Immortalized (and lampooned) in the 1983 box office hit Vacation, summertime road trips have been an American family tradition for generations. Whether it’s the idea of spending quality time together, saving money on flights, visiting somewhere special, or a combination of all three, there’s something curiously romantic about loading up the car and hitting the highway as a family.
For me, the notion of cruising Alaska’s open roads surrounded by exquisite scenery and abundant wildlife seemed to epitomize this ideal.
And while most of Alaska’s Inside Passage isn’t accessible by car, the Kenai Peninsula offers travelers almost everything the state is best known for – along with a highway that’s been designated an “All-American Road” by the U.S. Department of Transportation (only 30 other roads in the U.S. have earned this distinction, as tourist destinations unto themselves).
After our cruise through the Inside Passage, we flew to Anchorage and picked up our version of the Griswold’s “family truckster” from ABC Motorhome & Car Rental. I knew from experience that it’s smart to go up at least one size from what you think you’ll need, so our four-piece family went with a 24’ Class C model that claimed to sleep six. After getting up to speed on its controls and stocking up on supplies at a local supermarket, we were on our way for a four-day roadside adventure.
Alaska confronts travelers with a lot of hard decisions.
While there’s certainly enough to do in its largest city, we bypassed Anchorage in favor of the open road. The question was whether to head north or south.
Denali National Park was 240 miles away and could easily eat up half our precious time. As much as I wanted to see Mt. McKinley first hand, the idea of fishing with the boys, taking long hikes
through enchanted forests, and scouting for wildlife held greater appeal. So we headed south toward what’s often referred to as Alaska’s Playground, the Kenai Peninsula.
There are two main arteries that connect the Kenai Peninsula’s main attractions: the Seward Highway and the Sterling Highway. Four days proved to be ample time to cover the peninsula at a relatively leisurely pace (though we all wished we had more time).
Here are some of the highlights of our road trip:
Turnagain Arm – The first hour of our ride, south along Cook Inlet, was perhaps the most dramatic. In the late summer, there’s a chance of spotting some of the 300 or so beluga whales that migrate to the area. We didn’t see any. We also didn’t see any Dall sheep, which we were told roam the hillsides.But, no matter, the mountain views were still as sensational as advertised.
Seward – On Resurrection Bay, you can take a number of great day trips to the Kenai Fjords National Park. We happened to arrive on the 4th of July, the day of the annual 3.1-mile race up and down Mt. Marathon. Even though we didn’t participate, it was a fun way to experience the town like locals!
We couldn’t leave without taking a behind-the-scenes tour at the Alaska SeaLife Center, Seward’s state-of-the-art marine science aquarium (which was built with reparation funds from the disastrous 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill), and visiting the Exit Glacier visitors center to learn how massive ice caps have shaped the region’s topography. A hike to the ice flow itself is breathtaking and can easily be done in less than two hours.
Kenai National Wildlife Refuge – To break up the 170-mile drive from Seward to Homer, we stopped at the Upper Kenai River Trail to stretch our legs on a hike. We chose this trail over many others because we heard it offered prime moose-viewing opportunities. Although we never did spot one (there was plenty of scat along the trail to confirm they did actually exist), the walk along the turquoise river was refreshing for all.
Homer – The “halibut fishing capital of the world” lived up to its name. We booked a half-day excursion with Bob’s Trophy Charters and successfully hauled in the maximum of two keepers per person. To cap it off, we brought some of our freshly filleted catch to Captain Pattie’s Seafood Restaurant, where they cooked it up to our specification.