Alaska Itinerary and Travel Tips

Of all of the 50 states in the United States, Alaska is consistently in the top 10 most-visited states. Although planning a vacation to Alaska can seem a bit challenging, it’s certainly not difficult to do on your own. Alaska is by far the largest state in the United States, at 663,300 square miles and many of the major cities are vast distances from each other. Further, much of Alaska is only accessible by water, making it even more challenging to visit, hence the popularity in Alaskan cruises. But what do you do if you or your traveling companions get motion sickness on boats and a cruise is not an option or you just don’t want to take a cruise? Of course, you dive in and start planning your own itinerary!

Some questions you may ask when planning a trip to Alaska:

How long should I spend in Alaska?

The longer, the better, given the enormous size of the state and the fact that only 20% of the state is accessible by roads. For most people, roughly ten days to two weeks is a good amount of time to spend on your first visit, to get a “taste” of Alaska. It’s best to focus on visiting a few areas rather than trying to cram in a dozen different areas and spending much of your time in transit from one place to another.

Getting to Alaska and Getting Around

Although there are many small airports in Alaska, major airports include ones in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau. Other communities with jet service in Alaska include Wrangell, Petersburg, Sitka, Glacier Bay/Gustavus, Yakutat, Cordova, Kodiak, Dutch Harbor, Adak, King Salmon, Dillingham, Bethel, Nome, Kotzebue, Barrow and Prudhoe Bay. As mentioned above, only 20% of Alaska is accessible by roads, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider driving an option. We picked up our rental car in Anchorage and were able to drive to all of the places we wanted to, without any problems, and we didn’t need a 4×4 vehicle either. This was during the summer, so if it’s winter, be prepared to drive on snowy roads. Taking the Alaska Railroad is also an option for getting between cities.

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When is the Best Time of Year to Visit Alaska?

In my opinion, there is no “best” time of year to visit anywhere and Alaska is no exception. Summer is the most popular time to visit Alaska, with mid-June to mid-August being peak season. If you prefer warmer weather and plan to do a lot of hiking, July through early August are your best bets but if you want to see the Northern Lights, the winter months when it’s the darkest are best. If you plan on going to Denali National Park, the park’s only roadway remains open through early September for bus tours although a 15-mile portion of the road is also open for private vehicles. Crowds are a bit thinner during the shoulder months of April to May and September.

Tips for Planning your Alaska Itinerary

If you plan on going during the busy summer months, book in advance whenever possible. Bus tours through Denali National Park sell out months in advance, as do campsites and accommodations in more popular areas of the state.

Because of the remoteness of the state, WiFi is non-existent in many rural areas. Cell phone service is also spotty at best in many places, even in some of the bigger cities. Download Google maps offline and drop pins on places where you want to go so you have access to areas where you don’t have coverage.

Pack for cool or cold weather even in the summer. I was a bit surprised to learn the average daytime highs in August are usually in the low-to mid-60’s Fahrenheit (16 to 19 degrees Celsius). This coupled with the fact that it rained many days made it feel pretty chilly, which brings me to my next tip.

Pack a poncho or lightweight rain jacket. August and September are the wettest months but rain is pretty common in July as well.

Consider hiking with others and/or buy bear spray. Bears are abundant in Alaska, as are moose. Many people may not realize moose are even more dangerous than bears in Alaska. Moose outnumber bears nearly three to one in Alaska, wounding around five to 10 people in the state annually. That’s more than grizzly bear and black bear attacks combined.

Remember that fresh fruits and vegetables cost more in Alaska than in the lower 48 states (as do many other things). As we were reminded with a sign in a grocery store in Alaska, those bananas have to travel a very long way to reach Alaska, which increases the cost. Alaska has a short growing season and primarily cool season vegetables such as beets, potatoes, broccoli, cabbage, carrots grow here, although some fruit trees have successfully been grown near the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. Tourism also increases prices so anywhere frequented heavily by cruise ships will have higher prices, especially in the direct vicinity around the port.

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Itinerary:  11 days/10 nights in Alaska

Stop 1:  Anchorage (3 nights)

Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport is the busiest airport in Alaska, with twice as many passengers in June, July and August as between October to April. This is likely the airport you will be flying into. For most people, it will be a long flight, and you will want to focus on checking into your hotel and resting for the first day and possibly part of the second day.

