The sunbeam is as narrow as a knife blade as it slips through the
window blind. Rather than bury my head under a pillow, I scoot out
of bed with an energy I don’t possess when I’m in the city. With
coffee in hand, I open the door and step outside.
The Alaska surroundings jolt me awake in a way that a cup of
Java never could. Yellow birch leaves shower me in autumn.
I follow a narrow path to a darkened spruce grove, and beyond
that a brushy thicket of plump, wild blueberries. I pop a few into
my mouth and continue on.
The path dead ends at a lake. Fish and mallard ducks churn the
water as they feed on flies. An insect escapes the feeding frenzy
and disappears against a mountain that has etched its rugged
outline in a bluebird sky. A fresh moose track indicates I’m not
the first this morning to take in this view, but it doesn’t matter.
With scenery like this, I am happy with seconds.
My wife, Nitaya, calls that breakfast is ready. Normally, I’m no
slacker when it comes to eating, but for a moment, I am indecisive.
I breathe deeply and apologize to the call of the wild for leaving.
Even on a schedule-free, RV tour of Alaska, I’ve found that when
food is on the table, it’s prudent to respond to the call of the
wife, or the squirrels will be the ones eating toast and eggs for
breakfast, with me eating berries and seeds.
For travel agents, Alaska is the destination that pays steady
commissions from a host of satisfied customers. Established cruise
and land tours have been and still are the primary means of
sampling the many wonders of Alaska.
But the times they are a changin’.
Aging Baby Boomers have visited Alaska. Once. Twice. Three
times. Generation X-ers want independence and more opportunities to
enjoy recreation before, after or in lieu of a tour. Keep the
Alaska adventure alive for both these groups thanks to the many
options available through RV rentals. Your clients can find untold
freedom and enjoyment in exploring Alaska’s off-the-beaten-path
treasures at their own pace. When combined with select land or
cruise package tours, RV rental commissions can also increase your
bottom line. According to the U.S. Census of Retail Trade, the RV
rental business is a $191 million a year industry, creating a
lucrative source of revenue for many travel agencies.
Finding RVs to rent is easy. Advising your clients why they
should indulge in do-it-yourself exploration is even easier. Tell
them they can explore Alaska on their own, at their own pace. The
rest will fall into place, as it did for Nitaya and me this
We wanted to take in an autumn getaway and explore the “outback”
of Alaska’s road system. Our goal was to investigate whatever
attractions appealed to us. We would be traveling without any
schedule or reservations.
With a rental RV, we decided to travel the loop, driving the
Park’s Highway from Fairbanks to Denali, down to Talkeetna and
finally to Anchorage. We’d backtrack and take the Glenn Highway to
Glennallen, turning right on the Richardson Highway to Valdez and
backtrack up the Richardson to Fairbanks.
The first chore was renting an RV. While both Anchorage and
Fairbanks offer the largest number of RV rental companies and are
good destinations from which to base a tour, I based the trip out
of Fairbanks for several reasons.
Tourists see Alaska as “The Last Frontier” and are often
disappointed if their expectations aren’t met. Fairbanks meets that
expectation with its slow, friendly pace and frontier history
immersed in everyday life from paddlewheel-powered riverboats to
ice-carving contests and gold-mining operations. It oozes Alaskana,
with enough of a big-city infrastructure to be convenient, but not
Suzanne Spanjer, of Chena Marina RV Park in Fairbanks, said
booming interest in RV rentals prompted her to start Adventures in
Alaska RV Rentals. She offers a fleet of 13 RVs to rent during the
mid-May to mid-September tourist season and a 10 percent commission
on all rentals. Chena Marine RV Park in Fairbanks offers complete
laundry facilities, Internet access, water and electric. The
personal touch from barbecues to special events, and even 50
percent off the first night’s stay so your clients can get used to
their new rental makes it the standard by which other RV parks are
to be judged.
The first stage of the journey is research at the Fairbanks
Convention and Visitors Bureau log cabin in downtown Fairbanks.
