The Globe and beyond travel blog

Portage Glacier, from afar.

Portage Glacier, up close like.

Not so spectacular of us, but check the reflection in Christina's shades.

Looking east down the valley at the Byron Glacier hike.

The view west up the same valley.

The view up to Independence Mine, which is in the upper right-hand...

Looking down the valley from one of our hiking vantage points.

Near the summit of the Hatcher Pass road.

Spot the Hoary Marmot (its real name. We're not judging).

What a difference two days can make. After we settled our sleeping arrangements in Anchorage, we were struck with a bout of "so, now what?" syndrome. We had spent such a long time planning how to get here, we hadn't actually thought about what to do when we arrived.

It didn't take long for us to recover: An hour or two of research left us with way more on our plates than we could accomplish in a couple of days. We decided to embrace being a tourist, and Alaska has failed to disappoint.

This place is beyond words. Its rugged beauty is simply unsurpassed. We may sound like a tourist brochure, but it's hard to avoid. Everything's on such a grand scale, the pictures we post here don't do it justice. We're not sure any can.

We spent our first day in Anchorage, which is definitely not the reason to come to Alaska. It's a nice enough downtown, but very tourist oriented. Like Times Square, minus the neon. That said, we found a great cup of coffee at the Dark Horse Café, and had a great meal with Guy's Aunt Jeanne and Uncle George, who were en route to a cruise embarking from Seward.

But the real reward came the next day, when we left the city. We drove down the Seward Highway about an hour to Portage Glacier, near Whittier - a route that offered stunning views of mountains and glaciers against the glistening waters of Turnagain Arm. The sun was in full effect after a few days of constant cloud cover, so we were lovin' it.

For $30 (U.S.) we boarded the last tour boat of the day and headed out to see the glacier up close. By the time the boat had docked back at the visitor's centre, we had taken more than 100 photographs. (God bless the digital revolution.) The glacier pours down from mountains so high that the sun barely clears their peaks. And while it looks like a nice big patch of smooth snow from afar, up close the jagged blocks of ice towered over us like sentinels.

After the boat tour, we were jacked to take a nearby hike to the foot of yet another glacier. A path led us to a clear blue stream that raced over a bed of rocks, which eventually led to the glacier itself. We spent a good hour climbing the surrounding rocks and throwing snowballs - not a bad way to spend an afternoon. Throw in a thali platter afterward at Anchorage's only Indian restaurant, and we were spent.

The next day we headed an hour northeast to Hatcher Pass, and a site called Independence Mine - a gold mine abandoned in the 1950s, nestled in an alpine valley. Some parts of the site are well preserved, others are in disrepair - all are well presented in the form of a self-guided tour, but nothing can beat the atmosphere of the valley itself. The mountains are rugged and situated about 3,900 feet above sea level, where the cloud cover is low, thick, dark and rolling. It was very "Lord of the Rings." (Forgive the geeking out). The man at the info centre said it rains there at least once a day, no matter the forecast in the nearby city of Palmer. After visiting some of the site markers, we hiked a trail that took us up another 800 feet, where a cross was towering over the valley - a grave marker for the sister of the mine's onetime manager.

Hatcher Pass road was next; we weren't sure what to expect, but after about 5 minutes along the crappiest gravel road in the history of the world, ever, we turned a corner and found ourselves smack in the middle of even more spectacular scenery. It took us 3 hours to drive the 70-kilometre road, partly because the switchbacks were so severe that we had to take them at about 10 kilometres an hour, but mostly because every 30 seconds or so one of us would yell "Stop the car!" and disappear into the hills with the camera. We had plenty of wee wildlife sightings too - marmots are the backyard squirrels of Hatcher's Pass.

We got on the road this morning and headed to Homer, where we'll catch our six-day ferry on Tuesday to Unalaska. Tonight we've got a guest house above a store right on the spit - a 7-kilometre sandbar that reaches into the middle of Kachemak Bay. The mountains of Alaska are enough to make your head spin - add the ocean into the mix, and it's over.

We have a day of touring around booked for tomorrow before boarding the ferry - we'll try and update once more before we go, but if we don't, enjoy the pics and make plans to get out here and see it for yourself.

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