Winter in Alaska: snowmobiling with Glacier City, cheating death all the while (video)

In the spirit of journeying during periods less traveled, I’ve embarked to Alaska this winter. Follow the adventures here, and prepare to have your preconceived notions destroyed along the way.



A helmet cam view of snowmobiling in Girdwood, Alaska


When it comes to winter sports, you’ve got skiing, snowboarding, ice hockey — you know, the usual. And then, there’s snowmobiling. Or “snowmachining” as it’s known in The Last Frontier. Whatever you call it, there’s no question that it’s a rush of epic proportions, and while you can most certainly do it in the lower 48, doing in the one that borders Canada and and Russia* provides an entirely different perspective. I’ve snowmobiled through Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming and in Olney, Montana, and while those were both unique and extraordinary experiences in and of themselves, ripping it up through the Chugach mountains is a can’t-miss episode for daredevils. Read on to find out how Glacier City Snowmobile Tours got my adrenaline pumping, or press play on the video above to catch a helmet-cam view of the entire thing!

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snowmobile in alaska

Girdwood feels a lot further than 45 miles from Alaska’s largest city (yeah, Anchorage), and it’s home to both Alyeska Ski Resort & Hotel as well as Glacier City Snowmobile Tours. These guys are tucked within the Great Alaskan Tourist Trap shop, connected with the Tesoro fuel station. Tough to find, but well worth discovering. You’ll have two main tour options — the 5.5 hour Real Deal Blue Ice Tour (where you’ll spot glaciers) — and the 3.5 hour Gold Mine Tour. Those run you $250 and $200 apiece, respectively, and include fuel, gear, a campfire lunch (complete with Reindeer hot dogs and Russian Hot Tea) and a guide. The “guide” part is what really makes it — we had Matthew Moscoso (shown above), an Alaskan of five years and consummate professional on the sled. He was both comical and informative, and frankly, it makes me wish my US history teacher of yesteryear had a shred of his genes. I also got to ride with Chanc Deschamps-Prescott, an award-winning skier (and Girdwood native) who is but 15 years of age, and has his sights firmly set on entering the next Winter Olympics. I can’t promise that you too will get the sled with a local hero, but hey, crazier things have happened in Alaska.

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I embarked on the Gold Mine Tour, and couldn’t have possibly had more fun. The trails were definitely the most challenging I’d seen in my three major treks out, but that also adds to the thrill and excitement. We were able to stop for plenty of astounding photo opportunities of the surrounding mountains (as you can see in the gallery here), and the lunch really was something special. Delicious, and thought provoking. How often does that happen?

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As with pretty much everything in Alaska, there’s something truly awe-inspiring about doing everyday activities here. Snowmobiling is no different. Glacier City is the only tour outfit that gets to cruise on the trails that we cruised on, so you’re literally surrounded with nothing but nature. It’s you, your group, your sled, and some of the most intense scenery your brain will ever have to digest. I could go on, but I’ll let a bit of helmet cam footage from my journey handle whatever convincing is still required.

[Images provided by Dana Jo Photography]

My trip was sponsored by Alaska Travel Industry Association, but I was free to report as I saw fit. The opinions expressed in this article are 100% my own.

Winter in Alaska: fine dining, finer skiing at the Alyeska Resort & Hotel

In the spirit of journeying during periods less traveled, I’ve embarked to Alaska this winter. Follow the adventures here, and prepare to have your preconceived notions destroyed along the way.

Alyeska

You know you’ve considered it: “What if I went skiing this year… in Alaska? But then, the inevitable list of excuses rolls in: the flight’s further, it’s more expensive, none of my friends would come, I can’t reasonably drive it should I want to, etc. Pish posh. Utah may lay claim to The Greatest Snow on Earth, but Utah hasn’t met Alaska. Girdwood, Alaska — just 45 minutes outside of Anchorage — is home to Alyeska Ski Resort & Hotel, an increasingly luxurious stop for those who’ve grown tired of the challenges found in America’s Mountain Time Zone. What’s most staggering about Mount Alyeska isn’t the near-4,000 foot top elevation, but the 250 foot base elevation. Going from 250 feet to nearly 4,000 is truly a sight to behold — it’s not everyday that you find a ski resort with its base at sea level, you know? Read on to find out a little more about winter gem, and why should most definitely bring an appetite while visiting.

