Hear about travel to remote parts of Alaska as the Amateur Traveler talks again to Sherry Ott from ottsworld.com about travel to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in the east, above the Arctic Circle to Coldfoot Camp, and far to the west to Nome Alaska.
Sherry starts us in Nome Alaska which is the westernmost town in the U.S., right near the Bering Strait. She flew into this old gold mining town on a Combo (half passenger and half cargo plane). Nome has 3 roads that go to nowhere, they don’t connect with the rest of Alaska’s road system. Sherry had a chance to explore two of the roads, driving out to hot springs, an abandoned orphanage, and a train to nowhere rusting on the tundra. In town, she found interesting people including modern-day gold miners and a decent Vietnamese restaurant.
After Nome, Sherry went on a tour to Coldfoot on the Dalton Highway that was built to service the Alaskan Pipeline and that has been featured in the TV show Ice Road Truckers. Coldfoot is a community that was built by truckers as a rest stop almost halfway between Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay. It was originally built from leftover packing crates from the pipeline insulation and is not much fancier today.
Sherry’s 3rd stop was to the town of McCarthy which is surrounded by Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. “Wrangell-St. Elias is the largest National Park in the United States. It’s 13.2 million acres. you can fit Switzerland, Yellowstone, and Yosemite National Parks in its borders.” McCarthy was built as a twin town to the company town for the Kennecott copper mine which you can visit although the miners closed. From McCarthy, you can hike in the national park including glacier hikes, and experience other outdoor activities. Getting there is half the fun whether you drive or fly to this beautiful part of the 49th state.
Remote Alaska is not cheap and it’s certainly not fancy but Sherry said it is beautiful and worth the trip.
DK Eyewitness Travel Guides – One of my favorite guidebook series
Sherry on Amateur Traveler
Wrangell-St. Elias – National Park
Nome Discovery Tours
Aurora Inn in Nome
Twin Dragon in Nome
Kennicott Glacier Lodge
Sherry on Alaska
Alaska cycling routes
Chris: Amateur Traveler Episode 496, today the Amateur Traveler talks about trains to nowhere, roads that go nowhere, roads that go somewhere in the middle of nowhere, and the largest national park in the United States as we go to remote Alaska.
Chris: This episode of Amateur Traveler is sponsored by DK Eyewitness Travel Guides. These colorful guidebooks are filled with great information and are one of my favorite guidebooks. I have 25 of them right here on my bookshelf. Learn more at dk.com.
Chris: Welcome to the Amateur Traveler, I’m your host Chris Christensen. I like to welcome back DK Eyewitness Travel Guides as a sponsor. We’ll be talking more about them later and then I’d also like to call your attention at the end of this episode I’m gonna tell you about a survey that I need your help with. To get some demographics I’m working with a new company to help sell some ads for the show to help support the work that we do.
But now let’s talk about remote Alaska. I’d like to welcome back to the show Sherry Ott, coming to us for what we’ve decided is the fifth appearance on the Amateur Traveler from ottsworld.com and come to talk to us about Northern Alaska. Sherry, welcome back to the show.
Sherry: Thank you so much for having me again.
Chris: And we’ve decided that Sherry’s been on the show talking about Nova Scotia and solo travel around the world as a woman and Costa Brava in Spain and the Lebanon.
Chris: Where are we going this time?
Sherry: We’re going remote, to one of my favorite favorite places, remote Alaska.
Chris: Okay, and when you say remote versus all of those really urban parts of Alaska, where are we going Alaska?
Sherry: Well, I wanted to take you to the remote communities, so we’re gonna go east to the far east and go to Wrangell Saint Elias National Park, which is the home of McCarthy Town. We’re gonna go north up above the Arctic Circle to Coldfoot Camp and we’re gonna go far far west all the way over to Nome, Alaska.
Chris: Cool, excellent. Where should we start?
Sherry: Let’s start in the west. Let’s start with Nome.
Chris: Okay. Why should we go to Nome?
Sherry: Well, first let me just say I think my goal in even sharing any of this is to see sides of Alaska that most people never see. I know that there’s a lot of TV shows. They’re highly produced. I know a lot of people do cruising in Alaska and they see the beautiful scenery, but we what don’t often talk about Alaska is the communities and the people and what you can do in these remote communities and the great stories that are there, and how they live in the extremes.
That was my goal in trying to get to these towns, and they’re not easy to get to. So that’s probably where we can start. Nome certainly comes from a gold-mining history, that’s how we probably know of it. It’s on the Seward Peninsula and it is the furthest western town in America. In fact, it’s very near the Bering Strait. It’s got a population of 3,500 people, which is actually quite a lot compared to these other two towns we’re going to talk about.
Chris: And when you say the Seward Peninsula, that’s if we were looking at the map of Alaska, it’s the Peninsula in the middle of the left-hand side.
Sherry: Yes, that really makes out as you go through the Bering Strait. And so the Bering Sea, actually Nome is a coastal town in a way, the Bering Sea. And they do have beaches, they’re rough and tumble beaches but there are beaches.
Chris: Not the same as the beaches we talked about recently in San Diego.
Sherry: No, but they’re fascinating. So yeah it’s about a population of 3,500 people. There are currently 13 churches and 9 bars, and as someone told me there, “God is winning out,” basically. I did think that was quite cute. But back when it was in its heyday during the Gold Rush, there were 28,000 people, 75 bars, and 2 churches. So you can see it’s flipped.
