I’ve been to Alaska with kids three times (and not once was a cruise ship involved.) There are lots of special memories to be made above the lower 48, but it’s definitely not your average road trip. This is my detailed recap of one of our trips.
I originally posted this recap of visiting Alaska with kids on HealthyApeture.com in 2015 fresh off of my second to trip to Alaska. As we prepare for our next trip, which will be our fourth, I wanted to revisit this particular journey and share it with you here. I hope you enjoy it. ~Regan
If there’s one thing I love as much as food, it’s travel. It’s weird how much of a homebody I am (translation: my preferred Friday night consists of comfy clothes, a glass of wine and Netflix ), but yet I am always ready to pack a bag and head out the door.
And apparently, I am raising two kids who feel the same.
In the summer of 2015, these little guys and I boarded a plane for Anchorage, Alaska. It was a return visit for me and my oldest son (we went in 2013), but it was my youngest son’s first.
Here’s a little bit about what we did, what we ate and what we learned on our trip.
Day 1 – Travel from Augusta, GA to Atlanta, GA to Anchorage, AK to Trapper Creek, AK
While I connect through Atlanta a lot for work-related travel, this was my first time to do so with two kids AND connecting for a long flight. We had a lot of sitting and walking before we ever boarded for Anchorage. If I had it to do over again, I’d drive directly to Atlanta and forgo the connection. My youngest was 5 and as much of a trooper as he was, I could tell by the time we got to our gate and waited out the 3-hour layover, he was fatiguing fast. (Plus, eating in the airport and going to the bathroom stinks with two kids for that extended amount of time. Driving would eliminate some of that.)
Recommendation: Take as few connections as possible, even if that means a little extra driving to a larger airport. Next, don’t just pack travel snacks. Pack a meal. You’ll need it in flight. And think through in-flight drinks. There’s nothing worse than spilled drinks during a flight. I recommend a water bottle + cup with a lid. I actually splurged on these cups so that both snacks and drinks would be spill-proof.
The flight from Atlanta to Anchorage is 7+ hours, but unlike a trip to Europe, you’re going with the sun, so it doesn’t feel quite as exhausting (in my opinion) since you’re not flying at night or landing in the middle of the night. You take off in the afternoon on the East Coast, but land early in the evening, local Alaska time (Alaska is 4 hours behind ET).
Sidenote on eating upon arrival: We didn’t eat a “dinner” meal this time when we arrived. The boys were too tired. But last time, we did. So you may end up eating 4 meals in one day because you are in flight during “dinner East Coast” and you land during “dinner Alaska time”.
And speaking of landing in Alaska, here’s where it gets real:
In the summer, it really doesn’t matter if you’re landing at night or in the morning. It’s always daylight. I learned this the hard way the first time I visited Alaska. I “knew” about all-day, daylight, but until you’ve experienced it, you can’t really appreciate what it’s like for it to be 11 pm and it looks like 3:30 pm. That said, it makes it really easy to fit a lot into your vacation (#EpicallyLongDays). But it can make sleep difficult if you’re not prepared.
Recommendation: Take a sleep mask with you and if possible, have your kids try one out before they go. My kids didn’t seem as bothered by it as I was, but you never know. Yours might be. You might also pack some black towels and clothespins to put up over windows. The first year we went to Alaska we were in a camper (highly recommend camping Alaska, too, but that’s an entirely different experience) and black towels were a MUST. Most of the places we stayed on this trip had fairly darkly colored blinds, but even small slivers of light can throw you off when you try to go to bed. Also, be prepared to start closing blinds early in the evening when it’s still really bright outside. This is the best way to start telling your body it’s “getting nighttime” when there’s essentially no night.
So, after landing, we headed up to a small “inn” (no frills accommodations are pretty typical in Alaska. If you’re saying in a swanky hotel, you’re in the minority) that was roughly half-way between Anchorage and Denali. And by half-way I mean about 3 hours north of Anchorage.
