Naturalist Journeys - vacations and travel

Alaska Sampler: Fairbanks, Denali, Seward (Kenai Fjords) & Aleyska

  • Airport near Anchorage, AK, United States
  • Culture & Nature
Alaska, United States

from $4,690* per person 16 Days June
Comfort accommodations Exertion level: 3
Operator: Naturalist Journeys 12 people max
In a world where the treasures of wildlife and wild places are dwindling, Alaska remains a wilderness jewel.  More than any place in North America, it retains its wild character and ecological integrity, making a visit here simply a “must do” experience. We visit in June when we have endless hours of daylight to explore. It is an active time for birds and wildlife feeding young in the short summer season. Our journey is designed to visit signature landscapes from seacoast to tundra. Look for Moose and a variety of birds in thick spruce forests, circumnavigate seabird islands amid narrow fjords at Kenai, and hike in Denali National Park. We visit wildlife-rich areas near Denali, Fairbanks, and Seward, and on our extension, Anchorage and Nome.

A sampler of Alaska’s magnificent scenery would not be complete without a boat trip into the Gulf of Alaska and Kenai Fjords National Park from Seward.  From our comfortable boat, we look for close encounters with Humpback Whales, large groups of Orca, dolphins, and the increasingly rare Steller’s Sea Lion. Our route takes us past several large glaciers in Resurrection Bay, and then travels through the rich waters of the Chiswell Islands where seabirds such as Tufted and Horned Puffins, Thick-billed and Common Murres, Black-legged Kittiwake, and Red-faced Cormorant nest in the long days of summer.  We enter Northwestern Fjord, one of the most spectacular of the Kenai Fjords National Park.  At its head, we stop the boat very close to the calving glacier, taking in its magnificent beauty and myriad sounds of ice falling.

We feature three nights at the renowned North Face Lodge, a naturalist’s paradise with views of Mt. McKinley possible on clear days from the porch.  The proprietors’ commitment to fine food, great hikes, local expertise, and conservation in the region provides many of the highlights of our stay.  Stan Senner, well-known Alaskan conservationist, is the invited Guest Speaker during our stay.

In Fairbanks we visit the Alaska Bird Observatory, a local dog musher who was the first woman to finish the Iditarod Race, and search out forest species such as Black-backed and American Three-toed Woodpeckers. Sandhill Cranes nest here and their calls are a delight over fields and rivers. We stay in cabins on the Chena River, and enjoy a chance to learn more about Alaska’s history.

Our main journey ends in Anchorage, and we add a night here with our extension as there is much to see and experience in this beautiful city, rimmed by water and mountains. The local museum is excellent, we enjoy a walk at Eagle Creek Nature Center, and we check local ponds for Pacific Loons in breeding plumage and other beautiful species. Perhaps we linger here a bit as Anchorage has such excellent restaurants!

On our extension to Nome, we explore a wild and beautiful landscape close to the Arctic Circle. Perched on the sea, with a backdrop of mountains behind, Nome draws regular and vagrant Asian birds from nearby Russia. Many plants exhibit Old World affinities and this far north tree-line has given way to open tundra. Nome’s unique community is locked in by ice for much of the year. Our visit is timed for the ice ‘break-up’, an exciting time when locals celebrate the end of winter and birders from around the world gather with hopes of seeing unusual species. After exploring many areas, we think Nome provides Alaska’s premier birding experience. Nome also provides an authentic Alaskan experience away from roads and regular connections to the outer world. Its colorful Gold Rush history is evident throughout the area. An annual highlight in March is the finish of the Iditarod race – you can stand on the finish line in the center of Nome.

Join us to explore in depth Alaska: Kenai Fjords and Denali National Parks, scenic areas near Anchorage and Fairbanks, the lovely Alyeska Lodge and for those that extend their stay, Nome.

Locations visited/nearby

Alaska, United States

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  • Reviewer: located in MN
    "What keeps us returning? For us Naturalist Journeys provides a holistic focus on flora and fauna, geology, history and culture without being obsessive about any one aspect. We travel in small groups of interesting, like-minded people with easy access to highly trained, caring naturalists. Superb destinations, knowledge, camaraderie, convenience, and caring professionals. For us Naturalist Journeys does it all!"
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    “Peg Abbott is a pro – full of knowledge and diplomacy, generous with her time and attentive to our questions. Local guides add a new dimension to our learning with immediate local knowledge to share. I can hardly wait to go again!”
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    “Highlights were Costa Rica itself, the guides, birds and variety of activities. I had a chance to see this beautiful country with people in the know and to interact with people and environments that are not offered to ‘common’ tourists.”
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Itinerary

