Hiking in remote areas of Denali National Park via Talkeetna
Alaska is vast, yet few people ever see more than a few tiny sections of it. Most people stick to the well worn tourists trails which center around the cruising industry; they see such a small part of Alaska and say that they’ve ‘been there’- but honestly they haven’t.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say if you haven’t ventured into remote Alaska, then you haven’t ‘been to’ Alaska.
I set out to see and experience Alaska off the tourist trail by focusing on the remote corners of the vast state and it’s small communities for my trip. After all, I like to find out where people go, and then turn around and go the opposite way – that’s where the real fun in travel happens.I understand not everyone will have 3 weeks like I did to explore the state. In fact, most people will only have a few extra days to see more of Alaska before/after their cruise itinerary.
How do you choose where to go in Alaska if you have limited time and a vast landscape?
The good news is each little community I went to had a distinctly different personality, so why not choose where to go in Alaska based on your personality?
Personality: For people who like to buy lottery tickets and enjoy a bit of danger.
One of the 3 roads that lead nowhere
Nome town square
Train to Nowhere
Main Street Nome
It’s simple, it’s gritty, and its backbone is gold. Nome is the type of town where you can safely leave your keys in your ignition in the parking lot, but if you say the wrong thing in a saloon, you may get beat up. It’s a working town with people who do physical work for a living – much like the farming towns in the Midwest, but not as picturesque. Nome had a hard edge, and that holds some weird allure to me. It’s sort of like the seedy side of old Las Vegas that I love so much.
Every morning I went to the Polar Cub Café for breakfast and I was the only woman patron there. I sat at the table and eavesdropped on all of the conversations around me, and they were all about gold. This town was built on gold mining, and it’s still the focus today.
I spent my days driving with Richard Beneville of Nome Discovery Tours out on one of the three roads that lead to nowhere. Really, they just stop; Nome is not connected to the rest of the state by road. You can only fly in, or in the winter of course you can travel by dog sled or snow mobile.
Richard, an old Broadway actor, is the most entertaining character in town. We drove the roads around the tundra viewing birds, muskoxen, abandoned railroads, hot springs, and roadhouse bars along the Iditarod. In the evening I went to the Board of Trade Saloon, once named one of the most dangerous bars in the world. Its motto is “Headquarters for the Sin City”. There you could do shots of whatever you wanted, play pool, throw a few games of corn hole, and watch the locals roll in…and sometimes crawl in. It was open until 2 or 3 AM…I honestly lost track and had one of the most fun bar nights of my life there.
Talkeetna Alaska Population 876
Personality: For the outdoor adventure seeker and those who like heights.
Hiking in remote areas of Denali National Park
Flightseeing is a ‘must’ in Talkeetna
The home of Mayor Stubbs – who was never in his office.
This is a town of drinkers with a climbing problem. Talkeetna is where all the Mt. Denali summits/expeditions begin. Set at the foot of Denali National Park, Talkeetna isn’t exactly remote, but it is small. Out of all of the towns I visited, it’s probably the most touristed thanks to it’s connection to the Alaska Railroad You can train there or drive there; but no matter how you get there you’ll want to make sure you fly while you are in Talkeetna.
If you aren’t one of those adventurous climbers, then you’ll want to get to the peaks by one of the many flightseeing options in Talkeetna. I flew from Talkeetna to Moraine Lake, located between Backside Glacier and the Ruth Glacier within the vast roadless area of Denali National Park. The area is only accessible by float-plane and a super place to spend a few hours hiking. Plus, if the weather cooperates, you’ll get to see Mt. Denali up close and personal from the air.
After your flight or hike, go check out the town restaurants and night life, you’ll surely run into some characters. After all, the Mayor of Takeetna is a cat…who never seemed to be in his office every time I stopped by. And yes, Mayor Stubbs has a Facebook page.
Finish the night with a drink at Fariview Inn Bar. I think I lost a few years of my life there – it’s sort of like an Alaskan frat house, but filled with all of the seasonal workers from the area and loads of fun.
McCarthy Alaska Population 28
Personality: For people who love the wild west, and don’t really want to be found.
Ross Glacier in Wrangel St. Elias National Park near McCarthy with my St. Elias Alpine Guide
Kennicott Mines – no longer in operation
Ma Johnson’s hotel on Main Street McCarthy
In 1900 copper was discovered in the area around McCarthy and soon a mining business was created by Kennecott Mining Company. Because alcoholic beverages and prostitution were forbidden in the mining ‘company’ town of Kennecott, the town of McCarthy grew a few miles away as an area to provide those in-demand services not available in the company town; namely drinking, gambling, and prostitution. McCarthy was modeled after the wild western towns and still has that same personality today.
The town ‘main street’ was gravel and riddled with pot holes. The town housed a hotel (an old boarding house and brothel), small grocery story, and a saloon. These establishments were surrounded by very basic cabins, two restaurants, plus a pizza truck across the river which seemed a bit odd – yet for McCarthy it also seemed normal. A shuttle runs around the town taking you back and forth between abandoned Kennicott mines and McCarthy.
It’s a simple town, but don’t think that mean there’s nothing to do there. McCarthy is surrounded by the US’s largest national park, Wrangel St. Elias. There you have a wealth of hiking trails, peaks, river rafting, and glaciers at your disposal to play on. You can hire a St. Elias Alpine Guide and you’ll find all of the nooks and crannies of the park and the glaciers.
Neil, the owner of the saloon and Ma Johnson’s hotel actually refers to a ‘downtown’ when he talks about McCarthy. I look around at the dirt road and chuckle; I guess it’s all about perspective. He describes McCarthy as what Talkeetna used to be like before they built the road there. When I asked him about living in the town year around he replied, “You have to love yourself if you are going to live alone in Alaska in the winter.”
Because it’s surrounded by a huge, remote national park, it’s not easy to get to McCarthy. You’ll have to fly in or take a long arduous drive on one of the two gravel roads in the park which are hardly maintained. I suggest the flight, it was the best flightseeing I’ve ever done!
Coldfoot Alaska Population 10
Personality: For people who love big rigs, engineering, and hunting.
Drive the Dalton highway high into the Brooks Range
The township of Coldfoot – basically a truck stop.
Autumn on the Tundra
Coldfoot is simply a trucker ‘town’/stop on the Dalton Highway at mile marker 175, and it’s the only one you’ll find north of the Arctic Circle. You can get to Coldfoot by car, van, or flight. I actually took a van tour up to Coldfoot, and then flew back to Fairbanks – only 260 miles to the South.
The Coldfoot camp lodging is basic, but the surrounding landscapes are spectacular around this town. Spend a day driving further up the Dalton Highway to the Atigun Pass and take a walk on the High Arctic Tundra. Then spend your evening at the 24 hour truck stop soaking up, it’s bottomless free coffee, the unique atmosphere, strike up a conversation with a pipeline worker, and if you are really brave, check out the Trucker Corner.
Pick one, or all four of these small towns to explore. If you get to any of these towns, don’t expect to see crowds of tourists or any cruise ships. However you should expect to really experience the people and landscapes of Alaska. These towns were my favorite part of my trip and I’d love to go back and spend more time in all of them.
Sherry Ott is a refugee from corporate IT who is now a long term traveler, blogger, and photographer. She’s a co-founder of Briefcasetobackpack.com, a website offering career break travel inspiration and advice.
Additionally, she runs an around the world travel blog writing about her travel and expat adventures at Ottsworld.com.com.