The first thing to know is that the only way you’re gonna get to Nome is to fly, to fly in. Or I suppose you could, I never thought about this, but you could actually do the Iditarod because that is where the Iditarod ends. So you could do mushing if you really wanted to in the winter. But most people are gonna fly in. It has a decent airport, in fact I actually flew in on a…it was the first time I’d ever taking a Combi, I think it’s called, a half cargo plane and half passenger plane. Have you ever ridden one of those?
Chris: I don’t believe I have.
Sherry: They have them all over Alaska, it’s crazy. It’s actually really cool. There’s only about 20 rows and it looked like you’re in a big jet but the whole rest of the jet’s all cargo. Anyway, you fly in and it’s a town that has three roads. It basically has 300 miles of road system and it has three roads but the roads go nowhere. They just end, they don’t connect up.
Chris: They don’t connect to anything else in Alaska.
Sherry: Anything else in the state, yeah. Which is actually, I think, why I really really love Nome. I love that idea that the roads just end and go nowhere. They’re also only drivable a few months during the year. The rest of the time they’re closed and not really maintained, they’re not really maintained that well anyway. But there’s a lot of things to see and do in Nome, but to me the real fun is to rent a car or take a tour and get out on those three roads and really see what’s out there.
Chris: And I’m guessing that navigation isn’t a real problem.
Chris: There’s not a lot of choices.
Sherry: There’s only one way to go. You’re not gonna miss a turn off and as you drive out on the roads too you also see what it’s like. There’s a bunch of little cabins, and when I say little cabins, they’re little. Like we were just talking about the tiny house movement. This is probably where the tiny house movement originated, if you ask me. These are just little hunting cabins and stuff like that that the locals in Nome, that’s where they escape to. They dot the landscape, the tundra, and there are no trees. There are only a few places in Nome where there are trees and most of it is all high Arctic tundra. So pretty fascinating.
Chris: You mentioned the Iditarod. In some ways the Iditarod capsulates how remote Nome is because obviously the race really recreates the route, for those of us who watched the movie Balto, or maybe some special on the History Channel. Basically in one winter they needed to get the medicine to Nome because I think there was an outbreak of Typhus or something like that and they needed to get the medicine, and the only way to do it was with sled dogs. And so they basically are using that route that eventually saved the town of Nome and that the sled dogs made it through to recreate that as part of the sled dog race. But it really does encapsulate, we’re talking about a place that’s especially in the day before air travel or when things were socked in, you were way out there.
Sherry: Yeah, and actually as you go down Main Street, which is actually called Front Street in Nome, you’ll see the wooden arch, the Iditarod Finish Line. It’s run now on the side of the street until the winter, when it’s all filled with snow and they put it in the middle of Main Street and that’s where the finish is. So that is a big piece of history of that town along with all the Gold Rush history for sure.
My best advice is, like I said, those three roads to me are really fascinating so you can do it a couple of different ways. You can rent your own car and drive out on these roads and just explore yourself. I actually happen to get hooked up with a company called Nome Discovery Tours. And when I say company I say that lightly because it’s just one guy, but this one guy is honestly a whole reason to go to Nome by itself. Richard Beneville, he’s 80 years old and he runs tours in Nome and he is fascinating.
He’s an old Broadway actor who escaped a couple of decades ago from New York and a life of alcoholism and he is honestly one of the most colorful, entertaining characters I’ve ever met on the road, and I’ve been traveling a long time. And he just enthralled me with stories. Talk about a good storyteller. During the time when you’re driving on these roads, which could be, I suppose, somewhat boring, there’s really no boring moment because he’s entertaining you the whole time, telling you about the history, sometimes he’s singing songs, there’s show tune songs, there’s all kinds of stuff but it’s a very fun laid back way to see the area. So I would highly recommend that, he’s a character. But what we did is I did go out with him on two of the roads I had time to do that. And the first day we went out on, it’s northeast basically, I think it’s called the Kougarok Road, but it basically took us to this area that he had told me about called Pilgrim Hot Springs.
And so we drove out through the tundra. The mountains were absolutely gorgeous, big open space. It reminded me a lot of Mongolia actually, and we turned off that main road and went on to a smaller little road that’s barely maintained and we got out to these hot springs, which is really weird to have in the middle of the Arctic tundra. And of course by the springs there were trees, which is also really strange because as I said there are no trees on the tundra. So he had talked about it as being one of the only places where you could go in the area and sit and hear the wind through the leaves of the trees and how much he had missed that, which I thought was a really interesting thought.
But in Pilgrim Hot Springs, it’s an old abandoned orphanage basically. What we did is we just wandered around the buildings. It’s really fascinating. The orphanage was created I think in 1919 and it was a Catholic Mission basically. And it was built because they needed a place for the kids to go. All the parents were wiped out by the 1918 influenza epidemic in the area, and so they built up these churches and a few dormitories and stuff like that that are now all run down.
But it’s really fascinating. It looks like a nuclear bomb hit it because there’s old rusted bikes out in the grass, and if you like abandoned places like I do, I was in Heaven. And just it was such a different environment with the trees. There was an old cemetery there, and then of course there’s the hot springs, but you have to recognize this is not a tourist site necessarily at all. This is just hot springs out in the middle of nowhere so you really enter at your own risk. I didn’t actually go in the springs, but you could see them and they definitely looked hot.
