pouring rain, we wanted to do something adventurous, so we headed off to fish with the other Alaskans who didn’t mind fishing in waders, hip boots, and winter gear. After fishing for a few hours, I made the mistake of getting too deep in the bay while the tide was rising. I looked to Pat in the distance, and he didn’t look deep, so I walked toward him to reach higher ground, but I totally forgot that he is 6 inches taller than me. The next thing I knew, my hip boots were filled with icy seawater and my wool socks acted like a sponge inside my shoes, and Pat was hoisting me out of the water. Shaking off the frightening water incident, we fished for at least another hour, always moving upstream to avoid another soaking. After a while, my feet were little blocks of ice, and the fishermen around us moved further and further away from where our RV was parked, and truthfully, I didn’t want to get myself stuck out in the cold bay when the tide came in, so we called it a night. Pat, the only lucky fisherman between the two of us, proudly brought his prized salmon back to the campground, and we thawed out inside the RV, watched the rain, and grilled up our catch of the day.

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We woke up the next day in a total funk. It was raining. Again. The excitement of our spontaneous choices had worn off, and we had run out of things to do. We had paid for our stay on Resurrection Bay for one more night, but we just couldn’t imagine another night on the scenic bay stuck inside the RV because it was so rainy and cold. We came to Alaska to enjoy nature, and our motorhome was beginning to wear out its welcome. Pat suggested we look at the Milepost book and just drive. Remembering that exciting feeling we had a few days before, we grinned at each other and knew what we needed to do. We didn’t care if we had already paid for our night in Seward, or that many of the RV parks we called outside of Seward were booked for the night already. We knew if anything we could pull off on the side of the road and sleep if we needed to, so we filled up our water tanks on board and left Seward.

Sterling

           Sterling wasn’t originally on our itinerary. The further we got from Seward, the more the rain began to dissipate, and the happier we became. We followed the highway along the Kenai River and passed through towns where fly fishermen were lining the banks of the river. Boats filled with people wearing life vests floated past us, and the people inside the boats were laughing and looked as if they were having the time of their lives. Cooper’s Landing looked like a perfect spot to stop for the night, but due to its popularity with fishermen, all of the camping and RV sites were booked. Peak season in Alaska can be tricky. Many of the popular locations fill reservations quickly, so driving with no itinerary and looking for a place to stop might be challenging. We knew this and kept driving, just happy to be out of the rain. As Pat drove, I looked in our Milepost book for a place to stay. One of the advertisements in Sterling caught our eye, and we drove to see if they had any full hookups for the night. As we pulled into the town of Sterling, we located the place advertised, found availability, and settled in for the rest of the night. The unexpected won yet again!

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Homer

            The road to Homer, the Sterling Highway, is perhaps one of the most scenic drives in Alaska. Just past the town of Ninilchik is Deep Creek State Recreation Area, a beach with RV campsites and views of Cook Inlet. We pulled off the road because I spotted the mountain range along the water, and I spontaneously wanted to get out and take some pictures. Parking in the day use area, we both were immediately captivated with the rocky volcanic beaches and the ominous volcanoes that framed the water. Mount Spurr, Mount Redoubt, Mount Iliamna, and Mount St. Augustin seemed so close to us on that sunny day, and we were amazed at how tall the mountains seemed in contrast with the water. Along the shoreline were many sea birds, which were quickly joined by bald eagles. We saw at least ten bald eagles that day, some juvenile with the brown color, and others that looked just like our nation’s bird. These regal birds swooped into the water to grab fish, spread their wings, and flew right over our heads. This moment captured everything we imagined Alaska would be like in a matter of minutes, and we were so grateful we stopped, even though we were eager to get to Homer.

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Homer, like Seward, has many RV parks that line the waterways. Homer’s Spit is a piece of land that juts out from the peninsula and narrowly runs for almost five miles. A fishing town, Homer is surrounded by the mountains and glaciers of the Cook Inlet on one side and the Kachemak Bay on the other. We were lucky enough to secure a full hook up site on the Kachemak Bay side of the spit located minutes from the Homer Boat Harbor. popular tourist location, RVers who wish to have waterfront sites should book ahead. This is one place where you want to be prepared and not miss out on a picturesque campsite. Each night outside of the RV, Pat and I would sit and watch the bald eagles chirp and wait for fish. The sea otters and seals played in the water just yards away, and when the tide was out, mollusks stuck to the rocky shore.

