After living in Alaska for 30 years, my husband and I took a two-week road trip through the state.
We drove a retrofitted van through Anchorage, Palmer, Valdez, Fairbanks, and Denali National Park.
Alaska's wildlife blew us away, and the World Eskimo Indian Olympics were a major highlight.
My husband and I have lived in Alaska for 30 years. Currently, we reside on Douglas Island near Juneau, the state's capital.
Our home is hundreds of miles away from the state's main landmass, but that doesn't deter flocks of visitors from coming to see Douglas Island's alpine mountains and deep rainforests by boat or plane.
For our 35th anniversary, we decided to do some exploring of our own.
We took a two-week summer tour of some of Alaska's most famous highlights for the first time.
After flying to Anchorage, Alaska's most populous city, we picked up a retrofitted van and set off on our 1,300-mile adventure through Palmer, Valdez, Fairbanks, and Denali National Park, which is home to the highest peak in North America.
Here are some of the most surprising discoveries from our trip.
The free produce in Palmer was so delicious that we skipped the grocery store
Alaska is famous for its natural wonders, like glaciers and birch trees.
But our road trip showed us that the state also has some of the most impressive vegetation and flowers that we've ever seen, from enormous heads of broccoli to eye-popping poppies.
Certain areas in the state are known for producing massive vegetables and, in some cases, doing so very quickly. Thanks to long hours of daylight in the summer, plants are able to make food through photosynthesis from sunrise to sunset.
During our road trip, we stopped at Palmer, a town in Southeast Alaska. When Midwesterners settled down there during the Great Depression, they established it as the state's agricultural hub. Now, it's the home of Alaska's annual state fair.
On our stroll through town, we stumbled upon a thicket that was growing wild strawberries. There was a sign attached to it that read: "Growing food for all to share."
We were more than happy to pick our share of the fruit, which was free of charge. The supplier requested no more than the courtesy of pulling a weed or two in exchange for the berries.
Later during our time in Palmer, we found a garden box at the train station. It was filled with heads of green and red lettuce and nasturtiums, an edible flower. The discovery saved us a trip to the market.
Sea lions get the best shoreside catches of fish in Valdez
Valdez is a coastal city about 300 miles from Anchorage that's known for its world-class charter fishing.
When we were there, visitors gathered at the harbor to watch skippers clean freshly caught fish. But on the other side of the fjord, sea lions were getting an even better pick of the salmon.
In other parts of Alaska, grizzly bears would be the predators in this scene.
We joined the throng of professional (and not-so-professional) photographers taking pictures of the massive animals as they hunted for their prey.
We got to watch the World Eskimo Indian Olympics in Fairbanks
We'd never been to the annual multisport event, which started in 1961. Alaska Natives from tribes and villages all over the state compete in traditional games, like the high-kick competition and the arm-pull event.
My husband and I were thrilled to cheer on members of the Juneau team and even got involved during one of the most exciting events: the blanket toss.
Along with at least 100 other audience members, we got down from the stands and grabbed a piece of a large seal-hide canvas. The material served as a handmade trampoline, and we were like the springs. Competitors stationed themselves in the center of the canvas and jumped as high as they could.
Admission to the World Eskimo Indian Olympics was free during the day, and tickets for evening events ranged from $10 to $15.
Binoculars were a must-have to see the wildlife in Denali National Park
Be warned: Reservations to camp in Denali National Park need to be made months in advance.
The 6-million-acre national park is known for its wildlands and wildlife. To get an up-close look at the area, we reserved seats on a former school bus that wound its way through a dirt road.
If you visit Denali, binoculars are an absolutely crucial item to pack — my husband and I wouldn't have been able to see many of the animals without them. We even got a glimpse of caribou with velvet antlers and grizzly bears with golden fur.
We came across impressive public-use cabins
During our trip, we found well-crafted dwellings right off the road at the K'esugi Ken campground in Denali State Park and Eklutna Lake, which is near Anchorage.
With spacious lofts and decks, many of them resembled Swiss chalets.
Even if you don't own a dreamy cedar-log home in Alaska, you can still escape to one. Alaska state parks rent out more than 80 public-use cabins across the state. Some of the more remote properties can only be reached by boat or plane.
Reservations can be made up to seven months in advance, and prices for most cabins range between $35 and $100 per night.
The Trans-Alaska Pipeline is partially above ground, so you can actually stand on it
A statewide oil transportation system, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline has been flowing since the mid-1970s and runs 800 miles through Alaska, from Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean to Port Valdez on Prince William Sound.
The pipe is above ground in places where there's permafrost, so we were able to see a lot of it during our drive.
At a pit stop between Glenallen and Fairbanks, I snapped a shot of my husband standing on top of a section with a big smile on his face.
Campsite water comes from pumps that were installed during the Great Depression
We were fascinated to learn that the water pumps and drinking fountains were installed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a Great Depression-era relief program that provided employment opportunities in the 1930s.
My husband became pretty skilled at bringing up well water, using his body weight to pump the steel handle like a human seesaw.
Alaska has an incredibly wide range of landscapes
Most people imagine Alaska as one big, cold place that's covered by ice and snow year-round. That vision could not be further from the real thing, especially in the summer.
On our road trip, we saw a wide range of landscapes.
In the Matanuska Valley, we passed through tan, dry peaks against a blue sky that reminded us of Montana. We also discovered a stunning desert environment with teal and rust-hued slopes on the Richardson Highway.
Volcanism has caused the Polychrome Overlook — a stop on our Denali National Park bus tour — to turn into a rainbow of colors, making it the perfect backdrop for our holiday-card photo.
And on our way to Valdez, the towering alpine peaks in the Thompson Pass reminded us of our home in Southeast Alaska.
To say our state is awe-inspiring is an understatement, even for Alaskans like us.
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