Yep. You read that right. Three. More. Hours. After a flight from Augusta to Atlanta + a 3 hour layover + a 7-plus hour flight, we drove nearly 3 more hours.
Recommendation: Don’t do that.
I should’ve known this was a bad idea. But on our last visit, we didn’t “do” Denali. We knew we wanted to visit the Kenai Peninsula (I love it there). So to try to fit it all in, I agreed to this plan when my dad suggested it. (Sidenote: the firestarter behind all of these Alaska trips is my dad. He was already in AK to pick us up each time we flew. We spent the week driving around AK with him in his camper. He’s never met a 300+ mile day of driving he didn’t like.)
But ultimately, this was too much in one day with two kids. We made the best of it, but we weren’t in the best shape when we finally got in bed. Fortunately, we piled into bed that night planning to sleep “a little” late in the morning because it was only a few hours up to Denali.
Sidenote — everything you want to see/do in Alaska is “a few hours” away. Seriously. I can’t even begin to explain how spread out everything is. It’s a Big. Freakin. State. Look at this:
Day 2 – Travel to/from Denali National Park from Trapper Creek, AK
When you travel with kids, it’s always good to remember what they say about the best-laid plans. It has something to do with “Your child will wake up with diarrhea in the middle of the night,” I think.
Or if it doesn’t, it should, ‘cause that’s what happened to us. My oldest son woke up about 4 am local time sick (don’t do the math. It means I’d barely fallen asleep). I won’t go into further detail, other than to say it took the shine off the first morning of the trip. We made the best of it, decided to continue up to Denali and were able to take in a few of the sights… namely, visiting the sled dog kennels, a must on the list for my kids.
While I enjoyed that part of Denali, honestly, there’s SO much more to see there. I hate that we had so little time.
Recommendation: If you want to visit Denali, plan to fly into Anchorage, stay the night locally, travel up to Denali the next day and spend a few days. There’s too much to see/do and you’ll want to make it more than just a one or two day visit.
Eating at Denali: There are a number of restaurants (as I understand it) around the park, but the only restaurant actually in the park (and near the Sled Dog Kennels where we were visiting) was the Morino Grill. I was a little apprehensive since it was “park food,” but it turned out great. I had a grilled veggie panini and the boys split a grilled chicken sandwich. The grill had plenty of good choices, ranging from a gluten-free section of packaged baked goods to prepared salads to traditional bagels, pastries, fruit, milk, yogurt, burgers, soups … and beer (alcohol isn’t scarce in Alaska. I think it has to do with 24-hours of darkness in the winter. #IWouldDrinkToo).
- Pros: The food at Morino Grill is good and fresh tasting. Not a “park foodservice” feel.
- Cons: It’s a scramble system, kinda chaotic and packed since it’s the only in-park place to eat. So be prepared to feel a little confused at first, but well-fed afterward.
Sidenote: I didn’t get any food pictures at Denali. I was a little off my game. I refer you back to my son’s digestive issues. That will alter your picture taking priorities.
Day 3 – Travel to Soldotna, AK from Trapper Creek, AK with a sidetrip to Talkeetna, AK
The next morning was still a little iffy on the kid-digestion front…
Sidenote — Do not travel to Alaska without basic meds and provisions. Seriously. That’s one of my biggest pieces of advice #BePrepared. Unless you stay right smack in the middle of somewhere like Anchorage or Fairbanks and never venture out, you will likely find yourself a serious drive away from a pharmacy or a Fred Meyer (the Alaskan version of mega-one stop shopping) at some point along your journey.
… but I was feeling pretty good about our chances, so we decided to stick with the original plan to visit to Talkeetna for breakfast (and were committed to getting my fave over-the-counter probiotic just as soon as we got to Wasilla).
About Talkeetna: It is must-visit if you’re doing Denali or making the LONG drive up to Fairbanks. It’s a quaint little town that many believe was the inspiration behind the TV show “Northern Exposure.
