Thomas Lloyd, Billy Taylor, Charley McGonagall and Pete Anderson climbed Denali in 1910 with limited equipment and little to eat but bags of old doughnuts.
They mushed to the mountain from Fairbanks, Alaska, most of them in their 40s with a lifetime of mining experience but hardly any climbing experience.
Collectively, they were known as, and their excursion is known as, the Sourdough Expedition. They almost died during the nearly five-month excursion.
It was hard for me not to laugh to myself as the bus driver-tour guide told this story during a 12-hour ride to the end of the 92-mile road in Denali National Park and Preserve earlier this summer.
These miners were climbing a mountain during a brutal part of the winter. A little more than 100 years later, I was sweating in a bus during one of the hottest Alaskan summers ever recorded, eating Oreos and wondering if I should wear my mosquito head net outside.
Once we arrived at the Eielson Visitor Center in the middle of the park and I saw the Muldrow Glacier that led to the summit of Denali (once known as Mount McKinley), I was in awe of both the site and what the Sourdough Expedition accomplished.
North America’s largest mountain creates its own weather pattern, making it one of the most difficult climbs in the world, and most of the visitors in the park, and those who venture into Central Alaska, never have the opportunity to see its northern or southern peaks. But the clouds cleared during my 20-minute stop at the center, and there it was, nestled between other peaks on the mountain range: “the tall one,” Denali.
No, I didn’t climb to the summit during a 13-day vacation in Alaska, but it made me appreciate everything that makes Alaska America’s wilderness playground.
Unlike the Sourdough Expedition, which started as a bet between Lloyd and a Fairbanks bartender that he and “true Alaskans” could summit Denali, my trip didn’t begin a few hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle. Instead, this vacation was born during a 2018 Alaskan cruise — my wife, Kim, and my second such trip since 2015 — when we decided we needed to go farther north to really experience the 49th state’s best attributes.
We decided this: Instead of dogs mushing us from town to town, we’d rent an RV and drive nearly 1,600 miles over the course of 13 days. Our route would take a half-circle through the Kenai Peninsula, then back through Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, into Denali National Park, through Fairbanks, then down the Richardson Highway into Valdez, Alaska, and back to Anchorage.
The Kenai Peninsula
We landed in Anchorage on July 10 and shuttled to the Great Alaskan Holidays RV rental location where our 32-foot Minnie Winnie was awaiting us. After a 30-minute video teaching me how to drive my hotel room on wheels, we were on the road adjusting to the three-hour time change from our home in Central Texas.
Our first stop was about 100 miles south of Anchorage through the Kenai Peninsula on the Seward Highway to, you guessed it, Seward, Alaska.
Known as Alaska’s starting point (the town’s slogan is “Alaska starts here”), Seward is the beginning of the Iditarod Trail. While the famous race to Nome, Alaska, doesn’t start in Seward today, its founding roots do.
Seward was once the most important port in Alaska. When a diphtheria epidemic broke in 1925 in Nome, teams of dog sleds were sent to Nenana, Alaska, to receive the serum that was arriving from Seward. The 1925 Serum Run led to the creation of the Iditarod race and inspired the animated movie “Balto.”
Seward’s port has become less prominent with Anchorage, Homer and Valdez ports prospering off the oil industry. Seward is home to a cruise ship terminal, and it’s clear tourism and fishing are a large part of the local economy. The tourism industry in general is the state’s second-largest employer — second to the oil and gas industry.
We stayed in a city-operated RV park overlooking Resurrection Bay and took the short 15-minute walk to the harbor. A main attraction in Seward is the cruise tours of the glaciers found on the shorelines of the Kenai Fjords National Park. Setting out on the ship Glacier Explorer, belonging to the Kenai Fjords Tour company, it took less than five minutes from pulling out of the harbor to come across a group of sea otters floating on their backs in Resurrection Bay.
