If you think Alaska is only a destination for the kid-free cruising crowd, think again.
With the right preparation and a few recommendations, it can be a memorable family vacation -- full of good food, scenic drives, unique wildlife and sites unlike any other in the U.S.
~by Regan Jones, RD
If there’s one thing I love as much as food, it’s travel. It’s weird how much of a homebody I am (translation: my preferred Friday night consists of comfy clothes, a glass of wine and Netflix ), but yet I am always ready to pack a bag and head out the door.
And apparently, I am raising two kids who feel the same.
Two weeks ago, these little guys and I boarded a plane for Anchorage, Alaska. It was a return visit for me and my oldest son (we went in 2013), but it was my youngest son’s first (note my wrinkles and tired eyes #LongFlight).
Here’s a little bit about what we did, what we ate and what we learned on our trip.
Day 1 - Travel from Augusta, GA to Atlanta, GA to Anchorage, AK to Trapper Creek, AK
While I connect through Atlanta a lot for work-related travel, this was my first time to do so with two kids AND connecting for a long flight. We had a lot of sitting and walking before we ever boarded for Anchorage. If I had it to do over again, I’d drive directly to Atlanta and forgo the connection. My youngest is 5 and as much of a trooper as he was, I could tell by the time we got to our gate and waited out the 3 hour layover, he was fatiguing fast. (Plus, eating in the airport and going to the bathroom stinks with two kids for that extended amount of time. Driving would eliminate some of that.)
Recommendation: Take as few connections as possible, even if that means a little extra driving to a larger airport. Next, don’t just pack travel snacks. Pack a meal. You’ll need it in flight. And think through in-flight drinks. There’s nothing worse than spilled drinks during a flight. I recommend a water bottle + cup with a lid. I actually splurged on these cups so that both snacks and drinks would be spill-proof.
The flight from Atlanta to Anchorage is 7+ hours, but unlike a trip to Europe, you’re going with the sun, so it doesn’t feel quite as exhausting (in my opinion) since you’re not flying at night or landing in the middle of the night. You take off in the afternoon on the East Coast, but land early in the evening, local Alaska time (Alaska is 4 hours behind ET).
Sidenote on eating upon arrival: We didn’t eat a "dinner" meal this time when we arrived. The boys were too tired. But last time, we did. So you may end up eating 4 meals in one day because you are in flight during “dinner East Coast” and you land during “dinner Alaska time”.
And speaking of landing in Alaska, here’s where it gets real:
In the summer, it really doesn’t matter if you’re landing at night or in the morning. It’s always daylight. I learned this the hard way the first time I visited Alaska. I “knew” about all-day, daylight, but until you’ve experienced it, you can’t really appreciate what it’s like to be 11pm and it look like 3:30pm. That said, it makes it really easy to fit a lot into your vacation (#EpicallyLongDays). But it can make sleep difficult if you’re not prepared.
(10pm in July - Soldotna, AK )
Recommendation: Take a sleep mask with you and if possible, have your kids try one out before they go. My kids didn’t seem as bothered by it as I was, but you never know. Yours might be. You might also pack some black towels and clothespins to put up over windows. The first year we went to Alaska we were in a camper (highly recommend camping Alaska, too, but that's another post) and black towels were a MUST. Most of the places we stayed this time had fairly darkly colored blinds, but even small slivers of light can throw you off when you try to go to bed. Also, be prepared to start closing blinds early in the evening when it’s still really bright outside. This is the best way to start telling your body it’s “getting nighttime” when there’s essentially, no night.
So, after landing, we headed up to a small “inn” (no frills accommodations are pretty typical in Alaska. If you’re saying in a swanky hotel, you’re in the minority) that was roughly half-way between Anchorage and Denali. And by half-way I mean about 3 hours north of Anchorange.
Yep. You read that right. Three. More. Hours. After a flight from Augusta to Atlanta + a 3 hour layover + a 7-plus hour flight, we drove nearly 3 more hours.
Recommendation: Don’t do that.
I should’ve known this was a bad idea. But on our last visit, we didn’t “do” Denali. We knew we wanted to visit the Kenai Peninsula (I love it there). So to try to fit it all in, I agreed to this plan when my dad suggested it (Sidenote: the firestarter behind all of these Alaska trips is my dad. He was already in AK to pick us up each time we flew. We spent the week driving around AK with him in his camper. He’s never met a 300+ mile day of driving he didn’t like.)
But ultimately, this was too much in one day with two kids. We made the best of it, but we weren’t in the best shape when we finally got in bed. Fortunately, we piled into bed that night planning to sleep “a little” late in the morning because it was only a few hours up to Denali.
