Travel restrictions imply extra offers for Alaskans from native tourism companies

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Are you itching for a road trip to get out of town? Are you planning for guests to come visit this summer? Are you hoping the current travel restrictions (particularly the 14-day quarantine for people coming in from out of state) will be eased? You’re not alone.

Gradually, carefully, some operators are opening up for visitors. Travel companies also are turning their attention to their neighbors here in Alaska. Alaska residents, along with their friends and relatives from Outside, will account for a large part of this year’s visitor count.

Unlike in past years, there is not a mad dash to fill early-season slots on tours or in hotel rooms. Many venues still are waiting for travel restrictions to ease before their out-of-state staff can arrive. Other operators are closely monitoring social distancing policies and mandated cleaning/disinfecting protocols to avoid spreading the new coronavirus.

Heading south from Anchorage, some of the usual attractions in Girdwood aren’t available. The Hotel Alyeska is closed until June 1, so details aren’t yet available on tram rides or activities. Eleven more miles down the Seward Highway is the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. “We’ve got six bears here at the center,” said Nicole Geils, the marketing manager. “And they’re all awake.”

A brown bear rolls in dirt inside its enclosure at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage on Jun. 12, 2016. (Loren Holmes / ADN archive)

Visitors can stay in their car and drive around to see the animals, including wood bison, caribou, coyote, wolf, fox and even a couple of porcupines. There’s a May special of $25 per car for up to five adults. Visitors also can walk around to see the critters on the 200-acre site. Bikes are permitted.

If you’re anxious to get out on Prince WIlliam Sound during May, Lazy Otter Charters offers several sightseeing trips using the bow-landing boats. Much of their work involves taxiing kayakers around the sound, so the drop-down bow is perfect for beach landings. Because they operate smaller boats, there’s a four-person minimum for sightseeing. The eight-hour “Best of Prince William Sound” tour includes whale watching, an up-close visit to a couple of glaciers and lots of opportunities to see other birds and critters. Cost is $260 per person, although there’s a 20% discount for trips booked in May. Lazy Otter also has a couple of shorter trips available.

Passengers aboard the Klondike Express take photos of Surprise Glacier during their Prince William Sound cruise Thursday, June 13 , 2019. (Anne Raup / ADN)

After June 1, you can hop on board the Klondike Express for the iconic 26 Glaciers Cruise. This is a fast boat and they offer a “no seasickness” guarantee. Lunch is included — and there’s a U.S. Forest Service Ranger on board to narrate the voyage.

Down in Seward, none of the boats are sailing into Resurrection Bay or Kenai Fjords National Park yet. Major Marine Tours is hoping to start some boat tours later this month, but plans have not yet been finalized. Kenai Fjords Tours plans to offer their National Park Cruise starting on June 11. Kids ages 2-11 sail free if you book the cruise in May.

If you’re heading north from Anchorage, you can stop in at Talkeetna to go for a ride on the trails, then grab some pizza. Talkeetna has some great trails all around town. You can bring your own bike or rent one from North Shore Cyclery. You can rent a nice fat bike for $45 for a half-day. That gives you time to check out some of the trails, and then cruise down Main Street to pick where you want to eat. I usually pick Mountain High Pizza Pie. Or, stop in at the Denali Brewing Co. for a flight of their local brews.

The water’s still a little low on the rivers, so Mahays Jetboat Tours isn’t running yet. Also, current travel restrictions don’t yet permit flightseeing — but if those restrictions are eased, several companies at the airport can take you around Denali for a bird’s-eye view.

Farther north near the entrance to Denali National Park and Preserve, the picture is less certain, although there are some interesting options on the horizon. The big hotels are closed. Some of the fun activities like ATV tours or ziplining are available on a limited basis in June.

Starting in mid-June, the Denali Backcountry Lodge will open at the end of the park road in Kantishna. This all-inclusive wilderness lodge is spendy at $575 per night. But you can take advantage of their bus to go on a full-day excursion, with a meal at the end of the road. It’s marketed as the Denali Backcountry Adventure. The cost is $199 per person. The bus ride is great, but for some people, one way is enough. Someone from Kantishna Air Taxi usually meets every bus at the end of the road, offering an “upgrade” to fly back to the park entrance. There are usually folks on the bus who embrace this option.

Looking down at Denali Backcountry Lodge (from Skyline Lodge), on the shores of the Moose River. (Photo by Scott McMurren)

If you want to spend the night at the park entrance, Denali Cabins will be open on June 12.

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, the nation’s largest, also is on the road system, but it’s a long drive. First, from Anchorage, there’s the five-hour drive past Palmer, through the Matanuska Valley to Chitina, on the banks of the Copper River. Then you take your time, poking along at 30 or 35 miles per hour for the last 60 miles on the “McCarthy Road.”

At the end of the road, you park your car and walk across the footbridge. You can call one of the hotels (Ma Johnon’s or Kennicott Glacier Lodge) to come pick you up. Ma Johnson’s is in “downtown” McCarthy about six blocks from the bridge. There’s a store, a bar, a restaurant and a brewpub nearby. Up the road about 5 miles is the Kennicott Glacier Lodge, in the middle of the historic mining district. You can look out at the Root Glacier and on to the Wrangell Mountains beyond. You’re within walking distance of the refurbished mining buildings from what once was the world’s largest copper mine. The folks at St. Elias Alpine Guides lead an interesting tour through the buildings.

The concentration mill building is the centerpiece of the Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark located near McCarthy in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. (Erik Hill / ADN archive)

Christina Kirkwood is the general manager at Kennicott Glacier Lodge. She’s keeping her fingers crossed that travel restrictions will be eased or removed so she can bring the rest of her staff north from the summer. “We’re planning on opening June 6, pending the relaxation of those restrictions,” she said. Kennicott also is offering a 20% discount for Alaskans this summer.

All of the public health, social distancing and local government guidelines add extra levels of expense and oversight for travel companies. But all operators want to ensure the health and well-being of their staff, as well as their visitors. And just like many other efforts during the Great Pandemic of 2020, making travel plans is now more of a chore. Even if the trip is in our own backyard.

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