Chris: Let’s take a break here and hear about our sponsor who is DK Eyewitness Travel Guides, so nice to have them back. I would tell you a little bit about the guidebook to Alaska but I don’t have that one. So let’s talk about some other remote place, a place that I’m hoping to get to this year, and that’s Australia. Happen to have that guidebook around and I was looking at the Red Center of Australia, that section that includes Orroroo, which I have not yet been to.
And the kind of things that grab me when I pick up a DK Eyewitness Guide are the beautiful color photographs of that region. Of course it has useful things like a map of Alice Springs and then information about the culture in the case of Uluru. It tells you both about the climb and how many people die in the climb every year because it is a strenuous climb but also the cultural implications with the indigenous people there and why fewer and fewer people are climbing because they’re asked not to by the indigenous people.
So that’s the kind of details but all wrapped up in these gorgeous color photographs, and that’s the reason I have so many DK Eyewitness Travel Guides. You can find out more information about them by dk.com.
Sherry: It was really fascinating, it was a great drive out there. Also on that drive, I think we saw reindeers, we stopped in and met some reindeer herders, had some tea with them, and some jam, and I learned a little bit about the way they lived. And then we came back into town for the evening. It really takes a full day to go out and come back even though it’s really not that many miles. The roads are pretty rough.
The next day we actually went out to the east on the Council Road and that was really fascinating. That goes up the coast along the Bering Sea and I wanted to go out to see something called the Last Train to Nowhere. As I said, I like abandoned areas and there’s a lot of that in Alaska and there’s this abandoned train system out in the middle of the tundra that has been left to rust out. And so that was my goal in going out and seeing that so Richard took me out there.
It’s fascinating. The engines were actually originally used on the New York City elevated mines back in 1881 and then they were shipped off to Alaska in 1903 and they basically served the miners. And they helped moved all the mining from the mountains or from the inland basically out to where the railroad was, but a huge Bering Sea storm rushed in in 1913 and it flooded the whole area. The tundra and the train was left for nothing, the tracks were all washed out and so it’s just been there ever since. So it’s pretty fascinating.
Out there you can also do a ton of bird watching. Richard is an avid bird watcher so we were always stopping and looking with the binoculars and trying to figure out the birds. Also really cool stop on that road was something called the Safety Road House, which is the last checkpoint on the Idatarod, and it is everything you would expect a road house to be in the middle of nowhere in Alaska. It was really rough and tumble.
You walked in and it was, I mean there’s nothing else out there. The whole thing is plastered with $1 bills like wallpaper all over. Old sofas that look scary in the daylight. There was a bartender there at one or two or whatever in the afternoon that we stopped in and we talked to, but it was everything you would expect. It was perfect. It would be very interesting to go out there in the evenings.
Richard told me that lots of times when the bars close in town, people will race in their cars out to the Safety Road House and get last call. I can only imagine what that would be like but that’s the mentality of the town in some ways too. It’s pretty, like I said, it’s a rough and tumble town.
Chris: And since you were just mentioning the Iditarod, let me expand on and correct what I said about the Iditarod. One is that it’s older than I thought. It actually predates the thing that I was talking about, which is called the Great Race of Mercy, the serum run to Nome which happened in 1925 and it was a diphtheria epidemic. I didn’t remember what the disease was and apparently the Iditarod itself has only come to Nome relatively recently. It came in my lifetime in ’73.
Sherry: Oh really?
Sherry: That is fascinating. I think it would be really cool to be there and see it, I have to say. I’d love to go back in the winter.
Chris: It’s a little chilly for me.
Sherry: I’d want to go back and do a snowmobiling trip on the Iditarod Trail. I think that would be really interesting.
Chris: Interesting. Not a sled dog trip?
Sherry: Well, that would take a little longer. I’m better at snowmobiling than I am controlling dogs.
Chris: You know in the current track, I think, the Great Race of Mercy was about 1,000 kilometers, 600-something miles. Now I think it’s a 1,000 miles for the race. Just an amazing endurance race.
Sherry: Yeah, and as you go into these remote communities, you hear about, like, how we hold football players in such high regard, they hold the Iditarod champions in that high regard. It’s really fascinating. And then the third road I didn’t actually have time to go on but that’s the road north and it’s called the Teller Road. And basically you can take that all way up and visit an old Eskimo village, meet locals there, sit and have lunch with them and then, once again, a bunch of wildlife along the way.
And that’s the great thing about these roads is you can stop anywhere, it doesn’t matter. You can walk out on the tundra, and Richard and I did that a number of times, and you can feel the really spongy tundra and see the wildlife and the flowers and stuff that’s growing on there. It was fascinating. You can ask Richard anything. He is the town gossip too so you can learn a lot about the town. Everyone knows Richard, everyone.
And then my recommendation would be do those things during the day and then come back in and enjoy the town at night. Because, well, I was there in the summer, and so it hardly ever gets dark honestly. I think it maybe got dark around midnight, and I was there in August, so there’s plenty of daylight to check out the city. In the city, there’s a whole bunch of museums, there’s a visitor center, very primitive but it’s there.
You can learn about the gold dredging history. You can also learn a lot about the modern history or what’s happening now in gold dredging, which is actually really fascinating. One of my favorite things to do in the morning was to go to the, it’s called the Polar Cub Cafe. It’s right on the Bering Strait on Main Street and you go and it’s nothing fancy whatsoever. And you go in there and you sit and you have your cup of coffee. And I would just listen to everyone around me.
First of all, it was all men and they were all there doing modern-day gold mining basically and dredging and it was fascinating to hear their stories. I would just eavesdrop the whole time and they’re talking about what they found and the season and who’s doing what, and it was really cool.
