On a Fall Road Trip in Alaska, Prepare for the Unexpected

The tap beer ran low and boat tours were hit or miss. But lines were rare, as were the bottlenecks on roads threading mountainsides where yellow poplars and aspens, ablaze in the cool fall temperatures, radiated amid the evergreens. This is fall in Alaska, perhaps the most fleeting of seasons, when the weather can swing wildly day to day, from sunny, cloudless glory to six inches of wet snow.

“Alaskans have a love-hate relationship with fall because it is so fast,” said Melissa Frey, the chief meteorologist with Alaska’s News Source. “We see such a dramatic change from summer to winter, but it feels like it happens overnight.”

A close-up view of an aspen leaf on the Bird Ridge trail, off the Seward Highway.Credit…Christopher Miller for The New York Times

Summer, of course, is high season in the 49th state. When big-ship cruising was suspended until July because of the pandemic, many travelers, inspired by the mandate for social distance and fresh air turned to land travel in Alaska, which led to sellouts of rental cars and packed lodges.

But by September, the masses had returned home, triggering shoulder season, a time of sparse crowds, available cars and reasonable lodging rates, enticements that attracted my son — who had just concluded a season working for the Forest Service in Alaska — and me to take a five-day drive around the Kenai Peninsula south of Anchorage.

Compared to a trip to Alaska that I’d made in July, shoulder season was a bargain and offered a chance to see it in a different light (which, by the way, lasted about 12 hours a day in late September). But as with so many other things about the state, Alaska, we discovered, is different in the fall, when many tourism businesses close and the changeable weather demands you loosen your grip on firm plans.

A view from the wooded banks of Trail Lake off Seward Highway.Credit…Christopher Miller for The New York Times

Driving the Kenai Peninsula

Testing our flexibility from the start, the Kenai trip came about after the road into Denali National Park abruptly closed about halfway into its 92-mile length in late August because of a landslide. Slides have been occurring in the park’s Pretty Rocks area since at least the 1960s, but the impact of climate change — specifically warmer winters and increased precipitation, causing the frozen ground to thaw — took what was once addressed by periodic road repairs to a “challenge too difficult to overcome with short-term solutions,” according to the National Park Service in a news release announcing the closure.

Instead of driving north from Anchorage, we decided to head south to the Kenai Peninsula, which extends about 150 miles southwest of the Chugach Mountains near Anchorage, pinched by the Cook Inlet to the west and Prince William Sound to the east. (We paid $376 for a rental S.U.V. from Avis Alaska for the entire trip, but compact cars for the same period started around $210.)

“They call it Alaska’s playground because Alaskans all go there, too,” Richenda Sandlin-Tymitz, the marketing and content manager for Alaska Tour & Travel, an agency in Anchorage, told me the week before the trip. “It’s just really beautiful country with mountains, forests, big rivers important for salmon, and the coast with beautiful fjords and glaciers, all in a relatively small — by Alaska standards — driving area.”

A pair of trumpeter swans on a lake in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.Credit…Christopher Miller for The New York Times

Stopping just short of the peninsula on our first night in the town of Girdwood, about 40 miles from the Anchorage airport, we checked into the Ski Inn ($199), a cozy eight-room lodge in the downtown area, less than a mile from looming Mount Alyeska, home to Alaska’s most popular ski resort.

At the fire pits outside Girdwood Brewing Company, we drank I.P.A.s with three kayaking guides who were road-tripping around the state after finishing their summer working in Seward, which they described as “off-the-charts” busy.

The temperature was sinking into the 50s by the time we were seated on the porch at Spoonline Bistro for seared Kodiak Island scallops ($20) and glazed duck breast ($38), but servers helpfully positioned two strong space heaters beside us.

The Exit Glacier flows out of the Harding Icefield, its meltwater feeding Resurrection River in the foreground, in the Kenai Fjords National Park.Credit…Christopher Miller for The New York Times

Glaciers by land

It didn’t take long to learn that the best-laid plans in Alaska require a Plan B. In Girdwood, we awoke to the news that high winds had triggered a marine warning, and our six-hour cruise with Kenai Fjords Tours to Kenai Fjords National Park ($153 a person), from the gateway town of Seward, had been canceled.

After a stop at the Forest Service visitor center in Girdwood, which offers maps of much of the peninsula, we settled on Whittier, a port on Prince William Sound nearly 25 miles from Girdwood, and its Portage Glacier as our substitute destination.

Generally speaking, road-tripping in Alaska — a state bigger than California, Texas and Montana combined — is time consuming. Towns that look like neighbors on the map can be distant. Frequent scenic pullouts, two-lane roads and moose-crossing warnings discourage speeding.

Even by Alaska standards, reaching Whittier is a uniquely protracted undertaking, requiring motorists to take a 2.5-mile toll tunnel ($13 round trip for a car) that is only wide enough for one-way traffic, which switches directions on the half-hour.

You don’t have to wait for the tunnel to glimpse the Portage Glacier, which once filled the 14-mile valley that connects the Kenai to mainland Alaska. But the hike on the other side more than justified the wait. After a fairly vertical mile up, we reached a viewpoint across a grassy valley to the mountain funnel cradling the glacier, which terminated in serrations of pale blue ice poised to spill into Portage Lake.

In Whittier, Alaska, a log cabin gift shop is adorned with signs beckoning tourists before it closes for the season.Credit…Christopher Miller for The New York Times

While we found viewing oceanfront glaciers by tour boat was unreliable in the fall, mountain and valley glaciers, like Portage, offered rewards well-earned by hiking. Near Seward, about 90 miles down the road from Whittier, a series of trails, including a mile-long paved loop, offered relatively easy access to snaking Exit Glacier, the only part of Kenai Fjords National Park accessible by land.