Sat., June 1 Arrival in Anchorage
Arrive today in Anchorage, Alaska.  As the plane comes in over Cooke Inlet, watch for possible pods of Beluga Whale below – if you can take your eyes off the snow-covered peaks on the west side of the bay, or the verdant Chugach Mountains that give a dramatic background to Anchorage, Alaska’s vibrant most populous city.  Today is a rest and relax day after your travels with no activities planned. However, for those that arrive in time, our comfortable accommodations are well-situated near downtown Anchorage so that you can explore.  Plan to explore at your leisure as flights arrive throughout the day and into the evening.  We offer transport from the airport for those arriving between 3:00 and 6:00 PM.  Just outside our bed and breakfast there is walking trail with good birding. On mudflats you may see gulls, terns and sandpipers feeding, and in marshy areas where freshwater rivers enter, you may find migrating Sandhill Cranes. For those arriving in time, enjoy dinner at one of our favorite local restaurants, informal tonight as some may not arrive in time for dinner.
Accommodations at the Copper Whale, Anchorage

Sun., June 2 Potters Marsh / Scenic Cook Inlet / Seward
After a delightful breakfast at the Copper Whale, and a birding stop at nearby Westchester Lagoon. Here we may find Red-necked Grebe (often with babies on their backs), Hudsonian Godwits and Short-billed Dowitchers. Mew Gulls call overhead, and in wooded areas we walk through between tidal mudflats we may find Alder Flycatchers, Blackpoll Warblers or other songbirds. We then drive south to Seward, a spectacularly situated fishing town on Resurrection Bay, at the edge of the Gulf of Alaska.  This is a stunning route, and we stop for photography, birding and sightseeing. From the boardwalk trail at Potter’s Marsh we hope to observe spawning salmon as well as nesting Bald Eagles and a number of waterfowl and waders. We follow the edge of Cooke Inlet, and from viewpoints, we scan the rugged slopes for signs of Dall Sheep and Moose, and the waters of the bay for Belugas.

On arrival, settle into accommodations on the small boat harbor of Seward.  Enjoy fresh seafood or steaks tonight at Ray’s, located on the waterfront – our favorite restaurant in Alaska and a great place to host the official welcome dinner!  It’s fun to wander after dinner, watch the halibut harvest come in, marvel at the many boats, and look for Sea Otter often just off the docks!
Accommodations at Holiday Inn Express, Seward, AK. (B,L,D)  

Mon., June 3 Chiswell Islands / Northwestern Fjord Cruise / Seward
Today we embark on an all-day boat trip into Kenai Fjords National Park. This is a marvelous day spent cruising among glaciers and seabird nesting islands of the Gulf of Alaska. As we leave the dock, we look for Northern Sea Otters, Marbled Murrelets, Pigeon Guillemots, Double-crested and Pelagic Cormorants, Bald Eagles and Glaucous-winged Gulls. Scenery is on a massive scale and we should find several active feeding Humpback Whales that spend summers feeding in these rich ocean waters. We may also find pods of Orcas or Dall’s Porpoises, and on glacial ice chunks near Northwestern Fjord, we should find Harbor Seals with tiny pups. The Chiswell Islands are prime seabird nesting areas, and here we find numerous Tufted and Horned Puffins, often quite close to the boat. Common Murres are incredibly common and our captain knows where to find the more local Thick-billed Murres, likely now on eggs on very steep-sided seamounts. Black-legged Kittiwakes are abundant and vocal. In a sheltered cove, we hope to spot a few Parakeet Auklets. As we enter the narrow channel that leads to Northwestern Fjord, we look for Rhinoceros Auklets, possibly Ancient Murrelets and, by small freshwater inlet streams, rare Kittlitz Murrelets. The boat must navigate floating ice, recently calved from Northwest Glacier. Our captain pulls up quite close to this glacier, turns off the engine, and lets us float among the sights and sounds of an active calving glacier – extraordinary! On the way back, we venture into deeper water where we look for Sooty and Short-tailed Shearwaters. As we reenter Resurrection Bay heading for Seward, we quietly venture close to a Red-faced Cormorants nesting colony, and hope to find Black Oystercatcher in a rocky bay. Dinner is on your own tonight; dine in style or get a quick bite to eat after this exciting day.
Accommodations at Holiday Inn Express, Seward (B,L)