After you’ve rested up, venture out and do a bit of hiking or just driving around to take in the scenery. On our first full day in Anchorage, we saw a moose drinking water from a small lake just off a highway. This was our first moose sighting, despite having traveled previously to many other places in the US and Canada that are heavily populated by moose, so we were of course excited to stop and take some photos. As mentioned earlier, moose can be extremely dangerous, so make sure you don’t get close to the animals and give them a huge berth of space.

Chugach National Forest, which stretches for 6,908,540 acres in south central Alaska is easily accessible from Anchorage and there are many options for trails and hiking.

Mount Baldy is another hiking option and the trailhead parking lot is only about 30 minutes from downtown Anchorage.

Tony Knowles Coastal Trail is a scenic place to take a walk, go for a run, or take a spin on some rental bikes.

Turnagain Arm is just south of Anchorage and I recommend driving along here and stopping at some of the stops along the way such as McHugh Creek Recreation Area and Beluga Point Lookout.

Some of our favorite restaurants in Anchorage include Snow City Café, South Restaurant and Coffeehouse, and Wild Scoops.

You can find a full description of our time in Anchorage here.

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Stop 2:  Denali National Park (3 nights)

The drive from Anchorage to the surrounding areas of Denali National Park is a long one, taking approximately 5 hours, give or take, depending on traffic and road construction (which we ran into on our way back from Denali National Park). If you can’t get reservations to stay inside the park or don’t want to stay in the park, there are options in the nearby town of Healy or a bit further away, McKinley Park.

I found the options for accommodations in Healy to range from fairly expensive to super-expensive, with nothing other than campgrounds offering anything what I would call affordable. However, I wanted to be as close to the park entrance as possible, so I chose one of the more affordable of the expensive hotels, Cabins at Denali. We had a two-story room, with nothing but a bathroom and entryway on the bottom floor and a huge room upstairs with three beds, a sitting area with a couch and coffee table, dining room table and chairs, microwave, sink, and coffee maker.

You can only drive the first 15 miles into Denali National Park, so you will need to make reservations well in advance for one of the buses. There are many options, depending if you want to get off the bus and hike or just stay on the bus, and how far into the park you want to go.

On our first day in Healy, since we arrived in the evening, we just ventured out for dinner and relaxed for the evening. We took a bus tour for hikers on our second day and it was a full day indeed, since we chose the bus tour that went several hours into the backcountry of the park. For our third day, we hiked on the trails around the areas closer to the entrance of the park that are private vehicle-accessible and went to the sled dog tour.

You can find a full description of our time in Healy and Denali National Park here.

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Stop 3:  Seward (3 nights)

Even though the drive from Anchorage to Denali National Park is a long one, the drive from Denali National Park to Seward is even longer, since you actually drive past Anchorage to get to Seward. The drive took us around 6 1/2 hours, but we stopped to do a bit of hiking along the way and break up the drive.

The area that includes Seward is filled with glaciers, so we decided to stop and hike at one before we reached our Airbnb in Seward. Driving south from Anchorage on the Seward Highway, go to the end of the 5-mile Portage Spur Road. Byron Glacier trailhead is near Portage Lake. It’s a one-mile scenic walk to the glacier face along Byron Creek.

We also hiked to Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park (which has no entry fee). This is a popular glacier to visit and there will likely be crowds if you’re there during the summer. It’s an easy hike to get to the first viewing area for the glacier. There are actually two viewing areas, one a bit further away, for people that can’t or don’t want to hike the trail, and the one much closer to the glacier. If you want to walk on the glacier, you need to arrange a tour with a guide.

On our second day in Seward, we took a Kenai Fjords National Park tour with Kenai Fjords Tours, a 6 hour boat tour. Despite taking anti-motion sickness medication, my husband and daughter were still sick for the entire tour. However, I was perfectly fine and thoroughly enjoyed the tour. We saw many glaciers and animals like seals, whales, and puffins. Although this was a highlight of my time in Alaska, my husband and daughter would not say the same thing, so if you have problems with motion sickness, you should probably skip a boat tour here.