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An overview and peek inside of Hotel Alyeska, plus a ride up the scenic tram


Frankly, Alyeska has a lot of things going for it. For one, it’s located in Girdwood. It’s just a 45 minute haul to ANC, but it feel miles apart. It’s definitely got that “ski town” vibe, much like Whitefish, Montana. Forget about dodging the haughty and uppity here — Alaska wouldn’t be caught dead trying to be Park City. Girdwood’s also served by a Glacier Valley Transit shuttle, which is free to use for Alyeska guests. It’ll take you to a number of locally owned (and infinitely cute) eateries, with The Bake Shop, Chair 5 and Double Musky earning high marks from the locals. You’ll also be able to scoot down to the Tesoro station, home to Coast Pizza, a killer ice cream stop and the Tourist Trap Gift Shop; contrary to its title, the latter is also home to Glacier City Snowmobile Tours, which is a discussion deserving its own attention.

Alyeska

Secondly, there’s Mount Alyeska, which is surrounded by its colleagues in the Chugach mountain range. What else can you say? The scene is just gorgeous. There’s just something about being at sea level and looking up at a peak that’s three-quarters of a mile high that takes your breath away. Those postcards and screensavers you’ve seen of Alaska? Yeah, a good portion of ‘em are right here. The mountain is in impeccable shape, and while the majority of runs cater towards advanced and expert skiers, there’s a sliver of novice courses as well. ‘Course, those who are really looking to get crazy can select from a myriad heliskiing operations in the area. The weekends are bolstered by night skiing, and with one of the longest ski seasons in North America, you won’t have to squeeze your ski trip into the months of January and February (unless you’re keen on it).

Alyeska

Then, there’s the hotel. If you’re coming to Mount Alyeska, you might as well stay at a ski-in / ski-out property, right? Aside from having an GVT shuttle run by the hotel every so often, you’re also able to pick up the Alyeska Tram or just walk right out and catch a lower lift from the rear of the hotel. During my stay here, I couldn’t have been more pleased with the layout. The recent renovations (2007) are immediately noticeable — the lodge and common areas are simply gorgeous, and you’ll find more food options that you’ll know what to do with. I was also a bit taken aback by just how kind the staff was — they aren’t charging 5-star prices here, but you’ll have no issues getting waited on should you need anything. The pool and spa area was also a real boon for weakened, weary bones after a day out on the slopes, and the rooms themselves were both modern and well-equipped. Free bottles of Alaska’s own Glacierblend water at night? Check. A Serta pillowtop mattress (one to die for)? Yep. Free in-room Internet? It’s there, as is free Wi-Fi in the commons areas. It’s hard to put a price on being able to walk right out of the hotel and into the snow, but for those who’ve dealt with de-gearing and making an hour-long trek back to a resort after skiing, you’ll probably have an easier time assessing a value.

Finally, there’s Seven Glaciers. Oh, Seven Glaciers. The whole experience of this place is second to none. First off, you have to grab a ride in the Alyeksa Tram to get to it. It’s a AAA Four Diamond, mountain-top restaurant, which means that you’ll be eating while looking out at the Chugach mountain range. Quite honestly, this along would warrant a visit even if the food were horrific, but I’m happy to report that it’s the polar opposite. Not only is the food beyond outstanding, but Chef Jason Porter does an immaculate job with the presentation. Service is top-notch, the wine list requires a book of its own to peruse, and if you’re terrified of food being “faniced up” just for the sake of charging you an arm and a leg, you’ll be happy to know that your fears are no good here. This really is Alaskan dining at its finest, and even southern legends like Paula Deen have dropped by for a bite. If you’re desperate for a recommendation, I’d say make a reservation (that entitles you to a gratis (and redicuously beautiful) ride on the tram) and grab the scallops or Wagyu beef.

You’ve probably heard mainlanders gripe about how Alaska’s “dark all winter,” but that actually couldn’t be further from the truth. I saw daylight from ~8am to ~6:15pm during my stay in late February, and couldn’t have been more thrilled with the weather. If you’re not into skiing or snowboarding (or you’re traveling with someone who fits that description), you’ll find plenty to do nearby: gold panning at Crow Creek Mine, bore tide viewing, dog sledding, snowshowing and hiking / biking. My suggestion? Push aside any hesitations you may have had about trekking to The Last Frontier in the winter — you’ll dodge the crowds, savor the snow and have everyone back in Utah teeming with envy. We kid, we kid… sort of.

[Images provided by Dana Jo Photography]

My trip was sponsored by Alaska Travel Industry Association, but I was free to report as I saw fit. The opinions expressed in this article are 100% my own.

