Awe-inspiringly Beautiful Alaska!
If adventure is what you’re after, Alaska is the place to be. Alaska offers not only a mind-blowingly large expanse of beautiful vistas everywhere you look, but also plenty of things to do for the adventure-seeker. During the summertime when the days are long and the snow has mostly melted, visitors can enjoy thousands of hiking trails, river fishing and deep sea fishing, hunting and glacier viewing. You can camp at one of the many campgrounds strewn about Alaska, cover a lot of ground by renting an RV, or stay in one of Alaska’s many beautiful log cabins.
I traveled to Alaska with my husband, my dad and his girlfriend for a fishing trip in July of 2018. The whole point of the trip was to fish (we wanted to get a mix of both king salmon river fishing, sockeye salmon river fishing and deep sea fishing for halibut). There are a ton of outfits strewn about the different parts of Alaska, and the cost varies wildly. We were shocked to initially get quotes from fishing guides that wanted to charge $15,000—$20,000 per person. That was nowhere close to our budget, but we also didn’t want to do it without a guide because we were going into the trip blind. After some research and running the numbers, I figured out that the cheapest way to do it would be to find a cabin through VRBO or AirBnB, and then book a guide just for the day. However, we still didn’t really know exactly where the good fishing was, so we didn’t even know where would be the most centrally-located spot to stay to accommodate the different types of fishing we wanted to do. So we settled on an option somewhere in the middle—we chose to work with a reasonably-priced fishing outfit called Russell Fishing Company and stayed in an independently run cabin operator that they recommended. Ultimately, we were happy with our choice, but there were definitely some things I learned along the way and would do differently the next time around.
Our trip mostly consisted of fishing and some sight-seeing, so this post will focus primarily on what I learned from my first trip to Alaska, will provide a review of the Eagle Head cabins (where we stayed), a review of Russell Fishing Company and the several days we spent fishing either the river or the sea, and provide some recommended sightseeing spots that are a must-see for travelers to Anchorage, Alaska.
What you should know before going:
Alaska is bigger than you think
Alaska is big. Like, REALLY big. I know we all probably get this conceptually in our minds, but having an understanding of just how big the state is was hard for me to wrap my mind around before I got there. For me, since it was my first time traveling to Alaska, I really wanted to get the most out of my trip. So I looked into doing day trips to various places and looked at the map to see if we could take slight detours to cool spots, or perhaps even reroute our trip a bit so that we could diversify the places we went to. Boy, was I surprised when I realized that some of the places I had in my mind and thought would be a short drive were days of driving away and really only accessible by plane (and a commercial plane at that--not even short enough to logistically make a seaplane worth it either). For example, from Anchorage to Dutch Harbor (if you've seen the popular show Deadliest Catch, you'll be familiar with Dutch Harbor) it is a 67 hour drive. That's three whole days of straight driving if you only stop to sleep. Danali National Park is another full day of driving from Anchorage, despite the fact that it looks relatively close on a map. So just be prepared to take several flights if you really want to see more than just a tiny fraction of the state during your trip. And be prepared to drive a lot to get to wherever you want to go.
for a summer trip, you need to plan ahead
Summer is the high season--and for good reason. Much of Alaska is inaccessible during the wintertime because of the snow. Roads are closed and, in all honesty, most people just don't want to brave those temperatures unless they're used to them. So if you want to get the most out of Alaska, you have to travel there in the summertime.
Well, that obviously means that because it's prime season, you will encounter all the issues that generally go along with booking during high season. First, a lot of places book up well in advance, so you better plan your trip 6 months to a year ahead of time if you really want to snag a good place to stay or get the best fishing guide. I booked my trip for July in early December of the previous year. Even then, some of the places I liked were already booked. So plan ahead.
Second, you have to be prepared to pay high season prices. Even though Alaska won't compare to more sought after destinations in Europe or the US (after all, it is Alaska), if you live in the midwest or a location other than California or New York, the pricing might surprise you. Be prepared to pay the max amount in the summertime, and budget accordingly.
