Alaskan Road Trip Through the Heart of the Kenai Peninsula

Hitting the open road in Alaska is a great way to take in the beauty of the Last Frontier.
Hitting the open road in Alaska is a great way to take in the beauty of the Last Frontier. Devin Mefford
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Driving past an exquisite house, it’s human nature to imagine what it would be like living there. How does it feel to wake up in a sunny, spacious, master bedroom? What about hosting a holiday party, bathed in the relaxing glow cast by a rustic stone fireplace, laughter drifting up to the high reaches of an artistically vaulted ceiling?

Me? I wonder what it’s like to mow the lawn. Especially if it’s a lawn with a view.

I’m going to assume most people don’t travel to Alaska to admire meticulous yard work. Given the wealth of majestic natural beauty, uniform patches of lush grass should rank fairly low on the list of memorable sites. And yet, the first entry of my Kenai Peninsula road trip journal is as follows:

I’m in a neighborhood in Anchorage up Potter Valley Road. We are 1,000 feet above sea level yet close enough to throw a frisbee into the ocean with a strong gust of wind. Some of the best residential vistas ever. Everybody’s lawn is perfect. No tacky yard gnomes, no political signs, nothing but aspirationally superb yards and breathtaking frontier views of maritime mountains.

I don’t use the term "breathtaking" figuratively. The mist-shrouded line of staggered peaks whose flanks sit in the gray-white, churning water of Turnagain Arm are so dumbfoundedly beautiful, I find myself holding my breath. This involuntary suspension of critical physiological functions allows me to overclock my visual senses and momentarily absorb the full majesty of this moving landscape (in the background) and the killer lawns (in the foreground).

If the first hour of this adventure is any indication, this is going to be a mighty fine trip.

I’m in Alaska as part of a journalistic team recruited by Chevy. My assignment is as good as it gets: hop in their 2018 Cruze Hatch Diesel and hit the road from Anchorage to Homer, a 220-mile journey through the heart of the Kenai Peninsula. My goals are twofold: to confirm the proof-of-concept that Alaska is every bit as road-trip worthy as the deserts of the western US, and to give Chevy feedback on their zippy sedan from an veteran road-tripper’s point of view.

Compared to the traffic-and-weather-battered highways in my home state of Colorado, Alaska’s Highway 1 is a superior road, as well-maintained as an Anchorage lawn. AK-1 was perfect for the 6-speed manual Cruze, which was an absolute joy to drive through the vast wilderness.

Chevy’s 2018 Cruze Hatch Diesel 6-Speed was a blast to pilot between destinations. Devin Mefford

I was paired up with videographer Devin Mefford as my co-pilot. I highly advise recruiting a videographer for your next road trip for two reasons. First, they have an eye for worthy roadside stops that writers who are rocking out to Black Sabbath might miss. Secondly, they are often so busy futzing with their gear that you’ll get to do the lion’s share of the driving—which is an advantage when you’re piloting a peppy 6-speed. Maybe not so much if you’re laboring down the road in an ancient VW bus spewing blue smoke.

Day 1: Anchorage to Seward

Sunsets in Anchorage take a little longer than in the lower 48. As a result there is an extended period of gorgeous yellow and orange light. James Dziezynski

Rather than make a straight sprint to Homer, our first day’s journey is a detour to the town of Seward. Seward is the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park, one of America’s wildest—but accessible, by Alaskan standards—national parks.

AK-1 departs Anchorage and traces the northern shore of the aforementioned Turnagain Arm, where beluga whales are regular visitors. Silt in the water creates a unique palette of colors, especially when the afternoon sun casts mellow orange light off the chalk-tinted surface. The effect is a sepia-toned filter, subduing the shady, pine-green forests that carpet the lower slopes of mountains that frame the inlet. A secondary filter of omni-present fog further modifies natural light, alternating between dull gray shadows and brilliantly bright beams that cause the gritty ocean to sparkle.

Our first of many stops on the way is at Beluga Point, a rocky outcrop unshielded from forceful winds. A fun scramble up slick, seaweed-covered boulders offers a surprisingly satisfying summit knob. From here, I see the full scope of the thin, elongated arm. Bracketed by craggy mountains, the scene brings to mind the lower jaw of a crocodile.