5 incredible, adventurous things to do in Kauai, Hawaii

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Kauai. Just the mere mention of the word brings a million amazing memories rushing back, and immediately makes those who have been wish they were kicked back on Poipu beach without a care in the world. It’s one of America’s wonders, and while the Garden Isle is far from being the biggest, most populated or easiest of the Hawaiian islands to get to, it’s unquestionably worth the trip. Particularly so if you’re the adventurous type. If there’s any island in the Hawaiian chain that begs for you to plop down in one spot for the week, Kauai most certainly isn’t it. This place abounds with things to do, and those who aren’t afraid to climb, jump, sweat and dive right into the wild will have no shortage of fun. I’ve compiled five of my favorite Kauai adventures here in hopes that you too will find certain thrills while visiting, so grab your untouched itinerary and read on!

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This is unquestionably my favorite thrill on Kauai. Kipu Falls are conveniently located near the popular eastern side of the island, around 20 minutes or so from downtown Lihue. Ask any of the locals about Kipu, and chances are they’ll be able to guide you right to it. It’s actually fairly easy to locate via GPS (it’s off of Kipu Road), and you’ll probably see a dozen or so cars parked along the side of a road beside a massive field. Park, hike along the stream’s edge (the beaten path is private property, but the stream itself isn’t), and ten minutes later, you’ll be in paradise. A huge, freshwater pool to leap into, a massive tree swing to reenact Tarzan on, and plenty of opportunities to meet fellow tourists and locals from all over the world. If you pick the right day, you may even see locals running out of the edge of tree limbs and backflipping 70 feet into the water below. Astounding. Have a look at my experience above.

Fair warning: cliff jumping is risky. Be smart, and stay safe! If you’re in doubt, don’t jump! It’s plenty entertaining to just watch the pros who are experienced.

Tunnels Beach has grown into a real spectacle in recent years, making the parking situation somewhat of a nightmare. Not a ton of tourists flock here, but enough have come for the neighbors to turn their yard into a pay-for-parking lot. Bummer. Your best bet is to show up early and park along the sections of the road where it’s allowed — even if you have to walk half a mile, it’s worth it. Rent some snorkel gear down in Lihue or Princeville before heading out, and bring along your waterproof camera if you have one. You’ll find loads of fish here, crystal clear water, gorgeous stretches of sand, and — if you’re lucky — a giant sea turtle. I was able to swim with one for a couple of minutes on my last trip, shown above. Talk about Hawaiian hospitality!

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Similar to Tunnels Beach, the only catch with this outing is the parking situation. The Queen’s Bath is a magnificent rock formation along the ocean’s coast, but it’s actually hidden behind an upscale housing community / golf course in Princeville. You’ll need to drive back into the neighborhood (found two to three miles within St. Regis Princeville) and park at the handful of public spots. If those are full, you’ll need to park wherever it’s legal nearby and hike. There’s a well-beaten path through the woods and to the ocean, and chances are, you’ll be able to follow the other tourists and locals down. The pool is formed with lava rock, and it blocks crashing waves as you sit and soak. There are also plenty of cliff jumping opportunities here for the daredevils in attendance.

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The grueling, gorgeous Kalalau Trail (reached by driving as far north as you can along Highway 560) is likely Kauai’s most famous, but few people know that it takes days to complete, and to proceed beyond Hanakapiai Beach at the ~2.5 mile marker, you actually need an overnight camping permit from the state. The full ~11 mile hike has managed an incredible 9.0 out of 10 on Sierra Club’s difficulty scale, making it the most difficult trail that doesn’t require vertical scaling of a mountain. Thankfully, the first bit — which wraps around the north of the island and provides astonishing views of the Na Pali coast — isn’t so tough. You’ll need great hiking shoes, a few liters of water, a bathing suit and a towel. After you’ve hiked down, you’re treated to a waterfall that nearly runs directly into the ocean. Take a dip in the Pacific, bask on the sand, and then rinse in the waterfall before heading right back where you came from. Take a camera — the views are unmatched.

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You’ve got only a few options to actually see the Na Pali Coast, and while a helicopter ride (or a ride from the highly recommended Wings Over Kauai) is just fine for some, I prefer a little more adventure. Taking Captain Joe’s zodiac tour is a great excuse to visit the vastly under-appreciated western swath of Kauai, and moreover, an amazing way to see parts of Kauai that you could never see but by boat. You’ll get a personal view of the island’s Barking Sands Pacific Missile Range Facility, schools of dolphins, and of course, the Na Pali coast. Joe also provides lunch as well as an opportunity to snorkel for an hour or so while out at sea. On the ride in, you’ll get a great view of Niihau, and feel free to ask Captain Joe anything you want — he’s a wealth of information, and the vibe on zodiac is one that’ll make you want to relocate rather than fly back home.