Lastly, with prime season also comes more people, so be prepared to share that fjord cruise you booked with a lot of fanny-pack wearing tourists. For more unique experiences without a lot of people, seek out private tours (but again, book them well in advance). If you are looking to save on costs, be sure to book those tours, ferries or boat trips early so you don't risk not being able to go.
What I learned:
In booking our fishing trip to Alaska, none of us really knew the best way to do it because we were all first-timers. So we went with a fishing guide company that organized everything for us. In hindsight, I’m not sure we needed that. We definitely ended up not only paying a premium for it, but also lost any flexibility we might’ve wanted in the trip. I suppose it’s easier now to say in hindsight that we didn’t need everything to be organized for us (now that we’ve done it once and know more about where to go, where to fish, where to stay, and in general, what the entire fishing process requires), but I really do think that with the right amount of research and information under your belt, you can organize a really great fishing trip on your own. And if not totally “on your own”, my recommendation would probably be to find your own place to stay and then book guides individually per day.
So with that said, the biggest thing I learned is you don’t need to use an outfit that organizes your entire schedule. In fact, as long as you know what you want to fish and when, I would advise against using one outfit that organizes everything because it gives you zero flexibility. That was probably the biggest downfall of our trip. It was not until we got to our cabin and spoke with the manager there that we found out we would be waking up at 3 am the following morning (mind you, after getting in after 9 pm and not getting to sleep until about midnight). At first we thought that was an isolated incident and that we would just have to power through the first day, but we later realized that we would need to wake up anywhere from 3:30 am to 4:30 am in order to get on the water by 5 am (because each spot requires a bit of a drive) for every day of fishing until we left. So what happened is that we fished for four straight days—without a break in between—and, more importantly, without the opportunity to catch up on rest at all. This left us all pretty grouchy and unpleasant because we just simply could not catch up on any sleep (and oh, by the way, it’s light til 1 am, so good luck getting to sleep early... more on that later).
We learned that, despite what our guides were telling us, you do not need be out on the water at 5 am every morning to catch fish—in fact, depending on the tide you may end up just sitting there all morning for no reason. Our greenest guide let it slip one morning that we would have been better off sleeping in and getting out around 9:00 and then fishing until the afternoon because of the tide swing. But the company sends their guides out between 5 and 6 am and makes them stop at 2, so even if the fishing is shitty in the morning and the fishing is best around 3 pm, you are shit out of luck and stuck with those times. This is primarily why I say you would be better off booking a private guide separately from a package of some sort. That way you can fish for what you want, when you want (and not right at 5 am when the tide isn’t right or the fish just aren’t biting).
Another reason I would book a private guide is simply because of the early mornings required by our fishing package. I knew we would have some early mornings, but what I didn’t know is that we would have to wake up at 3:30 am to get to our fishing spots by 5 and 6 am—EVERY. DAMN. MORNING. This came as a complete surprise to me. The shit-show started the very first day, when we arrived and were broken the news: that we’d have to be ready to fish by 5 am the following morning, and that it would take us an hour to get there, so we would have to wake up at 3:30 am in order to be ready. We had gotten in late that day because our flight was delayed, the rental car company didn’t have our car on time, we had to stop for groceries, and then after the 3 hour drive from Anchorage didn’t actually make it to the cabin until after 9:30 pm. None of us had eaten, and we didn’t have time to stop anywhere for dinner, so we had to cook and somehow try to make ourselves get into bed early, despite the fact that it was still light by midnight and our cabin didn’t have any blackout curtains. So we got to bed at around 12:30 am and then had to turn around and get up 3 hours later at 3:30. We thought by the way Paul (our cabin manager) had broken the news to us that day about the early morning that it would get better after that first day. Well, it didn’t. Monday’s open water charter was in Homer—which was 2 hours away—so in order to be there by 6 am we had to again get up by 3:30. Then Tuesday’s 5 am float trip was also an hour away, so there we were waking up at 3:30 again. Finally, we got to “sleep in” for our fourth and final charter out on the Kenai, where we were supposed to meet our guide at Pillar at 5:30. Since it’s only 30 minutes away, we got to leave the house at 5 instead of 4, so Byron and I “slept in” until 4:30. What the fishing guide company neglected to tell us though was that you can’t even start fishing the Kenai until after 6 am (so why did we need to be there at 5:30?) and the better fishing is often times in the afternoon. Lovely.
