Welcome to Part 2 of The-Woks-of-Life-Goes-to-Alaska! For Part 1, click here.
Picking up where Kaitlin left off in Part 1…after seeing the mountains, rivers, and glacial waterfalls along the White Pass & Yukon Route, we boarded our ship back in Skagway and headed for Glacier Bay National Park. Unlike Yosemite, Yellowstone, and so many other national parks, Glacier Bay is only accessible by air or by boat––there are no roads leading to the park at all.
The entire time we were in Alaska, my body remained on an East Coast schedule (the time difference is 4 hours). This was probably the first vacation I’ve ever been on where I consistently woke up between the hours of 4:00 and 5:00 AM, and was in bed by 10 at the latest, skipping the comedy shows, casino games, and cocktails like the 26-year-old grandma I am. I also took to taking daily naps around 3:00. I miss those naps.
The great thing about this approach is that you’re asleep when it’s dark (and you can’t see a dang thing outside), but you’re also awake in the wee hours of the morning when the sun rises and the rest of the ship is still in their staterooms.
We were situated towards the ship’s stern, and there was a conveniently large, open balcony back there that very few people seemed to know or care about. My morning routine was to roll out of bed, throw on a jacket and scarf over my pajamas, attempt (unsuccessfully) to wake up Kaitlin, and then walk the few feet to the balcony to see where we had arrived after 8 hours of sleepy travel.
Arriving in Glacier Bay National Park, all I could see was smooth, glassy ocean and little swaths of tree-lined land in the distance. It wasn’t quite as dramatic as I expected––that would come later.
But I did see a little boat approaching our ship. The people on board immediately saw me––the lone rando staring out at them from the balcony––and waved. They turned out to be park rangers, who pulled up alongside the massive cruise ship in their comparably tiny boat, and climbed onto the ship via a hanging rope ladder. The whole process took all of a few minutes.
Once the rest of The Woks of Life crew had woken up at the reasonable hour of 7:30 AM local time, we headed upstairs for breakfast and some nature commentary from the ship’s naturalist, who would be providing commentary over the ship’s PA system all day while we were in the park.
I never saw this naturalist while on board the ship, but I imagined him to be about 75 years old, bespectacled, wearing no less than a tweed jacket with suede elbow patches. I’ve never quite experienced quite that level of Ben-Stein-esque (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) lecturing––let alone while on vacation. I swear, I saw no less than 5 people nod off in the Horizon Court buffet line that morning.
As we listened to explanations of what a fjord is, and how the earliest glaciers formed, my mom, dad, sister and I enjoyed our eggs, toast, smoked salmon, and coffee and sailed into the bay.
Pretty soon, there were glaciers. Glaciers everywhere.
The key to enjoying Glacier Bay National Park by cruise ship is finding the best vantage point from which to enjoy the view.
The ideal situation, of course, is to go somewhere where there aren’t a ton of people, and where you can have an unobstructed view of the natural splendor around you. Jockeying for position on a little stretch of the sun deck while fellow tourists attempt to snap photos with their phones and tricked-out Nikons is probably not the best way to do it.
After realizing this, we headed down to my favorite secret spot––the balcony at the back of the ship––and alternated between that position and the balconies in our rooms all day. As demonstrated by this very relaxed picture:
This is Marjorie Glacier, which is massive.
We actually heard a small piece of the glacier crack with an echoing sound like thunder, and saw it fall into the bay.
As my sister mentioned in Part 1 when we were at Mendenhall Glacier, these glaciers have receded significantly. Less than 300 years ago, Glacier Bay wasn’t even a bay. It was one massive piece of ice. Today, it’s a large body of water with lots of little tidewater glaciers dotted around it.
We found ourselves looking out at the ocean around us and trying to comprehend the fact that it used to all be ice.
Next, we headed for College Fjord, which contains several glaciers––all named after colleges along the East Coast.
The biggest of these glaciers––perhaps unsurprisingly––was Harvard Glacier:
Even as we were pulling far away from it, you could still see it pretty clearly in the distance.
Around 3:00 in the afternoon, the park rangers left the ship…
And we were off to our next destination.
The next morning, we arrived in the tiny––TINY––town of Whittier, Alaska, which would be our last cruise stop.
From there, we would drive inland to Denali National Park.
It was a gloriously clear day, so you could actually see Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley) from the road, along with Mount Hunter, the smaller mountain to the left.
Here’s a picture of it even closer:
We heard from several locals that the weather around there was fickle and often rainy, and that there were only a few days every year where you could see the mountain that clearly, so we definitely got lucky.
We ended up in the town of Talkeetna, where we’d be catching a train into Denali.
It was raining pretty hard, but we trudged on, stopping in at Nagley’s General Store, which was established way back in 1921, “Before Most of You Were Born,” as one sign said.
We also had breakfast at the Roadhouse, which actually still operates AS a roadhouse.
This breakfast was pretty epic.Sourdough pancakes, reindeer sausage, eggs, biscuits, gravy, big thick slices of toast…I don’t have a picture, because you don’t dilly dally with your camera when someone puts a plate like that in front of you.
It was a meal definitely meant for climbers about to make the journey up to Denali––not so much for tourists who’d been buffet-fed for the past 7 days. But we ate it anyway. Out of politeness.
After breakfast, we hobbled over to the train depot. It was a miracle we managed to walk at all, honestly.
The train ride to Denali was really scenic, albeit a little rainy.
Once we got to Denali, the weather improved somewhat. It was still cloudy and a little cold, but the rain had stopped.
That night, we got to jump on ATVs and zoom through a bunch of trails just outside the park.
Dorky helmets aside, this was incredibly fun. Half of the tour took place during dusk, when we got to see tundra and mountains.
And then it got dark.
We checked out a huge gravel deposit (which you can sort of see in the photo above), as well as this really creepy dry cabin:
Where someone had apparently left their dinner.
But mostly, we zoomed around recklessly and got mud on our jeans.
The next day, we decided to go for a hike. After hearing from both a park ranger AND a bus driver (on two separate occasions) that the Horseshoe Lake trail was a good place to spot a moose, we jumped on the opportunity. Our primary goal while in Alaska? See a moose.
Of course, the trail was––though well-trodden and not exactly “wild”––pretty beautiful.
We didn’t end up seeing any moose, but we did see this beaver dam:
And the Nenana River:
My mom and sister kept finding blueberries along the trail, which made the hike both delicious––and time-consuming, as you can imagine.
All in all, our time in Alaska was pretty amazing, and I will definitely be going back. Probably with a car and a tent next time.
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