For our third day in Seward, we went to what became my daughter’s favorite part of our time in Alaska, Seavey’s Ididaride. Since it was summer, instead of being pulled by Alaskan huskies in a dogsled, we were pulled in a cart by the dogs. The dogs train year-round and you can visit here year-round and see these beautiful dogs that clearly love to run and also check out some of Mitch Seavey’s, (a former Iditarod winner), trophies and race-related gear. We also got to see and even hold some adorable Alaskan husky puppies, which was the icing on the cake for my husky-loving daughter.

Since we had a really nice house through Airbnb to stay at with a well-stocked kitchen in Seward, we stopped at a nearby grocery store on our first day so we could eat most of our meals in the house (plus it was better for our budget). We only went out to eat once, at Seward Brewing Company and really liked our food there.

You can find a full description of our time in Seward here.

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Stop 3:  Girdwood (1 night)

This is an optional stop you could even add on during your time in Anchorage, since it’s a bit under an hour from downtown Anchorage. Since we had a late evening flight back home, I thought it would be a good way to not have such a long drive from Seward to the airport (about 2/12-3 hours) and see a new area as well. It ended up being a good decision and I thoroughly enjoyed our time in Girdwood.

We stayed at the beautiful Alyeska Resort and were able to snag the Summer Tram Package deal where you get free tram tickets when you stay the night. Alyeska Resort is a 300-room year-round hotel with skiing in the winter and hiking and mountain biking the rest of the year. Normally we don’t stay at huge resorts like this, but every now and then I like to splurge, and since it was just one night, it didn’t break the bank.

We took the tram up to the top of the mountain above the resort and hiked around some trails there and were rewarded with some truly gorgeous views. You can hike up and down the mountain and skip the tram, but taking the tram was a good way to save our legs to be able to do more hiking around the top.

Besides taking the tram to the top from the Hotel Alyeska and hiking up there, we really wanted to hike Lower Winner Creek Trail. The trail begins behind the Hotel Alyeska. The first 3/4 mile is a wide, well-developed boardwalk. The next 1.5 miles are easy hiking along a firm dirt trail  through the Chugach National Forest. When you reach Winner Creek Gorge, you’re in for a special treat, the hand tram. The hand tram is just like it sounds, powered by hand, and if you’re lucky, you’ll have people waiting on both sides of the gorge who will happily pull the ropes to get you across the gorge (otherwise you will have to pull yourself across). I have a fear of heights but loved going across the hand tram and highly recommend it.

For restaurants, we liked Girdwood Brewing Company (there was a food truck when we were there with awesome Mexican food), Sitzmark, Alpine Diner & Bakery, and The Bake Shop.

You can find a full description of our time in Girdwood here.

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11-day Alaska Itinerary at-a-glance

Day 1:  Anchorage- flight arrival, hotel check-in, settle in

Day 2:  Anchorage- hiking and/or Tony Knowles Coastal Trail

Day 3:  Anchorage- check out Turnagain Arm

Day 4:  Healy- drive here from Anchorage

Day 5:  Denali National Park- bus tour of park

Day 6:  Denali National Park- hiking, dog-sled demonstrations

Day 7:  Seward- drive here from Healy, with option to stop at Byron Glacier along the way

Day 8:  Seward- Kenai Fjords National Park tour

Day 9:  Seward- Seavey’s Ididaride and hiking to Exit Glacier

Day 10:  Girdwood- drive here from Seward, hiking around Alyeska Resort

Day 11:  Girdwood- hiking Winner Creek Gorge, flight home

I feel like this itinerary hits some of the major highlights of Alaska, but I’m not an expert by any means; I just did a ton of research beforehand. During our time in Alaska, we felt like these places were definitely great choices and we didn’t feel like we were in the car for too much of our time there. That being said, I can’t stress enough if you are prone to motion sickness, skip the boat tours in Alaska. The water can be rough, sometimes with huge swells, and it’s just not enjoyable when you feel nauseous and sick.

Alaska is such a beautiful state with many options, even though it seems like the vast majority of people who go here do so on a cruise. I’d just like to point out you can still see different areas of the state and hike and see some of the natural beauty on your own, without a tour guide from a cruise ship. Even if you don’t like to hike, you can just go for scenic drives in many of the places I’ve mentioned, like Turnagain Arm for example. The drive from Anchorage to Seward is one of the most scenic areas I’ve ever been through.