While our cabin at Eagle Head was beautiful and rather well-appointed for an Alaskan cabin, it was also pretty far away from everywhere we fished, which meant waking up even earlier than we probably needed to. You’d probably be better off staying somewhere on the Kenai River, which would make the Kenai fishing very convenient and the Kasilof and Homer trips slightly closer.
One thing that was great about the Eagle Head cabins was that you could practically fish right from your front porch, which is a nice option to have. However, we were so tired after waking up at 3:30 every morning and then fishing for 6-8 hours that we were in no mood to keep fishing after we got back to the cabin… so I suppose that sort of negates that being a positive element. If you had an off day or two it would be nice, but if you’ve got a full schedule slated like we did, you really don’t even have much time to enjoy the cabin or its amenities, which was kind of a bummer.
Another issue is that we were severely misinformed about the type of fishing we would be doing in Kenai. That is mostly our fault and really has nothing to do with the fishing company we used though. We ultimately made the choice to take a trip to Alaska after hearing stories upon stories about how the Kenai was the Mecca of fishing and how people go in the summertime and just slay fish all day. Like “catch a fish on every cast out” type of fishing. Not the case at all—we soon found out that the Kenai and Kasilof rivers are for getting that one big trophy fish—the one you can hang on your wall. Sure, it’s nice to get a big 40, 50 or even 60 pound salmon to put on your wall or brag to your friends about back home, but that wasn’t what we were looking for. We wanted to FISH. And sticking a pole in a rod holder, floating aimlessly for 6 to 8 hours in the freezing cold, just staring at the rod and waiting for some type of movement—well, that’s not fishing. The only fishing days we really enjoyed were the one out on the water (because, well, that’s the only one where we actually caught something) and the time spent fishing for sockeye, because then you’re actually doing something (you’re flyfishing from the bank of the river, so you are actually casting rather than just sitting in a boat with your pole in a holder). We didn’t catch any sockeye, but at least you’re standing up, casting in and out, and getting a fish hooked every once in a while. I was lucky enough to get one King—a 23 pounder that fought like hell and made me happy it wasn’t actually a really big fish—but no one else in my group of four caught anything on our Sockeye and King fishing days.
If I could do a Kenai fishing trip all over again, I would find a place to stay on the Kenai River or somewhere at least close, and book a private guide separately. I would do one day of King salmon fishing on the Kenai River, one day of Sockeye fishing on the Kasilof, one day of Halibut fishing out of Homer, and the fourth day I would do either bottom fishing or King Salmon fishing on an open water boat out of Homer. Or perhaps I’d skip the Kenai altogether and just fish out of Seward—we heard it is cyclical and that the Kenai is typically the best King fishing but when we got back to the airport and saw people with heaps upon heaps of fish boxes and asking them where they fished, they told us they caught them all in Seward. We were told that there were so many salmon in the runs in Seward that they upped the limit for locals to 6 per day (it’s 1 per person per day on the Kenai). Perhaps it’s just luck of the draw, but I think we probably would’ve had better luck in Seward. I guess that’s just fishing though…
If I could do an Alaska trip all over again... frankly I would probably skip the fishing. Or perhaps just plan one day of open water fishing (because let’s be honest: you are guaranteed to catch more fish and even if you don’t, you’re out on the beautiful ocean and can just sit back and drink beers all day) and do some trout fishing on your own. Even fish for sockeye salmon along one of the rivers without a guide. If I do decide to come back to Alaska—if you had asked me at the beginning of this trip whether or not I would come back I would’ve told you “not a chance in hell” but after the full trip and having some time to reflect on it, I am thinking I probably will go back—I would spend most of the time camping, hiking up to the glaciers, and fishing from the bank near a campsite. I think the best way to do it would be to rent an RV, camp at a few different spots up near the Byron Glacier, then head out to the Kenai Peninsula, and then perhaps further out near Homer.
