After checking out, we decided to get a brunch at our now favorite place in Juneau, Alaska, The Sandpiper café, and have some more of their amazing egg benedicts. They did have a small ramp in front that made it easy to get in. With a full stomach we headed to the airport to catch our one-way flight to Anchorage. The return process for returning the rental car at Hertz was as easy as parking your own car at the airport, and going to the counter to return keys and get your receipt. The flight was a painless 1:35 long, and Alaska airlines guarantees the luggage to be at the belt in 20 min. They are also very nice and accommodating to all wheelchair related requests. We decided to drive around the city a bit before going to our hotel, which we booked a few months earlier – the Sheraton Anchorage Hotel & Spa.
Anchorage looked a lot like any other small US city – not that spectacular or “Alaskan” at all! We were actually glad we went to Juneau first as this was pretty disappointing with normal stores, office buildings etc. I guess they do need to have a place to make money as well! After driving around for about an hour, we decided to go check into the hotel, drop off our bags and go get something to eat for a late lunch.
We looked up the places on Yelp and decided to check out La Cabana Mexican restaurant a few blocks away and walk/roll there. That was an experience by itself as the stores and closed down business we went to did not make us feel good. When we got to the restaurant there were two cars outside and it looked a little shady. Trying to decide if we should just go back, we decided to check it out on the inside and were pleasantly surprised. We were at the back entrance and that is why it looked strange. The food and service both were good for 3pm on a weekday, but nothing to write home about.
Getting to Denali
After food we went back to the hotel to speak with the concierge to see what our options were to go to Denali and also other glacier cruises around anchorage we had read so much about. The challenge is that you can drive to Denali and if you stay a night over, then it is totally worth it. But you do need a day to drive up and a day to drive back as it is a 6 hour drive, and you really cannot drive when it is dark as it is in the middle of Alaska! The bus tour in Denali takes about 9 hours within the park, so you should really plan at least 3 days just for Denali.
The other issue we ran into was that all spaces in the wheelchair accessible bus were taken up, so even if we wanted to, we could not take the 9 hour trip in Denali. We chose the other option – to take a scenic small plane ride from Anchorage to Denali early morning, go to the park to a few spots, and then fly back that evening. This was a bit expensive no doubt, but what would end up being a very memorable way to go to Denali. This was the same trip we tried to book via Viator.com and after charging us the money, they basically cancelled it as the crew was not sure they could handle a wheelchair! The concierge at the Sheraton was AMAZING, as she did all the work with the tour operator Talkeetna Aero Services.
We were at this small airport in Anchorage, maybe a mile from the hotel, and met with our pilot Jerry at 6am in the morning. After waiting for 5 other passengers, an older couple and an Asian family with a small boy, the pilot Jerry asked me what is the best way to get into the plane. He was quite old himself, so I wanted to figure how to do this in the best way possible. I have gotten into planes of all sizes and have enough strength in my arms to go up the steps, one step at a time, so I did that and sat on the floor of the Navajo aircraft. Heather made sure she was standing in front of me so I don’t land on the tarmac myself. Then both Heather and Jerry helped me up on the last seat in the plane and we buckled up and put up our headsets. I love small planes, just wish I could have sat in the cockpit!
The flight was just ok for the first 15 min, and then became the most spectacular flight of my life! The views of Mt Mckinley were just spectacular. There was a lot of cloud cover as well, but the mountain was amazing with the sunrise. Pictures just don’t do it any justice. The colors of the mountain as we came in to land in Denali were all over the palate – from bright green, to brown to black mountains.
Getting off the plane was a piece of cake as gravity helped in my just popping off the seat to the floor and then to my chair with a bit of support to make sure I don’t go sideways. The next challenge was that they had a passenger van to take us to the visitor center, but that was not accessible. So Jerry got a car of one of his crew and got us in, and drove us himself to the park entrance! What amazing service! They also provided us all lunch sandwiches, water and chips to have during the day.
Denali Attractions and Activities
We inquired what we could do between 10 am and 4pm when we had to get back to the airport, and the dog sled tour, and a bus ride in to the park were the two options they said were the best options. So off we went to the only active dog sled training and working team remaining in the USA. These dogs till work in the peak winter months when no machine can survive the cold weather. These doges were just amazing, and majestic, the exhibit lets you get up and close with them and then watch a demonstration of them pulling a sled as a team. Pretty cool, and a must see if you visit the park.