Beluga Point is a fun scramble along AK-1 near Anchorage. James Dziezynski

Spectacular views are constant as we roll into the town of Girdwood for lunch. Here, I have a personal moment of reflection. Girdwood is the gateway to Alaska’s Alyeska Resort, one of the few ski resorts in the state. Many years ago, my (now) wife came to Alaska with the thought of working at the ski area and making a life for herself in the Last Frontier. Just before she was about to accept a job at Alyeska, she made an 11th hour decision to move to Colorado. I’m not one to believe in fate, but I’d say her decision worked out rather favorably. I do like to remind her that the surplus of rugged, handsome, worldly, guys that work as heli-ski guides or bush pilots or some other manly calling in Alaska must get old after awhile, plus they probably don’t have the extensive collection of Star Wars Lego sets that I do. I assume her long, deep, sigh that follows this observation is one of extreme contentedness.

Moving on, we depart from the arm and head into the deep forests of Chugach National Forest. Devin again uses his videographer’s 7th sense to explore a seemingly abandoned campground on the way. A short walk past the campsites, a horrible smell wafts in the air, kind of like microwaved diapers. As we approach the shore of a swift-moving river, we note the banks are lined with the husks of dozens of dead, rotting salmon. A second glance into the the blueish-white water reveals an army of thick, determined, very much alive salmon pressing upstream against the current. Almost telepathically, Devin and I think the same thing: where there are salmon, there are grizzly bears! For us, this is more exciting than scary and we scout around for a bit, but leave the scene without spotting a single griz.

By the time we arrive in Seward, a steady rain is falling. Before settling in at a local lodge, we get a look at 4,124-foot Mount Marathon, home to one of the craziest running events in the world, the Mount Marathon Race. It’s "kind of" a 5K, but since the way up to the top isn’t firmly established, mileage may vary between 3.1 and 3.5 miles. There’s more than 3,000 vertical feet of gain on the ascent. Despite my unspectacular skills as a runner, this is the kind of thing that may very well lure me back to Seward.

Mount Marathon shrouded in rolling billows of fog. James Dziezynski

Day 2: Seward to Homer

Come morning, the rain has subsided into patchy mist. We embark on our first goal for the day: the Exit Glacier at Kenai Fjords National Park. A paved road leads to the trailhead of the rapidly retreating glacier. As one enters the park and ascends the well-worn hiking trail, an unsettling series of signs designate where the glacier’s terminus ended in previous years. It took a while for us to register that the distant signs for 1918, 1940, and even 2005 were once covered by the glacier itself. President Obama visited in 2015, and even the marker from that recent date is distressingly far from the current 2017 glacier. We reach the hulking, icy tongue at the end of the path. It is a special site to behold, encrusted with chunky boulders and gushing forth a gritty stream from beneath its cavernous hollows. This time next year, it will have dissolved farther into the mountains.

Finally coerced from behind the camera, photographer/videographer Devin Mefford stands at the 2005 terminus of the retreating Exit Glacier. James Dziezynski

We retrace our path from Seward back to AK-1 and head toward Homer. We make another detour at the town of Hope, where we stop to photograph an ephemerally beautiful river that is home to non-ephemeral, jellybean-sized mosquitos. This was the only point in the entire adventure that we confronted the legendary beasts, and they made the mosquitoes of Maine and Minnesota seem like minor-league wanna-bes. The airborne blood-banks lived up to their hemoglobin-sucking reputation, swarming us with fanatical persistence, bypassing the corpses of their recently slapped-dead peers, injecting their horrible proboscises into our flesh without shame. As a writer, I had every right to scamper out of the fray into the hermetically sealed safety of the car, but poor Devin was left to absorb wave after wave of crazed skeeters as he deftly shot photos that tell no tale of the blood that was spilled.

As this photo was being taken, I lost at least half a pint of blood to Alaska’s notorious mosquitos. Thankfully, this was the only stop on our trip that we encountered them. James Dziezynski

Eventually, we rejoined the main highway en route to Homer. Along the way, we passed Soldotna, one of the few well-developed towns that, as of October 2017, still had a functioning Blockbuster Video.