Sherry: Yeah, and the food was fine there.
Chris: I’m picturing, in terms of food, the food is gonna be a little expensive and the accommodations not so expensive. Am I on the right track?
Sherry: No, everything is expensive.
Chris: Everything is expensive.
Sherry: And I’ll tell you, in all three of these towns, everything is expensive and partially because of course it is quite remote and hard to get stuff to. Otherwise though, I found all of Alaska to be on the more expensive side, even in Anchorage, and in these smaller communities even more so. So for example a hotel, I stayed in the nicest hotel in town and I say “nicest” sarcastically. It was just a basic hotel. It was called The Aurora Inn and they were perfectly nice but it was $200 a night. And there’s another hotel called Dredge Number Seven. That’s around 150 to 200 a night. And then there’s the Nome Nugget Inn, which is probably not quite that expensive but in that same range.
There’s not many places to stay. There’s about three, that’s it. And Aurora is definitely the nicest but it’s housing a lot of the workers and stuff there too mainly. There’s not a ton of tourism. I think I read that it’s only 20,000 people a year in tourism. And the same with the food, the food and the drink is also fairly expensive. Surprisingly though, the food is good. I remember actually one of my favorite places that I went there was a place called Twin Dragon, and I remember thinking, “Are you kidding me? I’m going to go an Asian place in Nome?”
Chris: You’re pretty close to Asia.
Sherry: Well I should have thought about that because that’s true.
Chris: You can see it from there, if I recall one of the former governors of Alaska.
Sherry: Well you just about can. But yeah, the Twin Dragon has some of the best Vietnamese food that I’d ever had and I lived in Vietnam, so it was great. But it’s all very basic. In fact, a lot of the buildings and everything are old containers and stuff like that. They’re very very basic living and all the buildings are raised off the tundra because the tundra isn’t stable obviously. So it’s pretty fascinating, but my best advice, and someone gave me this advice, is if you really want to get to know Nome, at about 11:00 at night go on out to one of the pubs.
I went to the Board of Trade Saloon because that’s where I was told is quite an infamous bar. And just go sit there at the bar and order beer and see who you meet. And I did that one night and I ended up closing out that bar at about three in the morning and it was fascinating. And I always felt safe. I was traveling alone. I always felt safe but it was a really fascinating way to meet locals, to just hear stories, to hear what it was like to live there, to see a lot of drunk people, to play some cornhole. It was a little bit of everything.
Chris: Excellent. Anything else we want to talk about with Nome?
Sherry: Go to the cemetery. It’s one of my favorite places there, also one of the only places where they have trees. And if you look hard at the cemetery, you will find a cookie recipe on one of the gravestones.
Sherry: Yeah. It’s pretty cool. Richard showed me that. Yeah, it will be a little scavenger hunt.
Chris: What type of cookie?
Sherry: It wasn’t chocolate chip it was like snickerdoodle or something.
Chris: Oh, okay. Well, that’s fair enough. I just had one of those moments ago. Not a Baked Alaska recipe, okay.
Chris: Where do we head from Nome?
Sherry: Then let’s go north. I actually, and this is the direction I went, so I flew from Nome to Fairbanks. From Fairbanks, you’re gonna head North up above the Arctic Circle because Nome isn’t actually above the Arctic Circle. It’s close, but if you go North of Fairbanks you can get up above the Arctic Circle, and there’s only one highway that will go there, and that’s the Dalton Highway.
So you’re familiar with it obviously. It’s the famous highway that was built for the Alaska Pipeline and it’s also, I think, pretty famous now too because of TV shows, what is it? The Ice Road Truckers or something? I don’t watch any of these TV shows but everyone told me about them.
Chris: Yeah, I have not seen it but I’ve heard of it.
Sherry: So I was pretty excited because I wanted to go up the Dalton Highway and see what life was like above the Arctic Circle, and there’s not a lot on the Dalton Highway at all. However, at mile marker 175, which is about 260 miles north of Fairbanks, is a little town called Coldfoot or Coldfoot Camp, either one. And it’s basically now, it exists today as basically a trucker stop/town. I don’t even think I can call it a town, but there is a post office and there’s an airstrip and then there’s the trucker stop.
Chris: And when you say the Dalton Highway, this is not a four-lane modern superhighway?
Sherry: Nope. Once again, this is one of these things it’s hard to get here. This is a dirt road that is mainly driven by truckers, it’s not maintained that well. And in fact no normal rental car company will allow you to take your own car on it, but there are ways that you can drive on it. It starts out as a paved highway but once you get a little bit further North, it turns into just a dirt highway. And the day we drove it, we had really good weather so we were lucky. Mainly all we saw were other trucks. Every car on the highway really has to have a CB system, and as you go over ridges and stuff you even call it out lots of times, which is fascinating. It was fun.
I basically went on a tour that took me up there, however you can do it independently. There is one company that will actually rent you a car called Arctic Outfitters. They will rent you a car that’s allowed to go on the gravel roads. It’s expensive though, you pay for it big time. So it ranges from 179 to $229 a day to rent your own car.
Chris: And how much does the tour cost by comparison?
Sherry: Well the tours can take various forms. So you can take this tour where you can drive up and you can fly back. Or you can fly up and fly back. Or you can drive up and drive back in a tour. There’s also a shuttle, the Dalton Highway Shuttle, that’s no-nonsense, it’s just gonna shuttle you up to Coldfoot for a $168 round trip. The other thing I should say about the rental car, though, is it’s expensive and you have to be 30 years old to do it. They won’t even rent to you.