Happy travels!

Donna

 

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Final Days and Final Thoughts in Alaska- Girdwood

After spending the bulk of our vacation in Alaska in Anchorage, Denali National Park, and Seward, we decided to spend two days hiking around Girdwood, which is just under an hour from Anchorage. We stayed at the beautiful Alyeska Resort and were able to snag the Summer Tram Package deal where you get free tram tickets when you stay the night. Alyeska Resort is a 300-room year-round hotel with skiing in the winter and hiking and mountain biking the rest of the year. My husband took advantage of the fitness center and sauna and said the fitness center was the nicest one he’d ever been to at a hotel.

I’ll be honest, though. As nice as the hotel is (and it’s very nice), a big reason we stayed here was for the tram, although you certainly don’t have to stay here to take the tram. After taking the tram up to the top, we hiked Mighty Mite and Mountain Top Trail. A pdf of the hiking and biking trails from the Alyeska Resort can be found here. You can also hike up the top without taking the tram but we thought the tram would be a fun experience and since the tickets were included in our hotel stay, it would have been silly to have not used them. From the top, we saw seven glaciers, high-alpine tundra, the Chugach Mountains, and Turnagain Arm. There is a lookout area, gift shop, Bore Tide Deli and Bar, and the fancy Seven Glaciers restaurant.

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Hotel Alyeska and a tram

After hiking and admiring the gorgeous views from the top, we checked out some of the shops in town. Girdwood is tiny and there aren’t a ton of shops or restaurants but you can find a handful. For restaurants, we liked Girdwood Brewing Company (there was a food truck when we were there with awesome Mexican food), Sitzmark, Alpine Diner & Bakery, and The Bake Shop. There’s also a couple of small art galleries, Girdwood Center for Visual Arts and Slack Tide Gallery.

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View from the top above Hotel Alyeska

Besides taking the tram to the top from the Hotel Alyeska and hiking up there, we really wanted to  hike Lower Winner Creek Trail. The trail begins behind the Hotel Alyeska. The first 3/4 mile is a wide, well-developed boardwalk. The next 1.5 miles are easy hiking along a firm dirt trail  through the Chugach National Forest. When you reach Winner Creek Gorge, you’re in for a special treat, the hand tram. The hand tram is just like it sounds, powered by hand, and if you’re lucky, you’ll have people waiting on both sides of the gorge who will happily pull the ropes to get you across the gorge (otherwise you will have to pull yourself across). I have a fear of heights but loved going across the hand tram and highly recommend it.

Since we were pressed for time and had to fly out of Anchorage that evening, we only had time to turn around after taking the hand tram across the gorge (so we went across the gorge then immediately got in line to go back across the gorge in the tram). From the hotel to the hand tram and back is a 2 to 2.5 hour round-trip adventure. If you have time and energy to continue hiking, it’s one mile to Crow Creek Road. Crow Creek Mine is a few hundred miles up the road from there. If you want a quicker route, you can start at the Winner Creek Gorge Trailhead at Milepoint 2.9 of Crow Creek Road, hike for one mile to the hand tram, another 0.2 mile to the Gorge, then hike back to your car.

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The hand tram over Winner Creek Gorge

You can also extend your hike by turning right at the gorge and taking Upper Winner Creek Trail. There are multiple water crossings and the trail gets more primitive the further up you go. If you want you can continue over the pass down to the Twentymile River on the other side and packraft out to the Seward Highway. From the Hotel Alyeska to Twentymile River to the Seward Highway is a full day excursion and only recommended for experienced hikers in the Alaska backcountry.

Of course you can always just make a day-trip from Anchorage to Girdwood. Since I ran a half marathon in Anchorage, Skinny Raven Half Marathon, and we were going to drive straight after the race to Denali National Park, which is north of Anchorage, I didn’t want to hike that much before the race to save my legs. Our big loop of Anchorage to Denali to Seward to Girdwood before flying out of Anchorage seemed like the perfect way to do it and I’m glad we planned it that way.

