An Honest Appraisal of Our Alaskan Travels

Trail of Blue Ice, Alaska

It was the best of times, it was just meh sometimes, it was an occasion for adventure, it was an occasion for boredom, it was a place of indescribable beauty, it was a place of insufferable kitsch – in short, Alaska was what we brought to it and sometimes what we brought just wasn’t enough.

Before leaving for Alaska I spoke with a woman who owns a campground that is a common launching point for road trips to the great white north. She said that people returning from their dream Alaskan excursion tell her they either loved the trip or hated it. Before actually going I couldn’t understand how anyone could hate Alaska. Now that I’m back, I can perhaps see where they’re coming from even if I don’t share the intensity of those feelings.

Alaska, as you know, is a wild and rugged place. You may have also heard that Alaska is wildly expensive. If you’re an outdoor enthusiast equipped and capable of confronting the elements mono a mono or, alternatively, if you have deep enough pockets to pay experienced guides to show you the way, Alaska can be an out-of-this-world travel destination. And that pretty much describes the first half of our trip.

Kayaking Blackstone Bay

We rented a car and drove some of the most dramatic scenery we’ve ever encountered. We hired experienced ice climbers to help us summit a glacier. We dug deep for transportation, equipment and guides to kayak Blackstone Bay. It was all both awesome and awesomely expensive. After a week and a half of such adventures we were exhausted. So too were our wallets.

We decided to give them and us a rest and pledged to forego any additional paid adventures for the balance of our time in Alaska. No flight-seeing, no dog sledding, no deep sea fishing, no whitewater rafting, no whale watching, no glacier cruising, no nothing. We’d travel pretty much as we usually do, cheaply and on our own. And while that normally suits us well, in Alaska we found it to be extremely limiting.

Cruise Ship Alaska

Cruise Ship Alaska

First of all, Alaska is huge. Two and one-half times larger than the “Big” state of Texas. And public transportation is rare. Saying that it’s hard to explore all of those miles on foot is an understatement. It’s impossible.

And the largeness of Alaska’s wilderness is reflected in the smallness of its towns. Most places we docked took about a half a day to cover on foot. And mostly what we found were ports lined with memorabilia shops trying to appear quaint and booths hawking the very tours from which we had sworn abstinence.

Juneau Tour Booths

Normally in such places all you have to do is venture a few streets off the main strip to find local hangouts, good food and cool places that the harried vacationing hordes often miss. We found nothing of the kind at most of our Inside Passage stops (Sitka possibly excepted.)

Mostly locals pointed us back to the main strip. One man told us that most Alaskans simply eat at home because many restaurants only open a couple of months each year. And once summer arrives, he said, people would rather fire-up a back-yard barbeque than frequent the expensive restaurants catering to the cruise ship crowd. We can’t say we blame him. But that didn’t leave us with many good options. We left our grill in Seattle.

The Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show

The Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show

And so the back-half of our time in Alaska slowed considerably, which isn’t all bad. But we often found ourselves casting about searching in vain for things to keep us occupied; looking forward to the next stop only to find it similar to the one we just left. We were caught in a never-ending tourist trap.

Ironically, there were still plenty of things we wanted to do in Alaska. We just didn’t want to pay for them, and we weren’t equipped to do them on our own. Those limitations, we found, marked the dividing line between having an unforgettable time in Alaska and a far less memorable one.

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32 Comments on “An Honest Appraisal of Our Alaskan Travels”

  1. heavenhappens January 20, 2014 at 9:56 am #

    Interesting post, I sense your frustration!

    Like

  2. mytimetotravel January 20, 2014 at 10:39 am #

    Thanks for the review. After being wowed by the glaciers in Patagonia in 2012, I was thinking of visiting Alaska this year, using the ferry system and an occasional rental car, flightseeing Denali and skipping the park. After spending a lot of time with guidebooks I decided it just wasn’t worth the cost. Glad to have confirmation that the towns really aren’t great destinations. I’ll save my glacier money for a possible Antarctic trip instead.

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  3. digger666 January 20, 2014 at 11:25 am #

    Reblogged this on digger666.

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  4. Lance Liberty January 20, 2014 at 12:55 pm #

    Alaska rocks, but the freedom, wide-open places, waterfalls, dense forests, grizzly bears, giant moose, wolves, eagles, walrus, seals, sea-lions, sea-otters, puffins, lynx, beaver, fox, owls, etc. don’t wait at the dock for you very often to have their picture taken by tourists on the Inside Passage tour. Likewise, anywhere you go, your going to have tourist-trap “trappers” trying to ply their trade and snare your hard earned dollars from your wallet, pocket-book, or credit card. People all over the world come to Alaska for a reason, it is one of the most beautiful places in the world, filled with incredible landscapes, with flora and fauna that can take a life-time to truly appreciate and admire. If you don’t have the time, money, and determination to get past the tourist-trap stands at the dock, don’t be surprised if you don’t see the wonders of Alaska as clearly as anyone who has spent any real time here.