The problem with our trip was that we were stuck fishing so much that we couldn’t even really enjoy Alaska. And to make matters worse, we were getting up at 3:30 am without any sleep the night before, making us all cranky and miserable. Oh, and it was cold as fuck. And we didn’t catch hardly any fish. So add that all together and it certainly doesn’t make for an enjoyable vacation, or even for just an enjoyable fishing trip for that matter.
The only real positive about the fishing was our guides. We really lucked out and got a few guys that were really fun and nice, with one of the two salmon fishing guides being one of the more knowledgeable that they have at the company apparently (though we didn’t catch a single fish with him... so there’s that). The family who owns the company were all super friendly and were as accommodating as they could be. We met the owner Dustin when we came back from our open water fishing day (we were with Zack that day but Dustin was captaining another charter). One of their sons, 11-year-old Max, was our deckhand that day, and we also met their other son Badger back at the docks. We dealt with Dustin's wife Jessica over the phone after we arrived in Alaska, who answered our questions after reading the instructions and finding some of the information to be contradictory. The entire family were all super nice and friendly, as were our guides.
Glenn, on the other hand, who apparently is like the manager of the company and deals with the off-season organization, had a bedside manner that left little to be desired and seemed thoroughly annoyed by all my questions (which, by the way, I wouldn’t have had to ask had they simply put a little more information on their website). He was also not all that pleasant to talk to. I chalked that up to him being a jaded old fisherman from Alaska, but he still probably shouldn’t have been their point person. I suppose that's my only real criticism of the company at all. Why they don't make Jessica the point person is beyond me.
The family who owns and operates Russell Fishing Company were all so nice in fact that it makes me feel a little guilty saying even one slightly negative thing about the trip; but my complaints, of course, have little to do with the organization of the trip or the services they offer (except for some minor complaints about a lack of information and some poor communication), but rather that we should have probably structured the trip in a different way in order to be able to actually enjoy it in a way that would have better suited our needs. That is no criticism of them or their services. And that is not to say that an avid fisherman who is okay with fishing four days in a row, for 8 hours a day, without catching any fish, wouldn’t still enjoy it.
Eagle Head Cabins
We originally found the Eagle Head Cabins because they were suggested by the fishing guide we chose. These cabins are privately owned but work together with Russell Fishing Company to make sure its temporary residents are shown where to go and know what they need to be prepared for the next day.
There were a lot of very thoughtful details at the Eagle Head cabins. Outdoor fireplaces and grills were stocked with dry wood each day after the previous night’s use. Various bottles of OFF were strewn about the tables outside in the communal area. Cabins were stocked with all the necessary cooking and dining utensils—we had plenty of coffee cups, wine glasses (though plastic, which is smart), pots and pans, dishes and seasoning. We even had plenty of foil, Ziploc bags (which were necessary for packing our lunches each day), and paper products. The waders and rain gear provided were brand new, sometimes even unopened and in the box they arrived in. And they don’t skimp on the gear—the rain gear we had was so nice that each of our guides commented on it and assumed we had brought our own. There were plenty of fly fishing poles and rods—again, sometimes so new that the handles still had the plastic on them.
The cabins themselves are also very well appointed and well decorated in that desirable Alaskan/mountain theme. Beautiful, custom wood carvings adorned the log cabins, while various taxidermy and bear or moose themed rugs and blankets were tastefully weaved alongside modern amenities like a flat screen TV, plush leather couches and modern appliances.
The WiFi never seemed to work, despite several attempts at resetting the router. I had better luck getting the internet to work when I turned the WiFi off entirely and just relied on cell service, which was minimal but at least worked eventually.