Now I’m already planning another trip to Alaska. We’re thinking it would be cool to go a bit further north, say Fairbanks to see the northern lights during the winter. That won’t be for a few more years probably, but I have a feeling we will definitely be returning there.

Have any of you been to Alaska? What was your favorite part? If you haven’t been, what would you most like to see or do? My favorite part was going to Denali National Park but I loved so many other things as well. The boat tour in Kenai Fjords National Park was incredible and just being able to hike as much as we did and get to see as many amazing views as we did of glaciers and mountains was awesome. Do any of you plan your next vacation to a place before you even leave?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

My Alaskan Adventures Begin in Anchorage

For those of you that don’t already know, I’m on a quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states. I chose the Skinny Raven Half Marathon in Anchorage for my half marathon in Alaska. My family and I did not go the popular Alaskan cruise route so we could have more flexibility with our schedule and what cities we went to. That and the fact that my husband and daughter suffer from motion sickness, something that came back to bite them hard later in this vacation.

Our flight from the east coast to Anchorage was a long one, so when we arrived in the evening and it was still daylight despite being 9 pm, we were tired and ready to check in our hotel and call it a night. We stayed at Duke’s 8th Avenue Hotel because of the proximity to the race start and finish. I could literally walk just a few blocks from the hotel the morning of the race, which I always try to do if possible for a race. We also enjoyed having a two bedroom suite and full kitchen at our disposal. If you’d like to read about my race, state number 43, you can find it at Skinny Raven Half Marathon, Anchorage, Alaska-43rd state.

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One of our first hikes near Anchorage

I had planned on doing some hiking on Friday but take it easy on Saturday, the day before the race, and pack up and drive up to Denali National Park right after the race, so honestly, we didn’t do a ton while we were in Anchorage. We went hiking at the absolutely enormous Chugach National Forest, which stretches for 6,908,540 acres in south central Alaska. We were very excited to see our first moose ever on our first full day in Alaska, despite having been to eastern and western parts of Canada, Montana, Colorado, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont and never seeing a moose at any of those places.

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Our first moose spotting!

Other than hiking in Chugach National Forest and seeing the moose, some of our favorite things from Anchorage include walking along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, driving along part of Turnagain Arm just south of Anchorage and stopping at some of the stops along the way such as McHugh Creek Recreation Area and Beluga Point Lookout. Even though the weather was pretty terrible when we were at Turnagain Arm, with strong winds and rain, we made the most of it, knowing our time in Anchorage was limited.

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Part of Tunagain Arm

Some of our favorite restaurants in Anchorage include Snow City Café, South Restaurant and Coffeehouse, and Wild Scoops. We went for breakfast at Snow City Café, and it was definitely worth the wait. I can see why it’s so popular! I had some hand-made pasta at South Restaurant the night before my half marathon and it was just what I was looking for and tasted delicious. Wild Scoops is known for its different flavors of ice cream, like the Sleeping Lady that I had, Earl Grey ice cream with local black currant swirl. It was unlike any other ice cream flavor I had ever had, but more importantly, it was one of the best ice creams I’ve ever had; very creamy and full of flavor.

We enjoyed our time in Anchorage and our first taste of Alaska. The weather seemed quite chilly to us southerners, who had just come from highs about 30 degrees warmer than in Anchorage, but it was a nice break from the heat for us, so we weren’t complaining. We just wore plenty of layers so we could be comfortable. As we left Anchorage, we were very much looking forward to heading north to check out Denali National Park for the second part of our vacation.

Have any of you been to Alaska or would like to go? Do you think you would take a cruise or just pick a few spots and either drive or fly between them if you haven’t been yet or did you do this if you have been?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

Skinny Raven Half Marathon, Anchorage, Alaska-43rd state

This is part of a series of posts from my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states. Alaska was my 43rd state.

For years when I would tell someone about my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states, often their response would be, “Have you run a race in Hawaii yet?” to which I would reply, “Yes, Hawaii was one of the first half marathons I ever ran, before I had the goal of running a half marathon in all 50 states.” Now that I’ve been to Alaska, I have to wonder why no one ever asked if I had ever run a race in Alaska. The natural ruggedness of the state makes it one of the most beautiful and unique places in the United States.

