Did you miss me? You know you did. I’ve been largely MIA since March, for a variety of reasons. First, the pandemic decimated the readership of this blog. And sorry, when the clicks don’t even cover the internet bill, there’s little incentive to create content. Then come August, I entered the craziest stretch at my day job in years. That left me little time to write, aside from occasional news stories. But fret no more; it’s time to kick The Road More Traveled back into gear.
Yes, I do still have a few “classic” trip reports to complete – the weekend jaunt to Canada I left 1/3 finished, a trip to Hawai’i over Christmas, and a long weekend to England to try out BA’s Club Suite. I do still intend to complete those reports. But I’m skipping ahead to a fantastic trip we enjoyed this August. I took the family on a true epic adventure to the top of the world, touring interior Alaska.
I currently plan the following posts in this series, subject to change as always:
- Introduction: A Summer Vacation to the Top of the World
- American A321neo Main Cabin Extra, Dallas to Anchorage
- Glacier Hopping in Southern Alaska
- Anchorage Grand Hotel, Anchorage, Alaska
- Alaska Railroad Denali Star “Gold Star” Class, Anchorage to Fairbanks
- Minnie Street Inn, Fairbanks, Alaska
- The Ultimate American Roadtrip: A Complete Dalton Highway Guide
- Tips and Tricks for a Dalton Highway Road Trip
- Boreal Lodging, Wiseman, Alaska
- Deadhorse Camp, Deadhorse, Alaska
- Road Trip of a Lifetime, Part 2: The Denali Park Road
- Denali Grizzly Bear Resort, Denali Park, Alaska
- Hilton Seattle Airport & Conference Center
In addition, I’ll talk about the coronavirus testing process to visit Alaska, though I haven’t decided where I’ll put that exactly.
The Ever Changing Trip Plan
I originally planned this trip in late 2019, for a June 2020 departure date. The plan at the time called for flying straight to Fairbanks to kick things off. From there, we’d rent a car and drive the Dalton Highway to Deadhorse. The end game? Reach Deadhorse on the first day of summer, going nearly five days without seeing a sunset in the process. Then, we’d spend a few days in Denali National Park, before taking the train down to Anchorage. Finally, we planned to spend a day there before flying home.
Unfortunately, the pandemic then hit, derailing pretty much the entire trip. Alaska essentially banned visitors entirely until early June; they allowed visitors after that point provided that you obtain a negative COVID test first. However, with the long shutdown, it took some time for the tourist infrastructure to open back up. Both the Alaska Railroad and most of Denali’s tour options didn’t plan to reopen until July 1. With two of our big ticket items unavailable, we decided to postpone by 6 weeks. Thanks to slashed flight schedules, though, the Dallas to Fairbanks nonstop went bust. Thus, our plan switched to starting in Anchorage, working our way north, then heading back south.
The Flight Plan
Once we finalized the dates, figuring out flights was at once simple yet complicated. American maintained their daily DFW-Anchorage nonstops throughout the summer. The outbound flight featured perfect timing for us, with a 2:30 pm departure from DFW. However, the return featured a dreaded short eastbound redeye, leaving Anchorage around 9 pm and arriving in Dallas around 5 am. My son hates getting his sleep interrupted more than anything; thus, redeyes simply don’t work for us. We opted instead to fly from Fairbanks to Seattle, spend the night there, then continue on the next day.
The final flight plan ended up looking like this:
- 7/29 AA 607 Dep DFW International (DFW) 14:50, Arr Anchorage Ted Stevens International (ANC) 18:35
- 8/10 AS 150 Dep Fairbanks International (FAI) 15:00, Arr Seattle-Tacoma International (SEA) 19:29
- 8/11 AA 2923 Dep SEA 12:00, Arr DFW 17:58
I’ll review the Dallas to Anchorage flight, mainly because I think the A321neo is worth a mention. I don’t plan on reviewing Seattle to Dallas, on a plain-Jane ex-US Airways A321. (If you want to see what this plane looks like, see my old school review from 2015.) However, I may review the Alaska flight, mainly to provide a glimpse of pandemic (non)service levels.
The Ground Transportation Plan
After spending a couple of days in Anchorage, we headed north. Like, literally the entire length of mainland Alaska, from Anchorage to Deadhorse. It’s easy to forget, but Alaska is a HUGE state. The trip clocks in at a bit more than 850 miles.
We only planned to drive part of the route ourselves, though. First, to get to Fairbanks, we booked four seats on the Alaska Railroad “Denali Star” train. Why the Alaska Railroad? For years, my dad (a train buff) wanted to take my mom on the Denali Star route. Sadly, he passed away before he could make that happen. So I set out to do that for mom on this trip.
To get from Fairbanks to Deadhorse, though, we took a page from the Ice Road Truckers and set out to drive the famed Dalton Highway ourselves. The trip clocks in at 495 miles, each way. With two stops for fuel and food the entire length of the road. Oh, and about 3/4 of it isn’t even paved; it’s an often washboard gravel road. But if you’re a road trip fanatic, it’s simply unlike anything else you’ll experience in North America. Consider it the holy grail of American road trips.
Also, you can honestly lay claim to venturing beyond the Arctic Circle.
And of course, if you go in summer, you’ll enjoy the midnight sun. No, it wasn’t the five continuous days of daytime I originally planned for. But a 12:05 am sunset in Deadhorse still counted as something special. (Freezing my hiney off in the upper 20s wind chill in August was certainly…interesting, too.)
After finishing up on the North Slope, we headed back south to spend a few days in Denali National Park. Normally, entry into the interior of Denali is tightly controlled. You can only proceed past Mile 15 of the park road on a park shuttle bus, except for the “road lottery” every September. Due to bus capacity constraints due to COVID, however, the National Park Service created a unique opportunity for private vehicles. Over five long weekends in July, August, and September, the NPS issued a limited number of permits to drive yourself to Mile 66 of the park road. (Technically, the road extends 27 miles further, but close enough.) Permits went on sale 14 days in advance, and consistently sold out within a minute of release. And somehow, I manged to get one. It, too, was a road trip experience unlike any other.
Another Special Moment
I’d be remiss in not mentioning that my son celebrated his 4th birthday in Alaska on August 7th. I didn’t actually plan it that way; in fact, I didn’t even realize it until a couple of weeks after booking everything. Needless to say, though, Ashok sure was excited. On our way down to Denali, we stopped in Fairbanks to pick up some cupcakes and candles. Once we reached our cabin outside Denali, we had a little celebration at the dining table. Technically a day early, but Ashok just couldn’t wait until the next day.
The look of joy on his face really makes me want to plan more birthday trips for him.
I plan on starting this trip report soon, likely with the guide to the Dalton Highway. Thanks for following along!