Expert Review: Alaska Grand Adventure

May 30, 2014 • Andrew Browning

AdventureSmith Explorations Adventure Specialist Andrew Browning reviews his 9-day Alaska Grand Adventure trip to coastal Alaska and the interior, including Denali National Park.

Guest at  Skilak lake backcountry lodge at viewpoint overlooking waterway in Alaska.

The 11-day and 9-day Alaska Grand Adventure trips provide travelers with a fully guided wilderness experience highlighting coastal Alaska and the interior. In August of 2013 I took the 9-day route and I have a short review below of the overall experience. The trip uses remote wilderness lodges that offer comfortable bases for exploration of the Kenai Peninsula and Denali National Park. This is absolutely a high-end experience that provides expert guides, great food and access to premier Alaska wilderness. Please take a few minutes and read my review and check out a few of my photos from along the way.

We started our amazing overland adventure by meeting our guide at our downtown Anchorage hotel in the morning.  After a brief meet and greet with our guide and group members, we boarded our transport for a drive down Turnagain Arm along the coast toward Kenai Riverside Lodge.  Our group was pretty diverse which was nice. We had 3 couples, 2 families of 4 (kids ages 10, 11, 17 and 21), me travelling as a single and our guide Michelle.  During the ride we learned about the surrounding area and about the natural history of the coast. The drive was not too far, and soon we were at the lodge where we were fitted for boots and raingear, which we would need on our rafting trip. The rafting trip is not only a fun and scenic adventure, it is also the way we were going to access our accommodations for the next two nights, the remote Kenai Backcountry Lodge.

Guests from a small ship cruise in Alaska on a skiff excursion.

We boarded our rafts and embarked on our trip down the Kenai River.  During the calm sections of the river, our river guide explained the areas we were passing through and also entertained our questions about living in this remote area of Alaska.  The rafting trip has a few whitewater sections and some narrow sections where you pass through canyons. Midway through the day, we had lunch on a riverbank and the river guides had hot drinks for all of us. This gave us some time to talk and connect with our fellow travelers.

After lunch we continued to the Kenai Backcountry Lodge crossing Skilak Lake en route to the lodge. Accessing this remote lodge by river makes this place seem even more special. The Kenai Backcountry Lodge is a truly a haven for those who want a wilderness experience in Alaska. The accommodations are basic but comfortable, and it is important to know that most rooms do not have private bathrooms.  There are shared bathroom and shower facilities located a short walk from your cabin or cabin-tent (wood-framed with canvas outer walls). There are a few cabins that do have private bathrooms and these are a great choice. They are usually the first to be booked so it is best to book early.

We stayed at the Kenai Backcountry Lodge for two nights and during this time we had time for hiking, kayaking and enjoying the scenic lake-view sunsets from the lodge. My favorite activity here was the hike up to the tundra. It was awesome to get above the treeline and see the views of the lake from above. The tundra is a really colorful environment and I had a great time shooting photos of the landscape and my fellow travelers.

Wildflower and mountain range in a misty setting in Alaska.

We left the lodge early the next morning and said our goodbyes to the lodge staff.  We crossed the lake by boat and were met on the other side with a shuttle to bring us back to the Kenai Riverside Lodge. After a brief stop we headed farther south along the coast where we boarded our boat transport in Seward that would take us to the Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge. This is a really nice part of the trip because this is when you start exploring the coast. The boat trip to Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge is great because you can see quite a bit of marine life. We encountered sea otters, puffins, harbor seals and humpback whales in Alaska. The boat also brought us close to a calving tidewater glacier where we floated in the calm waters and enjoyed hot drinks with our lunch. 

Rock formations in the water on the way to a wilderness lodge in Kenai fjords ALaska.
Puffins seen from a small ship cruise in Kenai Fjords Alaska.

We arrived to the Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge in the afternoon and had an orientation of the lodge and what to expect for the activities the following day. The lodge is absolutely stunning, and it is the only one located within Kenai Fjords National Park. You can see the Pederson Glacier from the lodge as well as a lot of coastal and terrestrial wildlife. The lodge has the Pacific Ocean on one side of the property and the other side has a lagoon that is a mix of salt water and fresh water. The lagoon is calm place where easy kayaking and canoeing are offered. Some of the optional activities include kayaking in the ocean to nearby fjords and tidewater glaciers as well as some hiking and canoeing combinations. On the first afternoon we were fitted for gear and then we all went canoeing out in the lagoon. The lodge has some very large, very stable canoes that can comfortably fit 12 passengers. We paddled calmly around the lagoon and saw a black bear, bald eagles, sea otters and harbor seals.  It is a very calm and tranquil here, giving travelers a connection to the wildness of Coastal Alaska.  

We were out there with just our small group paddling through fjords with a tidewater glacier in the distance and only calm reflective waters ahead. 

I recommend that if travelers are interested in kayaking that they do kayaking activities here rather than focusing on hiking. I recommend this because there are more hiking opportunities in Denali, later in the trip so it is nice to focus on exploring the waterways while at the Glacier Lodge. These are some of the best wilderness excursions that I have done. I signed up for the full-day kayaking trip to the Aialik Glacier, which includes a 6-mile roundtrip kayaking trip that passes by an island en route to a beach where you can get out and hike near the glacier. I would say that this is absolutely a must-do trip for anyone who enjoys kayaking. I remember kayaking along with one of the passengers from our group and him commenting to me that this was beyond his expectation for wilderness experiences in Alaska and that he felt like he was in a nature program like you see on TV. We were out there with just our small group paddling through fjords with a tidewater glacier in the distance and only calm reflective waters ahead.  After hearing him say that I thought to myself that this is the kind of experience I want all of my clients to have when they travel to Coastal Alaska. 