We then took the bus to Savage River Area, as this is an hour into the park on a wheelchair accessible bus, and has a trail and restrooms that are wheelchair accessible. After this point the long tour starts for which you need an enter day. We spent a couple of hours at the Savage river, and thanks to my piece of mobile equipment called the Freewheel that has allowed me to travel all over the world. The gravel pathway were manageable with a lot of help from Heather. All that activity did exhaust us, but we did see a caribou and a bobcat, so at least that was worth it. On the ride back we looked and looked for a moose, but we did not get to see one. More on the park accessibility.
We had some food to eat and I got a Denali jacket from the gift shop to look cool and to impress people after the trip! We met up with Jerry who took us back to the Denali airport and waited for the others to get back from the bus tour. Naturally they did see a lot more wildlife than we did – bummer! Next time we will plan that better. The flight back to Anchorage from Denali was a low level scenic flight below the clouds over glaciers, and formations that looked absolutely out of this world. Seeing the homes in the middle of nowhere, with no roads connecting them and only a small landing strip gives you a sense of what it is like to live in this amazing place. Not sure I can ever handle the winter or the dark hours.
Anchorage Attractions Nearby
We decided to drive out of Anchorage on the next day exploring the area like we had done in Juneau. It truly was a very beautiful place the minute you get out of the city. The layers of mountains after mountains make you wonder why this place does not have “Scenic Vista” points as the entire place looks like a postcard. After driving around for a few hours, we decided to get some food at the Flying Machine Restaurant which is on the largest seaplane base in Anchorage and has an outdoor patio with live music and amazing seafood. I really enjoyed watching all the amazing takeoffs and landings, and the hundreds of seaplanes docked around the perimeter of the lake.
The last day was earmarked for a day glacier cruise on Prince William Sound, with Phillips Cruises. The drive up to the cruise kick off point was amazing, the only downside being that this was the first cloudy and rainy day of our entire trip so far and that did not bode well for photographs.
We got some lunch before boarding the cruise, and getting on the boat was pretty easy, except for the slightly steep ramp going in – made easy with the freewheel and Heather’s muscle. We met up with a few fellow travellers who were on our table – a young couple on their honeymoon all the way from Australia! The cloudy day made it not the greatest for photos, as everything looked grey in the photos, but good memories. We saw tons of sea otters as the bobbed around in large schools all over the sound, and also some whales. The whales got all the passengers crazy as they moved from one end of the boat to the other when the captain sighted them and told them where to go to look. I even played a prank with the couples help as we did a fake sighting on the other side of the boat to watch everyone go there and we all laughed on the inside! Haha! Felt so good!
We finally came upon this massive glacier, and the boat stopped there for a while for everyone to take picture and enjoy the view. The rain again made it not the best day to be out there, but we made the most of it on the last day of an amazing adventure! On the way back they took us via salmon and other fish farms and we wanted to be done by now. On the drive back, we decided to find an Indian restaurant as we both felt like it after a soggy, rainy and cold day. We found a Nepali/Indian place called Namaste Shangri-La that had really amazing food and amazing herbal tea to warm our bones.
The last day before getting back to the airport, Heather surprised me with a massage at the hotel that was easily the BEST massage of my life! Trust me, I have had a lot of massages being from India, but the technique in this one was just amazing. Highly recommend if you go to Anchorage. The trip back was eventless, and quite pleasant with us looking at pictures from the trip and trying to cull the hundreds we took.
Hope you found this article useful, and again the “Alaska app” on the iPhone and iPad was a godsend for us to find all these things to do. This will remain one of the most beautiful places I have been to in my life for a long time to come. Highly recommended.
I wonder how many people reading this can afford the Sheraton at $320 a night and up.
Rural destinations are not cheap that’s for sure. Perhaps there are other hotels that cost less.
Ash I loved the write up. Thanks for documenting your awesome trip. I was able to take that shuttle into Denali prior to my injury and it was fabulous. That dog sled tour was also lots of fun. Definitely keep it on your bucket list. I found your write up inspiring and makes me want to go back!