The tour to Holgate Glacier revealed more wildlife than the previous five whale watching-glacier boat trips I’ve been on in southern Alaska. We saw both horned and tuft puffins, Steller sea lions, harbor seals, bald eagles, a finback whale and a salmon shark circling the water. The highlight of the cruise — even more than the glacier itself — was the backstroking humpback whale, waving its pectoral-like flippers at the ship.
Returning to Seward, we boated past the ruins of the old harbor that was located closer to the city’s hilly, restaurant-infused downtown. Like most cities along the northern coastline, Seward was devastated by 1964′s 9.2-magnitude earthquake, known as the Good Friday Earthquake, the second-largest earthquake ever recorded. The old harbor was completely destroyed aside from several dock posts still protruding from the bay. While the destruction was still evident, at least the town didn’t need to be completely rebuilt and moved, as Valdez did on the coast of Prince William Sound.
The Kenai Flip
After 24 hours in Seward, we traveled north to the Sterling Highway, which took us farther west into the peninsula. We stopped in Cooper Landing, Alaska, where I had booked a guided salmon fishing trip on the Kenai River the next morning.
Once we settled in at the Kenai Princess Wilderness Lodge’s RV park, we hiked down to the shore of the flowing Kenai River full of rapids and surrounded by trees and mountains. There wasn’t much in Cooper Landing, a tiny town of various lodges and restaurants spread out over 9 miles along the Sterling Highway.
Arriving on the river for my trip the next morning — several weeks after the initial salmon run that fills the Upper Kenai River in May and June and a few weeks before the late run of salmon in August — I learned how to fly-fish. The combo of being in the middle of the fishing season and being a novice, if that’s even what I was, at fly-fishing meant the salmon weren’t exactly hopping into my mouth like the famous bear-salmon gif you’ve probably seen.
Using what the guide called the Kenai Flip, I spent about two hours of the four-hour trip waving my fly rod back and forth, feeling the bumpy texture of the rocks on the river bed as the line took its float downstream, then pulling back the line and tossing it back up the river to do another float. All this while hoping a salmon just happened to get hooked.
That’s what salmon river fishing is: less of a hook, line and sinker and more of a numbers game, where you’re hoping the hook just happens to get caught in the mouth of one of the thousands of salmon cruising to its spawning area. When it’s the middle of the summer and the spawning season is thinning out, salmon fishing is a crapshoot.
However, like the uncle who buys scratch-off lottery tickets, I could do the Kenai Flip every day of my life despite catching little more than a tangled line every now and then.
Of course, it would have to be on that particular river, which was nestled in a nature preserve, decorated by bear footprints the size of my face on the banks, moose hiding in the nearby brush and a fleet of bald eagles flying above, dangling salmon guts from their talons. A feeling of defeat sets in when you’ve spent about $200 to catch salmon and the only salmon you see is 15 feet up in the sky.
Then you realize what you’re looking at and you know it’s all worth it.
On to Homer
Continuing up the Sterling Highway after the fishing trip and heading to Homer, there was clear evidence of the changing climate and its effects on the landscape of Alaska.
This summer has been one of the warmest on record in Alaska. The Anchorage Daily News reported a heatwave just a week before we arrived, with temperatures climbing to 90 degrees. That type of heat combined with the dense spruce forests in Alaska has caused massive forest fires. While the fires are big news in the 49th state, they aren’t mentioned a lot in the rest of the country, mainly because many of the fires are on public land in fairly uninhabited areas.
Between Cooper Landing and Soldotna, Alaska, we drove past large pop-up-like fire stations where crews — more than 500 people were reported to have fought the June fires on the Kenai Peninsula — had been battling blazes this summer. The smoke had cleared in the days we were in the Upper Kenai Peninsula, but the smell of burnt wood lingered. Driving through a 2-mile portion of the highway was like traveling through a tree graveyard.
We arrived in Homer later that afternoon, and our RV park was located on the Homer Spit, a stretch of land that sticks out into the Cook Inlet. My father, a veteran merchant marine captain who often worked in Alaska during the 1980s hauling crude oil, had told me stories of his time in Homer. With the Anchorage port having limited space, oil tankers anchored along Homer for weeks at a time waiting to dock. While we didn’t see tankers in the inlet, we did see several barges in the water. Walking along the spit, I could see why my dad liked the area. Located on the edge of the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” Homer is surrounded by volcanic mountains and rocky beaches, creating a Mordor-like landscape on the shores of a gray sand beach.
