Kenai Fjords: Alaska's masterpiece

by Brian Jewell 14. July 2011 22:27

 

In my eight years of professional travel I've been compiling a list of places that every American should visit. The list is full of big-name destinations: The Grand Canyon, Washington D.C. and New York City come to mind. Today, I added another must-see spot: Kenai Fjords National Park.

We arrived this morning in Seward, a small town at the southern end of the Kenai Peninsula, which is the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park. Though there are numerous jaw-dropping national parks in Alaska, Kenai Fjords is unique in numerous aspect, including the fact that it is the only park visited almost exclusively by boat. So our group boarded the Kenai Explorer for a six-hour sightseeing cruise that would take us alongside the fjords for incomparable view of scenery and wildlife.

A fjord is a geological formation that has been carved by a glacier, and the Kenai Fjords are massive stone monoliths and islands that sit on the edge of the Gulf of Alaska. Behind the large stone formations sits the Harding Ice Field, an expansive range of snow-capped mountains where a number of active glaciers continue to move down hill toward the sea. These two elements create a dreamy duality of scenery: Cruising along the coast, I was taken aback by the way that the tree-topped rock formations in the foreground contrasted with the snow-capped mountains climbing behind them in the background. This place where the mountains meet the sea is as beautiful as any other place I've seen on earth.

And the attraction goes beyond landscape snapshots. Our boat's captain and crew helped us to spot humpback whales and Steller sea lions in the waters and rocks of the fjords, as well as puffins and other sea birds that make their home in the area. And the highlight of the cruise was a visit to Holgate Glacier, a 400-foot high colossus of snow and ice that moves at four feet per day into the sea. Standing outside on the deck to see the glacier, we could feel it cooling the air around us. Large chunks of ice that have calved off the glacier float in the water, and our boat crew fished a few pieces up on to deck for us to see and touch. It is the cleanest, coldest and most dense ice that you will likely ever see.

It's hard to described how moving this experience was. The Kenai Fjords are so grand, so pristine and so transcendent. There are many great reasons to visit Alaska; after a day soaking in their majesty, though, I am convinced that the Kenai Fjords are the only reason you really need.

 

Marveling at the scenery from the bow of the Kenai Explorer


The Chiswell Islands, evidence of the area's glacial past, and the distant Harding Ice Field


Approaching Holgate Glacier


Small chunks of ice that calved off the glacier are crystal-clear.

 

Thanks to Cruises and Tours Worldwide for hosting us on this trip. Visit their website at www.cruises-toursworldwide.com.

Rafting on the Kenai River

by Brian Jewell 13. July 2011 22:05

Glaciers have made quite a mark on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula, carving out many of the mountain passes and rocky formations that make this area so scenic. But these behemoths of ice aren't just a thing of the past; dozens of glaciers linger in the mountinas around here, and their melting run-off trickles down into the Kenai Lake and Kenai River.

Today, I took a float trip down the Kenai River, along with Cruises and Tours Worldwide and their visiting group from First State Community Bank in Missouri. It was an adventure from the beginning. Arriving at Alaska Wilderness Adventures, we enjoyed a delicious salmon bake along the river, and then went through the commical proccess of outfitting around 50 people in river wear: rubber boots, waterproff overalls and rain slikers. From there, we broke up into groups of eight and loaded into large rubber rafts for a leisurely float down the river.

Though it's been cloudy and rainy here for a few days, the sun and blue skies broke through during our afternoon float trip, treating us to wonderful views of the electric blue water color that is the signature of glacial run-off. Our river guide Gus explained that this color comes from fine particles of silt that the glacier picks up as it slowly scrapes alongside a mountain. Gus also spent much of the 90-minute trip pointing out some of the various birds and small animals that live along the river, and telling us about the salmon run that will happen here nextt week. We passed a few fly fishermen along the way, but Gus said that next week, when tens of thousands of salmon return to these waters to spawn, sections of the riverbank will be packed with anglers elbow-to-elbow, creating an event known locally as "combat fishing."

At the end of the day, I was both sun-soaked and bone dry, and full of wonder after seeing some of America's most pristine natural areas from water level.

 

Outfitting for the trip


The grandeur of the Kenai River dwarfs raft passengers.


River guide Gus


The closest thing you'll to a rapid on the peaceful Kenai River


Sitka spruce trees tower beside the river banks.

