We woke up, unhooked, and headed for Talkeetna. It is a beautiful drive along the parks highway. There are many moments where one gets a glimpse of Denali and it is easy to see why it is called “the Great One.” We pulled up to Talkeetna Camper Park. Luckily, they had space for us, though they could only give us one night – someone else had left a day early. The park is in a wooded area between the highway and the train tracks. It is very tight everywhere in the campground and we were lucky to squeeze into our site with enough room to open both slides. We had to open one into tree branches but they weren’t large ones.
Since we only had one guaranteed day, we immediately took off. We first headed south, back the way we came, to Kahlitna Birchworks, makers of Birch Syrup. I have never had Birch Syrup and, since I love to try local foods and flavors (and supporting small businesses), I had to go. In the store front, there are an array of products, including birch syrup, with samples of each. We tried at least a dozen different jams and spreads, settling on wild blueberry and salmonberry. Both are very good. We also picked up a bottle of birch syrup and learned about how it is made (there is also a factory tour). The clerk was very knowledgeable about all the products and explained to us that it takes 110 gallons of birch sap to make 1 gallon of birch syrup (for maple, it is 35 to 1). This explains why it is so expensive! We also picked up a 100% natural (and better smelling) bug repellent. We haven’t tried it yet, so I can’t comment on if it works. To be honest, I’m glad I bought and tried birch syrup (with pancakes even) but I still prefer real maple syrup. The birch has an alcohol like aftertaste that I don’t care for.
We headed north a couple of miles to Flying Squirrel Bakery where we got much needed coffee (good) and some bread and pastries. The cinnamon raisin bread was good – I could eat it without even using butter. As it was late in the day, they didn’t have many other choices. We also got a piece of coffee cake which was very good. The only thing lacking was attentive customer service – we ordered our coffee and waited ten minutes before the counter clerk realized she didn’t make it. It took her a while, I guess, to figure out why we were looking at her expectantly.
We drove further north into the town of Talkeetna. We were completely unaware that cruise lines have tour buses there (to catch trains) and there happened to be five of them in the large parking lot with at least five more down by the train station. Each tour bus holds more than 60 people. The town was so overrun with tourists, we could barely drive down the street. Think Disney on a holiday weekend. Daytona during Bike Week. New Orleans during Mardi Gras. Seriously, I am not exaggerating. The town is about four blocks long and it took more than 10 minutes to drive it. Tourists were wandering and walking where ever whim took them. It was maddening, crowded, and overwhelming. We raced back to the RV and stayed the rest of the evening.
When we got up in the morning, our goal was Byers Lake. We unhooked and headed north. It was a clear day and we had wonderful views of Denali and the Alaska Range.
We stopped at Byer’s Lake to check out the campground. We were in the mood to kayak and were looking for a place to do it. the campground was very nice – large fairly level sites, but the site were hidden in the trees and we just weren’t feeling it. The views weren’t spectacular enough to pull out the boat (we were dreaming of Glacier National Park type views). We were looking for a wide open space to enjoy views of something – anything – after the squishyness of Talkeetna and the tight quarters of Wasilla. So we continued north to Denali View North. The ‘camping’ spaces were wide open with a wonderful view.
We could even see Denali. But the ‘camping’ spaces were rest stop spaces and the ground was slanted enough to cause problems. So we continued on.
We lucked into a beautiful re-alignment of the Parks Road at about MM220. The two lane wide area meant we could put out our slide on one side, pull out our chairs, and watch the river slide by. There were four other rigs parked on the road, and a semi, but there was plenty of space for everyone, and even room for a few more.
We had a quiet evening and watched for Dall sheep on the nearby mountains – we spotted at least four. It drizzled a little but otherwise it was our best campsite since Homer.
In the morning, we got up and headed to Denali. All the campgrounds in the park were booked, so we thought we would try a private one just outside. The closer we got, the more traffic we saw. We were sure the area would be empty or relatively empty as we watched more than 100 RVs pass us heading south on the Parks Highway over the two days. There was no room to park or turn around. And then we hit the construction zone. Between the road repaving and the bridge replacement, we moved twenty miles in about an hour and a half. The jeep was a disaster and needed to be washed just to open the doors. We stopped in Healy and thought about our options.
Unfortunately, it was 10AM, an hour too early to have a beer at 49th State Brewing Company. Yes, at this point, I would have no problem having a beer at 10AM. We decided that there was no way we were going to drive through the construction zone again, with or without the Short Bus. We decided to head further north, and stop short of Fairbanks.
It was a great plan (okay, we suck at planning) until we got to Anderson, Alaska. We thought we would go to Anderson and stay at their municipal campground on the river. But we started smelling smoke. The sky had been darkening during our quick run from Healy and now it was smoky, too. By the time we got to Nenana (we skipped Anderson due to smoke), one could only see about 150 feet ahead on the road. Cars ahead of us would vanish into the thick soup.
We discussed our options. Our best bet was to continue into Fairbanks and, if the smoke was still thick, finding a campground with electric so we could run our A/C to keep the smoke out. We don’t mind smoke at all and often have campfires but this was a campfire on steroids – a few thousand acres of campfire.
We got lucky – River’s Edge Resort had a site available for two days with hookups. It would be expensive but, after the two days of aggravation, worth it. The sites aren’t wide but they do have grass, full 50 Amp hook ups, laundry, and a car wash.