Things We Learned As Locals On The Alaska Road Trip + Photos

  • After living in Alaska for 30 years, my husband and I took a two week road trip across the state.
  • We drove through Anchorage, Palmer, Valdez, Fairbanks and Denali National Park in a retrofitted van.
  • We were blown away by Alaskan wildlife and the World Eskimo Indian Olympics were a big highlight.

My husband and I have lived in Alaska for 30 years. We currently live on Douglas Island near Juneau, the state capital.

Our home is hundreds of miles from the state’s main landmass, but that doesn’t stop hordes of visitors from seeing the alpine mountains and deep rainforests of Douglas Island by boat or plane.

To celebrate our 35th anniversary, we decided to do some exploring ourselves.

We embarked on a 2-week summer tour of some of Alaska’s most famous highlights for the first time.

After flying to Anchorage, Alaska’s most populous city, we grabbed a converted van and set off on our 1,300-mile adventure through Palmer, Valdez, Fairbanks and Denali National Park, home to North America’s highest peak.

Here are some of the most surprising discoveries of our trip.

The complimentary items at Palmer were so delicious we skipped the grocery store

Kale and red cabbage in Palmer

The fresh produce at Palmer was surprisingly large.

Katie Bausler

Alaska is famous for its natural wonders like glaciers and birch trees.

But our road trip showed us that the state also has some of the most stunning plants and flowers we’ve ever seen, from giant heads of broccoli to stunning poppies.

Certain areas in the state are known for producing massive amounts of vegetables, and in some cases very quickly. Thanks to the long daylight hours in summer, plants can produce food through photosynthesis from sunrise to sunset.

During our road trip we stopped in Palmer, a town in Southeast Alaska. When the Midwest settled there during the Great


, they established it as the agricultural center of the state. Now it’s home to Alaska’s annual state fair.

During our walk through the city, we came across a thicket where wild strawberries were growing. A sign was attached to it that read, “Growing Food for All.”

free products in Palmer with a sign asking passers-by to take what they want

We could eat from the bushes and beds for free.

Katie Bausler

We were more than happy to pick our share of fruit which was complimentary. The supplier asked for nothing more than the courtesy of growing a weed or two in exchange for the berries.

Later during our time in Palmer we found a garden box at the train station. It was filled with green and red heads of lettuce and nasturtium, an edible flower. The discovery saves us going to the market.

Sea lions make the best catches on the coast in Valdez

katie bausler's retrofitted van with rainbow over it

We drove an aftermarket van throughout our road trip.

Katie Bausler

Valdez is a coastal town about 300 miles from Anchorage known for its world-class charter fishing.

When we were there, visitors gathered at the harbor to watch the skippers cleaning freshly caught fish. But on the other side of the fjord, sea lions got an even better choice of salmon.

In other parts of Alaska, grizzly bears would be the predators in this scene.

We joined the throng of professional (and not-so-professional) photographers who snapped photos of the massive animals as they hunted for their prey.

We watched the World Eskimo Indian Olympics in Fairbanks

World Eskimo Indian Olympics

The World Eskimo Indian Olympics have been held annually since 1961.

Katie Bausler

During our trip we made a stop in Fairbanks, a city less than 200 miles from the Arctic Circle. And coincidentally we were at the World Eskimo Indian Olympics.

We’ve never been to the annual multisport event that started in 1961. Alaskan Natives from tribes and villages across the state compete in traditional games such as the high kick contest and arm pull event.

My husband and I were thrilled to cheer for the Juneau team members and even participated in one of the most exciting events: the blanket throw.

Along with at least 100 other spectators, we descended from the stands and grabbed a piece of a large sealskin canvas. The material served as a handmade trampoline, and we were like the feathers. The competitors positioned themselves in the middle of the screen and jumped as high as they could.

Admission to the World Eskimo Indian Olympics was free during the day, and tickets for evening events ranged from $10 to $15.

BInoculars were a must for seeing wildlife in Denali National Park

Denali National Park

Some people think Alaska is full of ice and snow, but that’s not always true.

Katie Bausler

Be warned: Denali National Park campsite reservations must be made months in advance.

The 6 million hectare national park is known for its wilderness and wildlife. To see the area up close, we reserved seats on a former school bus that meandered down a dirt road.

Be sure to pack binoculars when visiting Denali – my husband and I would not have been able to see many of the animals without them. We even caught a glimpse of velvet-antlered caribou and golden-furred grizzly bears.

We came across impressive booths for public use

Katie Bausler smiles in front of the shack on the left and a small brown shack on the right

Public-use cabins are available for rent throughout Alaska.

Katie Bausler

During our trip, we found well-built roadside shelters at the K’esugi Ken campground in Denali State Park and on Eklutna Lake, which is near Anchorage.

With spacious lofts and decks, many of them resembled Swiss chalets.

Even if you don’t own a dreamy Alaskan cedar home, you can still escape into one. Alaska State Parks rents more than 80 public-use cabins across the state. Some of the more remote properties are only accessible by boat or plane.

Reservations can be made up to seven months in advance, and prices for most cabins range from $35 to $100 per night.

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline is partly above ground so you can actually stand on it

Trans Alaska Pipeline close-up left, husband Katie Bausler standing right on pipe

Portions of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline are above ground.

Katie Bausler

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline, a nationwide oil transportation system, has flowed 800 miles across Alaska since the mid-1970s, from Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean to Port Valdez on Prince William Sound.

The pipe is above ground where there is permafrost so we were able to see a lot of it during our ride.

At a pit stop between Glenallen and Fairbanks, I snapped a shot of my husband standing on a section with a big smile on his face.

The water at the campsite comes from pumps installed during the Great Depression

katie bausler husband standing near water pump

My husband learned to pump our water at the campsite.

Katie Bausler

Before we set off on our road trip, we knew that most of the state’s campgrounds were rustic. That being said, my husband and I didn’t expect to have to pump it out of the ground ourselves.

We were intrigued to learn that the water pumps and drinking fountains were installed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a Great Depression-era relief program that provided employment opportunities in the 1930s.

My husband became quite adept at fetching well water, using his body weight to pump the steel handle like a human seesaw.

Alaska has an incredibly wide variety of landscapes

Alaska landcape, mountains in the background with lots of greenery in the foreground

Alaska is known for its wilderness, and they didn’t disappoint.

Katie Bausler

Most people think of Alaska as a big, cold place covered in ice and snow all year round. This vision couldn’t be further from reality, especially in summer.

On our road trip we saw a wide variety of landscapes.

In the Matanuska Valley we passed brown, dry peaks against a blue sky that reminded us of Montana. We also spotted a stunning desert landscape of blue-green and rust-hued slopes on the Richardson Highway.

Alaskan waterfalls

During our road trip we saw a variety of landscapes, from waterfalls to desert-like environments.

Katie Bausler

Volcanism has caused the Polychrome Overlook—a stop on our Denali National Park bus tour—to turn into a rainbow of colors, making it the perfect backdrop for our Christmas card photo.

And on our way to Valdez, the towering alpine peaks at Thompson Pass reminded us of our home in southeast Alaska.

To say our state is awesome is an understatement, even for Alaskans like us.