Across from the RV park was the Salty Dawg Saloon, a famous bar that dates back to 1897 and is covered in dollar bills that have been attached to the walls and ceilings.
We did little more than peek our heads into the bar — after a five-hour drive on a two-lane highway, we were looking for fresh fish to grill. Good thing we were in the halibut capital of the United States. Stopping at Captain Pattie’s Fish House, we found fresh-caught halibut steaks and a tub of delicious, fresh-made salmon dip. We grilled right on the beach, drinking a collection of local Alaskan beers, including the King Street Brewing Company’s King Street Pilsner, and then strolled down the shore.
‘The main event’
The next day we drove back through the peninsula and Anchorage, through Wasilla, Alaska, the home of politician Sarah Palin, and stopped for the night in an RV park in Willow, Alaska, that rested on another river full of fly-fishers.
The next morning we reached what Kim called “the main event,” Denali National Park and Preserve, and the giant mountains — jokingly called “hills” by Alaskans — that engulf the entrance of the park. Our campsite was a short hike away from the banks of the Savage River, about a dozen miles from the entrance and a few miles away from the point at which only buses can drive on the road.
You don’t really experience the full power Denali National Park until you’ve taken one of the several trips into the park’s interior. Buses run throughout the day and for a small fee can take you deep into the park. Our tour was a 12-hour trek called the Kantishna Experience and was one of the few tours that also included a National Park Service ranger.
If you want to see and learn about the park’s wildlife, Wonder Lake and the mountains, there is no better option. During the long bus ride we passed a herd of caribou (a nondomesticated reindeer) and even had a massive caribou an arm’s length away stroll by the bus windows. We saw two sets of grizzly bear families, moose, Arctic ground squirrels and Dall sheep on the mountains. We even picked blueberries along Wonder Lake.
Back at the campsite, we adjusted to the RV restrictions. Like many national parks, Denali lacks electrical plug-ins, and generator hours are restricted. We countered by not spending much time inside the RV when we were there, eating bison steaks outside on the park table and hiking the various trails surrounding our site.
After two days in Denali, which is not nearly enough time to enjoy all the trails offered in the park, we headed north.
A few hours later we arrived in the second-largest city in Alaska, Fairbanks. A city whose lifeblood is the nearby U.S. Army Base, Fort Wainwright, and, just south of Fairbanks, in North Pole, Alaska, Eielson Air Force Base, Fairbanks is the farthest north we ventured.
We visited the quaint downtown Ice Museum, which houses, fittingly, a collection of ice sculptures, and ate at the Crepery, which served hand-held crepes with Alaskan flavors. I enjoyed the king crab crepe. Crepes were a popular food in Alaska, but not as popular as the hundreds of Thai restaurants we passed along the side of the road. If you enjoy pad thai and espressos, you’re probably going to like Alaskan highways.
Heading to Prince William Sound
Our final stop on the trip before returning to Anchorage was Valdez. Most people know of this city because of one of the worst ecological disasters in world history, the Exxon Valdez oil spill. I’ll remember the area for the most scenic driving experience I’ve had.
There is just one road in and one road out of Valdez, and that’s Thompson Pass. When you reach the bottom of the pass, several cascading waterfalls circle your view as the road weaves into the valley. The city itself is a small village with a large harbor near its downtown that houses a handful of restaurants and bars serving local seafood. On the other side of Prince William Sound, across from the harbor, is where the pipeline ends and the crude oil moves to an oil tanker.
The next morning we took a scenic trip on Stan Stephens Glacier and Wildlife Cruises into Prince William Sound and Columbia Bay.
