Our return to Alaska was for my 40th birthday for a trip we named “Birthday with Bears!” and bears dominated our trip. We’ve written about Alaska before, but it “bears” repeating that Alaska is enormous and drive times between locations are lengthy. Our one week journey logged about 5000 miles which is…ambitious. If you don’t love road trips, this one probably isn’t for you. Though, the stunning mountain scenery and potential for roadside wildlife viewing certainly help make those miles fly by. 

We landed in Anchorage and in the era of the Covid pandemic of 2020, we arrived with negative PCR tests in hand prepared to distance. A note about air travel in these times: it’s not for everyone. We wore N95s and goggles in the airport and on the plane which is a lot of time wearing protective equipment. No normal airport frills such as drinks or sit down meals are readily available and it takes a lot of patience with longer lines and extra sanitizing. 

Alyeska

We touched down the night of my birthday and headed out in beautiful sunny weather to the Alyeska Resort which we’ve actually visited before. The Alyeska Resort is a ski mountain in the winter and mountain biking juggernaut in the summer. It boasts a towering mountain with an aerial tram to Seven Glaciers Restaurant with spectacular views. As we’ve done the tram and restaurant before, we instead opted for Jack Sprat restaurant which offers plentiful delicious options served at the base of the mountain with outdoor fire pits and heat lamps. The region has a myriad of hiking opportunities though we were only able to stay for a quick breakfast before we began our drive down to Homer. I would highly recommend a stop at The Bake Shop. We grabbed an incredibly hearty breakfast here and picked up a giant loaf of sourdough bread. They are famous for cinnamon buns which are the size of a softball!

The trip down the Kenai Peninsula to Homer is gorgeous. There is a large portion of the drive where you view the Kachemak Bay on your right with it’s massive tide change and there’s potential to spot beluga whales. We opted for a slight detour to the 18 mile long gravel detour road that skirts Skilak Lake where you can see glacial fed brilliant blue lakes and glaciers as well as have an opportunity to see wildlife. Porcupines are supposedly common and though we didn’t spot a porcupine, we did see a black bear casually strolling along the road and a family of moose! 

Homer

Homer is a very amazing community at the end of the Kenai Peninsula. We’ve written about it before here so we won’t repeat information other than to state it’s definitely worth the trip. Last time we visited we stayed at the Kenai Peninsula Suites and this time our lodging was no less spectacular, staying at the Baycrest Lodge. This accommodation allows you lodging on a cliff overlooking the Kachemak Bay. We stayed in a unit named the Aspen which has a private hot tub, beautiful kitchen and two bedrooms. Everything was immaculate and grilling with a gorgeous view was a treat! 

Bear viewing was the reason for our return to Homer and we planned to fly to Katmai National Park across the Kachemak Bay with Alaska Bear Adventures. This outfitter flies you on small 4-5 passenger planes to view brown bears in the wilderness. We’d highly recommend this company. Our tour was ~ $800 USD for an all day trip. However, any of these tours are highly subject to weather conditions and tour was delayed two days due to rain and high winds. Bear viewing in Katmai can be accessed either via plane from Anchorage or Homer but tours out of Homer are generally slightly more affordable as the flight time is less. Katmai boasts some of the highest density of bears in the world and only select operators can take you into the park to observe them. In the late summer and fall, bears are active, eating as much salmon as they can before they hibernate. Sockeye salmon was on the menu for early September when we visited.

The first day of our delay afforded us some time in the sunshine strolling along the Homer Spit, a 4.5 mile stretch of land that juts into the Kachemak Bay with restaurants and shops to explore. We did some browsing and walked along the beach getting some great snaps of bald eagles. We also took a trip to the Homer Brewing Company for some local beers and ended the day in the hot tub at our lodge with a great sunset. 

Seward

Our initial plan was to complete our bear tour and then head to Seward for a glacier boat cruise. When our bear tour was delayed, we drove all the way back up the Kenai Peninsula to Seward and back in one day (6 hours of driving!) which allowed us to complete our glacier tour. This was probably our only regret of the trip as we had been very spoiled by a picture perfect day on our glacier tour years ago in Whittier, Alaska and the weather on this day was terrible. With 9 foot seas and rains, the viewing was difficult; however, even if the conditions had been perfect, you see far fewer glaciers and wildlife compared the cruise in Whittier. This tour, by Kenai Fjord Tours, stops at only two glaciers in Kenai Fjords National Park (vs the 26 of the Whittier tour) as well as cruising Resurrection Bay. Many passengers were seasick!

