Crescent Saddle Cabin: Part Two

There's nothing better than waking up in a warm cozy cabin and sipping on make-shift mochas while savoring a big pot of slow cooked anasazi beans. After simmering on a wood-burning stove, the tender beans are a little sweet, a little savory and exactly what is needed after a long and stormy night. A dash of salt and roasted Hatch green chiles add that incredible kick that really makes a morning and jumpstarts your day.

To our surprise, we found Hatch green chiles at a local grocer in Anchorage. We gladly purchased a pound and roasted the majority over a campfire during one of our rainiest nights in Denali National Park, for some of our best beef, cheese, potato and green chile burritos to date. This resulted in another stop in Anchorage to grab a few pounds for our three night stay at Crescent Lake.

Red and brown rocky peaks tower over the little cabin, in nearly every direction, cradling the quiet valley and isolating the three-mile U-shaped basin. Gazing west out the cabin's largest window, a herd of Dall sheep graze near the top of the mountain, while the clouds come and go, dancing around the ridgeline. The picture completely contrasts the snow white foot of fresh powder weighing on the evergreens and blowing along the jagged peak of Mt Hood, just outside the window at the historic and truly remarkable Timberline Lodge today. Thothe two scenes couldn't be more alike. A cozy shelter. The lawless elements. A monumental mountain.

With a full belly and the rain letting up, its time to catch some fish. A small aluminum rowboat sits on the shores of the lake. A lake renown for its plentiful, trophy grayling, an Alaskan sport-fishing favorite. Sticking close to the shore, the little boat stands a fighting chance against the windy waves, while the grayling rest in shallow bays and still coves. One fish. Two fish. Five catches later, pockets of grayling are hungry for the flies. This lake, this place, it fills you up. Here, time slows you down and nature's transcendence emphasizes the value in life's most basic of needs and both the greatness and insignificance of man.

Find more of our recent photos from WA and OR on Flickr and Instagram, @vanilleink / @slevin414.

Crescent Saddle Cabin: Part One

Even though the Kenai is "Alaska's Playground" there are acres of untouched terrain that yield a bounty of seclusion like we've rarely experienced before. The drive into the Kenai Peninsula from Anchorage takes you past 40 miles of shoreline on an arm of the Cook Inlet, where salmon and beluga whales are residents, Turnagain Arm. This drive lets you know you're in Alaska. Massive mountains, low clouds, and pale blue glaciers accompany wind and rain on each drive we've made (four now). It's a grand entrance into a grand chunk of Alaska and the perfect start for our first US Forest Service cabin experience.

Nothing says serenity like a cabin nestled in the woods with all the amenities being a wood burning stove, rowboat, and outhouse. What more do you really need? And nothing builds up to the sight of your shelter for the next three days like an 11 mile hike that requires wading through 6-foot rain-soaked grass and brush while the ponder, "Do brown bears hang out in grass this high?" dances through your thoughts. Don't get us wrong, we love adventure, and stumbling up this last stretch of 4 miles through a primitive trail (maybe extremely primitive trail is more fitting) is exactly the type of experience we both seek.

The climb, the giant grass, the 40-pound pack, and the soaked gear is more than worth it when you arrive. The sight of the cabin evaporates your previous grumbles. Crescent Saddle Cabin is situated on the southern shoreline of Crescent Lake, a stunning 5-mile long crescent-shaped lake that holds some of the largest grayling found in Alaska. The lake is surrounded by mountains that are so close you feel you could reach out and touch one. But when you see white specks dotting the rocks near an elevation of 4,000 feet you realize those 200 pound Dall sheep are awfully tiny and start to grasp the mountains' true size.  

When you step inside your cabin you feel like you're Richard Proenneke, without the daunting labor of actually building the cabin. Now it's time to gather wood and water before nightfall. Gathering firewood you realize there is literally no one around for miles, your closest mammalian neighbor could be a brown bear, and there is no other way you'd have it when you're experiencing pristine wilderness. You hear loons calling to one another between their underwater fishing forays and the steady rush of the wind flowing through the glaciated valley.

Before you know it, you have a small fire roaring and your wet gear drying out above on a rope spiderweb kindly strung up by a previous cabin user. Off to the lake to filter some water for drinking and dinner. At the shoreline, up close, you wonder why there is even a need to filter the clear water you can see at least 20 feet into, but know you need to either way. Back up to the cabin to boil your bounty for preparing dinner.

