Things we learned on the Alaska Road Trip as locals + photos

  • After living in Alaska for 30 years, my husband and I took a two-week road trip through the state.
  • We drove a retrofitted van through Anchorage, Palmer, Valdez, Fairbanks and Denali National Park.
  • Alaska’s wildlife blew us away, and the Indian World Games in Eskimos were a major highlight.

My husband and I have lived in Alaska for 30 years. We currently live on Douglas Island near Juneau, the state capital.

Our home is hundreds of miles away from the state’s mainland, but it does not deter flocks of visitors from coming to see Douglas Island’s alpine mountains and deep rainforests by boat or plane.

In connection with the 35th anniversary, we decided to explore a bit for ourselves.

We took a two-week summer trip to some of Alaska’s most famous highlights for the first time.

After flying to Anchorage, Alaska’s most populous city, we picked up a retrofitted van and embarked on our 1,300-mile adventure through Palmer, Valdez, Fairbanks, and Denali National Park, home to the highest peak in North America.

Here are some of the most surprising findings from our trip.

The free items in Palmer were so delicious that we skipped the grocery store

green and red cabbage in Palmer

The fresh produce in Palmer was astonishingly large.

Katie Bausler

Alaska is known for its natural wonders, such as glaciers and birch trees.

But our car ride showed us that the state also has some of the most impressive vegetation and flowers we have ever seen, from huge broccoli heads to eye-catching poppies.

Some areas of the state are known for producing massive vegetables, and in some cases do so very quickly. Thanks to long hours of daylight in summer, plants are able to cook through photosynthesis from sunrise to sunset.

During our drive, we stopped at Palmer, a town in southeast Alaska. When the Midwest settled down there under the Great


, they established it as the state’s agricultural hub. It is now home to Alaska’s annual state fair.

On our walk through the city, we stumbled upon a bush that grew wild strawberries. There was a sign that said, “Growing food for all to share.”

free products in Palmer with a sign telling passers-by to take what they want

We could eat from the bushes and the beds for free.

Katie Bausler

We were more than happy to pick our share of the fruit, which was free. The supplier did not ask for more than the courtesy of pulling a weed or two in exchange for the berries.

Later during our time in Palmer we found a garden box at the train station. It was filled with heads of green and red lettuce and nasturtium, an edible flower. The discovery saved us for a trip to the market.

Sea lions get the best catches of fish off the coast of Valdez

katie bausler's retrofitted van with a rainbow over it

We drove a retrofitted van during the entire car trip.

Katie Bausler

Valdez is a coastal town about 300 miles from Anchorage known for its world – class charter fishing.

When we were there, visitors gathered at the harbor to watch skippers clean freshly caught fish. But on the other side of the fjord, the sea lions were picking the salmon even better.

In other parts of Alaska, grizzly bears will be the predators of this scene.

We joined the crowd of professional (and not so professional) photographers who took pictures of the huge animals while hunting for their prey.

We got to see the world Eskimo Indian Olympics in Fairbanks

world Eskimo Indian Olympics

The Indian World Eskimo Games have been held annually since 1961.

Katie Bausler

During the trip we stopped in Fairbanks, a city less than 200 miles from the Arctic Circle. And it so happened that we were there for the world Eskimo-Indian Olympics.

We had never been to the annual multisport event, which started in 1961. Alaska natives from tribes and villages across the state compete in traditional games, such as the high-kick competition and the arm-pull event.

My husband and I were delighted to cheer on members of the Juneau team and even got involved during one of the most exciting events: the carpet throw.

Together with at least 100 other spectators, we came down from the stands and grabbed a piece of a large seal-skin canvas. The material acted as a handmade trampoline, and we were like the feathers. Competitors stationed themselves in the middle of the screen and jumped as high as they could.

Admission to the World Eskimo Indian Olympics was free during the day, and tickets to evening events ranged from $ 10 to $ 15.

Binocular was a must to see the wildlife in Denali National Park

denali national park

Some people think Alaska is full of ice and snow, but that is not always true.

Katie Bausler

Be warned: Reservations for camping in Denali National Park must be made months in advance.

The 6 million acre national park is known for its wilderness and wildlife. To get a closer look at the area, we reserved seats on a former school bus that wound through a gravel road.

If you are visiting Denali, binoculars are an essential item to pack – my husband and I would not have been able to see many of the animals without them. We even got a glimpse of caribou with velvet antlers and grizzly bears with golden fur.

We came across impressive cabins for public use

Katie Bausler smiles in front of the cabin on the left, and a small brown cabin on the right

Public cabins can be rented throughout Alaska.

Katie Bausler

During our trip, we found well-designed homes just off the road at K’esugi Ken Campground in Denali State Park and Eklutna Lake, near Anchorage.

With spacious attics and decks, many of them resembled Swiss cabins.

Even if you do not own a dreamy house of cedar in Alaska, you can still escape to one. Alaska State Parks rents out more than 80 cabins for public use throughout the state. Some of the more remote properties can only be reached by boat or plane.

Reservations can be made up to seven months in advance, and rates for most cabins range from $ 35 to $ 100 per night.

Trans-Alaska Pipeline is partially above the ground so you can actually stand on it

trans alaska pipeline close up left, katie bausler husband standing on pipe right

Parts of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline are above ground.

Katie Bausler

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline, a state-owned oil transportation system, has been flowing since the mid-1970s and runs 800 miles through Alaska, from Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean to Port Valdez on Prince William Sound.

The tube is above ground in places where there is permafrost, so we could see a lot of it during the drive.

At a pit stop between Glenallen and Fairbanks, I took a picture of my husband standing on top of a section with a big smile on his face.

Water at the campsite comes from pumps that were installed during the Great Depression

katie bausler man standing by water pump

My husband learned to pump our water at the campground.

Katie Bausler

Before we went on the road trip, we knew that most of the state’s campgrounds were rustic. That said, my husband and I did not expect to have to pump it from the ground itself.

We were fascinated to hear that the water pumps and drinking fountains were installed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, an aid program from the Great Depression that provided job opportunities in the 1930s.

My husband became quite good at fetching well water, using his body weight to pump the steel handle like a human rocker.

Alaska has an incredibly wide variety of landscapes

alaska landscape, mountains in the background with green in the foreground

Alaska is known for its wilderness, and they did not disappoint.

Katie Bausler

Most people see Alaska as one big, cold place covered in ice and snow all year round. That vision could not be further from the real thing, especially in the summer.

On our car trip we saw a wide range of landscapes.

In the Matanuska Valley, we passed through tanned, dry peaks against a blue sky that reminded us of Montana. We also discovered a stunning desert environment with blue-green and rust-colored slopes on Richardson Highway.

waterfalls in alaska

During our car trip we saw a wide variety of landscapes, everything from waterfalls to desert-like environments.

Katie Bausler

The volcanism has turned Polychrome Overlook – a stop on our bus trip to Denali National Park – into a rainbow of colors, making it the perfect backdrop for our holiday card image.

And on the way to Valdez, the towering Alpine peaks of the Thompson Pass reminded us of our home in Southeast Alaska.

To say that our state is intimidating is an understatement, even for Alaskans like us.