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Any other amazing sights to see or activities to engage in while on the Garden Isle? Speak up in comments below! Aloha!

A travel guide to the 2011 Oscar movies

Travel guide to Oscar moviesThe 83rd annual Academy Awards are coming up in a few weeks and the Oscars race is on. This year’s nominations contained few surprises, with many nods for Brit period piece The King’s Speech, Facebook biopic The Social Network, and headtrip Inception. While 2010’s ultimate travel blockbuster Eat, Pray, Love failed to made the cut, there’s still plenty to inspire wanderlust among the Best Picture picks.

Read on for a travel guide to the best movies of 2010 and how to create your own Oscar-worthy trip.

127 HoursLocation: Danny Boyle’s nail-biter was shot on location in Utah’s Blue John Canyon near Moab and on a set in Salt Lake City. Go there: Should you want to explore Moab’s desert and canyons while keeping all limbs intact, check out Moab in fall for bike races and art festivals.



Black Swan
Location: Much of the ballet psychodrama was shot in New York City, though the performances were filmed upstate in Purchase, New York. Go there: To see the real “Swan Lake” on stage at Lincoln Center, you’ll have to hope tickets aren’t sold out for the New York City Ballet, performing this month February 11-26.

The FighterLocation: in the grand tradition of Oscar winners Good Will Hunting and The Departed, the Mark Wahlberg boxing flick was filmed in Massachusetts, in Micky Ward’s real hometown of Lowell, 30 miles north of Boston. Go there: For a map of locations in Lowell, check out this blog post and perhaps spot Micky Ward at the West End Gym.

InceptionLocation: The setting of this film depends on what dream level you’re in. The locations list includes Los Angeles, England, Paris, Japan, even Morocco. Go there: There are plenty of real locations to visit, including University College London and Tangier’s Grand Souk. Canada’s Fortress Mountain Resort where the snow scenes were shot is currently closed, but you can ski nearby in Banff.



The Kids Are All Right
Location: Director Lisa Cholodenko is a big fan of southern California, she also filmed the 2002 Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles. Go there: Love it or hate it, L.A. is still a top travel destination in the US and perhaps this year you can combine with a trip to Vegas, if the X Train gets moving.

The King’s SpeechLocation: A prince and a commoner in the wedding of the century. Sound familiar? This historical drama was shot in and around London, though stand-ins were used for Buckingham Palace’s interiors. Go there: It might be hard to recreate the vintage look of the film, but London is full of atmospheric and historic architecture and palaces to visit. If you’re a sucker for English period films or places Colin Firth has graced, tour company P & P Tours can show you around many historic movie locations like Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice.

The Social NetworkLocation: Another Massachusetts and California movie, this very academic film shot at many college and prep school campuses, but none of them Harvard, which hasn’t allowed film crews in decades. Go there: If you enjoyed the Winklevoss rowing scene, head to England this summer for the Henley Royal Regatta June 29 – July 3.

Toy Story 3 – Location: The latest in the Pixar animated trilogy is set at the Sunnyside Daycare. Go there: Reviews are mixed, but Disney’s Hollywood Studios has a new Pixar parade, to let fans see their favorite characters in “person.” Visit any Disney gift shop to make your own toy story.

True Grit – Location: The Coen brothers western remake may be set in 19th century Arkansas, but it was filmed in modern day Santa Fe, New Mexico and Texas, taking over much of towns like Granger. Go there: If you’re a film purist or big John Wayne fan, you can tour the locations of the original film in Ouray County, Colorado.

Winter’s Bone – Location: Many moviegoers hadn’t heard of this film when nominations were announced, set and shot in the Ozark Mountains in southern Missouri. Go there: The difficult film centers around the effects of methamphetamine on a rural family, but travel destinations don’t get much more wholesome than Branson, Missouri. Bring the family for riverboat shows and the best bathroom in the country.

[Photo by Flickr user Lisa Norman]

Travel How-to: Road trip through Glacier National Park in the winter

road trip glacier

Here at Gadling, we’re big fans of visiting National Parks in the off-season. There are fewer crowds, less headaches and more chances to enjoy the natural aspects that made these magnificent places so spectacular to begin with. The only trouble is the weather. Generally speaking, many of the United States’ National Parks partially shut down when Old Man Winter shows up, driving away a good deal of would-be tourists and also limiting how much of the park you can see. The famed Tioga Pass through Yosemite National Park is drowned in snow from October to April, and the majority of Yellowstone‘s roadways are closed to automobiles during Wyoming’s lengthy winter. And when it comes to one of America’s true gems — Glacier National Park — the star attraction is completely off limits to even 4WD vehicles for three-quarters of the year.