Chris: Oh, interesting.
Sherry: Yeah, it comes with CB Radio, two spare tires, first aid kit, etc. But it does afford you to be able to do whatever you want, which is nice. And I think if I ever go again, which I hope I do, that’s how I’m going to do it. But the tour was great. So the tour, Northern Alaska Tour Company, basically you’re in a 13 passenger van, there were only 6 of us, though. And you have a driver and they’re educating you the whole way up there.
So you’re learning all these stories. You’re learning about the geography, the history, you’re learning all about the Pipeline, which is actually really fascinating. I found it absolutely fascinating, one of the biggest engineering feats around basically. The Pipeline’s what, 800 miles? Earthquake-proof. It was really cool and it was one of these things where it’s always in your sights as you’re driving that highway. There are a few places where it goes underground but it felt like this weird monkey on your back kind of thing because it was always there, which you don’t have many drives where that’s the case.
But yeah, so the tour is really cool, though. It stops, you have lunch, you stop at the Yukon River. You learn all about what it’s like to be a trucker on the highway. You stop at the Arctic Circle, have a little pomp and circumstance and cake. If you cross over the Arctic Circle, you walk on the tundra. It was really well done and fascinating.
Chris: And you basically drove not quite half way between the start of the highway and Prudhoe Bay?
Sherry: No, because Fairbanks is really in the middle.
Chris: Oh, right, right, right. Sorry, I mean from Fairbanks to…right, but the Dalton Highway starts at Fairbanks, right?
Sherry: Yeah, so yes, about halfway. You get into Coldfoot and Coldfoot, we’re talking about small remote communities and that’s what I was looking for on this trip. In the 2012 census it had a population of 10 people, but there are lots of people coming through Coldfoot because it’s the truckers going every day. And there are certainly a lot of seasonal workers that were there in the summer obviously, but the truck stop is open year round, as is the inn basically, the Coldfoot Camp, the motel that’s associated with it, for lack of a better word.
But just a little bit of history on Coldfoot, it’s actually really cool because the truckers actually built Coldfoot. I think it was a dog musher, I think he might have won the Iditarod, Dick Mackey, when the Dalton Highway was built and they were building up the Pipeline, he set up an old school bus at this point in Coldfoot and began selling hamburgers basically to the truck drivers. And the truckers found it was a really good halfway point, convenient stop to make. They liked it. It was a place they could stop and have some food, coffee and relax.
And so they basically started dropping off packing crates that had been used to haul the Pipeline insulation and they began building up this cafe, this stop. So they actually built it and in fact one of the coolest things when you go into the truck stop, they have this center pole, and you can tell it was just a tree but a center pole, it’s right beside the cash register. And you can read all of their engraved names in the pole, the people who actually built the place, so that’s pretty cool. And that pole is also the center communication center, so when you go in there, you’re gonna see all kinds of little messages tacked to it that says things like, “Bob, call home.”
There’s not a lot of cell phone coverage up there, at all. So yeah, so it’s this central communication point. It’s a really cute story. But yeah, so it’s a very small community but there are actually lots of things to do there as a tourist or someone who’s visiting the area. Driving up there is an adventure in and of itself, but once you’re up there I actually stayed overnight at the hotel and the next day I went and I visited, there’s a little tiny community called Wiseman, maybe probably only about five or six people. But you can go visit that village.
I actually took another guide and we drove up to Atigun Pass, which is the highest pass in the Brooks Range.
Chris: The continental divide.
Sherry: Yeah, exactly and it’s about 4,700. That’s the highest point of the Dalton Highway too and so you can get out there. And actually the day we did that, that was August and it snowed on us. It was snowing at the top of the pass. So that was pretty cool. You can go on hikes all around the area. There’s river rafting, you can also, as I said there’s an airstrip there. You can do flight seeing. It is some of the most beautiful mountain range and country that I’ve ever seen.
It’s just so unusual. Once again, your arctic tundra, so no trees, everything is super spongy, but it’s fascinating to even just go out and hike along it. So there’s plenty to do for a day up there that you can keep yourself busy and then of course there’s the truck stop itself, which is a pretty interesting petri dish of culture. Because what it is it’s truckers, it’s Pipeline workers who are there maintaining the Pipeline, and then it’s this few little handful of tourists. And so it’s pretty interesting to see how they intermingle.
They serve a buffet, there’s no place to eat in town besides the truck stops so they a buffet, which was hearty and good. I was pretty fascinated at the truck stop because the truckers had a separate little area all to themselves. They had their own TV and it even said, “Truckers Only.” There was a little sign up there and all I could think about was, “I feel like they’re the Mafia.” I was terrified to go and speak to them and I was scared to take a picture but I was fascinated with them. There’s plenty of food and drink, there’s’ a little bar there.
Everyone warned me, being a female traveling there alone, but I didn’t have any trouble. The place to stay, the Coldfoot Camp, also super expensive. Probably one of the most expensive places I’ve ever stayed for what you get. So once again, it’s $200 a night and it’s basically a hotel made out of modular housing units, leftover from the Pipeline construction. So it’s like you’re staying in a container. Interestingly enough though, when they started tourism up there, I think it was Holland Cruise Line started taking cruises up there.