Sleeping is one of the best parts. Getting up every four hours or so to add another log to the fire, tweak the air control and ensure coals hold out for the next few hours is truly satisfying in the simplest of ways. It's the perfect balance between rainy tenting and a programmable thermostat. Your payoff for gathering all that wood is a comfy spot next to that warm fire's glow.

Drive the Denali Highway

With over one hundred miles of rustic and rugged dirt road, the Denali Highway snakes through the high alpine foothills of the central Alaskan Range. Constructed in 1957 as the original road access to Denali National Park, the highway serves up some of Alaska's best mountain views and a quick escape from the rows of souvenir shops and adventure tours in The Canyon to the west. Listed by National Geographic as the "No. 2 Driver's Drive in the World," here are a few of our tips after the two and a half days we spent driving this breathtaking byway. 

SEE    The stunning views.

Most travel books note mileages on the highway from east to west, though we set off on the trip after our visit to Denali National Park and headed east out of Cantwell. Regardless of the direction you're traveling, the views on the Denali Highway are sure to impress, with a new jagged ridgeline or snow dusted peak nearly every direction you turn. 

Driving from the west: Views of Denali wave goodbye and the Alaska Range gives a grand greeting. North of the highway, mountains tower over alpine meadows -- Mount Deborah at 12,688 feet, followed by a steep and rocky Mount Hess at 11,940 feet and the tallest, Mount Hayes at 13,700 feet. 

As the highway weaves through valleys and over several major river drainage areas, it wraps around rocky ridges to reveal the Maclaren River Valley and the Macalaren Glacier. Following the valley, the road climbs to Maclaren Summit (4,086 feet and the second highest pass in Alaska) before dropping down through the Ampitheater Mountains and Tangle Lakes.

DO    Grayling Fishing at Tangle Lakes.

At the well-known Tangle Lakes area, we jumped on the fly-fishing opportunities for a day. With two lakes and the beginning of the Tangle River, this spot is a favorite for locals and travelers alike. With a few black flies and mosquitoes, we enjoyed a tasty grayling for dinner and two for lunch the next day. (Cooking technique mirrors that of Dolly Varden.)

There are also a few rough off-roading trails around, that are a lot of fun. We took the MacClaren River Road about 5 miles, though had to turn around as the river was too high to cross. Though the road stretches on for 14 miles and takes you awfully close to the mouth of MacCalaren Glacier.   

EAT   Breakfast at the Alpine Creek Lodge.

Claude and Jennifer are the friendly owners of the beautiful lodge located at mile 68 on the highway. A large cabin with a leisure and dining hall the length of the building, decked with deer mounts and furs -- trapped by their son, Bob -- the camp is the perfect oasis for hunters, ATVers, snowmobilers, etc. 

The all-you-can-eat-breakfast, by Chef Chrissy, is only $10 and served family-style at a long wooden table in the middle of the lodge. The delicious hash browns with bacon, blueberry pancakes, oatmeal, fruit and fresh coffee were just what we needed after a chilly night of camping in the mountains. 

SLEEP    Tangle Lakes Campground or one of the several dozens of primitive camping pullouts along the drive.

At only $6 a night, the Tangle Lakes Campground provides prime fishing, potable water and vault toilets. The rocky horizons boasting vivid sunsets are also well worth the minimal dinero.

GO    July or August. 

The road is closed to all traffic from October to mid-May each year, though snow can come down any month and usually makes an appearance in September -- here's a photo from the first snow this year, on September 17. We drove the highway in late August and enjoyed bright sunny days filled with fishing and blueberry picking. 

See more of our recent photos on Flickr / Find tips on Denali National Park

Hiking & Camping at Denali National Park



While likely one of the most tourist-y places in the state, it isn't truly a trip to Alaska without visiting the acclaimed Denali National Park and hoping for a brief glimpse of majestic Mount McKinley, also known as Denali, if only for a minute. Here are the routes to get you there.