With the Going to the Sun road shut down, is there even a reason to travel to northwest Montana to give this majestic place a look? Without a doubt, yes. It’s true that Glacier, even in her 101st year as a National Park, is most open to exploration in the regrettably short summer season, but there are massive benefits to going in the winter. For one, hardly anyone else is there. You’ll be lucky to see a dozen others exploring the park on a given winter day, giving you ample opportunity to get lost inside this truly gigantic place. But there’s something else that few people consider when pondering a visit to Glacier in the winter: Highway 2. Read on to hear our secrets on making the most of an off-season visit to Montana’s largest National Park.

%Gallery-114793%During the winter months, which usually stretch from October to April depending on snowfall, only ~12.5 miles of the Going to the Sun road is open to motor vehicles. Even those are usually covered with a light layer of snow and ice, so we’d recommend a 4WD vehicle as you head in.

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From the West Glacier entrance ($15 vehicle entry fee required), around 11.5 miles are cleared, taking you from the Visitor’s Center to McDonald Lodge. This route tiptoes around the shoreline of Lake McDonald, the Park’s largest lake at ~10 miles long and ~1.5 miles wide. Thus, you’ll find various opportunities to park your vehicle and walk out to the shoreline, with just you, a vast range of mountains and a few lingering clouds to photograph.

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If you visit on a particularly hazy day (not tough to find in the winter), you’ll usually see loads of grey in the sky. If the clouds hang right, you’ll have friends believing that your shots across the lake are actually of Iceland or somewhere far more exotic than America’s Treasure State. With the snow covered banks, the setting creates a perfect opportunity to tinker with your metering techniques — snowy landscapes are one of the few places where spot metering is actually preferred, and with no crowds pushing you around, you’ll have plenty of time to adjust your settings to get the perfect vibe and tone from your shots.

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About three-quarters of the way to McDonald Lodge, there’s a spectacular view from the lake’s shoreline. It’s roughly halfway between each end of the lake, presenting a golden opportunity to utilize your compact camera’s Panorama mode. Below is a shot that was quickly composed using the inbuilt Panorama mode on Casio’s Exilim EX-H20G. It’s obviously not the high-quality stuff you’d see out of a properly arranged DSLR, but considering that this took about ten seconds to generate, it’s not a bad way to remember just how vast this lake really is. If you’re serious about panoramic shots, we’d recommend bringing along a GigaPan Epic robot, which you can mount your camera on and program to swivel around in a set interval to capture a very high-resolution, high-quality panoramic shot.

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Once you circle out and head back out of the same entrance you came in on, the real fun begins. If you continue on Highway 2 East, you’ll be heading towards East Glacier — the other side of the park. What most tourist fail to realize is that this road actually runs through the southern part of the park, and there’s no fee required here. If you pack snowshoes, you’ll have an unlimited amount of options for stopping and exploring the wilderness around you, and it goes without saying that the views of the surrounding mountains are a photographer’s dream. Highway 2 is rarely “clear” in the winter, so we’d recommend a 4WD vehicle and slowed speeds while traveling. It’s a solid 1.5 hour drive from West to East Glacier, but ever inch of it is jaw-dropping.

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Think you’ve now seen all there is to see of Glacier National Park in the winter? Not so! Once you reach Browning, MT, you’ll want to head north and turn left onto Starr School Rd. This will divert you over to Highway 89 North towards the Alberta border, giving you an incredible view of Glacier’s towering peaks from a distance. It’s an angle that you simply won’t get while driving through the heart of the park on Highway 2, and the snow covered summits provide even more reason to keep your shutter going. The drive northward to Alberta remains gorgeous, and we’d recommend driving on up if you have your passport handy.

road trip glacier

Even the National Park’s website won’t tell you of the surrounding highways to traverse if you’re interested in seeing as much of Glacier National Park in the winter as possible, but now that you’ve got the roads you need to travel, what’s stopping you from renting a 4WD and seeing the other side of this stunning place? Be sure to pack along your camera and brush up on the basics — snowy mountains definitely present unique challenges when shooting, but they also provide the perfect opportunity to finally try out that ‘Manual’ mode you’ve been trying to ignore. And if you’ve got a geotagging dongle or a GPS-enabled compact camera? Make sure to document your trip with locations that correspond to the stops your make along the way!