Eating in Talkeetna: Plan to visit the Talkeetna Roadhouse for breakfast. Mega-portions of dishes like sourdough blueberry-banana pancakes, delicious quiche, their infamous cinnamon rolls and even reindeer sausage make it a must-visit.
And as you’re heading out the door, grab one of their Ginger-Molasses Cookies. Everyone on our trip agreed — one of the #BestCookiesEver. (p.s. I recreated these cookies when I returned home. Get the RECIPE for these GLUTEN-FREE GINGER MOLASSES COOKIES here.)
- Pros: Portions at Talkeetna Roadhouse are big and tasty, conversation is plentiful and the coffee is bottomless. (I sat with a couple from Michigan who had visited Alaska multiple times and had actually stayed in the Arctic Circle — which is amazingly close – by Alaska standards – to Fairbanks, if you look at it on a map.)
- Not a Con to me, but worth noting: Breakfast at the Roadhouse can take a while. You sit family style wherever you can find a seat (so not necessarily with the rest of your group). But if you have to wait for someone in your group to finish, you can rock a little while on their front porch…
Recommendation: Carve out a couple of hours for Talkeetna. Talkeetna is a small pedestrian town and there are plenty of photo opps for the kids with painted moose around town.
Drop into the little stores and hope that at some point on your journey the clouds might clear for you to see Denali to the north (I have to go back since I’ve yet to see the top of Denali… along with the other 70% of folks who visit Alaska, apparently).
After leaving Talkeetna we had quite the drive ahead of us. Our final destination was a lovely little cabin campsite in Soldotna, which forevermore will be one of my most cherished memories.
Day 3 – Travel to Soldotna, AK from Trapper Creek, AK (cont.)
As I mentioned, Day 3 was full of driving…
(Notice a pattern here? If you’re going to visit Alaska and don’t plan to take a cruise but do plan to see more than one city, you’re going to do a lot of driving/riding. Remember – Big. Freakin. State).
…but it was beautiful. Just as soon as you get south of Anchorage going toward the Kenai Peninsula, you begin to really see those classic Alaskan views of water and snow-capped mountains.
I remember thinking the first time I rode down Turnagain Arm that I’d never seen another part of the country quite like it — not in the Rockies, Smokies, Tetons… nowhere. Alaska is its own kind of beauty. But it doesn’t end there. After you drive out of that big open space of water and mountains surrounding Cooks Inlet, you find yourself along a windy road (the Seward Highway) that is crisscrossed by the most amazing teal blue water you’ve ever seen. (This picture doesn’t do it justice).
Cooper River is a hot-bed of fishing activity during Alaska’s salmon season. We didn’t overlap with the biggest crowds this year, but hey… that’s just another reason to go back. It’s what I’m hoping for in our next trip, possibly as early as 2020.
As beautiful as the drive was, though, arrival at our next destination was a welcome site (and well worth the journey).
My dad found a wonderful little set of cabins tucked away on a little lake just outside of Soldotna. This would come to be one of my favorite parts of either visit to Alaska.
Sidenote about Soldotna — As my Fodor’s guide puts it, you know you’re in Soldotna when you start seeing strip malls along the road. Soldotna is not exactly “classic Alaska” in the sense that it doesn’t really offer much in the way of picturesque scenery, but it is a welcome hub of retail after a few hours with not much more than an occasional roadhouse restaurant or gas station. Having been cramped in the camper riding for most of the day, we opted to grab some easy dinner prep items from Fred Meyer and just enjoyed letting the boys play around the lake.
Day 4 – visit Seward, AK
One thing I’ve learned about traveling around Alaska with kids is “eat when you can.” I keep referring to how spread out everything is, but it’s worth repeating. There’s nothing worse than having starving kids and realizing you’re hours away from a meal of appreciable size. So as soon as we were up in the morning, I prepped a little bit of breakfast for my boys, enjoyed a sizable amount of coffee out by the lake and enjoyed “sunrise.”
