Ever since my husband’s love for motorbikes resurrected from the dust, riding from San Diego to Alaska sat at the top of our bucket list. The dream paced like a caged tiger, anxious for the gate to open on the road-trip adventure.
Three weeks were set aside in May and June for the 4,000-mile journey that would take us through seven states, two Canadian provinces and the Yukon Territory. We opted for the inland route since I would fly home and my husband, Benjamin, would return along the coast.
My orders were to pack light and leave behind anything that made me feel like a woman. Despite the burliness of my getup, I felt like Mary Murphy clutching Marlon Brando in “The Wild One.”
Day 1: Vista to Las Vegas, 296 miles
Bundled in protective gear, we hit a scorching 113 degrees near Las Vegas. Curious tourists stopped to chat. “We’re going to Alaska!” became my jubilant mantra — triggering conversations of dreams fulfilled, those untouched and ours in the making.
While neither of us is particularly fond of Vegas, it was the most logical place to overnight. The Wynn took the grittiness out of Vegas with silent slot machines, classical music and floral displays. Our tower room had a private entrance, designated pool and complementary breakfast at Tableau.
The property boasts five pools, 18 restaurants and Le Rêve — named best show in Vegas. For dinner, it was Costa di Mare, a Mediterranean seafood restaurant where waiters parade carts displaying the catch-on-ice. Among the 50 species of seafood are langostinos that are caught off Italian waters, put to sleep, and flown in that day. No nets and no sharing recipes; and that goes for the four little old ladies who roll homemade pasta.
Day 2: Vegas to Zion, 163 miles
Purple mountains and pink sandstone announced the exit of man and the entrance of nature. Just outside Zion National Park in Utah sat Cliffrose Lodge, our hotel on the river’s edge. We hit the trails, climbing three miles to emerald pools where canyon tree frogs sang.
We refueled at Spotted Dog Café, one of the area’s more upscale restaurants. Hearty portions of pepita-crusted trout and wild-game meatloaf left us with happy bellies for the day ahead.
Day 3: Zion to Salt Lake City, 336 miles
Our bodies leaned in unison on Zion’s hairpin turns. Braided rivers cut through patchwork fields, stitched together with weathered fences. Cows chewed the cud, unfazed by our bike in their zone. We zipped in and out of tiny towns, each with a school, store, church and bar — in that order.
In Salt Lake City, we stayed central at Kimpton Hotel Monaco. The swanky 1920s art deco haven beckons with gin rickeys and mint juleps. Within walking distance were the Eccles Theater, City Creek Mall and Temple Square — home to the Mormon Tabernacle, gardens, museums and genealogical library.
With culture in our veins, we headed to Bambara for one of our top three meals. The open kitchen had no secrets starting with understated nachos, salmon with coffee butter and beef with truffle aioli.
Day 4: Salt Lake to Sun Valley, Idaho, 293 miles
It was bitterly cold and a poor time to realize our warm layers were back in Zion. With regret, patience and $100 postage, we hoped for the best.
Instead we got the worst — a hailstorm and 43 degrees. Head tucked low, I hung on for dear life as we putted along the shoulder, doused by 18-wheelers. Soaking and shivering, I told my husband we had to “man up.” Clearly I was convincing myself.
Idaho was bipolar, switching from sun to hail to rain and back to sun. Dark skies became billowing clouds, so dense and white it seemed God tripped holding a bag of cotton balls. For miles it was farmland and boom sprinklers, rolling across fields like a row of defensive linemen. Dusty towns boasted pancake breakfasts and carwash fundraisers as main events.
And then there was Sun Valley, North America’s oldest ski town that welcomed us with open arms. For one brief night we thawed at Sun Valley Lodge. Opened in 1936, the historic hotel had a down-to-the-studs makeover with larger guestrooms with soaking tubs and fireplaces.
The pulse of Hollywood’s heyday remains with photos of A-listers, including Marilyn Monroe, Clint Eastwood and Ernest Hemingway. The alpine-European influence attracts international jet-setters — clinking cocktails in the Duchin Room while watching figure skaters twirl on ice.
Biking, fishing and hiking left me longing for more of Sun Valley, but we were on a schedule. We settled for dinner at The Ram steakhouse at Sun Valley Inn, where fondue and live piano didn’t disappoint.
Day 5: Sun Valley to Missoula, Mont. 277 miles
Maybe it was the sunshine, but I was instantly enamored with Montana — as were campers tucked beside lakes and rivers. We must have seen 20 deer that day, munching as we hugged the curves.
For the love of horses — the silky beasts were 50-a-field, poised for showtime. Classic Fords and Chevys were commonplace, either abandoned beside barns or running strong with bumper stickers like “Make America great again.”
As far as I could tell, Montana never lost its greatness. This blessed Bison country had malt shops, trading posts, Flathead Lake and Missoula — a university town surrounded by wilderness areas and rivers. There were barefoot kids, porch swings, faded flags and craftsman-style homes.
When we saw Gibson Mansion, I was overcome with nostalgia. The 1903 Victorian B&B had a parlor and suites overlooking a garden. Tea and scones were delivered to our room, and breakfast was served in the regal dining room.
By day we hiked Mount Sentinel and watched river-surfers, and by night dined at Plonk, another top-three favorite. Rooftop seating, cucumber gimlets and mountain-raised bison sealed the deal — undoubtedly the best meat of the trip.