They don’t do it anymore but when they did they said, “Okay, these accommodations aren’t gonna do. You need to have private bathrooms. You need to have private bathrooms in each of these rooms.” So they went to the expense and built private bathrooms in each of the little rooms. They’re extremely basic but they did it, so I had my own little room. It had two twin beds, wood paneling. There was heat, warm water sometimes. Actually when I woke up that morning there was no water. There was mousetraps in the hallway. No mice luckily that I saw in the trap. I mean it was basic, very very basic. But it was $200 a night.
I should also mention the other thing. I was just on the beginning of this. I think they were just starting these tours up there. Now they do a lot of Northern Lights viewing up there too but I was a little early for it. But lots of times they’ll do a trip from Fairbanks to once again do the tour up there by van. You stay overnight in Coldfoot at the inn and do Aurora viewing and then fly back the next day. So that’s a fun option.
Yeah, so really quirky little stop. Beautiful scenery, plenty of things to do, an environment that you’ve never seen before, and truckers. It’s fun.
Chris: Well, and my impression from what you’re saying is the drive fly option might be a good option because as beautiful as it was, it was all the same on the way back.
Sherry: Yeah, it would of been hard. It’s certainly cheaper to do the drive/drive but you’re in Alaska too. Bush planes and those flights aren’t that expensive and it’s a beautiful way to get around. That’s how I got around to a lot of these communities. I think the scenery is just stunning so it’s worth it.
Chris: Excellent. And then we have one more stop.
Sherry: Yes, McCarthy. Have you ever heard of McCarthy?
Chris: McCarthy I’ve not heard of.
Sherry: I’m surprised. I’m really surprised because there’s a lot of, well there’s some history there, some tragic history there too. Have you heard of, I hope you’ve heard of Wrangell Saint Elias National Park? Okay, so McCarthy is a town surrounded by Wrangell Saint Elias National Park. And Wrangell Saint Elias is the largest national park in the United States, which is an interesting little fact that I thought you probably knew. Maybe not, I have no idea.
Chris: I think I have heard that but I did not remember that.
Sherry: Yeah, the little trivia piece that I kept seeing was that Wrangell Saint Elias, it’s 13.2 million acres. You can fit Switzerland, Yellowstone, and Yosemite National Park in its borders, it’s huge. And the cool thing? There are two roads in the whole park, two. So you’re talking remote park and the two roads, of course, are not maintained well, they’re dirt roads. Once again, most rental companies will never let you take a car on them. It’s a beautiful beautiful park but McCarthy itself, let’s see, in about, I think I looked up a 2010 census, there were 28 people that lived in McCarthy.
So once again very small town surrounded by national park. I think it’s one of the only towns in a national park, but it has an interesting history. In 1900 copper was discovered in the area and a mining business popped up called Kennecott Mining Company. And after that they basically built a mining town and they called it Kennecott. So Kennecott is still there today, it’s all abandoned and that’s one of the cool things you can do around the area is visit the Kennecott mines. But Kennecott Town and Mines was a booming booming industry for years.
And of course, in the mining town or in Kennecott they forbid alcoholic beverages and basically any kind of fun.
Chris: So it’s a company town.
Sherry: Yes, and so all that was forbidden, and of course what happens, the town of McCarthy grew up next door as the area to provide all those in-demand services that weren’t available in the company town. So there was booze, there was gambling, there was prostitution. It was everything you would imagine. All the fun. And that actually went on, those two towns they lived like that for a long time. Everyone knew that people went to McCarthy to go have fun and then you came back to work in Kennecott. They were only, I think it’s only like five miles apart, they’re very close.
Then in 1938 the copper mining really dried up and became uneconomical, the rail line shut down, everything shut down there, and so McCarthy dried up in a way. Yeah, there were a few die-hards out there yet. In 1980 that’s when Wrangell Saint Elias was actually named a national park and that started to bring back, or bring in, some of this adventure tourism. And so the few people that were in McCarthy started provided adventure tours in some facilities and stuff to tourists. But it’s still super super small, and it’s cool because as you walk through Main Street, which is, once again, just a gravel road riddled with pot holes, and I think there’s actually one other gravel road that goes through the town.
There’s not much there. There is a saloon, there’s a little market that you can get packed lunches from. The saloon is also a restaurant and then there’s this place called Ma Johnson’s Hotel. And Ma Johnson’s was an old saloonish hotel back in the day and it’s been really refurbished and brought back to its original state, which is really cute.
So it’s like you’re walking through this Old West town on a dirt road. You’ve got saloons, you’ve got an old lodge, it’s really cute. And the people there are really quirky. There’s lots of little cabins, rundown cabins basically, and I learned, well I learned this all over Alaska but dry cabins, do you know what a dry cabin is?
Chris: I do not know what a dry cabin is.
Sherry: Very important to know in remote Alaska. Dry cabin does not have plumbing so I talked to a number of people that had to do water runs that day because they live in dry cabins and they live there year round. It’s really pretty fascinating. So McCarthy is pretty simple but it’s a place to go and relax. Strangely though, they did have a really good cell phone connection, which was very odd. Out of these towns that I talked about, they were the only ones and they were probably the most remote. So that was strange.
But as far as how to get there, once again, you’ve got a few choices. McCarthy Air is a little bush plane flight. I think they have three daily flights, that’s how I got out there and back. And I will tell you, if you can splurge, it’s not that expensive, but if you can do that, it is a beautiful flight. It’s one of the most stunning flights I’ve ever went on because you’re basically flying over Wrangell Saint Elias National Park.
Chris: Which looked like it had a number of glaciers from what I was seeing on the map?