My biggest complaint about the cabin was the fact that there are no blinds on the top level windows and no blackout curtains at all. For Alaska, that’s a pretty big issue since it stays light out well past midnight and the sun rises again at around 4 am. Though the bottom level had blinds, the blinds themselves were not enough to make it even remotely dark in the bottom floor, and since there were no blinds at all on the top floor loft and second story, the entire cabin was still pretty well lit-up even when all the blinds were closed. This made going to sleep at a reasonable hour nearly impossible. It’s a simple fix, so I really had some difficulty understanding why they don’t just put some damn blackout curtains on the upper windows (yes, the windows are at an angle, but that doesn’t mean you can’t come up with a solution to cover them). I would’ve brought my own damn curtains if I knew this would have been the situation we were walking into. Or I would have at least brought my eye mask… next time I most definitely won’t forget one!
Our day trip to Whittier was by far my favorite day of the whole trip. What a trippy little town it is. Accessible only by boat on one side or a one-way tunnel carved through the mountain on the other side, Whittier is the epitome of isolated. The two mile long tunnel shares traffic between inbound vehicles, outbound vehicles, inbound trains and outbound trains—each taking turns in 15 minute increments throughout the day. The tunnel closes completely at night, so if you miss your time to leave, you’re stuck there. Its residents are clearly used to the isolation, but poorly informed travelers may end up unintentionally having to stay the night if they’re not careful. The locals often laugh when they tell stories about the people who have missed their train and ended up stuck for another day.
Whittier is also rich in history. During World War II, the United States Army constructed a military facility at Whittier, complete with port and railroad near Whittier Glacier and named the facility Camp Sullivan. They built two buildings—intended to make up a complete city under one roof and house over a thousand military personnel—which were built at the height of the Cold War with the thought that a military outpost near Russia was necessary. The Hodge Building (later renamed Begich Towers) contained 150 apartments meant to house military employees and their families. The other main structure in town, the Buckner Building, was completed in 1953, and was called the "city under one roof". The Buckner Building was eventually abandoned, yet still sits there today. The Buckner and Begich Towers were at one time the largest buildings in Alaska. The Begich Building now houses a majority of the town's 200 residents.
The drive in and out of Whittier was also enjoyable; we drove past the Byron Glacier and then through a perfect little campground that had hardly any campers and seemed like a beautiful, peaceful place to stay, tucked amongst the trees and not far from a small river. Our moments near the Byron glacier were some of the most awe-inspiring: the glacier itself was a wonderful sight, which we stared at in awe as white flakes were flying off the Cottonwood trees so much it looked like it was snowing. The whole place was pretty magical. I t's definitely at the top of my list when I make recommendations to people regarding places you need to go when you visit Alaska.
The Byron glacier is on your way to Whittier, and you’d be foolish not to stop and look at this beautiful vista on your way. Make the trip early enough and you can park in the campground that’s at the base of the mountain and do the relatively short (about 5 mile) hike up to the top of the glacier. If hiking ins’t in your plans, you can simply drive into the campground, marvel at the glacier from the bottom of the valley, get your photo and leave.
Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center
Located about 50 miles outside of Anchorage, the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center is only about an hour’s drive from town (which is short for Alaska) and is a great spot for both kids and adults alike. The center has over 200 acres of animal enclosures, accessible by both foot and by car (you can drive the loop and see the animals without even getting out of your car). I recommend getting out and walking of course, but for those who may not be as able-bodied, it’s worth knowing that the center is still accessible for everyone.
The 501(c)3 nonprofit organization takes in injured and orphaned wildlife and provides them with spacious enclosures, medical attention and care. The organization also has education programs for groups and seeks to educate the public on wildlife conservation. The facility houses dozens of bison, moose, elk, Sitka black-tail deer, muskox, caribou, reindeer, fox, coyotes, wolves, porcupines, brown bears, black bears, and even a wolverine, lynx, bald eagle, great horned owl and a grizzly bear. You can see all of these pretty up close, as most of the time the only thing separating you and these wild animals is a single fence.
Prices are $15 per adult, $12 for seniors and members of the military, and $10 for children 7-17. Children under 6 are free. Getting there is fairly simple: you take Route 1 (The Seward Highway) and travel south for about 47 miles from Anchorage and they’re located just before the turnoff to the Portage Glacier (if you see the glacier turnoff, you’ve gone too far). The drive is a scenic one that travels mostly along the water, so even the drive out there is worth doing for the views and the scenery.