Flying over the expanse of Cook Inlet with the Alaska Range rising beyond, land at Anchorage International Airport no later than 3:30 pm, where we meet our Expedition Leader. Leaving the city quickly behind, we head to Girdwood and our destination of Alyeska following Turnagain Arm. This 45-mile inlet is famous for its bore tide, one of the biggest in the world, which rushes back into the fjord’s exposed mud flats as a wall of water moving 10-15 miles per hour. Keep an eye out for beluga whales near the mouth of Turnagain Arm when the salmon are running in late summer. Alyeska, roughly an hour southeast of Anchorage, is Alaska’s premier ski area, offering a host of summer outdoor activities as well. Set in a lush glacial valley in the Chugach Range, Alyeska lies within the northernmost temperate rain forest in North America. We spend two nights at the deluxe Alyeska Resort at the base of the mountain. Time permitting, ride the tram to the alpine summit, with vistas of seven glaciers, snow-clad peaks and the glacial-fed inlet far below.
Day 2: Alaska Railroad to Spencer Glacier / Placer River Float
Begin the day with a hike through North America's northernmost rain forest to Winner Creek Gorge, on an easy trail that begins just out the hotel's back door. Our Expedition Leader points out the varied lush vegetation along path, from towering Sitka spruce and western hemlock trees to giant devil's club, salmonberry and thimbleberry bushes. We then transfer to the railway platform in Portage to board the historic Alaska Railroad for a journey deeper into the Chugach Range. About 10 miles up the Placer River Valley we reach the Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop, where we disembark to enter a lush tract of remote roadless wilderness. Created in partnership with the Chugach National Forest, this rail spur expands access to some of Southcentral Alaska's most beautiful coastal mountain terrain, with views of valley glaciers, waterfalls, deep canyons and dense deciduous forest on either side.
Flowing down from the icefield above, Spencer Glacier reaches a terminus in the meltwater lake of the same name, famed for its flotilla of glittering blue icebergs that calve from the glacier's towering face. The sight is a living laboratory in which to witness the effects of climate change, with the glacier receding rapidly in recent years and spawning a tremendous amount of ice during warmer summers. We board a stable raft to float among the icebergs on Spencer Lake, getting a close-up view on just how much lies below the surface of each whimsically shaped ice sculpture drifting on the lake's surface. The mellow Placer River has its source in Spencer Lake, and our raft guide steers us into its flow, turbid with glacial silt. It's a rare chance to sit back and soak up the quiet, listening to the gentle waves lap against our hull, observing the different braided channels of the river's ever-shifting course, and watching for possible moose, black bear or bald eagle sightings along the banks. Late this afternoon, return to Alyeska by rail and road.
Days 3 & 4: Kenai Peninsula—Skilak Lake / Glacier Flightseeing
This morning, revel in more dramatic scenery as we drive south to the Kenai Peninsula. Stop en route at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage to view iconic large mammals up close. With a mission to preserve Alaska’s wildlife through conservation, education, research and care, the AWCC takes in orphaned and injured animals, housing them in large natural enclosures on the sanctuary’s 200+ acres. Among the many species at home here are brown bears, black bears, lynx, wood bison, moose, elk, muskox, caribou, porcupine, foxes and raptors.
We follow a scenic road corridor through the Kenai Mountains–Turnagain Arm National Heritage Area, a designation that recognizes the area's unique cultural, geographic and historical features. Our destination for the next two nights is a historic log lodge and cabins on Summit Lake, an authentic piece of “Alaskana” in a quiet setting far from tourist crowds. From this base we have access to the Kenai’s varied ecosystems, from low-elevation temperate rain forest to boreal forest in the interior and tundra-covered alpine heights. The nearby Kenai River is one of the world’s most famous salmon streams, attracting anglers from all over the world. We’ll explore the little-visited Skilak Lake area, with views across its vast turquoise expanse, and a portion of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, which protects nearly 2 million acres of wildlife habitat, including the western slopes of the Kenai Mountains, forested lowlands, rivers, wetlands and chains of lakes. This diverse mosaic of habitats is home to mountain goats, Dall sheep, caribou and elusive wolverine and lynx, as well as moose, wolves and black bears. On hikes, we stop frequently to study plants, observing how the vegetation zones change from boreal forest to subalpine to alpine habitats.
During our time on the Kenai, we get a feel for Alaskan culture and lifestyles, meeting local people, understanding the history and importance of fishing, and learning about subsistence bush living, including hunting, gathering berries and building homestead cabins. Our guide will reveal some favorite local spots not known to most travelers, as we enjoy an insider's perspective on a part of Alaska most visitors don't see. During our stay we’ll also survey this rugged wilderness from above on a floatplane ride, looking down on lakes, rivers, ice-crowned peaks and a tapestry of mixed forest—and maybe even some moose or bear.
Day 5: Whittier — Board Sea Star / Cruising Prince William Sound
Head north this morning to Whittier, a small town on the west edge of Prince William Sound that’s accessible only via a single-lane tunnel through the mountains. Surrounded by pristine wilderness at the head of Passage Canal, it’s the main departure point for marine journeys into the sound, and we head to the marina to meet the Sea Star, the privately chartered classic yacht that is our floating home for the next three nights. Once aboard, we settle into our cabins and have lunch as Sea Star moves out into the sparkling blue waters. Prince William Sound encompasses 3,800 miles of coastline, a ragged maze of fjords, bays and coves dotted with islands that harbors some of Alaska’s greatest marine wildlife concentrations.
Days 6 & 7: Exploring Prince William Sound
We have complete freedom aboard our chartered boat to explore all the wonders of Prince William Sound on a flexible itinerary. A rain forest of Sitka spruce and western hemlock surrounds us, while 150 glaciers crown the peaks above, including 17 tidewater glaciers, known for dramatically calving massive chunks of ice into the sea. More than 220 species of birds, 30 species of land mammals, and at least a dozen marine mammal species are found in the region. As we make our way along the crenellated coast, look for humpback, sei, fin and minke whales, orcas, porpoises, Steller sea lions, harbor seals and abundant sea otters.
We’ll visit Egg Rocks to see the boisterous Steller sea lion colony there, and we’ll get an eye-level view on marine life while kayaking in Shoestring Cove. Our itinerary also includes a visit to Esther Island Salmon Hatchery and Rookery Falls. Explore wild shorelines up close in a small skiff and step ashore on uninhabited islands to trek along empty beaches. With plenty of time to be patient, we wait in front of massive tidewater glaciers to watch icebergs slough off their faces, hitting the water with a thunderous crash. Alone in this huge, wild expanse, where the only sounds are the wind and gulls and lapping water, and the only inhabitants are wildlife, the power of the wilderness is palpable.
Day 8: Whittier / Anchorage—Depart
After one last hearty breakfast aboard, Sea Star weighs anchor and we set a course back to the Whittier small boat harbor, where we disembark. Within 2-3 hours, depending on tunnel flow and timing, we make the 60-mile return journey to Anchorage to meet departing flights. Please plan to schedule your departure no sooner than 5 pm.
Physical Rating: Easy to Moderate