Tues., June 4 Kenai Peninsula / Alyeska Resort / Dinner on Top of the Mountain!
This morning we visit the Alaska Sea Life Center, built as part of the mitigation of the Exxon-Valdez oil spill. This modern, interactive museum has live puffins, other seabirds and sea mammals (photographers, take your cameras!) and highly informative exhibits. In nearby Resurrection Bay, we search for Marbled Murrelets and Harlequin Ducks, which often come quite close to shore.  We then gather our belongings at the hotel, and drive north to beautiful Alyeska Resort, in winter a ski resort and in summer, a lovely mountain lodge. Here, we look for birds of the temperate rainforest, a habitat that extends up from Southeast Alaska to rim the more easterly situated Prince William Sound. Birds here that are less likely to be found north of here include Rufous Hummingbirds, Steller’s Jay, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatches and Townsend’s Warblers. We take a tram ride up to the top of the mountain for dinner at the Seven Glacier’s Restaurant. If weather cooperates, we’ll also enjoy some birding atop the mountain as well!
Accommodations at Alyeska Resort (B,L,D)

Wed., June 5 Flight to Fairbanks / University of Alaska Museum
This morning we enjoy the scenic drive back to Anchorage and stop to look for American Dipper known to nest in the clear mountain streams. Mid-morning, we take a flight bound north to Fairbanks. With good weather we have some fantastic views, perhaps even of Denali (‘THE mountain’). Fairbanks is located at the confluence of the Chena and Tanana rivers; on arrival we settle in at accommodations on the Chena River.
In the afternoon, we visit the fabulous University of Alaska Museum, which offers a grand array of cultural and historical exhibits. We also visit the University’s Arctic Botanical Garden where many flowers will be in bloom and, with luck; we may see Sandhill Cranes in lush fields nearby. The evening is at your leisure; several restaurants are within walking distance of our hotel.
Accommodations at River’s Edge Resort Cottages (D)

Thurs., June 6  Fairbanks and Vicinity / Alaska Bird Observatory / Evening with a local Dog Musher
Today we explore Fairbanks and its surroundings in more detail, with a local birder from the Arctic Audubon Society. We visit the Alaska Bird Observatory, and depending on their schedule, we may be able to watch a bird-banding demonstration.  We stop at Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge and check out trails at key birding locations that let us explore true boreal forest where we hope to find Northern Hawk Owls, or a variety of woodpeckers. Three-toed and Black-backed Woodpeckers may be found in this northern realm, as well as Ruffed Grouse, Hammond’s and Alder Flycatchers, and other species. After time afield, history buffs may enjoy learning of the gold-rush history of the area, and several may want to see the famous Alaska oil pipeline. Tonight we have a lovely salmon dinner, and then share a special evening with Mary Shields, the first woman to complete the Iditarod; now an author, educator and enthusiastic dog-musher. She shares with us her ‘Tales of the Trail’ and we meet her working and well-loved canine companions.
Accommodations at River’s Edge Resort Cottages, Fairbanks (B,L)

Fri., June 7 Denali National Park / North Face Lodge
We get an early start for Denali National Park, boarding the train for Denali Station about 8:00 AM for this very exciting part of our journey. Our Alaska Railroad train passes through boreal forest, where we see abundant Black Spruce interspersed with ponds and wetlands. We keep our eyes peeled for Trumpeter Swans, Moose and other wildlife as the train moves along. As we get close to Healy, Alaska, the mountain scenery is quite dramatic and our train makes wide curves through picturesque tunnels. Guides from Camp Denali and North Face Lodge await us at the station. As they load luggage and pick up supplies, we have time to view exhibits at the National Park Visitor’s Center. We then head to the wilds, driving 90 miles through Denali National Park to our intimate, peaceful lodge with front porch views of Mt. McKinley (Denali). En route, any number of exciting wildlife sightings are possible, from Gyrfalcons to Grizzly Bears, Moose, Dall Sheep and more. Along the way, we enjoy a great picnic dinner featuring wild Alaskan delicacies. We arrive in time for dessert, an orientation to the North Face Lodge, and hopefully beautiful views.
Accommodations at North Face Lodge, Denali National Park (D)

Sat., June 8 and Sun., June 9 Denali National Park / North Face Lodge
We have two full days to enjoy the spectacular wilderness of Denali National Park. Our lodgings offer us great comfort, delicious meals, private bath, and warm hospitality. Each morning, expert naturalists offer a variety of hikes in tundra and forest habitats. These are described in detail at breakfast, and you can select from an easy-paced “naturalist foray,” or either a moderate or strenuous hike that often follows ridgelines or riverine routes in Denali National Park.