Sidenote about sunrises — This is another uniquely Alaskan summer experience that you can’t really get anywhere else. I’ve mentioned the lack of nighttime, but it’s not like the sun just stays in one place in the sky (which makes sense if you think about it. The Earth is still turning, it’s just that in Alaska you’re so much closer to it.) What happens is you get shades and different angles of sunlight. It’s like God is shining his spotlight down on his favorite parts of the subarctic all day long. And it makes for some beautiful moments in the early hours of the day.
After the pre-breakfast breakfast, plenty of coffee and a sizable amount of looking for the ducks on the lake, we got back on the road, headed down to Seward, but not before stopping in for another bit of breakfast in Soldotna.
Eating in Soldotna — Let’s start with the good. On my first trip to AK, we ate at the St Elias Brewing Company. It was wonderful. Mostly a pizza joint, they have their own local brews along with other Alaskan beers. It was packed each time we were by there this time. So while I can’t say for certain it’s as good this year, my hunch says it is. I would’ve recommended it before. But the timing didn’t work out for us this year.
And then, there’s The Moose is Loose. We stopped here for the first time on this trip because my youngest son is an epic donut fan and my dad loves apple fritters, both of which are specialties here.
- Pros: Dad loved his fritter and my kids loved the donuts. If you’re looking for any type of tacky moose souvenir, this is the place.
- Cons: Their scones were the worst I’d ever tasted. Seriously. I took like two bites and called it quits. It’s a very busy place and the manager (or owner?) was a touch on the bossy side (think Soup Nazi a la a bakery.)
Recommendation: Stop in at the Moose if you love donuts/fritters and don’t mind a big kerfuffle. Otherwise, you may be disappointed (and annoyed).
Now, back on the road to Seward — the place where those of us who are anti-cruise pretend for a brief moment that we’re in port off the boat. Seward is a destination for cruise ships, so while you get some seasonal cruising crowds, you also get a nice pedestrian city feel. I’ve been to Seward on every trip I’ve made to Alaska and it’s turned out to be my favorite spot in Alaska.
My 3 Favorite Places in Seward:
#1 Chinook’s Restaurant — I’ve trusted the Fodor’s Guide to Alaska on every visit and this was one of their best recommendations. The first time we ate there I had a salmon salad. On both my second and third trips I had the halibut. Both times the fish was amazingly fresh and the dishes, perfectly prepared. My dad ordered classic fish and chips both times, and he was equally as pleased.
Plus, Chinook’s has one of the most beautiful restaurant views ever:
…plus they have wonderfully prepared food, the kids’ menu items are adult size portions and adult-type plating/preparation (i.e. it doesn’t feel like they pulled out a frozen hamburger for the grill).
#2 Alaska Sealife Center — This was our ultimate “kid” destination for the day. It’s another must-do in Seward, whether you have kids or not. In fact, it was recently named one of the Best Aquariums in the U.S. The unique part about this aquarium (aside from being nestled among beautiful views), is that it really focuses on Alaskan sea life. There’s an entire section devoted to showing you the lifespan of a salmon. #OnlyInAlaska, you know?
After we finished at the Sealife Center, we drove down to Lowell Point.
#3 Lowell Point — On our first visit to Alaska, we camped at Miller’s Landing, which is located at Lowell Point. But on this visit, we actually ventured out on the beach area and once again, found a uniquely Alaskan experience.
We saw a man fishing from the coast, the boys splashed their feet in the icy waters and played on the driftwood while my Dad sat nearby keeping watch.
And I just found myself at peace taking it all in.
There are moments in my life where I take a mental snapshot that I know I will remember forever. The afternoon at Lowell Point was one of those moments.
After we wrapped up there for the day, it was time to make the drive back to Soldotna and gear up for the next day’s journey over to Homer.
Day 5 – visit Homer, Alaska
As I’ve said over and over, there was a lot of driving on this trip. It’s Alaska. Big. Freakin’. State… and I wanted to cover as much ground as possible. Our last few days were no different, starting with our trip to Homer.