Karen Lundquist and her staff are knowledgeable in area tours and
statewide attractions to match a variety of tastes, interests and
The Alaska Public Lands Information Center is a short two-block
walk away and a free repository of information on Alaska’s cultural
and natural attractions, hikes and campgrounds.
We make a stop at the Farmer’s Market on College Road to stock
up on some locally grown produce, baked goods and handicrafts at
bargain prices. Talking to the farmers is half the fun. Tell
clients to spend the afternoon at the Museum of the North on the
University of Alaska campus, which offers a complete overview of
Alaska’s natural history with prehistoric exhibits, northern lights
and large gold display and history from pre-territory to
Before leaving civilization, find an Internet connection. Online
Alaska weather cams provide an updated view of weather along chosen
Date With Denali
The winding highway leading out of Fairbanks climbs into the hills
and offers good views of the Alaska Range to the south.
At Mile 53 is the history-rich town of Nenana. We spend an hour
touring the various attractions from old churches to the railroad
depot, where in 1923, President Harding drove a golden spike
signifying the completion of the Alaska Railroad. The city is also
home to the Nenana Ice Classic. This springtime event awards cash
prizes to those who guess the exact minute when the ice will
breakup on the Tanana River.
Wildlife is abundant between Anderson and Healy. As Nitaya
chides me to drive faster than 45 mph, an eight-foot-high moose
darts across the highway with her five-foot-tall calf following
close behind. (I never again heard another word about my speed.) We
also observe grouse, coyotes, foxes, swans, waterfowl and
At midday we arrive at Denali National Park, which offers sights
and tours that can take a week to see. Popular options include
sled-dog kennel tours, horseback trail rides, flightseeing tours,
whitewater rafting and, of course, wildlife-viewing tours. Don’t
forget to take in the free exhibits located within the Holland
America and Princess resorts.
Free RV parking is sparse in the area, however, commercial RV
campgrounds in the Denali area are abundant. Denali National Park
and Preserve offers RV campsites at select locations at a cost of
$12 per day.
Back on the Parks Highway, I’m tempted to turn left onto the
Denali Highway. It’s a must-drive gravel highway in summer for
scenery, grayling fishing and a getaway from the paved highway
crowds. Drive slowly and watch for grizzly bears, moose, caribou
and an occasional wolf.
Instead, we travel farther down the Parks Highway and overnight
at Mile 211, Byers Lake Campground. The campground is deserted,
which is often the case with Alaska campgrounds after the Labor Day
weekend. We pay our $10 fee based on the honor system, slipping it
into the unattended cash box.
We take a hike to enjoy the evening splendor of the lake and
jump up a spruce grouse. Wild loons greet us with their lonely cry.
Trout, grayling, burbot and whitefish are available in the lake. A
silver salmon caught earlier was on the evening’s menu.
Before turning in, we observe the Northern Lights glowing in a
green band overhead.
Realizing she survived a night in the wild, Nitaya takes a jog
the next morning along the winding gravel roads through the
campground. We prepare breakfast, take on some water and hit the
road at sun-up.
On the Road Again
After a short drive, we stop at the Denali Overlook for a superb
view of Denali and surrounding mountains. Then it’s on to
Talkeetna, where we check out a few of the shops and have a quiet
lunch at Christiansen Lake before continuing south.
With the sun shining bright, we opt to enjoy the scenery at the
Knik River Bridge, the northernmost corner of the Pacific
Later, we stop at Sagaya’s Market in Anchorage to stock up on
groceries before heading north on the Glenn Highway to Glennallen.
Clients should time their drive on the Glenn for the early evening
hours, when the setting sun emblazons the mountainsides in
The drive is one of the most scenic in the state during early to
mid September, with its winding two-lane road that courses along
the Matanuska River. At the King River Bridge, I drive the RV to
within five feet of the riverbank, and know we have found our best
campsite yet, and it is free. That evening, with the sound of the
rushing river, the snowcapped mountains and smell of autumn leaves,
becomes a highlight of our adventure.
The next morning, we continue east on the Glenn. The Matanuska
Glacier is a must-see that can be scaled and explored with or
without a guide.