Sunlight filters through the upper canopy onto devil’s club leaves on a trail near the Seward Highway and Turnagain Arm.Credit…Christopher Miller for The New York Times

End of the season

At Resurrection Roadhouse, a sprawling restaurant on the road to Exit Glacier, the bartender pointed us to a chalkboard beer list and handed over a note listing about half of the brews that were unavailable.

“We close in four days,” she explained.

Travelers could still get a porter, but not a blond ale. Nachos were available, but jalapeños weren’t. Complaints were few, however, as local patrons celebrated the end of a long season.

“This is our favorite time of year,” said Ian Whittle, who drives a tour boat in Seward, having dinner at the bar next to us.

“We never get to do anything in season,” added his companion, Tamara Lang, who also works on day cruises.

In downtown Seward, a town of around 3,000 residents, shops with signs saying “See you in 2022” were posted alongside “Go Lydia” banners for the local Olympic swimmer, Lydia Jacoby, who won gold and silver medals at the Tokyo Olympics. Through Airbnb we reserved a cheerful studio apartment with mountain views above a closed coffee shop downtown ($139), but the host helpfully supplied us with good whole-bean coffee.

Seward’s chief indoor attraction, the Alaska SeaLife Center, remains open throughout the year. Above, junior coho salmon in a tank at the center.Credit…Christopher Miller for The New York Times

Fortunately, Seward’s chief indoor attraction, the Alaska SeaLife Center, remains open throughout the year, offering opportunities to explore Alaska’s rich marine ecosystem in otherwise unnavigable seasons. Here, tanks expose what’s beneath the whitecaps outside, from 800-pound Stellar sea lions and diving puffins, to salmon fry, wolf eel, spot prawn and gumboot chiton. We had the touch tanks to ourselves to observe the long and gradual process of sea stars and sea urchins moving the fragments of squid patiently fed by their keepers toward their mouths.

Rafters and fishermen on the Kenai River.Credit…Christopher Miller for The New York Times

End of the road

The weather roulette spun overnight, landing on a bright, clear and windless morning in Seward, ideal conditions for a four-mile hike on Tonsina Creek Trail. Just south of town, the trail roughly parallels the ocean bluffs through a mossy spruce-and-hemlock forest to the banks of the eponymous creek, where salmon carcasses, left by foraging bear, littered the banks at low tide.

Although the afternoon Kenai Fjord boat tours were back on, we had to press on with a three-and-a-half-hour drive ahead of us to Homer.

Homer lies at the end of Route 1, or the Sterling Highway, which curls around the western side of the peninsula, lingering along the banks of milky Kenai Lake, then following the churning Kenai River, where anglers waded gamely into the rapids. On the bright clear day, we pulled over every possible chance to snap saturated shots of flaming fall leaves against backdrops of newly snow-dusted peaks.

Russian Orthodox crosses mark graves outside the Holy Transfiguration of Our Lord Chapel in Ninilchik, Alaska. The church was built in 1901 and is one of a handful throughout the state signifying the Russian settlement of Alaska before it was sold to the United States.Credit…Christopher Miller for The New York Times

Among more substantive stops, the Kenai River Brewing Company in Soldotna, about 75 miles shy of Homer, served two-fisted black-bean burgers ($14) on a heated patio facing a forest. After another 40 miles, we reached coastal Ninilchik, home to a hilltop Russian Orthodox Church dating to 1901, a modest frame outpost facing 10,000-foot mountains in Lake Clark National Park and Preserve across the Cook Inlet.

Mount Redoubt, an active volcano, dominates the skyline above Cook Inlet and a bluff in Ninilchik, Alaska.Credit…Christopher Miller for The New York Times

Over its last few miles, the Sterling bends dramatically eastward, revealing a blufftop view that compels motorists to pause: Kachemak Bay, and on its far shore Kachemak Bay State Park, where glaciers pooled around jagged peaks.

We soon found we had this same view from our furnished yurt on a secluded hillside property with a fire ring and a modern bathroom in a neighboring tiny house ($174). In the trade-off calculation that is fall travel in Alaska, we came out ahead, believing, as Airbnb assured us, that the yurt was a “rare find” and “usually booked.”

On the calm and mild afternoon we arrived, the Homer Spit — a roughly 4.5-mile-long lowland slicing into Kachemak Bay from mainland Homer — was bustling with shoppers strolling the stilted boardwalks. Water taxis dropped and retrieved travelers at the remote state park. Back on shore, we visited the farmer’s market for picnic supplies, stocking up on the outsize carrots and cauliflower that distinguish Alaskan vegetables planted during summer’s extended daylight conditions.

A mix of aspen and birch leaves cover salmon bones at the edge of Skilak Lake in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.Credit…Christopher Miller for The New York Times

But on the next overcast and blustery morning, the Spit was deserted and the water taxi we booked canceled. As Plan B, the dispatcher recommended heading a few miles north of town to hike the Diamond Creek Trail, a short, but steep, switchback route to a black-sand beach where we wandered between boulders revealed at low tide, counting the anemones and crabs left in their tide pools.

Several of the most popular restaurants in Homer were closed, making us enthusiastic regulars of Fat Olives, dishing pizzas with yeasty, bubbling crusts that could best most pies I’ve had in the Lower 48 (from $15).

Late on our last afternoon, as snowflakes started to fly, four sandhill cranes glided into the wetlands beside the Spit. Resting before heading south, they gave us rare up-close looks of the red markings on their heads amid the rust-colored grasses, reminding us that there is no bad weather — or bad season in Alaska — just bad gear.

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