Ailaik glacier seen from a small ship cruise in kenai fjords Alaska.
Canoeing in front of a glacier from a wilderness lodge in Kenai Fjords Alaska.

The following day we had time for a half-day activity and I chose to take a canoe trip combined with a short hike to the upper lagoon, which is where you can get closer to Pederson Glacier. I didn’t know exactly what to expect and I was pleasantly surprised.  We paddled across the lower lagoon and then left our canoe tied up for us to return after the hike. It was a rainy morning and we hiked for about 20 minutes through the forest on the way to the upper lagoon. About a week before our arrival a huge piece of ice calved off the Pederson Glacier, and over the course of the week it had continued to break apart until the upper lagoon was filled with broken up pieces of ice. The trail led us to the black rock beach and there was a layer of fog enveloping the clear-blue ice. I walked up the coast a ways and took a ton of photos. I felt like I was in a dreamscape; I probably could have stayed there all day. It was absolutely awesome and unexpected.

Glaciers in a misty bay of Kenai Fjords Alaska.
Bright blue glaciers in a dark misty bay at Kenai Fjords Alaska.

We were all thrilled with our experience at the Kenai Fjords Glacier lodge and it was sad to leave. We boarded the boat and set course for Seward where our overland transport was waiting. On the way back, there is not as much time spent exploring the coastline but we did have an amazing marine life encounter in the Pacific that day.  We were very lucky and spotted a small pod of killer whales! There must have been a lot of life in this area because we also spotted Dall’s porpoises swimming directly in front of the boat. It was a magical moment and I know that everyone felt so lucky to have this encounter because seeing killer whales in the wild is a rare and beautiful experience.

We were now finished with the coastal part of the trip and we had quite a distance to cover to get to Denali National Park. This long drive was broken up with stops along the way. We spent the night in Seward after getting off the boat from Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge, and we also spent the night in Talkeetna, which is a small town on the way to Denali. Most of these days were spent travelling but we were able to see the town of Talkeetna, which is an interesting place to spend the afternoon. You also have the opportunity to do flightseeing in Talkeetna if the weather allows. In our case, it was too stormy for flying so we had the afternoon to relax or explore town.

Mountain range with snowy peaks at Denali National Park Alaska.

The next morning we left for the Denali Park entrance where we boarded the bus to Kantishna Roadhouse. The bus looked like a school bus, but it had coach bus seats and opening windows that were nice for taking pictures of scenery and wildlife. Our accommodations were at the end of the 90-mile-long park road, located where most travelers visiting Denali do not go. The road is long and winding but there are frequent stops made for wildlife viewing and scenery. The drive is part of the experience and generally you can see a lot of wildlife along the way. We learned a lot about the park history from our guide and driver. Denali has a very colorful history, and the drivers and lodge staff do a great job of bringing the Gold Rush and exploration history to life through their stories and presentations.  During our time at Kantishna Roadhouse we would have daily opportunities to take guided hikes in the park. The guiding staff would lead hikes of varying difficulties from easy nature walks to all-day hikes. You can also explore on your own if you would like and they have mountain bikes for guests to use as well as fishing gear.

During my time in the Kantishna Valley, I took a guided hikes around the valley and took one of the mountain bikes out on the dirt road system for some solo exploration. I also enjoyed two presentations from the guide staff. The first was about the mountaineering history of the park and the climbers who came to climb the peaks of the area. The other was about the Iditarod race and dog sledding in general. Both were great and the presenters had family history intertwined with their presentations so that gave a great firsthand perspective.

On the final morning of the trip, some travelers from our group signed up to take the scenic flightseeing trip from the Kantishna Valley to the park entrance since the morning weather was allowing the planes to fly. It was a tough choice for me, but I decided to take the bus out so that I would have some more opportunities to see wildlife and to take some more photos. I wish I could have done both because the flight sounds awesome too! In the end I was glad I took the bus because we saw a bull moose from pretty close and we saw some more bears along the way.  The previous couple of days were pretty cloudy and rainy but on our way out the skies cleared and we got lucky with some great views of Denali and the surrounding snow capped mountains. It was just incredible to see Denali and it felt like the perfect ending to the entire trip.  

Moose eating shrubbery seen from a land tour to Denali National Park Alaska.
Bear seen from a land tour to Denali National Park Alaska.

On the bus trip out, they do not stop as frequently as on the way in but we still had quite a few stops for wildlife and photos of the scenery.  The bus arrived back to the park entrance in the late morning and there was time to get lunch before we boarded the Alaska railroad back to Anchorage. On this Grand Adventure, the included seats are in the glass-domed railcars, which is the best option available. I took this time to enjoy the views and also to relax and reflect on the journey. We arrived back to Anchorage at about 830pm so it is usually necessary to spend the night in Anchorage before flying out at the end of the trip.

The 9-day Grand Adventure succeeds at bringing travelers to premier wilderness areas of Alaska while also providing comfortable accommodations in these remote areas. I can highly recommend this trip as a great way to experience Coastal Alaska and Denali National Park in one nice guided trip. The guides and lodge staff were enthusiastic about showing us the best of Alaska and they went out of their way to do so.

This Alaska tour review was written by an AdventureSmith Explorations crew member. Read all Trip Reviews for more trip reports, or contact one of our Adventure Specialists to learn more about these small ship cruises and wilderness adventures: 1-800-728-2875.

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