Each outing is unique. While learning about fascinating aspects of tundra ecology, geology, and more, we check tundra ponds for ducks and geese and berry-rich hillsides for bears. This is the best time of year to see Moose, Caribous, and Grizzly Bears. In addition to the large mammals, we may encounter Hoary Marmots, Pine Martens, Rock and Willow Ptarmigans, a variety of songbirds, and a wonderful mix of tundra wildflowers. You can hike as much or as little as you wish. The lodge offers an on-site learning lab and library, as well as trails just outside the door. Evening programs, given by the lodge staff or visiting guest speakers, focus on Denali’s natural and cultural history, and due to our booking during the special emphasis session with Stan Senner, Alaska’s birds.
(Accommodations at North Face Lodge, Denali National Park (B,L,D, all days)


We return this year to North Face Lodge, one of Cole/Hamm family’s two lodges, where a special session with an emphasis on Bird Migration and Conservation is taking place. Views from the cabins, library and resource center, and lovely dining room are superlative! Camp Denali has a rich history and reputation as one of the first wilderness lodges in Alaska.

Over 50 years ago, people with vision and a true love of the wilderness had the foresight to establish Camp Denali in one of the most pristine areas adjacent to Denali National Park. Since 1975, the Cole family has extended this vision, adding North Face Lodge and managing both properties with an impressive commitment to both conservation and quality of experience. With the expansion of Denali National Park and Preserve in 1980, this owner-operated facility now sits in the center of the most scenic and wild portion of Denali National Park. Guided hikes and programs conducted by expert naturalists, with a keen focus on geology and natural history, are the key to providing far more than just a backcountry stay. Combine unparalleled views of Mt. McKinley with an unparalleled educational and wildlife viewing opportunity and you have the North Face/Camp Denali experience. With all this to their credit, they also provide incredible service, delicious meals with fresh foods from their own greenhouse and gardens, and well-appointed comfortable rooms with private bath at the Lodge. Canoes and bikes are available, as is optional flight seeing (additional cost). The location, facilities, and programs are unique, and Naturalist Journeys is proud to offer this location as part of our Alaska Sampler itinerary.

 

Mon., June 10 Denali National Park / Train to Anchorage
Our return trip through the park has the feel of an African safari, as we never know what animals we will see. We'll keep our eyes open for rare sightings of Gray Wolf, and even Lynx! We have seen Arctic Ground Squirrels, the blue morph of Red Fox and, in some years, Hawk Owls. Often we find Rock or Willow Ptarmigans and nesting Wandering Tattlers or Surfbirds. We do have to meet the train so we can’t linger, but we always hope for excellent sightings. By noon, we are at Denali Station, where we board the train to Anchorage. You may take your lunch here, or wait and eat on the train at your leisure. This is an eight-hour trip, so bring your journal or a good book, or just enjoy sightseeing from the dome car. Our final dinner is on the train.
Accommodations at the Copper Whale Inn, Anchorage (B,D)

Tues., June 11 Optional morning birding / Departures from Anchorage / Extension
Enjoy breakfast with a view of Cook Inlet, Please arrange flights out today at your convenience. We will have one group shuttle back to the airport at 8:00 AM, or you may leave at your convenience later in the day by taxi, a cost of about $20.00.

ANCHORAGE / NOME EXTENSION JUNE 11-15

Tues., June 11 Anchorage / Eagle Creek
Those that have afternoon flights out, and those staying on for the extension can enjoy time to explore Anchorage. In the morning we focus on culture, seeing the city highlights and the excellent local Anchorage Museum with exhibits on art, history and science. Enjoy some free time to shop and have lunch at your leisure with a great choice of restaurants. After lunch, we meet back at the Copper Whale to drive north of the city for a walk at beautiful Eagle Creek, an impressive valley with an easy trail that affords views of the mountains and wildlife.  The evening is free to attend films, choose a restaurant you like, or walk the Cooke Inlet trail. Its near to the solstice so it remains light LONG into the night. (B)