(Note that Seldovia is actually further south, but you can’t get there by road.) We skipped Homer last time in favor of a trip up to Fairbanks so that we could drive back down the Richardson Highway and see the Alaskan pipeline (another fascinating part of Alaska that far too many of us gas-guzzlers in the lower 48 really understand. But that’s a post for a different blog and a different day.)
Driving down to Homer offers a near continuous and approaching view of two of Alaska’s (many) volcanoes – Mt Redoubt and Mt Iliamna.
Once you arrive in Homer, you find that it is situated on a “spit” — a small peninsula like landmass that’s barely wide enough for a road and some retail. We didn’t do much pedestrian “touristing”. Instead, we mostly spent our time eating at a local bakery recommended to us in my Fodor’s travel guide.
Sidenote about Fodor’s — For someone who makes her living online, I surprisingly didn’t rely on many website recommendations. On both trips to Alaska I’ve followed Fodor’s Kindle guide. And I have to say… it was spot-on. If you find yourself contemplating a journey up to Alaska (or anywhere for that matter), I would recommend getting one of their guides. I’m usually a “wing it” kind of traveler. But in places like Alaska where familiar retail can be sparse, dining isn’t fancy and even the best of accommodations can look a little questionable, it’s really nice to go into a town knowing where the best stops are.
Eating in Homer — We ate lunch at Two Sisters Bakery.
It’s a quaint little bakery situated in what looks to be an old seaside house (well, technically I guess it’s a block away from the sea and the sea is really Cooks Inlet, but you get the point.) Unlike The Moose Is Loose, the staff was super friendly and helpful.
While Two Sisters was equally as busy as the Moose, in contrast, they had a friendly staff to help you through the process. In fact, the gal who waited on us, told me to go ahead, find a seat, eat and I could pay later (Two Sisters is set up where typically you get your food and pay before eating). But because I had children and was trying to figure out where to sit, what they wanted, and all the kerfuffling that goes on with eating with kids, she knew I’d be better off just coming back when the line wasn’t so long.
Note to restaurants — Offer that kind of service to your patrons and they will love you forever. In fact, I’m declaring here — If you ever go to Homer, Alaska I won’t be your friend if you don’t eat at Two Sisters.
- Pros: Great food. Eclectic menu, especially for a bakery. We tried their Ham/Cheese Pastry (very similar to a stuffed croissant), Veggie Pesto Pastry and a Turkey Panini, which had a yummy sweet potato and red cabbage filling on it. So interesting. I also had a bowl of their Thai Rockfish Soup, which was unbelievably good. (Think of a hearty Spanish fish stew, only this was Thai flavored and made with coconut milk) And for dessert, chocolate chip brownies and Gluten Free Strawberry-Rhubarb Crumble. All of that topped off by a glass of fresh squeezed lemonade… we were happy and stuffed after leaving.
- Cons: It’s a small place, so if you had a big group, it might be tough. But they have seating outside and the beach is just a few yards away. Don’t let the worry of cramped quarters prevent you from going.
After we wrapped up lunch, we headed out to the beach for more driftwood play and walking.
After that, we just kicked it around Homer for a little while, visited their Coastal Visitor Center (this is an “okay” stop, but not super exciting for kids) and then headed back to the cabin in Soldotna.
Day 6 and 7 – Anchorage
We spent our last two days going up to Anchorage doing very typical kid-tourist destinations. I would recommend both if you’re in Anchorage and traveling with kids.