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            Aside from the scenery, Homer has a lot to offer RV travelers. We hadn’t planned much besides visiting The Spit and its shops, but we found so much to entertain us. Pat decided one day to halibut fish, so he left on a chartered boat and returned at the end of the day with eight pounds of fresh halibut meat. Other days we ventured out by foot to keep from moving our motorhome, and we could walk the length of the spit. We stopped at the Salty Dawg Saloon, watched the boats enter and leave the harbor, and were amazed at the size of some of the halibut people caught on their fishing trips. The town of Homer is also well worth a visit. Even though the RV Park has a trolley that runs back and forth to town, we drove the RV and sampled some of the best fruity wine at Bear Creek Winery, and toured the Center For Alaskan Coastal Studies. With mostly sunny skies and light, cool breezes and only brief daily sprinkles, Homer was probably our most enjoyable stop overall, and the most RV-friendly town on the Kenai.

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Soldotna

            As our trip was coming to an end, we ended up in a little town called Soldotna. Soldotna is a small city located on the Kenai River. The first night in Soldotna, we visited the Kenai Wildlife Refuge where we learned about the Alaskan Wildlife in the area. We decided it would be fun to animal watch so we went on an impromptu wildlife loop drive looking for bears in the refuge. The drive is beautiful, but a word of caution to RVers, the loop is a dirt road, and it’s bumpy and not RV friendly at all. Drive with caution! Your breakables will thank you!

Pulling back into town after our bumpy forty-mile drive, we were thirsty, hungry, and tired. It was still only eight at night, but music playing in the distance lured us to the city park where a Blues and Brews festival was taking place. Neither of us can say no to a festival! The sun made it feel like it was four in the afternoon, so we pushed our sleepy thoughts aside and joined the locals who lined the river listening to music. We ate dinner from the food trucks, tasted local brews, and were part of the town for the night. We had an absolute blast and were glad our route brought us to the heart of Soldotna for the night.

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Our last day was filled with more unexpected adventure. Pat wanted more than anything to take me river fishing because it is a favorite hobby of his. I’ve never fly fished before so he thought what better place to take me than the Kenai River. He outfitted me with some of the basics and hired a guide for a half-day fishing trip. I was nervous because it was, surprise, raining, and the boat we would be going on wouldn’t have any bathroom stops. For a man, that might not be a problem, but for a type-A, plan everything kind of girl, an unexpected bathroom need didn’t exactly float my boat. Needless to say, I was apprehensive but trusted Pat to take care of me. We took the RV to the Russian Ferry Parking Area and waited for our guide, who arrived with all of the fishing gear we’d need (I look super cute in waders) and a boat to take us down the river.

The goal for fishing was to help me have fun, learn the basics, and not be scared. The fish we’d catch were catch and release, so we didn’t need to worry about eating our catch or shipping the fish home. The Kenai River is beautiful. Visitors should float the river with a guide, whether it is for sightseeing purposes or fishing excursions. Knee deep in the Kenai, we threw our lines in the water and watched the bald eagles surround us. We caught Rainbow trout and Dolly Varden, another species of trout. The excitement of holding a fish in my hands that I caught was greater than I could imagine. I think Pat was even happier than I was when I caught a fish. When my line wobbled, he ran to my side to help me reel my fish in. I’m stubborn, so I insisted on reeling myself, that is until the moment the fish flopped around next to the boat, and I had to lift its gyrating body out of the water to remove the hook. I gave Pat the honor of taking out the hook for me. I don’t know if fish have teeth, but I sure as heck didn’t want to find out the hard way. We fished for a few more hours, but soon our time on the river had to come to an end. We were grinning like Cheshire Cats when the guide maneuvered the boat back into the dock. It was a good day on the Kenai. Pat and I got out of the boat, removed our gear, and headed back in the rain to the RV. We knew our vacation was coming to an end, and we’d have to return our home for the last two weeks and head back to Colorado. The feeling was bittersweet because we loved our trip, missed Colorado, but didn’t get to see even a portion of what we’d hope to see in Alaska.

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Vacationing in an RV is an adventure, especially in a state where the wilderness seems endless. It’s not possible to see everything in Alaska on one trip, but planning a vacation to the Kenai Peninsula can be the start of a great Alaskan love affair. Pat and I have found the state we will return to again and again, and hopefully, each trip will build upon the memories of the last. We left for Alaska with high expectations and a solid itinerary. Because of weather, restlessness, and other unexpected circumstances, we had to change our plans on the fly, but somehow we managed to have an even better trip than we had originally expected. Together, we set out on a grand excursion, and we returned home to Colorado with one adventure in our rearview mirror and hopefully many more Alaskan RV journeys ahead of us.

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