Wed., June 12 North to Nome!
After a delicious breakfast at the Copper Whale,  we catch a morning flight from Anchorage to Nome; typically a jet-carrier flight where we share space with cargo. Weather can delay or even prevent landing in Nome, but with good luck, we will land on time to begin our exploration.  Once in Nome we store our luggage (rooms will be ready early afternoon), and head out to explore. There are a number of excellent birding sites close to town where we find White Wagtails, Long-tailed Ducks and Pacific, Arctic, Red-throated and possibly Yellow-billed Loons. Explore the Harbor area and historic sites of Nome, with some free time in town to check out the shops, museums, the Iditarod Finish Line Arch and the birder-friendly Visitor’s Center on Front Street.  After settling in to our lodgings and exploring a bit, we have an early dinner and enjoy a wildlife watching loop drive to search for Grizzly Bears, Muskoxen and arctic birds in the beauty of evening light.
Accommodations for the next four nights at the Aurora Inn, Nome (B,L,D)

Thurs.-Sat., June 13-15 Three Great Days in Nome!!
Three main roads lead out into the wilds of the Seward Peninsula, and we travel a combination of routes based on current bird sightings and the interests and abilities of the group. En route, we should find Yellow Wagtails perched up on an old gold dredge, sight Grizzly Bears digging up arctic Ground Squirrels or we may encounter a roadblock of Reindeer, which are herded here instead of cattle. Gyrfalcons, Long-tailed Jaegers and Snowy Owls nest in the region and can be found hunting the open tundra in some years (they cycle with the lemmings, their prey). The Nome-Council road leads out to Cape Nome, with a panoramic view of the Bering Sea and possible sightings of Aleutian and Arctic Terns as well as a variety of eiders and scoters. It continues on to Safety Lagoon and points beyond where we should find Bar-tailed Godwits, Arctic Loons and large flocks of Tundra Swans. Near Solomon, old railroad engines can be seen as the ‘Last Train to Nowhere’. The Nome-Kougarok Road leads 83 miles north into the Kigluaik Mountains. It is a beautiful drive, with many areas for birding along the way. Willow bottoms attract Arctic Warblers, Gray-cheeked Thrushes and Bluethroats; they may also hide a group of Musk Oxen with their young! Willow and Rock Ptarmigans, Northern Wheatears and Horned Larks perch on lichen-covered rocks of the tundra, while Rough-legged Hawks and Peregrine Falcons hunt overhead. The open tundra provides nesting habitat for Black-bellied Plovers, Ruddy Turnstones, and Pomarine Jaegers. For willing hikers, Bristle-thighed Curlews nest high on the slopes in the tundra. With luck they may be calling or displaying – a great reward for the tough climb to find them.

Twenty thousand people lived in Nome at the turn of the century, seeking their fortunes in gold found in the abundant beach sands. Today about 5000 people live here at the edge of the Bering Sea. Nome is the service center for much of Western Alaska. Watching huge barges being unloaded gives us insight into the hardships and joys of life on a 21st century frontier. Birding from the rock sea wall near the harbor can be rewarding with sightings of large flocks of sea ducks, Glaucous and Slaty-backed Gulls and a variety of shorebirds – now bright in breeding plumage.

At Pilgrim Creek, we find the remains of an agricultural settlement, an historic orphanage and a delightful small hot springs amid trees that attract Hoary Redpolls and Blackpoll Warblers. Salmon Lake provides us a wonderful picnic spot, and at this time of year there will likely still be snowfields around parts of the lake. The Nome-Teller road leads off to the Northwest. Bluethroats enjoy the willows of several small drainages en route, while other habitats along the road provide us with nesting American Dippers and Long-tailed Jaegers. The sand spit at Teller is well known for its rarities, which may include Black Guillemots, Northern Shrikes and various sandpipers.

Close to Nome, a side road up Anvil Mountain provides majestic views of the Bering Sea and King Island, possibly Moose and Musk Oxen and wonderful early spring wildflowers. We look for Red-throated Pipits, Northern Wheatears and Pacific Golden Plovers as we explore. There is abundant daylight, and we vary the times we go afield so those who wish can experience midnight sun!  Dinners are at your leisure so you can pace yourself. Some will want to call it a day and relax for the evening and keen birders may want to continue taking in some of the long hours of daylight.
Accommodations for four nights at the Aurora Inn (B,L daily; dinners at your leisure)

Sun., June 16 Departures from Nome
We plan on morning departures from Nome to facilitate flights onward. If you book a later flight and want to coordinate your Nome to Anchorage flight to best match that, please let us know soon after booking. As the flight is early we’ll purchase breakfast items the day previous at the grocery, and you can have these with coffee or tea in your room (B).  We return to the airport by taxi, so it is not a problem if you choose to leave later in the day.

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