In this post we would like to share our experience with those Photography lovers that are planning a trip to Alaska. We will list some interesting places that we visited. We were there just once but, for sure, we will repeat some year.
Our trip was long, about two months during June and July 2012, although we had bad weather during great part of the trip; it was raining during 20 days with no visibility. Unfortunately, we gave up travelling to the Yukon in Canada due to this bad weather.
Our first advice consists in renting a motorhome or RV. We recommend to go to public campgrounds or overnight where you can. Public campgrounds prices start from 7 €. Private campgrounds range from 25 to 40 euros.
Regarding the most interesting places from the photographic point of view, according to our short but intense experience in Alaska, we would recommend the following:
– Mount Mckinley or Denali: Undoubtedly, the Denali Viewpoint south in mile 135,2 of the Parks Highway is one of the best panoramic views of Mount McKinley also known as Denali. The parking area can be used as campground by paying a 7 € fee. It is worthwhile waiting for the right weather to take this picture. If not, you will lose the chance of doing one of the best panoramic views of this emblematic Alaskan mount. Sunrise is the right time to take this picture since the sun is at our back. The famous picture of the Mckinley with the reflection over the Wonder Lake is a bit difficult if you do not have a tent. Also, you need a permission and you have to show that you know the rules in order to camp in a land full of bears.
–National Park of Denali: We didn’t book previously in Denali in order to check the forecast and decide the best period to stay in the park. The best choice is to book in Teklanika River campground, which is the only one inside the park where RV vehicles are permitted. We booked for 6 nights and, accordingly, we had to wait for 5 days to enter. If you have a tent, there is place in the rest of campgrounds and you do not need to wait for. However, the great advantage of Teklanika is economical. You can ask for a “Tek pass” that permits you to take as buses as you like during the whole period of your stay by just $30. If not, buses are very expensive. For instance, the daily bus to Wonder Lake costs $46. If you want to expend more than one day inside Denali, Teklanika is a good deal. In any case, the River Creek campground near the Visitor Center was available. Note that, in early June, there was plenty of free space in the buses. Do not suffer about reservations.
As expected, on the beginning of June, there are not so much problems to use your Tek Pass and you can move very easily using the green buses. Note that you can get off and get in the bus whenever you like. However, during high season, it seems to be much more difficult and you would probably have to wait for some time.
Importantly, the journeys are long and they could be tiring. For instance, the trip to Wonder Lake from Teklanika campground lasts 5 hours, or 3 hours to achieve Eielson Visitor Center. This includes stops to see wildlife. To take nice pictures of wildlife is a question of luck. More times means more chances.
Dall sheep is the “star” of Denali, since it can be only found in Alaska and this park was created to save them
Do not forget that the weather is also a determinant factor that could change in minutes; for instance, we were blocked by the snow during the morning and, few hours later, the temperature raised and the sun shined.
– Denali Highway: While waiting to enter in Denali N.P., we went back 20-25 miles to the Denali Highway. This is a quiet place to overnight and take nice pictures. This gravel road is not recommended for RVs due to the insurance, although the road is in quite good condition. Mooses, hares and porcupines can be easily seen, although animals are shyer than in Denali N. P.
– Valdez and surroundings: The way to Valdez offers several photographic possibilities without leaving the road. If you are lucky with the weather, try to plan extra-time for shooting glaciers, mountains, flowers and the falls in Keystone canyon. In Valdez, you can board in a cruise to see the famous Prince William Sound and its wildlife. While waiting for the right weather, you can take pictures in harbor, seeing the arrival of the fishermen and how they sell the catch of the day, mainly Halibut. But, also, taking pictures of bald eagles since, every day at 16:00 aprox., eagles are fed in the RV park called Bay Side and eagles are there punctually. Thereafter, they wait for the arrival of the fishermen from 18:00. Note that Valdez is an interesting place to easily obtain nice pictures of eagles.
When we had the perfect sunny day with the sea calmed, we boarded in the usual touristic cruises to see whales and the Columbia glacier. We sew neither orcas (killer whales) nor puffins. Just a humpback whale, the colony of sea lions and sea otters. We expected much more from Prince William Sound as it is very famous for its wildlife. However, it was worth since sceneries near Columbia glacier are magnificent and the ship entered in the middle of the icebergs.
We chose Lulu-Belle company, which has a smaller ship and you can move all around. In any case, we were few people and it was nice. The slogan of this company is “specialized in small groups” and, perhaps because there was not so much booking or because they follow their slogan, but we were few people and taking pictures was comfortable.