    But I find myself defending Alaska, having lived off and on here for almost 25 years now as a “bush” Alaskan teacher, commercial fisherman, oil-field worker, deck-hand on a tug-boat on the Kuskokwim river, as a bouncer in a bar, or a bank manager, I’ve worked in professions I never would have imagined I’d work in, I’ve explored virtually every region, on and off the road system, seeing and doing things I never would have dreamed of doing in the “Lower 48.”

    But why defend Alaska, when what I should be doing is encouraging you and other would-be Antarctic explorers to stay away, because most of the tourists just bring trash, loud noises, a complete lack of understanding for the dangers of the region, and a complete lack of respect for the rugged beauty, life-style, and unique way of life that is Alaska. At least a few every year get themselves or others killed. However, I will say this, there is a reason why they say “come and visit it before you die.” Thus, I’m sure the writer of this article in his heart of hearts would agree that he and his wife are glad they saw what they saw, and experienced what they experienced, even if they, like so many others, did not make the very best tourist-trip decisions, and were swamped by slick opportunists trying to separate them from their hard-earned cash. After all, employment can be hard to come by in Alaska (especially in the winter) for a lot of people coming-up from other places, and if they get stuck in Alaska, or just don’t want to leave once they arrive, those folks have to make a living too, and when other tourists arrive with money in their pocket “fresh off the boat,” can you blame them if they look at some of you as ATM machines? On a side note, not a bad article, but once I saw the impact it had on someone dreaming of coming, but choosing otherwise, I felt compelled to put in my two-cents worth.

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    • Brian January 20, 2014 at 2:03 pm #

      Thanks for your detailed comments Lance. And to be clear, we never intended this article to be a slam on Alaska. Moreover, we don’t think it is. In fact, we’re struck by how similar your rebuttal is to what we wrote. For example:

      You Said: “If you don’t have the time, money, and determination to get past the tourist-trap stands at the dock, don’t be surprised if you don’t see the wonders of Alaska as clearly as anyone who has spent any real time here.”

      We Said: “if you have deep enough pockets to pay experienced guides to show you the way, Alaska can be an out-of-this-world travel destination.”

      You Said: “ At least a few [tourists] every year get themselves or others killed.”

      We Said: “If you’re an outdoor enthusiast equipped and capable of confronting the elements mono a mono . . . Alaska can be an out-of-this-world travel destination.”

      You Said: “Thus, I’m sure the writer of this article in his heart of hearts would agree that he and his wife are glad they saw what they saw, and experienced what they experienced”

      We Said: “It was the best of times” 😉

      Like

    • Lance Liberty January 20, 2014 at 8:51 pm #

      Brian, don’t misunderstand my intentions, I didn’t think your article slammed Alaska (that much), and I wasn’t so much attacking it as I was trying to counter some of the negative impressions I felt others were formulating as a result of your article. Nothing personal… Thank you for your timely response, and for pointing out we agree on several key points related to the topic. I am currently in the Philippines, and wish I could be doing what you are doing, will be in Texas (where you currently are) in a few more months after I pick up my things in Anchorage. How do you fund your world travel?

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      • mytimetotravel January 20, 2014 at 9:01 pm #

        I wouldn’t say that I formulated my opinion as a result of this post, rather that it confirmed an opinion I had already formed from other sources. I am sure that with enough time and resources I could have a great trip to Alaska, but I think I could get a better “return on investment” elsewhere. Lots of great scenery, no doubt, but I also look for architecture, museums, and interesting food and wine, and I have no interest in fishing, rafting, sledding, etc. etc.

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        • Brian January 21, 2014 at 8:41 am #

          True, Alaska is a certain type of trip. Very outdoorsy and adventure oriented. If that’s your thing, Alaska is hard to beat. But if you’re looking for museums, architecture, and interesting food and wine Florence, Italy is probably a better choice. 🙂

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      • Brian January 21, 2014 at 8:54 am #

        Hi Lance. I think part of the problem is that travel writing is typically so effusive that balanced pieces like this tend to be seen as negative. That’s unfortunate and a bit unexpected. We don’t want to put people off Alaska. It really is one of the great U.S. destinations. But at the same time, we’re not part of the official travel industry. We’re not here to blow smoke. We’re aiming to be helpful.

        Toward that end, we’ve also written a bit about how we manage our life style: We travel cheap, save aggressively ( How to Revolutionize Your Financial Life ) and work from the road ( How to Build a Mobile Business ).

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        • Lance Liberty January 21, 2014 at 1:59 pm #

          Brian,

          Thanks for the information, didn’t mean to come across as defensive, or like I was attacking your article.  Like I said, it wasn’t a bad article.  And if less people come to Alaska as a result of it, you did us all up there a favor anyways.  🙂  With that said, will read your articles on finance and work on road, and see if I can use them in my own life.  Hope you and your wife have many safe and wonderful travels ahead.  Check out my blog too if you get the chance.  Peace!

