During the summer of 2021, my wife and I decided to take the kids (ages 34 months and 17 months when we traveled) on an adventurous trip to Alaska. Many of you know our affinity for wildlife, nature, and the natural beauty that’s found in every corner of our planet. With restrictions or logistical challenges for international travel still in place during this time, we decided that visiting a destination such as Alaska was the best option to experience a pristine environment without the worry of testing positive for COVID19 and quarantining on the way there or back. For work purposes, I simply could not afford to be in a place beyond my allotted vacation time. Having been there in 2015, I fell in love with Alaska and have longed to come back. Fast forward to 2021 and there was my opportunity to visit again. Rather than opt for the 6.5-hour non-stop flight from Chicago to Anchorage, we decided to stop in Seattle for 2 nights (a fantastic city in and of itself) and explore a little before continuing on. The kids tend to hit a wall on flights over 5 hours (the non-stop flight back was rough) and the 3-hour flight from Seattle to Anchorage was perfect to keep them fresh on our arrival to Anchorage.
Background of Denali National Park
When you visit Denali National Park most years, there is about a 2 to 3 week stretch from the beginning of May until about May 20th where anyone can drive their car on Denali Park Road, 30 miles into the park (Teklanika River rest area.) Once the summer season officially kicks off and tour buses and camp buses start using the roads on May 20th, only those selected via lottery (this occurs in April) are allowed to drive to Teklanika while others have to stop at Savage River rest area (mile 15) and turn around. When the summer season ends in late September, the lottery restriction is lifted, and anyone can drive to Teklanika until snow closes the park roads. If you want to go beyond Teklanika all the way to the Denali Road terminus at mile 92 (Kantishna), you have to take a tour bus. This is about a 12-hour round trip. With two young toddlers in-tow, this was not an option for us and it’s something I don’t recommend for parents with kids under the age of 5.
When the lottery occurred in April, I was not one of the lucky ones who was selected via the lottery process. The only option was to go the website and check every day if someone cancelled their reserved time slot during the days that we were going to be there. If someone relinquishes their slot, that slot becomes open, and it’s first come first serve. From April 28th to Jul 13th, I checked every single day, multiple times a day, but I had no luck. I would see time slots opening up, but they would never be during the time frame that we were going to be in Denali. It wasn’t until after we landed in Alaska, and we were on the way to Denali that my wife saw a time slot open for the following day. I immediately pulled into a parking lot, paid the $25 and claimed that spot. It literally went down to the wire. Keep in mind that the first 15 miles of Denali Park Road is paved and it’s all gravel road thereafter. Having an SUV makes the drive to Teklanika a bit easier. Important to Note: Lottery for 2022 has been cancelled and buses will only run until mile 43 due to the ongoing Pretty Rocks landslide at about mile 45. Read more about it here
Day 1: Arrival to Anchorage and drive to Denali National Park
Final Descent into Anchorage, Alaska
After arriving in Anchorage at around 1pm, we headed to the rental car counter inside the terminal where we surprisingly didn’t encounter any lines. If you are traveling to Alaska, remember to bring your car insurance card with you. This may not be the case with every car rental agency, but Budget demanded to see it. Even though premium credit cards such as Chase Sapphire Reserve and AMEX Platinum (among many others) offer primary rental coverage, there’s a possibility that the agent you deal with does not know this. Once we got our car, we grabbed a quick bite at a local restaurant before making the 4-hour drive north to Denali National Park. Even though we didn’t reach the park entrance until 7pm, the midnight sunset gave us plenty of time to drive 15 miles into the park. After viewing a bit of wildlife, we headed back to the hotel and rest up for the following day. Here is my rule for driving in Alaska and one which I’d recommend to everyone — if you are passing by a gas station and your gas tank is half full or less, pull over and top it off. Cell signal is spotty in many areas and almost non-existent once you drive a few miles into in the National Parks. You don’t want to end up in a situation where you have to choose between staying warm (or cool) and conserving gas in case of a flat tire or worse, collision with wildlife.