Anchorage Museum – don’t let the name fool you. This isn’t all just artifacts and low talkers. The downstairs is mostly a children’s imaginarium and my boys LOVED it. While not a full-scale children’s science center, there was a sizable selection of really fun “experiments” (like a Tsunami model/simulator and a full-body bubble encasement. There was also a build-your-own Lego car section, which scored top marks with my oldest son. )
Alaska Zoo – we had hoped to visit the wildlife center in Girdwood (Girdwood is south of Anchorage and would’ve been a shorter drive from Soldotna, but the weather wasn’t cooperating to go there). We opted to drive all the way into Anchorage for the zoo and weren’t disappointed. It’s not a big and flashy zoo. It’s pretty humble, but I actually commented while there that the animals looked healthier than many of the zoos I’m used to seeing down south (I suspect it has to do with sub-arctic animals not being forced to live in a tropical type climate like they are down here.)
Where to Eat in/around Anchorage — Anchorage isn’t short on restaurant recommendations, relatively speaking (and compared to the rest of the state). But we ate at Muse at the Museum and it was great. I had the salmon sandwich that was, of course, super fresh tasting. It was topped with a fennel slaw that was surprisingly tasty (I’m not always a fennel fan but this was really good.) They had homemade shoestring fries, also yummy. Dad opted for a pot pie and salad, both of which he said were wonderful. Similar to what we’d experienced at Chinook’s the kids’ items were adult-size and very well prepared.
- Pros: Good food. Convenient to the Museum.
- Cons: Doesn’t have that “Alaska” feel, but after a week of traveling around the state, I certainly didn’t feel cheated by the experience.
And with that, I guess it’s time to wrap up this play-by-play. What I’ve detailed certainly is not everything we saw or ate, but it does cover most of the highlights. And if you’re reading this post contemplating making this trip with your family, I hope it adds some perspective about not only what makes an Alaskan vacation different, but also makes it special.
Is going to Alaska a good trip for you and your children?
Multiple days of walking on various Alaskan coastlines and watching kids play sword fights on driftwood, or hanging out by a lake and feeding ducks may sound like a boring vacation. If it does, then our approach to Alaska may not be for you. But I take my kids almost every year to the circus that is the Orlando-based theme park world. And while I can appreciate the Disney approach to vacationing, I always find those trips to be stressful. Having time away from wifi, cell phone coverage 24/7 and flashing screens and crowds really felt good. This trip felt good not just to me, but my boys as well.
These little guys got along better than they do at home, played more with less and in general, were just more enjoyable to be around. Something to consider, you know?
Here are a few closing thoughts to keep in mind if you do decide to make the journey north:
- Before you go, get out a globe (not a map) and actually look at where Alaska is. If you think it’s just a little north of Seattle, you’re in for a surprise. While there are some very low island areas somewhat near Washington (the sites the cruising crowd typically sees), the mass of Alaska is darn near to the North Pole. I kid you not. Get your mind right before you go. It helps put the journey into perspective.
- Get excited about moose and dall sheep. It’s like a past-time in Alaska to spot them…and spot them you will. They’re both unique beasts, and spotting a Moose out in the flats by the river (or in the neighborhood you’re staying in like we did) or a dall sheep on the side of a cliff is memorable.
- If you’ve never been on a glacier cruise, plan on it. But do dress warmly and be prepared for a long outing with your kids. We didn’t do one on this second trip, but did on our first. It was wonderful, but after 2 hours or so, kids begin to tire of looking at glaciers. Keep that in mind.
- Consider a camper. What you may not realize about Alaska is that camping is sort of the norm. I’d say more people are doing the camper/RV thing than staying in lodges, etc. This isn’t Lake Tahoe or Vail. It’s Alaska. Adjust your lodging expectations accordingly. The state and people are set up to accomodate RV-goers.
- Plan to disconnect. As much as you may think you can sneak in a little work here and there, you’ll be amazed at the lack of cell phone coverage and wifi. Just plan to take this time off the grid. If you’re lucky, nothing will happen like your website crashing or anything. (True story…I wasn’t so lucky. But life goes on. And websites can be fixed.)
And with that, you’ve reached the end of this post and the recap of our unique Alaskan vacation. If you ever make it up above the lower 48 to this last frontier, I hope you’ll come back and share your journey with me. ~Regan