– National Park of Lake Clark: Before travelling to Alaska we thought that it was easy to see bears. But, the reality is quite different and to see them outside National Parks is really difficult. There are lot of bears everywhere but the only think that we saw were excrements, lot of them and some really fresh, but to see a bear is not an easy task. We saw lot of bears in Denali N.P. but it was difficult to take pictures since they were, usually, far away. One of the best ways to see bears is to hire a specialized tour. Along these lines, we were able to book places in one of the lodges in the Lake Clark N.P. with the aim of spending 24 hours among bears. For this reason, went to Soldotna to go aboard on a light aircraft. Despite it is not as famous as Brook falls, Lake Clark is an amazing place to take pictures of bears very, very close. Females or males; cubs, sub-adults or adults; among flowers, in grasslands or in the beach looking for clams; eating, sleeping or playing. And just walking around and approaching to them up to few meters. You must follow few rules; to leave them their own space, to give them time to recognize you as human and to give them the way. If you do it right, they ignore you and you become part of the landscape. The place is unbelievable and the experience is unique and advisable in spite of the high cost. We went with “Silver Salmon Lodge Creek” company and we were lucky with our guide who liked photography and, consequently, he took care of having the appropriate orientation for shooting. Despite it was raining during the 24 hours, it was worthwhile.
– Taking pictures of Bald Eagles in Kenai Peninsula: As the rangers explained us, the public campground Deep Creek in the beach of Ninilchik is one appropriate place to see and to take pictures of bald eagles. Fishermen throw there the remains and eagles wait in the cliffs on the left side of the campground. Also, in the mouth of the river, where the campground is, there are tens of eagles flying and fighting. That is an absolute paradise for photographers where we spent 3 nights.
– National Park of Kenai Fjords: After several days waiting because of the bad weather, finally we boarded in one of the cruises to visit the Kenai Fjords National Park. The weather was not so god but the whales were very active and we had some chances of taking pictures while jumping. Unfortunately, the “standard” cruises follow strictly their schedule. The 15 minutes watching whales was the best. You can also see other wildlife (puffins, sea lions, harbor seals, etc..) but too far away since boats are too large.
We took another cruiser in Kenai Fjords National Park. This time we took a specialized tour for photographers in a small ship. We arrived up to Holgate Arm and we were able to observe the glacier crunching and collapsing in a sunny day. We were also able of seeing killer whales, humpback whales, Steller sea lions, etc.
There are several interesting places on the way from Valdez to Kenai Peninsula. Near Copper Center in Richardson Highway, there are nice views of Wrangell-St. Elias N.P. If you overnight in the public campground near Matanuska glacier, you will have the chance of taking pictures both, at sunset and sunrise. Anyway, the journey through the Glenn Highway is plenty of nice landscapes of the mountains and glaciers. At the south of Anchorage, we stopped on Potter Marsh in the Turnagain Arm, which is a Wildlife Refuge where taking pictures of different birds including cranes with chicks.
While waiting for an improvement in the weather, we were able of doing some hiking in the Skilav area (center of Kenai Peninsula), where there are several campground to overnight and some of them are free. Also, the Russian falls are an interesting place to see the salmon jumping. We saw some of them. Unfortunately, there were very few salmon that year and their fishing was cancelled in almost all Alaska. Also, you can do some short hiking into the forests of Portage Valley.
Although there are not so much ferry places, we were able to book the ferry to go to Kodiak island. We arrived to Kodiak with the purpose of viewing the salmon running and the bears catching them. Unfortunately, salmon running was on delay and, consequently, the bears were not visiting the usual places for fishing and it was extremely difficult to see them. The isle has 50 miles of roads and beautiful landscapes. The weather is very wet and there are few days where the sun shines.
As we didn’t see the Kodiak bear, we went to Katmai National Park as consolation prize, specifically to Hallo bay. The guided tours only spend 1,5 hours in ground and we wanted to spend the whole day. Most of the companies are willing to negotiate non-standard journeys. Additionally, as we booked it the day before, it was easy to obtain a good price since we just “fill” flights that were not fully booked. So, by $100 more, we were able to spend 9 hours in ground (instead of 1,5 hours), taking the first tour and departing with the last one. The trip in hydroplane is also wonderful. The place is very remote and landscapes are outstanding. Light aircraft, hydroplane or boat are the only ways to achieve Hallo bay. You can feel solitude in the middle of the wild nature. Great experience!
Turnaround Arm is a fjord located at the south of Anchorage that has to be crossed when going to the touristic Kenai peninsula. Nevertheless, few visitors realize a curious phenomenon unless they would spend some hours in the shore. The tides in this area are amazing since they can, literally, “empty” most of the fjord. We observed one tide of 11 meters. Really impressive!
Finally, the sun shined and we enjoyed a wonderful sunrise in Exit Glacier (Kenai Fjords N.P.). During the previous days with bad weather, we searched for the best locations for photography and, during the sunny days, we took all the planned pictures between Seward and Portage. The blend of lakes, mountains, glaciers and flowered meadows provide several chances.
We really hope that our experience was useful in case you are planning a trip to Alaska. For us, it would be useful to know in advance some of the things that we are explaining here….