The hotel we selected for our stay in the Denali area was McKinley Chalet Resort. We loved this accommodation with its rustic rooms, beautiful views, and dining right on the premises. The dining will be a bit more expensive on resort grounds compared to other places in town, but you are paying for the convenience. Their cafe isn’t a Starbucks, but they do serve Starbucks products the way a Barnes & Noble Cafe does. Most of the restaurants and eateries around Denali NP close at 9 pm while a convenience store in town is open all night.
McKinley Chalet Resort
McKinley Chalet Resort
Day 2: Denali National Park
Our second day in Alaska was the day we had the coveted pass to drive to Teklanika River (mile 30) in Denali NP. We were fortunate enough to see a female moose with two calves on the trail near the park entrance. Having two kids that are animal enthusiasts made this encounter even better.
A mother moose (cow) keeping a watchful eye over her calves.
Remember to keep a distance of at least 50 yards. This picture was taken with a 200mm lens, but we were about 65-70 yards away
The highlight of Zayn’s Denali visit. He bottled up his excitement and respected the wildlife. Great job kiddo!
This was mostly an overcast day, but we were lucky to avoid precipitation. If you’re coming with young kids and want to do a trail, remember to bring plenty of water, granola bars, a waterproof jacket, and hiking boots. If you’re here during the summer, bring mosquito repellant! They are large and aggressive in Alaska, and I learned that the hard way. We hiked a toddler-friendly trail called the Savage River Loop Trail. This moderately trafficked trail is about 1.7 miles that’s mostly flat with no steep incline or decline. You can also choose to do a portion of it and just turn back. Any part of the park is fair game to see bears but especially areas near water sources. This particular area of the park was also near a wolf den during our visit and although we didn’t see any wolves, we were told to keep an eye out for the pack. Remember to bring bear spray and make enough noise on the trails so wildlife in the area can hear your presence. If you do see wildlife, give it plenty of space, especially bears, moose, and wolves. Always carry bear spray and know how to use it!
Day 3: Denali National Park and Anchorage
On our last day in Denali National Park, we got an early start to the day and drove until Savage River before turning back and making the 4-hour drive to Anchorage. The sun was finally out but there was not much wildlife to see on this day other than a lone moose. The clear day gave us views of the beautiful vistas of Denali Nationakl Park. Mt. McKinley was mostly covered with clouds as it usually is for 70% of the year. The drive to Anchorage included some stops to enjoy the beautiful scenery that’s prevalent all over Alaska. Anchorage was our stop for a night before continuing south towards Seward.
Day 4: Chugach National Forest and Byron Glacier Trail
After spending the night in Anchorage, we headed south towards the coastal town of Seward. On our drive there, we made sure to stop by Chugach National Forest and hike the Byron Glacier Trail. I highly recommend this trail for everyone, but in particular, those who are traveling with kids. I would make this trail a priority if you are traveling to Alaska over the next few years due to the fact that Byron Glacier is receding quickly like most other glaciers. To hike from the trailhead to the glacier is only 0.8 miles and the trail itself is mostly flat with slight incline and decline at various points. There have been reports of bears in the area but if you go between 8 am and 6 pm during the summer, the trail is heavily trafficked. When you get to the glacier, you are free to climb it but be very careful. Even with my hiking boots, I had to maneuver slowly to avoid slipping. If you don’t have ice spikes, take your time since all the foot traffic on the glacier compacts the snow enough that you’re basically walking on ice. Although it is very tempting to go under the ice cave and see the deep blue hue, I’d strongly advise against that as people have been killed by the ice shelf collapsing on them while being under the cave. The temperatures do exceed 70 degrees during the summer so ice shelves can certainly melt and shift around.
The kids loved this hike! Walking on ice without needing a winter coat was a unique experience .