Katmai National Park

Finally, on the third day, our bear flight was a success and we headed to Katmai with our guide from Alaska Bear Tours and 3 other passengers. Worth the wait! We get asked frequently if this is safe and truthfully, the bears are really nonplussed about humans. They are not hunted or bothered by humans in this area and their priority is solely stocking up on salmon. We departed from the Homer Airport on a small Cessna and took a scenic one hour flight across the bay. We wore earplugs for the noise and landed on a small stretch of beach. The pilots can actually spot the bears from air and target their landing to an area of high probability for bear viewing. Ground rules were walking in a single file line and crouching down when bears were close so as not to appear threatening. After landing, we geared up in hip waders and went off in search of bears! It didn’t take long to encounter our first massive male fishing in a stream off the beach. It’s truly spectacular to see these incredible bears up close patiently waiting to pounce on salmon in the stream. We watched awestruck as they caught fish after fish in the river, gorging themselves on salmon. Large males by can eat as many as 30 per day, consuming thousands of calories pre-hibernation which advances them a weight of around 1000 pounds! That day we had the privilege of seeing 3 male bears fishing. Two bears walked within 10 feet of us, taking their catch onto the sandy shores of the stream to eat. One bear seemed a little slimmer which was concerning given the late season and hopefully, he was able to gain a little weight in the remaining weeks before the winter. The three hours on the ground silently observing and photographed passed by in a blur and we were back on the plane departing for Homer much too soon. Our pilot very skillfully gave us a bonus flight around a glacier and cascading waterfall on the way out. One of the mountain peaks even contained a caldera of turquoise steaming waters. These trips are not inexpensive, but it’s a really incredible six or seven hours. 

From Homer, next up on our whirlwind Alaska journey was a visit to Wrangell St. Elias National Park. Wrangell St. Elias is actually the largest national park in the United States and consists of four mountain ranges with Mt. St. Elias as the second highest peak in the US. Much of the park is inaccessible but you can view the massive mountains from afar or via plane and there are two gravel roads that do journey into the park, Nasbena Road and McCarthy Road. However, these two roads only total 100 miles of the 20,000 square miles of the park.

McCarthy

We chose to enter via McCarthy Road. You’ll leave the paved road behind at the tiny town of Chitna and road trip the 60 gravel miles to the tiny town of McCarthy, Alaska with a year round population of around 40 residents. It’s quite an adventure! At the end of the gravel road, you’ll leave your car in a small parking lot and lug your duffels across a footbridge over the Kennecott River then take a 15 min walk or shuttle to enter McCarthy where no private cars are allowed. There’s a great guide on alaska.org highlighting some of the stops to target on McCarthy Road. The road was rumored to be a very difficult drive in the past but has significantly improved recently; however, not all rental cars are allowed and you should be prepared to change a tire and have a few supplies handy in the event of an emergency. We rented from RentASubaru and had a good experience.

McCarthy is a pretty quirky town, a sister town to Kennicott, perhaps Alaska’s most famous ghost town. Copper was discovered in the area mountains above the Root Glacier and the Kennecott Copper Corporation (a clerk misspelled the name at the time leading to the alternate spellings you’ll see today) built an entire railroad to get copper ore from Kennicott to the port of Cordova. The mine stayed in operation until 1938 creating quite a bustling community with a school, general store, dairy barn, rec hall, and post office supporting around 200 miners and 300 townsfolk. McCarthy resulted as a nearby alternative, 5 miles down the road, where company rules did not apply thus saloons, hotels, and even a brothel developed. When the copper dried up, the town of Kennicott did too. The National Park Service acquired the property and is currently working to refurbish some of the buildings making it safe for visitors to get a sense of one of the country’s oldest mining towns. 

Today, McCarthy consists of basically one long road with a few restaurants clustered and we were somewhat disappointed to be traveling during the time of the pandemic as we missed out on a few highlights. The restaurant, The Potato, and the food truck, Meatza Wagon, were both closed as well as the exhibits in Kennicott. The shuttle which routinely runs the 5 miles between McCarthy and Kennicott was minimally operational. We did still curiously explore the exterior of some of the buildings and Kennicott is the jumping off point for a few great hikes. We stayed at Blackburn Cabins, a little grouping of hand constructed cabins one mile outside of town which are cozy and clean with a few adorable antique touches adorning the cabins for decoration. Note well though that there is only an outhouse and outdoor shower and plan accordingly! I will say that we were very glad we bought that loaf of sourdough bread back in Alyeska as we had a lot of PB&J’s when we discovered that The Potato, where we planned to dine, was closed. The only other spot in town, The Golden Saloon, was open but rapidly running out of food the two days we stayed. It did make a great stop for an Alaskan brewed hard cider after a long hike though! 

Root Glacier

In our opinion, one of the most unique parts of the area is the ability to hike directly onto the Root Glacier. This hike departs from Kennicott and you’ll traverse with minimal elevation for about 2 miles before donning your crampons for exploration for as far and long as you’d like on the icy blue Root Glacier. Bears do frequent this area, including on the glacier as we did see some tufts of bear fur atop the ice so do come prepared for potential bear encounters. We only had 2 days in the area but those with longer stretches could do a few other hikes that actually take hikers to some of the old mining shafts. 