By late afternoon, we crested the impressive bluff that guards Homer. Once in town, there was just enough daylight to take a stroll along the surprisingly well-manicured beach. I was instantly enamoured. The beach reminded me of the rocky shores of southern Maine where I spent many days of my youth at my grandparent’s humble cottage. Like Maine, the tidal shift unveils and reclaims hundreds of feet of hard sand flats every day, though unlike Maine, the background of dramatic glaciers threading into imperial mountains is uniquely Alaskan.

Blue sky made a brief appearance on the road out of Hope. James Dziezynski

Day 3: Homer to Anchorage

Waking up before dawn to catch the sunrise, I’m treated to an entire flock of bald eagles cavorting on the beach. Colorado has its share of bald eagles, but I’ve never seen more than two at a time, usually only one. I didn’t realize bald eagles could come in flocks, but by my count the Costco-sized group on the Homer beach numbered eleven.

Homer’s town beach offers a pleasant walk in a spectacular setting. James Dziezynski

Rolling through town, lawns remain objects of beauty, proving that Anchorage wasn’t a fluke. We drive out to the Homer Spit, a tendril of land jutting into the ocean. The spit is both scenic and industrial; here, real work gets done. Fishing vessels line the docks, and weathered men—and women—go about the business of harvesting the sea, their thick, meaty hands and squinty eyes a testament to the type of toughness required to thrive in this burly environment.

Like many visitors before us, we explore the dark confines of the Salty Dawg Saloon, a genuinely historic structure on the spit that is unapologetically tempting to tourists. The walls of the bar are lined with thousands of one-dollar bills, creating a carapace of cash. Devin saddles up to the bar to order a shot and a young man in a fishing vessel sweatshirt (made popular by the TV program Deadliest Catch) announces, without prompting, that it is his birthday, and he has a text from his Mom to prove it. Devin remarks, "You probably have a lot of birthdays, eh?" but buys the guy a shot anyway.

Interior design of the Salty Dawg courtesy of Scrooge McDuck. James Dziezynski

After a few hours taking in the spirit of the spit, we hop back into our Cruze and cruise back along AK-1 towards Anchorage. We make several stops on this leg, again exploring crisp rivers, dark lakes, and vanilla-scented forests. Bouts of honest sunshine finally illuminate the full spectrum of the landscape and we shoot some of our best footage on this portion of the trip. When we revisit Turnagain Arm, we see six or seven cars pulled over and a dozen or so people looking out into the water. We join them to watch a pod of belugas surfacing through the windswept water, their shimmering white bodies neatly camouflaged in the cloudy tumult of the briny sea.

Gazing into the inviting and foreboding mountains from our farthest point in the trip on the Homer Spit. James Dziezynski

The whole trip feels like it’s over too soon. I report back to Chevy that the Cruze was an impressive ride—and it was. For Chevy’s part, they had basically given us the keys and said, "Have a good time," so it was a great relief that the sporty vehicle lived up to its billing.

Alaska lived up to its expected grandeur as well, from its pristine lawns to its imposing peaks. The people I met were well-spoken, witty, well-traveled, and adventurous. And the wilderness resonated with me long after the adventure. From the 16th floor of the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage, I wrapped up my journal:

What a trip! We saw moose, beluga, eagles, jellyfish, some kind of mountain cat in the distance, soul-sucking mosquitos, and piles of living and dead salmon. The mountains, the ocean, the glaciers, the forests, all touched with frontier magic, still wild, still changing. They say Alaska is a place where you go to lose yourself, to be absorbed by the vastness, and emerge as something else. I understand that, in small degree.

But I don’t think Alaska should be thought of merely as an escape. It is a destination in itself, not a retreat. The Kenai Peninsula is a mere sample of the state, a preview of a larger wilderness that truly has a tantalizing call. I can see why so many people have found themselves at home in this untamed land.

Special thanks to Chevy for giving us the keys to their 2018 Cruze Hatch Diesel and letting us loose in Alaska. Devin Mefford

_To see photographer and videographer Devin Mefford’s work, check out his Instagram account._

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