Ice caves of Byron Glacier
When you’re on your way to Seward, be sure to top off your gas tank at Girdwood as there are no gas stations between Girdwood and Seward. Once we concluded our hike on the Byron Glacier Trail, it was time to make the 80-mile drive further south towards Seward. During our time in Seward, we stayed at an AirBnB and you can click the link here to view it for yourself. Our host Angela went above and beyond to make sure we were taken care of and if you find yourself in Seward, I do recommend booking your stay here. Accommodations in Seward get booked out months in advance so if you’re visiting during the summer, start booking by no later than mid-April.
Day 5: Seward and Kenai Fjords National Park Boat Tour
This was a day that I circled on the calendar and was really looking forward to during our time in Alaska. It was going to be the first-time visiting Kenai Fjords National Park for my wife and kids. You can access Kenai Fjords National Park by car if you want to get up close to Exit Glacier but the best way to view wildlife and multiple glaciers is by a boat tour. We booked the 11:30 am Kenai Fjords National Park boat tour with Major Marine as our tour operator. You need to get the harbor area and check-in 30 minutes before embarking. Parking isn’t the easiest to find in that area so I would factor in 15-20 minutes just for that. The narrated tour is 6 hours long (they will push it a bit longer if it’s a beautiful day with calm waters) and it also includes complimentary lunch, coffee, tea, and snacks for purchase. It was the first boat tour for my kids, and we were fortunate enough to have picture perfect weather. I was impressed with this same tour when I booked it in 2015 and since that time, the experience has only gotten better, with Major Marine taking delivery of two new modernized and spacious vessels. Whether you are coming to Alaska with kids or without kids, mark this down as a tour which needs to be on your list. You can opt for the longer 7.5-hour cruise but for us, 6 hours was perfect. We saw killer whales, Dall’s porpoise, puffins, seals, sea lions, and the highlight of our trip to Alaska, a humpback whale that breached the water about 150 yards away!
Seward Boat Harbor
Sea Lions, Sea Gulls, and Cormorants at Resurrection Bay, Alaska
Adult Humpback Whale
Adult Humpback fully breaching. I was not prepared for this capture, hence the blurriness. The highlight of our tour.
A pod of Dall’s porpoise that followed our vessel for several minutes.
Holgate Glacier on the left, a transient orca on the right
We were fortunate to have a perfect day for wildlife viewing and to enjoy the beautiful glaciers and mountains. If you decide to do this tour or any boat tour for that matter, remember to dress warm and also bring earmuffs if you plan to be on the deck and in the elements for an extended period of time. Temperatures on the water are about 20 degrees cooler than land and the wind can make it feel really cold. If you decide to stay inside the heated cabin, you will still be able to view just about everything. Remember to tip the tour personnel on your way out.
After completing this tour, we planned on having an early dinner at a well-known place in Seward called Salmon Bake. They do not take reservations over the phone, or any website/app and you have to put your name on a list and stick around. The wait can be long to get a table so be prepared — we had to wait 45 minutes, but it was well worth it. I got the coconut crusted prawns and….wait for it……salmon! (Alaskan sockeye). Both were fantastic and as fresh as you will ever have. Try to have at least one meal here if you’re in Seward.
To conclude the evening, we drove a few minutes down the road to the car accessible part of Kenai Fjords National Park. This is where you can do the one-mile hike right up to Exit Glacier. And with that, a memorable and fun-filled fifth day in Alaska was in the books.
Day 6: Seward and Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center
Day 6 was our final day in Alaska. Since our flight from Anchorage to Chicago wasn’t until 11pm, we had most of the day for recreation. We spent the morning at Seward Waterfront Park to allow the kids to play before we had to get in the car to head north towards Anchorage. The views are beautiful here and it’s also a place where you can view sea lions, otters, native birds, and occasionally, whales.
Seward Waterfront Park
On our way to Anchorage, we stopped at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. This is another place which I strongly recommend for everyone but especially those traveling with kids. You can view just about any type of large land mammal that is native to Alaska behind the safety of a fence. This includes the Wood Bison, a species that was hunted to near extinction about 70 years ago and cannot be seen in Denali. The animals here have plenty of space to roam and their environment closely resembles their natural habitat. Budget at least 2 hours to comfortably see all the animals. After a memorable and fun-filled 6 days in Alaska, it was off to Anchorage to take our redeye flight back to Chicago (more on this below). What we did in 6 days is just a tip of the iceberg of what can be done while visiting Alaska. At the end, we wished we had more time and were able to visit other parts but perhaps that will be a trip for the future.