 

Thanks to Cruises and Tours Worldwide for hosting us on this trip. Visit their website at www.cruises-toursworldwide.com.

A hike to remember

by Brian Jewell 12. July 2011 22:27

Sometimes I do my best thinking while hiking down a mountain.

It's a cloudy day atop Mt. Alyeska, a ski area about an hour's drive south of Anchorage. Now in mid-summer, there is no skiing, as the temperatures hover around 60 degrees. Instead, Alyeska turns into a nature lovers paradise, with many miles of hiking trails leading from the Alyeska Hotel at the bottom to upper tram station near the top of the mountain. Braver souls can hike up the 2,300-foot incline; since I had limited time before dinner, I decided to ride the aerial tram to the top, and then hike down on the 2.5 mile North Face trail.

From the top of the mountiain, I enjoyed wonderful views of Turnagain Arm, an extension of the Cook Inlet, as well as the incredible greenery of the valley below me. Thick white clouds loomed low overhead, although instead of obscuring the view, they somehow seemed to tuck me in, creating a sealed-off wonderland of steep mountainside and lush color. Though trams passed by from time to time, the valley was nearly empty; as I set out on my hike, I had the whole mountain to myselt.

I was amazed how quickly the landscape changed, as the path went from steep and rock to gentle and muddy, then finally wide and well worn. As I descended, I discoveded new plant life at about every 100 feet in elevation. The colors and shapes of these leaves and flowes mezmerized me. Although I don't know what they are called or where else they grow, I enjoyed stopping to study them along the way, marveling at their intricate structures and the way that the colorful petals stood out from the green background.

The hike down was peaceful and leisurely. I made sure to make some noise along the way, to scare off any bears that might cross my path. And I took plenty of time to ponder the beauty of this corner of Alaska -- one of the most beautiful states in the country -- and to ponder my place in such a magnificent world.

 

Alyeska's aerial tramway

 

About to bloom

 

Beautiful buds


Deep blue "somethings"

 

Raindrops and wild flowers

 

Thanks to Cruises and Tours Worldwide for hosting us on this trip. Visit their website at www.cruises-toursworldwide.com.


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Alaska's Kenai Peninsula

Add these places to your Colorado tour

by Bob Hoelscher 12. July 2011 21:22



Coke Ovens, Colorado National Monument

This month I’m introducing our readers to four wonderful, yet lesser-known national parks and monuments in the Centennial State: Great Sand Dunes National Park, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado National Monument and Dinosaur National Monument. Although it is likely that many of you have never even heard their names, please be assured that each of these sites offers outstanding, easily accessible sightseeing opportunities, and can readily be combined with visits to some of Colorado’s “big name” attractions to create a superior tour experience. 

Most group leaders already have at least some familiarity with Denver, Colorado Springs and Pikes Peak, Rocky Mountain National Parks, Royal Gorge, historic railroads like the Silverton and the Cumbres & Toltec, and year-round resorts like Vail, Breckenridge and Aspen. However, these four areas (actually two national parks and two national monuments) are all distinctly different from each other and are conveniently located near a variety of group accommodations. Three of them can each be done adequately in a half-day’s time, leaving time for enjoying other attractions in the area. Only the fourth, which Colorado shares with neighboring Utah, requires a full day’s visit.       

Bob Hoelscher, CTC, CTP, MCC, CTIE, is a longtime travel industry executive who has sold his tour company, bought a motorhome and is traveling the highways and byways of America.  He is a former chairman of NTA, and was a founding member of Travel Alliance Partners (TAP).

Well-known in the industry as both a baseball and symphony aficionado, Bob is also one of the country’s biggest fans of our national parks, both large and small.  He has already visited more than 325 NPS sites and has several dozen yet to see.  He is currently traveling the country to visit as many of those parks as possible.  His blog, “Travels with Bob,” appears periodically on The Group Travel Leader’s blogsite, “Are We There Yet”.

Bob is available for contractual work in the industry and may be reached at bobho52@aol.com or by calling (435) 590-1553.



Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park



Split Mountain and Green River, Dinosaur National Monument



Great Sand Dunes National Park

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Lesser-known Colorado Treasures

Sand, sand everywhere

by Bob Hoelscher 12. July 2011 21:18


Great Sand Dunes National Park

Traveling from southeast to northwest, the Great Sand Dunes National Park is a short drive from Alamosa, where most groups overnight if taking either the Cumbres & Toltec or Rio Grande Scenic Railroad. Here in the San Luis Valley are some 30 square miles of towering sand dunes, some as high as 750 feet, trapped at the base of the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) Mountains by northeasterly winds. 

Nature trails offer the opportunity to explore this fascinating, ever-changing sandscape or climb the towering dunes themselves. Groups seeking an evening activity are also sure to appreciate the nightly, ranger-conducted programs in the amphitheatre during the summer months. In my humble opinion, only White Sands National Monument in New Mexico offers an equally impressive dune experience in North America.

Second on our brief tour of the area is Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, northeast of Montrose. Other easy to reach attractions in the area include picturesque Ouray, the historic Silverton narrow-gauge train to Durango, and the incredible San Juan Skyway scenic drive through Telluride to Cortez, which is especially magnificent during fall foliage season.

Through the ages, the winding Gunnison River has cut through layers of crystalline, dark-colored rocks (largely Precambrian gneiss, schists and granites) to create an incredible, 53-mile-long canyon. Reaching a maximum depth of 2,722 feet at Warner Point, the canyon’s narrowest width is 1,100 feet at the rim, but only 40 feet at the river. Visitors experience truly awe-inspiring vistas from a succession of viewpoints along the South Rim Drive. Although not as massive as Arizona’s Grand Canyon, no one encountering this awesome Colorado gorge is likely to come away unimpressed or disappointed.



Great Sand Dunes National Park



Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park



Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

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Lesser-known Colorado Treasures

These old dinosaur bones

by Bob Hoelscher 12. July 2011 21:11



Ute Canyon from Rim Drive, Colorado National Monument

There are wonderful lesser-known natural wonders in Colorado, including the splendid Colorado National Monument, which lies west of Grand Junction. The monument just happens to be celebrating its 100th anniversary this year with a number of special events.

Amid 32 square miles of rugged terrain, you’ll find towering monoliths like the Independence Monument, balanced rocks and sheer red-walled canyons. Unlike the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, the geology here is reminiscent of the great canyons found in Utah and Arizona, carved over millions of years by wind, water, and the processes of freezing and thawing. 

The twisting Rim Rock Drive offers breathtaking views of this plateau-and-red-canyon marvel from 19 interpretive viewpoints along its entire 23-mile length. While in the Grand Junction area, your group will surely also want to tour the beautiful Colorado Wine Country. One of the most charming and picturesque places to stay is the Wine Country Inn, situated among the vineyards in nearby Palisade.

Finally, 325-square-mile Dinosaur National Monument, which straddles the Colorado/Utah line, can be reached by two fine scenic routes, either north from the Grand Junction area via CO 139, or west from Rocky Mountain National Park on U.S. 40 via Steamboat Springs and Craig. From the Colorado side, you’ll surely be thrilled (and I mean that literally) to see incredible views of the extensive Echo Park Canyons. 

Planning a picnic lunch in the park at the end of the road will allow all but disabled travelers to take the easy, one-mile round-trip hike on the Harpers Corner Trail. This is one of the most spectacular short hikes in the American West, affording almost unbelievable views of the canyons surrounding the juncture of the Green and Yampa Rivers. In fact, Via Magazine, published by the California State AAA Club, recently included Harpers Corner among eight “Thrilling overlooks and vistas” singled out as being truly exceptional. 

On the Utah side, you’ll find the brand new Dinosaur Quarry Visitor Center, as well as the reconstructed Dinosaur Quarry Exhibit Hall, site of the original visitor center, which are both scheduled to open to the public this coming October 4th. The original structures were closed for safety reasons in 2006 due to earthquake damage, so visitors for the past five years have been unable to view the protected canyon wall from which gigantic dinosaur bones continue to be excavated. Nearby also is the Fossil Discovery Trail, impressive Split Mountain Gorge on the Green River, and yet another great scenic drive to the historic Josie Morris Cabin at the end of the Utah park road. Visitor accommodations are readily available in nearby Vernal, Utah.            



Independence Monument, Colorado National Park



View towards Echo Park from Harpers Corner Trail, Dinosaur National Monument



New Visitor Center under construction, Dinosaur National Monument

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Lesser-known Colorado Treasures

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