By JERRY RODENBERG
Our favorite family way to see the US is on a camping trip and we had been in every state except Alaska. We wanted to see Alaska but did not want to spend days pulling our camper trailer through Canada to get there so we decided to fly to Anchorage and rent a motor home.
There are at least 5 companies that rent motor homes out of Anchorage and it is important to check out the rental contract terms before selecting one. The daily rental cost is the most important factor but this has to be evaluated with what comes with it.
We planned to drive a lot of miles so we wanted unlimited mileage. We were not bringing camping gear on the plane so we needed to rent a set of kitchen utensils and bedding. A good rental contract should include these items as part of the daily rental fee or for a small additional fee. The motor home should have a generator and there should not be an extra hourly fee for its use. Insurance cost are another important item. In our contract the daily rental fee included insurance on the motorhome with a $5000 deductible. To reduce the deductible to $1000 we paid an extra $25/day.
We were disappointed that our auto Insurance company would not cover any of the deductible but they did cover the liability. The rental company also tried to sell us a windshield insurance policy for $10/day but we thought this was low risk and refused. We were careful and had no damage to anything. The contract says the motor home cannot be driven on gravel roads or into Canada.
Before we decided on a rental company we looked at all the reviews on internet websites. Some of the lower priced companies seem to have problems with providing a well maintained motor home. It was mainly for that reason we selected ABC Motorhome Rental who contracted to rent us a vehicle that was not more than 2 years old for less than $200/day. We were pleased that the vehicle waiting for us on arrival was a clean 24 foot Sunseeker model with the requested floor plan. It was on a Ford chassis that had 24,000 miles on the odometer and handled well on the road. The motor had plenty of power but we only got 10 miles/gallon of gas.
We chose a direct flight from Chicago that arrived in the early afternoon and the rental company picked us up at the Anchorage airport and took us right to the motor home. We watched a 15 minute video about camping in a motor home but since we have a camper trailer we were already familiar with a lot of things like empting the holding tanks. The first thing we did was to stop at a grocery store to stock up on groceries from a list we had prepared. The rental company did have a cupboard from which we could take any leftovers and staples such as salt and pepper. When we returned the unit we put back our leftovers.
Although Alaska allows camping in some roadside rest areas we preferred to rent designated campsites in public or private campgrounds.
After a long day flying to Alaska and stocking up the motorhome we chose a campsite in Anchorage our first night. The next day we drove up the Parks Highway to Denali National park. The only way to get deep into the park is by a national park service bus tour and we had made reservations for a tour the next day. Denali is often shrouded in clouds and we were lucky to see the mountain for a few minutes before clouds closed in again. We did see grizzly bears and caribou from our tour bus.
We then drove north to Fairbanks. Although we were skeptical about a tour of Gold Dredge Number 8 it was educational about mining for gold and they are set up to have instructors show dozens of people how to pan gold and you will always get some flecks of gold.
There is an unpaved haul road that extends 400 miles along the Alaska oil pipeline and runs from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay now called the Dalton Highway.
Private vehicles are allowed on the road but in accordance with our rental contract we could not drive the motor home up the Dalton Highway even if we wanted to. The Northern Alaska Tour Company offers several guided tour options and we chose the all day 200 mile trip to the Arctic Circle and back. Along the way we crossed the swift deep Yukon River and had lunch at the Yukon River Trading Post.
Step across the white line and we're in the arctic
When we arrived at the Arctic Circle sign our guide puts down a piece of carpet with a line and then welcomes each person to the arctic as you cross the line. Our guide was quite knowledgeable about the pipeline, the native Alaskans and all things Alaska. We stopped to dig down into the tundra to feel the permafrost and were surprised to pick delicious blueberries that far north. We enjoyed seeing the vast tundra wilderness at the top of the continent.
It was a scenic drive down the Richardson highway from Fairbanks to Valdes. The best place to get close to a glacier is the Worthington Glacier in a state park just north of Valdes. You have to bushwhack though scattered rocks left by the melting glacier until you can put your hands on the melting edge of the glacier. Somehow a lot of rocks travel on top of the glacier and you have to look up to be sure one isn't ready to fall on you as the ice melts away.
Touching the melting front of Worthington Glacier
. . . and keeping an eye on the rocks above
The Alaska oil pipeline stretches 800 miles with about half
above ground due to permafrost
Valdes, an ice free harbor on Prince William Sound, is the southern terminal of the 800 mile Alaska oil pipeline and a charter fishing port for halibut.
We only stayed one day in Valdes and drove back through Anchorage to Seward in the Kenai Peninsula. There is a ferry that crosses Prince William Sound from Valdes to Wittier in the Kenai Peninsula but it was booked up for the next few days. The city of Seward has a large campground on the waterfront of Resurrection Bay. It is first come first served but we were able to get an electric and water site for $40/night. We were 4 rows back from the water so when a spot opened up on the water we tried to get it but someone always beat us to it.
Kenai Fords National Park is accessed from Seward and we took a boat trip to see a glacier dropping chunks of ice into the sea, sea otters, sea lions and whales. A short hike into Kenai Fords got us to Exit Glacier. It is a large beautiful sheet of ice that we could get close to but not actually touch because it was in the valley below.
Exit Glacier in Kenai Fords National Park
Next stop on the Kenai Peninsula was Homer and we camped on a peninsula in Kachemak Bay called the Homer spit. There is a pond on the Homer Spit that empties and fills by the high tides and is a tourist spot to catch salmon. Alaska sells a 24 hour salmon fishing permit and there is a place to rent poles and lures nearby.
Camping ocean front on the Homer spit
I wasn't able to catch a salmon but apparently the best time is when the tide starts running into the pond and I didn't understand my tide chart. Each Alaska residents can net 10 salmon, even king salmon, each year for subsistence but non-residents can only use hook and line.
Our last campsite on the Kenai Peninsula was the city of Kenai. The Kenai River is famous for the king salmon runs and this is where many Alaska residents net their subsistence catches. We were about 2 months late for the king salmon run but just looking at the fast flowing Kenai River it must be quite a challenge to bring in those big fish.
Our last stop before returning to Anchorage was Wittier which has a unique road entrance. The city is nearly surrounded by mountains and until 2000 the only connection to Anchorage was by a railroad that ran through a tunnel right outside the city. Today the one way tunnel is the only way to get to Wittier by land and its usage is shared. For one half hour cars go in and the next half hours cars go out and if a train comes they have priority.
Back in Anchorage we turned in the motorhome with no scratches and then took a guided tour of the city before boarding a plane home.
Our Alaska tour dates were August 12 to 23 and we chose those dates hoping there would be less tourists. Also after August 15 the motor home rental price is reduced. We only made reservation for a tour and campground at Denali and for the rest of the trip we just called ahead a day or 2 to reserve tours. The average daily cost of the motor home rental including insurance, kitchen and bedding supplies was $210. We chose campgrounds with electricity and water and the average cost was $50. We drove the motor home 1800 miles at a cost of thirty cents per mile for gas.
The best thing about touring with a motor home is the freedom to stop whenever you want. You don't have to be looking for food, lodging or bathrooms because you have it with you.