- Take the camper bus. At only $35 a person for the entire time you are camping in the park, you can spend a few nights at a bus-accessed campground, equipped with bear boxes and pit toilets, and spend your days hopping on and off any park bus (the green buses) to travel around the park. See a full list of buses available here. The bus travel takes some time, so plan on riding the bus all day for at least one of the days you are visiting the park. And the trip to Wonder Lake? Definitely worth it if you've got a chance of clear skies in the forecast. Either way make sure you make it to Eielson Visitor Center.

- Keep your eyes open. Wildlife is everywhere. In just two days riding the bus we saw many moose (both massive bulls and cows with calves, countless caribou, a fox digging up his dinner, Dall sheep near and far, and 18 brown bears. On hikes we saw moose from afar, watched golden eagles soar in the canyons below and came within 20 feet of Dall sheep rams butting heads on a ridgeline near Mt. Margaret. Denali NP is a truly wild habitat and both a privilege and pleasure to experience.

- Pave your own trail. In Denali, you can hike anywhere you'd like, and, with little maintained trails, the park encourages back country travel. Grab a good map of the park, preferably a topo map, and set out toward your favorite tundra hill or alpine saddle. While hiking in the backcountry, try to keep off trails that look like they've been created by other humans, as the park truly encourages "no trace left behind." Find a map and list of trails near the park's entrance, as well as some more tips for hiking off-trail here.

- Go on a day hike. Bring water and perhaps a water filter, camera, binoculars, compass, extra socks, rain gear, sunscreen, first aid kit and enough food for the entire day. Avoid cotton. Invest in bear spray. You'll likely never need to use it, but on the chance that you encounter a brown bear on a trail, it is important to have a means of protection.

- Camping overnight at a designated site? Bring all of the above plus: food and cooking means / stove and pot(s) (always bring food for at least an extra day out in the park), rain gear, an extra pair of clothes (including socks), fire starter, tarp(s) and rope, emergency blanket / ponchos or plastic bags. For a complete backcountry camping list see the NPS website.

- Visit the kennels. The park has a rich history of sled dog use and is proud to introduce your dogs to you. The park's first superintendent, and climbing leader for Mount McKinley's first summit 100 years ago, Harry Karstens, patrolled the park via sled dog. He and his climbing crew also utilized sled dogs on their McKinley expedition. At the sled dog kennels you'll get some time to pet the dogs, learn about their daily routines and see them in full pulling action. These sled dogs are still used today in the winter months to patrol the park's vast interiors. Find more information here.

With only one road and no public car access, Denali is truly a magnificent place and well worth the visit. For more information, National Geographic has a great article on the park and goes into depth on some visitor necessities. Check it out.










Check out the park's blog
. / View more photos on Flickr.

Catch and Cook a Dolly Varden

Fishing on the Kenai Peninsula, a lot was learned about the local bait and angle. Summer is salmon season and as king, sockeye, dog and silver make their way up river from late June until early September (kings are first, then the rest proceed respectively), Dolly Varden are a prized catch, while they trail behind the spawning salmon looking for fresh and tasty eggs.

Exploring both the Quartz and Crescent creeks near Cooper Landing for a few days straight, we cherished every sunny minute of bait, cast and hook. The salmon paid little attention to the lines and each evening one plump catch hit the frying pan. (And starting off the day with blueberry oatmeal crisp can't be beat.)

Presently, a rainy Denali National Park has delivered calm days, cool nights and countless animal sightings. Autumn seems to be approaching quickly as the surrounding wilderness prepares for the quieter and chillier of seasons. Some amazing photos and more notes on the area soon.

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The Haul Road

Haul Road in Brooks Range

Hello, Alaska. So we've been here for a little over a week now and we've driven north to south. Four hundred plus miles up the Dalton Highway, also known as the Haul Road, past the Arctic Circle, through the unearthly, spectacular Brooks Range, and to the Arctic Ocean. Decked out with extra gas tanks and two spare tires, we took the infamous Dalton Highway on and achieved our goal. After adjusting to endless daylight, we seem to be missing it already.

Now, over 800 miles south of the Arctic, we're on the Kenai Peninsula, searching for silver salmon. Fly fishing. Check. Delicious arctic grayling. Check. Salmon and Alaska Range, here we come.


along the Haul Road

The pipeline

The perfect day

Arctic Grayling


Grayling dinner




1:01am light @ Galbraith Lake. Well north of the Arctic Circle.

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