Don’t miss Out of the Airplane and Into the Arctic Part I here.
Hey! I’m Skate, a new blogger at True Airspeed. I fly jets and travel the world when I’m not writing blogs or books. Want to see more stories? Follow and sign up for my newsletter.
After multiple exercises and many of hours spent soaring over northeast Alaska, I decided to make the most of the experience. In the downtime between flying Red Flag Alaska missions and dropping bombs on the northern ranges, the state’s wilderness beckoned.
Whether it’s trekking through the incredible National Parks or exploring rivers teeming with fish, there’s no lack of things to do in Alaska. On the last blog, we walked through the famed Denali National Park, home to the tallest peak in North America. This week, the discussion takes you on the road. In this largely undeveloped state, the wilderness runs wild. You’ll find no argument from this aviator that the best way to explore the vastness of the backcountry is from the air. However, for those that find themselves more comfortable with two feet on the ground, the vista-filled highways are the next best option.
Fortunately, for those that venture out to the northern hub of Fairbanks, the highway system is quite easy. You’ll have a simple choice between highway two or three. Two weaves down the eastern side of the state, through the Alaska Range and down to the Canadian border. Fair warning, places for gas and snacks are few and far between, so be sure to take advantage of the few small towns you pass through. That being said, the minimal congestion along the route makes for perfect places to pull off the side to take in the views.
If you choose to take highway two north from Fairbanks, you’ll quickly find civilization disappearing. A five-hour driving effort will take you to the Arctic Circle. There’s even a sign marking the location on the side of the Dalton Highway. Making the drive worthwhile is the empty wilderness surrounding the region. Periodic peeks at the Alaskan oil pipeline that mirrors the roadside also make for a worthy photo. Rather than spending ten hours in the car only to turn around, Bureau of Land Management sites are available to camp. A remote night under the stars is a must but bring insect repellent and netting or risk being eaten alive. After a cool night taking in the Arctic, be sure to check out Silver Gulch Brewery in Fox, America’s most northern brewery. Locally brewed beer and incredible food will make for a great end to the trip.
On your drive, keep an eye peeled for wildlife. Whether it’s grizzly bear cubs popping out of the bushes, small foxes sprinting to match the fast-moving vehicles, or moose grazing the flora roadside, you can expect the unexpected.
Highway three on the other hand is the main route to Anchorage. The beautiful drive swings south through Denali national park, follows the curves of the Susitna River, and ends at the Chugach mountains. While certainly busier than the eastern highway, there is still plenty of space to roam freely. The additional benefit of the thoroughfare are the unique towns dotting the map as you drive past.
Healy, which sits on the northern end of Denali National Park, is a perfect launching point for the outdoors. The river picks up speed through the mountain valleys at the park entrance, providing both picturesque and fun rapids to navigate.
If rafting doesn’t pique your interest, then Aurora chasing just might. Between September and April, as the midnight sun fades into a longer night, the Aurora Borealis viewing becomes a pastime. Simply search Aurora Forecast online and look for a night where the band overlaps your location. Best chances of picking up a show will be on night with a Kp at three or greater. Kp is an index that measures strength of the geomagnetic event.
The perfect viewing is a mix of luck and planning, not to mention a willingness to stay up late or wake up early. Most of Alaska, particularly north of Anchorage, will have a high likelihood of falling within a geo-magnetic band on any given night. If watching the nighttime skies dance in green waves is a must for your trip, plan to attempt viewings on multiple evenings. This helps negate the impact of weather and overall weak events. When it all comes together it’s worth it.
Planning takes time and effort, but sometimes you just get lucky. Caught this view walking out of the bar on a Saturday night .
A little further south on Highway three is a line of fishing towns that offer a perfect jumping off place for fishing the state’s salmon packed rivers. One of the best towns is the quaint Talkeetna.
A combination of backwoods and arts makes for a unique experience. Spend the morning raking in King Salmon during the mid-summer, or Silver Salmon as the summer progresses. Transition to a lunch at the Talkeetna Alaska lodge. A cold beer on their back patio gives a fantastic view of the Susitna and Talkeetna rivers and Mt. Denali from the south.
Finish the evenings walking the streets of Talkeetna and exploring the artistic visions of those who’ve opened shops in town. Bracketed by the river to the west and the train tracks to the east, the main street makes a great evening stroll. Hankering for food and drink, you’ll have no limit of options when it comes to checking out local breweries and pub fare.
All in all, a road trip through the north will be worth the hours spent behind the wheel. Vistas so numerous you’ll run out of time to stop and take them in. Even better, taking in the state by car is by far the best way to avoid the crowds being bussed in from cruise ships. Take the chance rent a car and drive until your heart’s content.
The Alaskan adventures will continue in Part III, so please sign up for my mailing list to receive notifications to keep up.