I certainly wasn’t surprised at how beautiful Alaska was when I got there. Honestly, I had high expectations for Alaska, and it didn’t disappoint. So why did it take me so long to run a race in Alaska then? My daughter. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t want her to get eaten by a bear, and I thought when she was younger and smaller, she would be bear bait. It may sound crazy, but that’s where my mind went as a parent. Now that she’s almost 13, I thought she would be big enough to not be an easy target for a bear.

But enough about bears and back to the race. The Racefest in Anchorage consisted of a kid’s race, one mile, 5k, half marathon, marathon, and 49k. The kid’s race and mile were on August 18 and the other races were on August 19. Packet pickup was August 17 and 18 and was well-organized and easy to get to at the convention center in downtown Anchorage. There were the usual vendors there, some selling things, some giving out information for local running events and other Anchorage-area information. I picked up my bib then got what has to be the coolest race shirt ever.

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The coolest race shirt ever!

There was a movie showing of running-related movies on Thursday before the race but I arrived late Thursday night so I wasn’t able to go to it. Although I usually skip the pre-race pasta meals before races, I decided to go to this one, which was on Saturday at lunch. Bart Yasso and Jeff Galloway were speakers at the lunch and I thought it would be worth going to just to hear them speak. I’m big fans of both men and wasn’t disappointed by their talks. The food was good too and not too badly priced at $12 per person. After the lunch Jeff Galloway was holding a running clinic from 2:00 to 5:00 but I didn’t go to that because I wanted to do a little sightseeing in Anchorage that afternoon. After a delicious dinner at the restaurant South, I relaxed in a hot bath with Epsom salts and called it a night.

It was 54 degrees and overcast at 9:30 when the half marathon started. The course very quickly went to running trails and within less than a mile was off public roads. The beginning of the race went downhill, and since it was an out-and-back course, that meant the finish went uphill, but I’ll get to that later. I was hoping for some nice water views near the beginning of the trail, but that was short-lived, as we only got a few glimpses of the water.

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Bart Yasso announced all of the races

The majority of the course went through wooded areas and was relatively flat with the exception of the beginning, end, and a couple of other shorter hills in the middle. Overall I would say the course was average as far as how scenic it was, but the hill at the finish was pretty demoralizing. There were several places along the course where there were entertainers like drum players and other people playing various kinds of music. There were also plenty of aid stations with water and Gatorade. The course was plainly and obviously marked and easy to follow. About an hour after the start it began to drizzle but luckily it wasn’t a downpour. I’ve been told rain in Anchorage is very common in August.

My split times started off really good but my last mile was my slowest by far and even though I didn’t walk, that blasted hill really slowed me down. I sprinted towards the finish line and finished in 2:01:06, 84th for women and 11/52 for my age group.

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On par with the coolest race shirts ever, the medals were also super cool. At the finish was water, coffee, hot chocolate, bread from Great Harvest Bakery, oranges from Orange Theory Fitness, and beer at a beer garden. There were also post-race massages but the best post-race perk had to be the free showers at Captain Cook Hotel, a very nice hotel downtown with an athletic club. Since my family and I had to check out of our hotel by 11:00, I couldn’t just shower at my hotel room, and I didn’t want to sit in my sweaty running clothes for the 5 hour drive to Denali National Park. The people at the hotel and athletic club couldn’t have been more accommodating to us runners and I very much appreciated this hot shower in a nice place (as opposed to the local YMCA as I’ve showered at previously after races that offered that to runners).

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My husband thought I was crazy to take this photo of my medal at Denali National Park, but I think it turned out pretty cool!

Overall, I have to say I was a bit disappointed in this race. I wish it would have been more scenic rather than along greenways that could have been just about anywhere in the world if you didn’t know any better, and I was cursing the hill at the end as well. Maybe I’m spoiled by all of the greenways and running trails where I live, and someone else would have found the course incredibly scenic. The shirts and medals were awesome, which is kind of sad that they were the best things about a race in a place as incredible as Alaska. Maybe I had too high of expectations just because it was in Alaska. It wasn’t really a bad race, just not one that impressed me that much.

http://www.anchoragerunfest.org/index.html

Have any of you been to Alaska or raced in Alaska? If so, what was your experience?

Happy running!

Donna