“We should go to Alaska!” Our son, age 11, wouldn’t drop the idea. The concept of the 49th state—partially frozen, bigger than Texas, teaming with wild animals and all the way up there — seized his imagination.
Our family’s problem: We had limited time to travel over the summer, and we are not particularly fond of cruises, which is the most popular way to see a lot of Alaska in just a week. My husband and I like active, authentic trips through byways and backcountry, with the right mix of comfort and challenge for our preteen son and teenage daughter.
But the task of planning an itinerary that covered such a large area in a week felt logistically daunting, while the possibility of meeting a grizzly bear on a family hike made me undeniably nervous.
So, for the first time ever, our foursome decided to join a guided, family-oriented tour. We sought a group that’s small and upscale enough to offer personal, premium service, but not so “cushy” that it sacrifices truly adventurous excursions. And please, Lord, no tour buses!
We found just the right mix with Austin Adventures and subsequently spent six days exploring the Kenai Peninsula near Anchorage. This pristine piece of Alaska showcases the state’s iconic features, including breathtaking glaciers and forests, and abundant bald eagles and whales. We traveled in a comfortable van driven by two trustworthy, fun-loving guides, and we stopped frequently to hike, bike and feed our hungry appetites with memorable meals.
Our group of 12 guests included four families: ours, another foursome, a mother-daughter pair and a father-son combo. The youth ranged in age from 9 to 14. The group felt like a perfect size—big enough to enjoy socializing with several others, yet small enough that we could fit easily with the two guides in an extra-large van that pulled a small trailer with gear.
The first morning, we boarded the Alaska Railroad to travel southeast from Anchorage to Seward, and then hopped on a ferry to traverse Resurrection Bay and reach rustic Fox Island.
While dockside in the fishing town of Seward, we ducked into a clothing store to buy gloves and hats for warmth, since we had failed to pack adequately for the weather. Be forewarned that Alaska gets cold and rainy even in relatively mild summertime months!
Covering so much ground in the first morning by train and boat gave us a sweeping, scenic introduction to the region’s verdant forests, craggy peaks and whale-filled bay. After we left the mainland for Fox Island, it didn’t take long to spot humpbacks and orcas.
If we had been traveling alone, then I surely would have gone down for a nap once we reached the island’s pebble beach and checked into charming log cabins at the woodsy, off-the-grid Fox Island Kenai Fjords Wilderness Lodge. Instead, our enthusiastic leaders roused us to get out and kayak around the cove.
Not wanting to miss out, I ended up having an unforgettable late-afternoon paddle on the bay. We saw puffins bobbing by our side, bald eagles dive-bombing the water for bits of fish, and water cascading down the sides of mossy cliffs.
Each day of the tour proved as fun and fulfilling as Day One. Along with the first night on Fox Island, we were impressed by the accommodations at the subsequent two hotels: Windsong Lodge in Seward and Alyeska Resort in Girdwood.
Midweek in Seward, we explored Exit Glacier, which descends from the 300-square-mile Harding Ice Field—and yes, sadly, it was melting before our eyes. Go and see its luminous, blue-hued ice formations before they’re gone in a generation or so. Driving toward the visitor center, you’ll see signposts marking vast stretches that measure how much it receded in the past century.
Our group embarked on a challenging 8-mile out-and-back trek up the glacier and across the tip of the immense ice field. Here we discovered another advantage to going with a group: one of the guides, recognizing that the whole hike would be too challenging for my son and the other younger child, turned around with the two young kids after a mile and drove them into Seward for a great tour of the Alaska SeaLife Center.
Meanwhile, the other guide led us to a summit. My 14-year-old daughter, who wanted to keep up with the other teens, hiked farther and harder than she ever had—with a big smile on her face the whole time.
We glimpsed wildlife in the wilderness throughout the week, but the best view of Alaska’s bears, bison and moose came through our group’s visit to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center near Girdwood. We saw and learned about animals we had never even heard of, like the musk oxen.
On another afternoon, my husband splurged and surprised the kids by paying extra to give them the gift of an optional dog-sledding excursion. While I stayed back to enjoy some downtime, they rode in a helicopter to a snowy mountainside. There, they learned all about the Huskies and the sledding tradition while cuddling pups and swooshing in a sled behind the barking pack.
Suffice to say the sledding, along with the whole six days in Alaska, lived up to the “once-in-a-lifetime-experience” cliché!
The minimum age for Austin Adventures’ designated “family adventures” trips is 7, but on this Alaska trip, I would recommend 9 or older to enjoy the biking and kayaking.
The group eats together except for one dinner on your own midweek. All meals and tips at restaurants and hotels are included in the base price.
The cost of Austin Adventures’ six-day/five-night Kenai Peninsula Family Tour starts at $3,198/adult, plus $2,878 for the first child and $2,558 for the second child if the family shares one room at the hotels. Figure on about $12,000 for a family of four as the base price. I recommend that guests budget a few hundred dollars extra for gratuities to thank their Austin Adventure guides and for alcoholic beverages.
Sarah Lavender Smith lives in Piedmont, California, and blogs about trail running and adventure travel at TheRunnersTrip.com. She and her family spent a year traveling around the world and “road schooling” in 2009-10. Since then, they’ve sought family trips that satisfy their wanderlust during shorter vacation breaks.
Editor’s Note: Austin Adventures compensated us to write and publish this article. Photos by Sarah’s husband, Morgan C. Smith.
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