by Jen Ostler
It’s easy to feel a special kind of wonder when travelling through Alaska’s north country, and every time, I fall in love even more.
Once the unpaved road begins and trees fade to tundra, I feel as if we are transported to another, beautiful planet. My favorite trip is along the Dalton Highway, where the Trans-Alaska Pipeline stretches as far as I can see; an almost incomprehensible manmade wonder. I marvel how large the Yukon River is, and the drive across it on the bridge takes my breath. The bridge is so tall, the river so wide, and having lived along its banks as newlyweds, it was like meeting an old friend again. At mile 97 of the Dalton Highway we stop to walk across the tundra toward Finger Rock, a great granite monolith that just begs to be explored. Blueberries from a nearby patch fill our bellies, and rare warm sunlights heats our backs. Just before making camp, we observe a black bear and her cub wander down the road.
That night we read books under the midnight sun after devouring the most amazing s’mores around a crackling fire.
Reminiscing about past adventures makes me eager for this summer’s plans. As winter gradually melts away, I’m sure I’m not alone in experiencing spring fever. To help with your own adventure planning, here is my top list of five campgrounds stretching from Sitka in Southeast Alaska to the Arctic Circle on the Dalton Highway.
Note: Always remember – you are in the Last Frontier. Camp with caution; prepare for bears and moose wandering through picnic areas and campsites, and carry enough supplies for unexpected changes in plans or delays along the way. Those adventuring north of Fairbanks should consider the remote nature of the area, with few gas stations and re-supply areas and extremely limited cell phone service.
Starrigavan Recreation Area, Sitka ($12-$16 per night) This location is less than a mile from the Alaska Marine Highway terminal, so it is of interest to families using the ferry for transportation. The ferry ride takes between five to ten hours from Juneau, depending on whether you board a fast ferry or not (and be prepared for wonderful scenic views and possible whale sightings). Ferry fares are approximately $60 for adults and $30 for children to ride from Juneau to Sitka without a vehicle. Starrigavan campground is a quiet area about 17 miles away from downtown Sitka. The recreation area offers trails, fishing, and wildlife viewing. My favorite is Starrigavan Creek Cabin ($50/night), suitable for up to eight people, that is available for rent from the Forest Service. For families camping with a vehicle, a drive into beautiful, historic Sitka holds so many options for exploration including an aquarium, museums, Sitka National Historical Park, and ocean wildlife tours.
Porcupine Campground, Hope ($11-$15 per night) This campground is well off of the beaten path, located at the very end of the road in Hope, which is already 17 miles from the Seward Highway. Hope is a quiet little town, with great homemade breakfast and pie at Tito’s Discovery Cafe, a historical mining museum with mining activities for kids, and the library has a little shack full of nearly-free books for sale. There is access to fishing, and when you get back to your camp there are trailheads to the Gull Rock Trail and the Hope Point Trail, with awesome views of Turnagain Arm. The kids will love running around the campground, and parents will love the safety of a campground tucked away from it all.
Riley Creek Campground, Denali National Park ($14-$28 per night) Located just off of the Parks Highway at the entrance to Denali National Park, Riley Creek is easily the most luxurious campground on this list. Riley Creek has everything a family could want in order to camp in comfort. For families who like to have running water nearby, there are showers and laundry facilities. A general store, visitor center and lots of paved trails make family walks with small children easy and fun. Bring your bikes and strollers as there are also wide, smooth trails into “Glitter Gulch”, Alaskans’ nickname for the community nearby with hotels, good restaurants, and tours. The best part of Riley Creek is that it’s quiet and wooded, but also close to the Wilderness Access Center, so that in the morning your family can quickly get on a shuttle bus and head into the park.
The River Park, Chena Lakes Recreation Area, North Pole ($15-$20 per night) Even people who live nearby rarely visit the river park. They’re distracted by great camping and watery fun to be had at Chena Lake. But, just a little further down the paved road from the lake is this quiet and rarely-full campground at the end of a dirt road (just follow the signs from the park entrance). There are wide wooded trails going for several miles, suitable for biking and family walks. And, if you feel like taking a break from the solitude, the lake (with life jacket and boat rentals) and a playground is only a mile down the road, creating unending opportunities for adventure.
The Arctic Circle, Dalton Highway (free, and free-range camping) For families prepared for an undeveloped campsite and a true frontier experience, driving to the Arctic Circle on the Dalton Highway is a fabulous adventure. Be prepared with spare tires, extra food and water, and extra gas for your vehicle; and be prepared to share the road with large trucks hauling supplies to and from the North Slope. Mosquitoes can also be a challenge when the wind doesn’t keep them away, so bring deterrents such as mosquito netting and spray. Though the road is technically open year-round, this trip is most safely made between May and September. View the Trans-Alaska Pipeline along the road, driving over the Yukon River at mile 56, picking blueberries on the tundra and looking for wildlife. There are great burgers to be had at the Hot Spot Café, just north of the Yukon River at mile 60. At mile 115 is the Arctic Circle wayside. A primitive campsite is nearby for tents or self-contained vehicles. Wow your holiday card recipients this year with a family photo in front of the Arctic Circle sign. Collect a beautiful, frameable certificate at the Visitor Center just north of the Yukon River, commemorating your trip to the circle. Top off your tank of gas, and then head home knowing you’ve gone somewhere that few visitors…or even Alaskans…have seen.