Sidenote — everything you want to see/do in Alaska is “a few hours” away. Seriously. I can’t even begin to explain how spread out everything is. It’s a Big. Freakin. State. Look at this:
(image credit: akonthego.com)
Day 2 - Travel to/from Denali National Park from Trapper Creek, AK
When you travel with kids, it’s always good to remember what they say about the best laid plans. It has something to do with “Your child will wake up with diarrhea in the morning,” I think.
Or if it doesn’t, it should, ‘cause that’s what happened to us. My oldest son woke up about 4am local time sick (don’t do the math. It means I’d barely fallen asleep). I won’t go into further detail, other than to say it took the shine off the first morning of the trip. We made the best of it, decided to continue up to Denali and were able to take in a few of the sights... namely, visiting the sled dog kennels, a must on the list for my kids. (Here’s my Periscope broadcast of the dogs running at the kennels.)
While I enjoyed that part of Denali, honestly, there’s SO much more to see there. I hate that we had so little time.
Recommendation: If you want to visit Denali, plan to fly into Anchorage, stay the night locally, travel up to Denali the next day and spend a few days. There’s too much to see/do and you’ll want to make it more than just a one or two day visit.
Eating at Denali: There are a number of restaurants (as I understand it) around the park, but the only restaurant actually in the park (and near the Sled Dog Kennels where we were visiting) is the Morino Grill. I was a little apprehensive since it was “park food,” but it turned out great. I had a grilled veggie panini and the boys split a grilled chicken sandwich. The grill had plenty of good choices, ranging from a gluten-free section of packaged baked goods to prepared salads to traditional bagels, pastries, fruit, milk, yogurt, burgers, soups … and beer (alcohol isn’t scarce in Alaska. I think it has to do with 24-hours of darkness in the winter. #IWouldDrinkToo).
- Pros: The food at Morino Grill is good and fresh tasting. Not a “park foodservice" feel.
- Cons: It’s a scramble system, kinda chaotic and packed since it’s the only in-park place to eat. So be prepared to feel a little confused at first, but well-fed afterward.
Sidenote: I didn’t get any food pictures at Denali. I was a little off my game. I refer you back to my son’s digestive issues. That will alter your picture taking priorities.
Day 3 - Travel to Soldotna, AK from Trapper Creek, AK with sidetrip to Talkeetna, AK
The next morning was still a little iffy on the kid-digestion front…
Sidenote — Do not travel to Alaska without basic meds and provisions. Seriously. That’s one of my biggest pieces of advice #BePrepared. Unless you stay right smack in the middle of somewhere like Anchorage or Fairbanks and never venture out, you will likely find yourself a good ways away from a pharmacy or a Fred Meyer (the Alaskan version of mega-one stop shopping) at some point along your journey.
… but I was feeling pretty good about our chances, so we decided to stick with the original plan to visit to Talkeetna for breakfast (and were committed to getting probiotics just as soon as we got to Wasilla).
About Talkeetna: It is must-visit if you’re doing Denali or making the LONG drive up to Fairbanks. It’s a quaint little town that many believe was the inspiration behind the TV show “Northern Exposure. (Watch these Periscope broadcasts for a better view of Talkeetna.)
Eating in Talkeetna: Plan to visit the Talkeetna Roadhouse for breakfast.
Mega-portions of dishes like sourdough blueberry-banana pancakes, delicious quiche, their infamous cinnamon rolls and even reindeer sausage make it a must-visit.
And as you’re heading out the door, grab one of their Ginger-Molasses Cookies. Everyone on our trip agreed — one of the #BestCookiesEver.
- Pros: Portions at Talkeetna Roadhouse are big and tasty, conversation is plentiful and the coffee is bottomless. (I sat with a couple from Michigan who had visited Alaska multiple times and had actually stayed in the Arctic Circle — which is amazingly close - by Alaska standards - to Fairbanks, if you look at it on a map.)
- Not a Con to me, but worth noting: Breakfast at the Roadhouse can take a while. You sit family style wherever you can find a seat (so not necessarily with the rest of your group). But if you have to wait for someone in your group to finish, you can rock a little while on their front porch...
...or take selfies, whatever you prefer.
Recommendation: Carve out a couple of hours for Talkeetna. Talkeetna is a pedestrian little town and there are plenty of photo opps for the kids with painted moose around town.
Drop into the little stores and hope that at some point on your journey the clouds might clear for you to see Denali to the north (I have to go back if for no other reason, I’ve never been able to see Denali… along with the other 70% of folks who visit Alaska, apparently). These were the only mountain tops I got to see in the interior of Alaska.
After leaving Talkeetna we had quite the drive ahead of us. Our final destination was a lovely little cabin camp site in Soldotna, which forevermore will be one of my most cherished memories. More on it in my next post, along with a new recipe for Talkeetna Roadhouse Copycat Ginger-Molasses Cookies, which I’ve made gluten-free so that Mr. ReganMillerJones, Inc (who didn’t go on the trip) could enjoy a little taste of our travels. Be sure to check back in on the next post for the recipe!