We passed Bligh Reef, where on March 24, 1989 (oddly enough, like the 1964 earthquake, it was Good Friday), the Exxon Valdez oil tanker struck the underwater reef. The crash caused 10.8 million gallons of crude oil to spill into the water and was the largest oil spill in U.S. history for 21 years until the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010. The reef is hardly a tourist spot, marked only by your average water buoy.
The cruise took us deep into Columbia Bay to see Columbia Glacier. The bay was a landmine of chunks of icebergs, and the catamaran-style boat weaved around the bay until we were less than a half-mile from the front of the glacier.
Prince William Sound and Valdez’s glacier cruises lacked the plethora of wildlife activity Resurrection Bay and Seward offered a few days earlier, but there was a large colony of sea lions, and many otters were in the water. The tour was less expensive than Seward, and the ship was roomier and more comfortable, which is a great attribute if you plan to spend six hours cruising the Alaskan shoreline looking at glaciers.
Finishing the trek
Our final leg of the trip took us back through Thompson Pass and up the Richardson Highway. We stopped just outside Glennallen, Alaska, and pulled into Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the largest national park in the United States. From the visitor center (there are multiple centers for the park) we saw Mount Wrangell and Mount Drum and other peaks along the Wrangell Mountain Range. The sheer size of the park — roughly six times the size of Yellowstone National Park — means accessibility to much of the park is limited. Flights are the best way to get into the interior of the park, which rests on the Canadian border that is about 200 miles away from the visitor center near Glennallen.
The six tallest peaks in the nation can be found in either Denali National Park or Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, with the latter housing six of the 10 tallest mountains in the U.S.
Leaving the park, we headed west on the Glenn Highway toward Palmer and Anchorage. The highway follows the Matanuska River, and halfway along the four-hour drive you’ll travel through Glacier View, Alaska, where on the western outskirts of town is — with a perfect view from the mountain cliff-hugging highway — the Matanuska Glacier. Matanuska Glacier is 4 miles wide and 27 miles long and, as the largest glacier in the country accessible by car, it’s hard to miss.
Even if you’re driving at night, which we weren’t, you wouldn’t miss it, because there isn’t really a night in the Alaskan summer.
“The land of the midnight sun” isn’t just the future name of your child’s garage alt-rock band, it’s the true definition of Alaska during the summer. A photo taken at 12:05 a.m. in Denali National Park had an early-evening, just-before-sunset light to it. Most nights we stayed in Alaska had less than four hours of nighttime. This was an issue the first night when we realized the RV didn’t have blackout curtains to hang over the skylight vents. We MacGyvered the roof with duct tape and poster board, but we found the best way to combat the constant daylight was to wake up as early as possible and cram as much as we could into the day so when we did settle for the night we were exhausted.
Also, night masks helped.
Arriving in Anchorage for the last day of the trip, we visited the Alaska Zoo.
In case you didn’t see enough wildlife on the road, the Alaska Zoo is a good catchall. Brown (grizzly) bears, black bears and one of the largest polar bears you’ll see in a zoo all call the Alaska Zoo home, as do a handful of other native animals you may have missed, like musk oxen and wolverines. And, of course, it has moose and caribou.
After getting several rave reviews from my Cooper Landing fishing guide, as well as an Uber driver, one of our final meals on the trip was at Moose’s Tooth Pub and Pizzeria in Anchorage. The salmon-barbecue pizza special was the type of dish you wished more places in the “lower 48” (as Alaskans say) would attempt, but it’s probably unlikely that they’d be able to repeat Moose’s Tooth’s recipe because of the fresh salmon, dredged in barbecue sauce, that covers the pizza.
Reaching the Summit
The Sourdough Expedition’s leader, Thomas Lloyd, died with people doubting he ever reached the summit of Denali. There have been conflicting stories, some having come from his own climbing party. But in 1913, Hudson Struck, the first man to make the undisputed climb to Denali’s summit, found the flagpole Lloyd’s party had placed on the south summit, confirming at least part of Lloyd’s claim.
I’m not sure if Lloyd was ever paid for winning his Denali bet, but after spending nearly two weeks in Central Alaska, there’s no price I wouldn’t pay to do it all over again.