Since this trip required us to utilize multiple airlines and hotels in addition to AirBnB, we used a combination of Chase Ultimate Rewards Points, American Airlines miles, Delta miles, Choice Privilege Points, and cash to book our itinerary. To get to Anchorage from Seattle on Delta was just 7k miles per person. If you have AMEX Platinum, Gold, or Green — either the personal or business verion of the three — you can transfer points straight into Delta’s frequent flyer program 1:1. The Chase redemption for American Airlines on the way back to Chicago allowed us to get 1.5 points per cent and book a $400 one-way ticket for 26.4k Chase Points. Since my wife has gold status with American, this allowed us to move up to main cabin extra and check bags at no charge. Since Chase treats Ultimate Rewards points redemptions for airlines like cash purchases, we also accrued American Advantage miles for this trip. Using Chase Ultimate Rewards points to book at the McKinley Chalet Resort got us the best value in Denali since large chains such as Hilton, Marriott, IHG, Hyatt, etc do not operate there. Back when I first got in the points and miles hobby about 13 years ago (the golden era of this hobby before several airline/hotel devaluations), I used to loathe Choice Hotels and didn’t care for their portfolio of hotel brands or their rewards program. Since that time, my view on Choice Hotels has evolved as they have really expanded the footprint on their upscale properties (Cambria and Ascend Collection) and have also invested in updating their mid-tier properties (Comfort Inn, Comfort Suites, Sleep Inn, Quality Inn and Clarion). Their mid-tier properties are perfect for a one or two night stay to break up a road trip. When you’re traveling with kids, having complimentary breakfast on premises can be a huge time and money saver. The Comfort Inn Downtown – Ship Creek in Anchorage cost us 10k Choice Privilege points for a one-night redemption when cash prices were over $220. Perhaps in the near future, I’ll dedicate an entire post for Choice Hotels.
Lessons We Learned While Doing This Trip with Toddlers
Since this trip involved a lot of driving — about 850 miles in 6 days— the biggest challenge was trying to keep the kids entertained and prevent them from getting restless. We would make a stop every hour or so and let them walk outside and be active. We also downloaded kids shows and movies onto the iPad prior to arriving in Alaska knowing that cell service can be very spotty. Any time we spotted wildlife, glaciers, snow-capped mountains, or anything that was interesting, we would point it out and give them some tidbits on what they’re looking at. Later on, if we saw it again, we would quiz them and test their recollection. These trips have incredible educational value and treating them like a field trip is always our goal.
One lesson we learned with our kids is that redeye flights are very difficult for them— as it is for most kids—and something we will try to avoid moving forward. I certainly don’t blame them as it’s hard to get into a comfortable sleeping position in an economy seat during a time which they’re used to sleeping comfortably. Our flight left Anchorage at 9 pm and landed in Chicago at 6 am. Most of the non-stop flights from Anchorage to the Midwest and East Coast will be redeye, but there are a few flights that depart before 10 am and get to their destination in the evening. These flights will cost more but are worth booking if it allows your kids to be comfortable and no tears are shed.
If you plan on following our itinerary with kids, bring an iPad, plenty of snacks, water or juice, a baby carrier if traveling with an infant, hiking boots for toddlers (and yourself), raincoats, warm clothing, and a stroller if you plan on walking around Anchorage or Seward. Denali National Park does not have any trails that I would feel comfortable pushing a stroller on, but I suppose if you have a rugged stroller with larger wheels and shocks, you may come out of it okay. Do not forget to bring mosquito repellant for kids. We chose the Babyganics Deet-free repellant for both of our kids and it held up very well. As always, thanks for reading. If you have any questions, feel free to drop them in the comments or shoot me an email and I’ll try to respond as soon as I can.