          Lance

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  5. Ingrid January 20, 2014 at 2:18 pm #

    Thank you for your honest take on a trip to Alaska. It does not surprise us as we’ve heard similar tales from folks who have RV’d up to Alaska. We still have so many places to explore in the lower 48 that Alaska has been put on the back burner for now. Happy trails 🙂

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  6. The Miss Adventure Journals January 20, 2014 at 7:28 pm #

    Very interesting. I would still love to visit but I will take your advise and perhaps try the guided tour approach. That second photograph is gorgeous

    Like

  7. raviolikid January 20, 2014 at 7:42 pm #

    I am getting ready to embark on four or five year trip around the USA in my Airstream. I am planning to visit the lower 48 in a very leisurely manner. People are astounded that I don’t have any desire to visit Alaska. I should direct them to your article. It matches what I was expecting to be the case. Enjoy your travels!

    Like

    • Brian January 21, 2014 at 8:59 am #

      Congrats on your upcoming travels. We just recently finished four years touring the U.S. in a leisurely manner. But before you cross Alaska completely off your list, click through to some of the other articles we linked in this one. There really is some great stuff there you won’t find in the Lower 48.

      Like

      • raviolikid January 21, 2014 at 9:13 am #

        Thanks for the encouragement. I will keep an open mind, but I do appreciate the support for my initial idea that I don’t HAVE to go to Alaska!

        Like

  8. Kavi January 20, 2014 at 9:44 pm #

    Thank you for this fair and honest opinion of your Alaska trip. These are exactly the sorts of things that travelers need to hear so they are better prepared and have more realistic expectations. I always thought that an Alaskan cruise would be a great trip to do with extended family, but you bring up a good point about the costs of all of the “dream” excursions, which is something I’ll now take into consideration.

    Like

    • Kavi January 20, 2014 at 9:46 pm #

      That would be *hear and *have more. Good grief, it’s too late for me to write coherently!

      Like

    • Brian January 21, 2014 at 8:38 am #

      You’ll definitely want to budget for some excursions.

      Like

  9. Shikha Kothari January 20, 2014 at 10:12 pm #

    Fantastic post and quite eye-opening! An Alaskan cruise is something of a dream, and it great to see this point of view.

    Like

    • Brian January 21, 2014 at 8:26 am #

      We traveled independently in Alaska and that may have been part of the problem. We ended up spending a fair amount of time in small towns waiting on the Alaskan Marine Ferry schedule. A cruise would have made that leg of our trip more efficient, and possibly better.

      Like

  10. ronmitchelladventure January 21, 2014 at 1:21 am #

    I love honesty in travel posts. Thank you. My wife and I served as campground hosts in Haines, Alaska for two summers…truly cut down the high cost (beer being the highest cost in my case). I recommend a visit to Haines, by ferry…this small town has most of everything you would want in Alaska, in my humble opinion. We have some Alaska posts in our archives for anyone considering such a venture…incredible hiking, glaciers in fjords, brown bears and eagles fishing for sockeye. Camping can help the budget. Motels will drain the wallet.

    Like

    • Brian January 21, 2014 at 8:21 am #

      Yup, camping can be a great way to cut costs and probably a terrific way to experience Alaska. But when we calculated the 90 hour round trip drive and over three grand in fuel it would have taken us to get our Motor home from Seattle to Alaska and back, we decided to fly.

      Like

      • ronmitchelladventure January 22, 2014 at 6:37 pm #

        Oh, my. When I talk camping, I mean a modest car or pick-up with a tent. Where we hosted at Chilkat State Park, there was no electricity or running water. RV’s could not negotiate the rough road anyway. Cost of $10 daily, free for veterans, in Alaska State Parks. Got to “rough it” a little, though.

        Like

        • Brian January 23, 2014 at 8:57 am #

          We hear you. Although when we talk camping, we mean home. We’ve lived in our camper for the past four years. And while we don’t mind a little roughing it, four years without electricity or running water is just a tad too Ted Kaczynski for us 😉

          Like

  11. brissioni January 21, 2014 at 11:37 am #

    refreshingly honest

    Like

  12. Jason January 21, 2014 at 6:40 pm #

    Hi Brian &Shannon,

    Enjoyed the Alaskan series of photos and posts. It is really helpful to have an honest summary of your thoughts on the travel experience. Others will provide their own. Prospective travellers will value the collective insight and tread their own path.

    Perhaps spending an even longer period in some places would reveal the local layer that appeared to be difficult to discover. Then again, some towns are going to pretty boring, or a cookie cutter of places previously experienced.

    In our experience, in small towns in particular, it is often engagement with the locals that turns up the hidden gems, which sometimes are the people themselves. On tourist routes the local engagement can be a challenge. Locals often become jaded. Expecting the tourist to take and, at best, only return cash. Perhaps our challenge is to show our respect and appreciation by giving back something they don’t expect? Deciding what that thing or act is, is a challenge that could make us observe our surroundings a little more keenly and discover some hidden gems.

    This has been my inner hippie speaking 🙂

    Cheers,

    Jason

    Like

    • Lance Liberty January 21, 2014 at 9:26 pm #

      You keep letting that inner-hippie out Jason, you are on to something there.

      Like

  13. Deano January 22, 2014 at 12:49 pm #

    Thanks. Food for thought on my planned journey there this year. That will then be all 50 states for me!

    Like

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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