We continue on to Glennallen, an Alaska community worth getting
to know for its four mountain ranges and wild, scenic rivers. The
Cariboo Cafe doesn’t disappoint for lunch or breakfast. Then it’s
on to Valdez and the Alaska coast.
The remaining stretch of the Richardson offers numerous
highlights. Tell your clients to spend a day exploring the glacial
country of Thompson Pass, Worthington Glacier and the waterfalls of
Once in Valdez, consider a Columbia Glacier tour operated by
Stan Stephens Charters, the oldest tour operator in the region.
And, before parking for the night, wander over to the boat harbor
around 5 p.m. to watch charter boats bring in the catch of the
Recharge at Eagles Rest RV Park or the Valdez Glacier
Campground, a remote public site that offers isolation, although
black bears can be a nuisance.
Back on the road, we retrace our path north to Delta Junction.
We take a break at Rika’s Roadhouse and discover frontier Alaska,
with early 1900’s antiques and pioneer roadhouse lore, and the
finest food this side of the 49th Parallel.
We drive the final 95 miles to Fairbanks, where we clean up,
refuel and drop off the RV and review a trip that ended far too
For Nitaya and I, the Wrangell and Chugach ranges we explored
are as impressive as Denali, with fewer people. I ate fresh salmon
caught from a stream. We took a hike into the Talkeetna Mountains
and picked blueberries, and watched caribou cross the road. We
discovered the greatest attraction Alaska has to offer its
solitude, away from the diesel buses and crowded restaurants. We
enjoyed it all on our own time, cooking our own meals and eating
when and where we wanted.
But best of all, my wife and I managed to spend some quality
time together, away in the wilderness, yet with all the comforts of
Adventures in Alaska RV Rentals
Alaska State Parks
Bureau of Land Management Campground
Denali National Park
Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau
Stan Stephens Charters
The Recreational Vehicle Association of America states that,
according to vacation cost-comparison studies, RV vacations are
more affordable than travel by personal car, commercial airline or
cruise ship. The organization claims that a family of four can
spend up to 70 percent less when traveling by RV. I priced a
land-base tour against the costs of the RV tour we experienced.
While the savings didn’t reach 70 percent, the 50 to 60 percent
savings is substantial.
Recreational Vehicle Rental Association
Eight-Day, Land-Package Tour
A typical eight-day, land-based tour that includes travel by train
and motorcoach from Fairbanks to Denali, Talkeetna and Seward runs
$7,064 for a family of four. Cost does not include transportation
to or from Alaska.
Lodging and Transportation
Taxes, Meals, Drinks,
Tours (Price for
One-Day Denali Park
Kenai Fjords National Park
Alaska Sea Life
10-Day Do-It-Yourself RV Trip
A 10-day, September RV-rental trip for a family of four from
Fairbanks to Anchorage to Valdez and back. Add 50 percent to RV
rate for midsummer travel. Deduct $1,464 if client decides to
forego the packaged tours in lieu of low- or no-cost activities
such as fishing, hiking and mountain biking.
Gasoline and Oil for 1,100
Food and Miscellaneous
Taxes and Campsite
Tours (Price for
Same Tours as Land
Gear: Folding chairs with backs are invaluable.
Also remember a weather-band radio, flashlight or headlamp, fishing
gear, books, binoculars and a corkscrew.
Roadside Assistance: Take cash with you as many
remote repair facilities don’t take credit cards. If a breakdown
occurs, call the number provided by the RV agency to arrange for
Driving: Adjust your mirrors and use them often
most RV accidents take place backing up. Keep both hands on the
steering wheel as unexpected wind gusts can fling you to the side
of the road. Gasoline is at least 25 percent higher in remote areas
so keep tanks half full before camping. Also, some RV generators
won’t operate with less than a quarter of a tank.
Renting an RV: Test-drive several models before
choosing. A full-service option eliminates gas and propane fill-up,
RV cleanup and waste-water dump, but it is expensive. Some rental
companies include it in the price. Take digital photos of any RV
damage at the rental facility before you drive off to avoid point
of contention later on.
By Christopher Batin