It’s roughly 7 hours from McCarthy to Anchorage and our initial plan was to leisurely head back to Anchorage the day before our late night flight to the East Coast the following day. But….we received an email from Alaska Bear Adventures with some commemorative photos from our trip to see the bears in Katmai. I think it’s a nice gesture that the company has the guide take some photos in case you couldn’t capture some of the day, but we always prefer to only save/use our own photos. We did see though that another group was lucky enough to see a mother bear with cubs. I then started obsessing about seeing bear cubs…various justifications to take another bear tour began percolating (you only turn 40 once, we’ve now been to Alaska twice and will we come back?….) and we proceeded to call around 25 companies to get on a last minute bear tour for our final day in Alaska. 

Our final night before our trip was spend in Anchorage and we dined at the 49th State Brewery in downtown Anchorage for a beautiful sunset and real food! Not a makeshift sandwich! 

Lake Clark National Park

We linked up with Trail Ridge Bay Air and their float plane for a day trip to Redoubt Mountain Lodge in Lake Clark. Redoubt Mountain Lodge is luxury fishing and wildlife lodge in Lake Clark National Park located on the stunningly blue Lake Crescent. Guests can stay here for an all inclusive experience with bear viewing, fly fishing, hiking. Only accessible via float plane, it’s a pretty swanky endeavor. However, guests like us can just go on a day bear viewing tour which includes a lunch and all day bear searching on a pontoon boat where you can easily traverse the lake whenever bears are spotted. As a bonus, the calm waters and pontoon boat allowed you to leave your tripod set for some great photos. We had such a spectacular weather day that the warm air and the cold glacial waters actually created a lot of steam coming off the bears making some difficult shots! 

Lucky is an understatement for our day. In one of the few perks of the pandemic year, we were the only guests aboard the pontoon boat so we were able to work with the guide on our solitary focus…BEARS! Our guide that day asked us if we were interested in bird viewing, but we knew we only had the day and wanted to see bear cubs. We departed from Lake Hood near the Anchorage airport on a float plane with just the two of us and our pilot. After an hour, we spied Lake Crescent emerging from between mountains and we expertly touched down with the float plane at Redoubt Mountain Lodge. We arrived around 11 am and had 4 or so hours for bear viewing including a quick lunch at the lodge. We saw around twenty bears that day including a few groups of a mom and cubs. We were so privileged so see a mom and two yearlings, and a mom with 3 cubs around 2 years, and one mom and an older/bigger cub. This day, we only saw one adult male but so many tiny families…it was a splurge for only a day trip certainly but I would say the gamble paid off! It was an unreal experience to see the bears fishing, feeding the cubs and even a few little sibling squabbles over a piece of fish given from the mother bear. The steady waters allowed us to come within twenty feet or so from the bears for terrific photos without disturbing them…in fact, they barely glanced our way and kept their focus on fishing. We were incredibly sad when our float plane came to collect us but it was a VERY memorable last day in Alaska. 

Birthday with Bears was a success. As with all our trips, there were a few tweaks we’d make for any subsequent journeys. As we boarded our night flight back home though, we were glad we’d taken a second bear excursion and visited some of the least visited national parks in the country…Katmai, Lake Clark and Wrangell St. Elias!

Champagne Splurge

Our bear excursion to Lake Clark from Anchorage with Trail Ridge Bay Air was definitely costly…clocking in at over $1000 USD per person. However, the excursion out of Homer was exceptional as well and you can get significant savings by flying out of Homer due to the shorter flight across the Kachemak Bay. In addition, Homer is a really nifty locale with artsy shops and a great seaside community. Bear tours are not cheap but there just aren’t many experiences like it. Within ten feet of a 1000 pound male bear on a beach in the middle of the wilderness???

Champagne “Buzz”

We loved watching explore.org where they have a live video feed of the brown bears of Katmai National Park who fish at the falls of the Brooks River. This is another option if you don’t want to splurge for a day bear tour. Brooks Lodge is available for some (relatively) less expensive lodging and allows you to observe bears from their platforms that overlook Brooks Falls. As an added delight, they also run “Fat Bear Week” each year in October where they provide a “March Madness” style bracket where you can vote for the bears who got the chunkiest from their low spring post hibernation weight. 

Insider Tips

  1. You’ll do a lot of driving in areas with poor cell service. Download some music or audio books in advance. alaska.org also has some great narrated road guides
  2. McCarthy does not have a lot of supplies (esp in a pandemic year) so if you want a little variety from eating a lot of PB&J and trail mix, pack accordingly!
  3. Bears were the goal of the trip, but are a true potential danger on hikes. Bring bear spray, bear bells, etc…so you stay safe!
  4. If we had to do it again, we’d absolutely cut out Seward having been on a spectacular glacier tour in Whittier years earlier. For us, it would have meant less frantic drive times and more time to spend on hiking or bear viewing. 
  5. Yes…some of the all inclusive lodging option pricing seems steep, but we’d absolutely consider looking more into these options if we were to travel again. Redoubt Mountain Lodge was beautiful but Silver Salmon Lodge also seemed like a great and more affordable deal which we learned of too late. I’m sure there are also a lot of other lodging options like this with more research.