Sherry: Yes, that’s just what I was gonna say. Glacial lakes, you’ve got multiple glaciers that you’re flying over. You can see all these abandoned mines up in the mountains, you’ve got a ton of 15 to 18,000 foot peaks that you’re flying next to. It was jaw-dropping and one of the best days. I actually just wrote about this day because it was one of my best…
Chris: Days of your life is what I think you called it on your website I saw?
Sherry: Yeah. The whole drive, I actually drove from Anchorage out to the airport where you catch the McCarthy Air Flight, and that drive from Anchorage out there was also stunning, full of glaciers and stuff. But then I got on the plane and it got even better, it was just crazy. So fun little flight. You can get out there that way, you can also drive on the gravel road, McCarthy road basically. Its 61 miles and it starts in a little town called Chitina and it follows the river. And it will take you about three hours on that road, assuming it’s not raining or something like that.
And there are about three different car companies that you can actually rent from that will allow you to drive. It’s not Hertz and Avis, they’re smaller.
Chris: It’s Bob’s Rental Car.
Sherry: Pretty much but you can do that. There are also a few shuttles. They take much longer.
Chris: You’re really just saying, “Bob will let you use his car.”
Sherry: Yes, for a nice fee. But lots of people do drive out there because you are going into a national park too so there’s camping, you can camp and stuff like that. And I think it would be a really fun way to go now since I’ve done the flight. I think it would be fun to do a flight in and a drive out or something like that to really get a feel for the area.
See, there’s a few ways to get there. Once you’re there, in the town, there’s a whole bunch of things to do. You’re at the footsteps…right at the national park, so there’s a ton of things to do. One of the things I did which was really fun is I did a full day glacier hike. There’s a really great operation there called The Saint Elias Alpine Guides. They’ve been in operation for a long time and they do all kinds of super adventure tours, half-days, full days, multi days. So one of the things they’ll do is they’ll take you out on the glacier. And it just so happened that it was just me and a guide.
There was no one else that signed up for the full day hike so I had all day just wandering around the glacier. We had lunch out there. It was super fun. You can also do ice-climbing, the Alpine Guides will also do multi day big hiking trips. They also support the real climbers who are out there trying to summit the high peaks and stuff like that. So they’ll get you to the base camps and stuff like that. But the backcountry hiking, I think, would be really cool. If I ever go back again, I would love to do that with them.
You go out for three or four days over glaciers, camp in the wilderness, etc. There’s also river rafting you can do there. You can hike to the old mines, which I would have loved to do. I ran out of time. And you can also take, I mentioned this earlier, a tour of the Kennecott Mine.
Chris: That would be fascinating.
Sherry: It is fascinating and it’s really picturesque too.
Chris: Now I normally picture a copper mine as an open pit mine but my impression here is that this is not. This is an underground mine?
Sherry: I honestly don’t know because what we actually toured was the facility in which they brought it all back to.
Chris: The processing plant.
Sherry: Yes. So we didn’t actually go into the mountains to see where they were mining but it was mountains, they were in the mountains. But they had a whole intricate pulley system and so on to get the stuff back to be processed. And so we went through all the buildings that processed it and how they broke it down.
Chris: It is apparently an open pit mine. While you were talking, I looked it up and it is a large open pit mine.
Sherry: Yeah, and the mines, learning about how they processed it all and what life was like in the mining town and stuff like that is really fascinating. Kennecott is a cute little town, it’s much more pristine in a way than McCarthy. McCarthy still has that old saloon feel, Wild West feel. Kennecott is a little bit more set up for tourism.
Chris: It doesn’t have that old saloon smell?
Sherry: No. Well, I don’t know. Talking about where you can stay in the area too, Kennecott is one of the areas where you can stay. They have a very nice, it’s called Kennecott Glacier Lodge, it’s a little bit more high-end. It’s a hundred something rooms and in fact what I found is that it seemed like there were a lot of people that had done packages where they fly out through Wrangell Air and they just go to Kennecott Lodge. They stay overnight, they do a tour maybe on a glacier, maybe up the mine, and then they fly back. That’s the normal tourism turn but I did that differently.
I flew out, I went and stayed in McCarthy at Ma Johnson’s Hotel because that was so cool and then I did a couple days of stuff and then flew back. But if you want a little bit more upscale experience, you can go the Kennecott Glacier Lodge, there is a whole dining area there. Where I stayed at Ma Johnson’s was really cool. It was really cute actually as I got my initial welcoming into the hotel. They told me that they don’t have any electrical plugs in the room not only to stay true to the history but mainly because they think it makes people more social to have to sit in the common areas and interact, which I loved.
It was really cute and it was really an old old building and hotel. It had all these old artifacts in it, the owner, Neil, who I met and talked to, he has this love of collecting old antiques and the history, and you could tell that he put a lot of time into it. It reminded me a lot of my grandmother’s house and the Ma Johnson’s doesn’t have any in-suite bathrooms, it’s all shared bathrooms and just rooms. There’s no keys, they don’t have any keys for the rooms. No need to have them.
Sherry: Yeah, there’s also a backpacker hostel, also run by Neil, the same guy who owns Ma Johnson’s. So a little bit cheaper option because Ma Johnson’s, once again, was around $200, and you didn’t get a bathroom either. And then of course there are campgrounds in the park that you can stay at too. You don’t go to any of these places really for the food. Food is just sustenance, in my opinion, in lots of these remote places, except for that one Asian place I went to in Nome that was good.
