You know how you’ve done something so long and so often it becomes routine, and yet it still can amaze you?
Traveling to Anchorage and back can be like that. Last month on a trip up to Anchorage for our friend Doug Epps’ memorial, the drive reminded me of how lucky we are to live in a place where people come from thousands of miles away to enjoy what we consider a routine trip to the big city.
Routine? Sure. But that 220-mile trek from the end of the road thrills me every time. Better still, while the road may be the same going up and back, the view and experience change.
I think of the trip in four phases. First, you have the drive from Homer to Soldotna along the coast, through gently rolling country with Kachemak Bay and Cook Inlet to the west and the Caribou Hills to the east.
From Soldotna to Cooper Landing you pass through Sterling and the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, broad stretches of birch and black spruce forest, now recovering from the 2019 Swan Lake Fire.
The road rises into the Kenai Mountains and goes along the Kenai River, through Cooper Landing and to the Sterling Highway and Seward Highway “Y.”
The final phase comes along that last stretch through Turnagain Pass, along Turnagain Arm and through Girdwood, and finally to Anchorage.
On our last trip, I took a Friday off, and my wife, Jenny, and I loaded up her Subaru Forester, Ruthie (after Ruth Bader Ginsberg).
We’ve taken the Anchorage trip so many times we have the Milepost in our memories, and have little stops along the way we know can be good breaks: Watson Lake north of Sterling, for example, or, for this trip, stopping for lunch with takeout at Izaak Walton Campground in Sterling at the confluence of the Moose and Kenai Rivers. That campground holds special memories, for across the Kenai River on the far bank Jenny and I met in the summer of 1984 while working at an archaeological field school at the Nilnunqua site.
Oh, and by the way, Jenny and I celebrated our 30th anniversary on the solstice, June 21. The night we got married we’d planned to camp at Izaak Walton, but it rained and so we headed on to Homer and had our honeymoon night at the Driftwood Inn. Happy anniversary, Jenny!
When you’ve been married 30 years, on a long drive conversation bounces around, but eventually you run out of steam, and then it’s time for an audiobook. On that trip we listened to David Sedaris’ “Happy Go Luck,” read by him, a weirdly hilarious collection of essays.
Road trips can be like children, all of them special and hard to pick as a favorite, but I do admit a fondness for that stretch of the Sterling Highway rising up toward the mountains. The Kenai Mountains hook around the highway, face on to the north and flanking you on the east.
In spring, the birch trees had just begun to leaf out, that almost fluorescent green of new growth. I’m fond of the drive in fall, too, when the trees turn golden yellow.
The Swan Lake Fire scorched much of that area. Pipe-cleaner black spruce stand crooked and charred or have fallen in jumbles to the ground. Large swatches are black windrows of downed logs.
In the three years since, aspens and other small trees have grown back. In high summer, that stretch glows bright pink from fireweed. As you drive north, those mountains rise higher and higher, bright with snow.
And then it’s a twisting stretch along the river and through salmon country. We have some favorite stops along there, too, like our go-to toilet stop at the Cooper Landing State Recreational Site. Pro driving tip: Know your pit stops.
Past Cooper Landing you drive through more Kenai River country, the road dancing with the river along the way. From Sunrise it’s a straight shot, more or less, to the “Y.” The “Y,” of course, marks another waypoint. I never tire of that view down Tern Lake, or of the terns and swans.
Summit Lake marks another good pit stop with coffee, ice cream and, if the lodge is open and you need a break, lunch. At Summit Lake the speed limit increases to 65 mph — well, legally — and pedal to the metal, you can really cruise.
Soon you pass Manitoba Mountain and then into Turnagain Pass. For some reason many turnouts there had abandoned, torched cars, like a dystopian Alaska reality TV show.
On the trip south, I often stop for a pee break at Turnagain Pass, or just to take in the view. If you want Alaska to make you feel small, Turnagain Pass does that, a long, straight stretch at the summit surrounded by mountains on either side. When I first learned to ski in the 1980s, Tincan honed and tested my backcountry skills.
Heading north Turnagain Pass becomes one long downhill. At the bottom the Kenai Peninsula ends, or starts if you’re heading home. Here you loop the long way around Turnagain Arm. Over the years I’ve watched the cabins at Portage collapse and the ghost trees from the 1964 earthquake fall. And then it’s Girdwood, where it seems everyone stops.
The last stretch to Anchorage winds along the cliffs blasted to make the highway. Finally, you turn the corner at the Potter Section House and there’s Potter Marsh, what I think of as the entry into Anchorage.
Flip that route and drive south, and everything changes: the view across Turnagain Arm toward the mountains, glowing with evening light; rising the pass; coming out of the Kenai Mountains into the flats and seeing Redoubt Volcano on the horizon; and finally, coming into Homer.
Many people enter Homer by rounding that last corner on Baycrest Hill and stopping to see the bay. It’s a view that hooks many to return and make their homes here.
But we turn left on Diamond Ridge, a short drive with Ohlson Mountain our view, and just a snippet of the bay, but for us it’s the best view ever, because it means we’ve come home.