But McCarthy, you can eat at the lodge or the saloon, I think it was Thursday nights? I don’t know if it was Wednesday or Thursday, they have open mic nights and you got to go to that because that’s where you really meet the locals. It’s awesome. And there was another little tiny place called Potato Head that was basically a little food truck with Mr. Potato Heads that you could play with while you were waiting for your food. It was cute, very basic food, but it’s also a place where you could get a real proper cup of coffee like a latte or cappuccino, and that was in McCarthy.
Then the grocery store will made sack lunches for you and other than that someone told me there was some pizza food truck by the river, but I never found it. So who knows. Your options are limited but it’s just fun. I love to be in places like that where everything’s just stripped down and basic and the people are real. And it was a great great time.
Chris: We probably need to start wrapping this up. Before I get to my last four questions, Sherry, anything else we need to know before we head out to remote Alaska?
Sherry: I hope that some of this inspired some people to really get beyond the cruises and get out there and see some of these other parts of Alaska and meet people. The people are so so nice and you’ll make friends and it will be full of great stories to tell.
Chris: Well, this one’s a little different in the sense that we’re not necessarily talking about a one-week trip that you would do all together.
Sherry: Yes, you’re right.
Chris: This might in fact be something that you would add one of these onto to your other trip to Alaska. You’re up to see Denali or you’re even doing a land portion of a cruise and then go and see one of these potentially at a time. But it seemed like a real good thematic and you could do them all in a week if you wanted to.
Sherry: You could do them all in a week if you wanted to. You’d have to do the flying options on all of them. You’d have to be quick but you could do it and I agree with you 100%, even if people think of this as, “I’m taking this cruise but I want to do a little bit inland.” Here are three really good options that you can choose from that will show you a whole different side of Alaska. And so you got to figure out which one might fit your personality best.
Chris: Excellent. Last four questions. You’re standing in the prettiest spot you saw in Alaska, where are you standing and what are you looking at?
Sherry: I am standing on Ross Glacier looking at miles and miles of ice. Blue, beautiful ice surrounded by 18,000-foot peaks.
Chris: I was so sure from looking at your pictures that that’s where we’re going to be. Excellent.
Sherry: Well yeah, my actual answer would be, “I’m seeing that from above from the plane.” Because that’s pretty amazing.
Chris: I expected that actually. One thing that makes you laugh and say, “Only in rural Alaska.” Besides the cookie recipe.
Sherry: Oh, that was pretty cool. I would say do you get to actually play with CB Radio’s again. They replace your cell phones and you get to learn what a dry cabin is. You actually use the words “dry cabin” and know what they are.
Chris: And did you have a CB handle now that you’ve been in rural Alaska on the Dalton Highway?
Sherry: I wish so. I tell you what, I don’t, but I tell you what, next time I go and I go on the Dalton Highway and I rent my own car, you’ll be damn sure that I’m gonna have a CB handle.
Chris: We can reach out to our community here. If you have a suggestion for a CB handle for Sherry, leave it as a comment on this episode and we’ll pass that along and make sure she’s ready next time she goes up there.
Sherry: I love it.
Chris: Finish this thought, “You really know you’re in rural Alaska when…”
Sherry: You’re paying $200 for a hotel that has mousetraps in the hallway and police wake-up calls.
Chris: Wait, what was the last part?
Sherry: The police wake-up calls. I didn’t tell you about them. There were a few times where police were knocking, not on my door, thank God, on people’s doors across the hallway.
Sherry: It’s a rough and tumble area sometimes.
Chris: Okay. Got it. It wasn’t an official wake-up call that they had placed?
Sherry: No, it was more like, “Ma’am, open up. This is the police.”
Chris: And apparently sometimes there weren’t even keys so they really could have just walked in if they wanted to.
Sherry: Yes, but seriously I don’t want to scare people away. That’s the fun part of it. Like I said, I traveled solo the whole way through these towns. I never had a problem.
Chris: Well, and you have traveled in scarier places than remote Alaska. And if you don’t believe me, go listen to the show that we did with Sherry on traveling solo as a woman that you have now been doing for how many years?
Sherry: Nine years.
Chris: Nine years, that’s amazing. Excellent, and last question. Summarize the trip in just three words.
Sherry: Wild for the wildlife, rugged, and bright because it wasn’t quite Midnight Sun but there was a lot of sun.
Chris: And you say wildlife, did we talk about any wildlife?
Sherry: We didn’t, well we did a little about the birding in Nome, but also in Nome you’ll find, easy to find, reindeers, musk oxen. Musk oxen are really fascinating, they’re these ancient looking buffalos. I really didn’t think they were real at first, and you’ll find them all over Nome. Nome was a good place for wildlife.
Chris: Excellent. Well, Sherry, thanks so much for coming back on the show. Where can people read more about your travels? And is there a great article on Alaska that they can read there?
Sherry: Yes, of course. So they can find me on OttsWorld.com, O-T-T-S-W-O-R-L-D.com, and yes there are few articles on Alaska there right now if they just go to the destination section and find Alaska, you’ll see them. But I’m actually gonna be writing extensively about all of this at the beginning of the year. Probably in February there will be all the articles out there.
Chris: Thanks so much for coming on Amateur Traveler and sharing with us your love for Alaska.
Sherry: Thank you.
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With that we’re going to end this episode of the Amateur Traveler. If you have any questions, send an email to host at amateurtraveler.com or better yet leave a comment on this episode at amateurtraveler.com. You can follow me on Pinterest, Instagram, or Twitter as Chris2x. And as always, thanks so much for listening.
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