Day 6: Missoula to Eureka, Mont. 248 miles
We shouldered Flathead’s east side, where cherry orchards pushed the shoreline. After lunch in Bigfork, we rode to Glacier National Park. Roadside stands tempted with huckleberry pie, cherry jam and bison jerky. Beyond ice-blue rivers and glassy Lake MacDonald, we hit an avalanche road closure.
We detoured to Wilderness Club Resort in Eureka, 9 miles south of Canada. It offered golfing, horseback riding and rooms with shared lounges. An evening swim and lakeside jog set us in motion for the day ahead.
Days 7 and 8: Eureka to Banff, Alberta, 233 miles
When Canadian border patrol asked what we carried for protection, I knocked on my helmet to demonstrate our safety gear. “I mean weapons,” he snapped. He assumed I was being sassy, and even more so when my husband wiggled his fingers and replied, “Just my hands, sir.”
Despite the rough start, we were granted entry with views of Colombia Lake and Radium Hot Springs near Kootenay. Toward Banff National Park we encountered our first black bear — a surreal experience mere feet from bike-to-beast. The resort town of Banff was magical, with chalet boutiques lining the thoroughfare where the smell of chocolateries and pine permeated the air.
The best views were from our room at Rimrock Resort. Built in 1950, the place oozed elegance with top-hat bellman and balconies with sweeping views. Within walking distance were hot springs and Sulphur Mountain Trail that led me 3.4 miles to the summit.
The shuttle landed us at Park Distillery, another in our top-three restaurants. House-distilled spirits and a campfire concept made this the spot for craft G&Ts, Alberta charcuterie and whole-bow river trout.
Day 9: Banff to Jasper, Alberta, 212 miles
If there’s one stretch that took the prize, it was this one. The route passed Lake Louise, glacier lakes and Icefields Parkway connecting Rocky Mountain Parks.
Bighorn sheep and grizzlies posed roadside. At the edge of Jasper National Park was Overlander Mountain Lodge with 23 cabins and a main hotel. Fine dining was right on-site at Stone Peak Restaurant, recognized by Wine Spectator and locals who adore chef Alethia Chaconas. That morning, she foraged morels that ended up in my mushroom soup. Between the elegant menu, sunset views and white-chocolate cheesecake, it was our most romantic evening.
Day 10: Jasper to Fort St. John, British Columbia, 340 miles
Straightaways and rain made for a grueling seven-hour ride. We stopped in trucker towns for gas, drip coffee and hotcakes served with condiment caddies full of Smucker’s jelly and butter cubes.
For hours it was nothing but forest and the occasional spooked moose or deer. Splattered bugs left our visors looking like a work by Jackson Pollock. At mile 47 on the Alaska Highway, we stopped at Home2 Suites by Hilton. The new addition to bustling Fort St. John was a burst of sunshine. With a kitchen, pool, gym, laundromat and free breakfast, we felt right at home. Just in time, our winter-wear package arrived from Zion.
Day 11: Fort St. John to Northern Rockies Lodge, British Columbia, 391 miles
Stretching 1,390 miles from Dawson Creek to Delta Junction, the Alaska Highway celebrated 75 years during our journey. Other than nine bears we counted, sections of the road were beyond barren.
Halfway between Whitehorse and Fort St. John was our hotel Northern Rockies Lodge. On the shores of Muncho Lake, it serves as a floatplane base with lakeshore chalets, log cabins and fly-in fishing to outpost cabins.
Day 12: Rockies Lodge to Watson Lake, Yukon, 164 miles
A dip in Liard Hot Springs brought us within feet of a moose crossing our path. In three hours, we passed 20 bison and five bears. That night, we snuggled into A Nice Motel, in downtown Watson Lake. Named for the congenial owner, it’s a motel, store and gas station in one. With a kitchenette and fireplace, we were in for the night.
Day 13: Watson to Whitehorse, Yukon, 272 miles
Between Watson and Whitehorse was breathtaking Emerald Lake in Carcross — home to Yukon’s oldest general store and Bennett Lake. Yukon’s capital of Whitehorse had a surprisingly cool art-and-music scene with an urban vibe to match.
Tracing back to the Klondike Gold Rush, the boutique Edgewater Hotel has the best location in town. Across from the Yukon River, it’s a short walk to the Macbride Museum, bars and restaurants like The Wheelhouse in Waterfront Station. Recently remodeled, the hotel has top-notch everything, right down to the sheets.
Day 14: Whitehorse to Tok, Alaska, 386 miles
With the American flag in sight, I saluted the sky and announced our arrival to “the U.S. of Ahh.” The border agents asked what we were bringing into Alaska and I said, “A good attitude.” They laughed, and together we bonded over motorbikes and America.
The town of Tok was small, with truckers stopping for heaping pizzas and burgers at Fast Eddy’s, and a room at Young’s Motel. After dinner, we sat on the porch of our cozy cabin and watched the midnight sun.
Days 15-18: Tok to Denali, 329 miles
Denali National Park is largely why we came to Alaska. From the park entrance, we took a one-way charter with Kantishna Air, circling glaciers and granite spires above Denali — the tallest mountain in North America. At 20,310 feet, it’s the centerpiece of the 600-mile Alaskan range and the backdrop of Camp Denali, our home for the next three days.
Founded in 1952, Camp Denali and sister property North Face Lodge are the only two companies authorized to guide outings in designated wilderness. From June to September, the properties run 3- to 7-night stays with ground transportation, communal meals, guided activities and outdoor equipment.
Ninety miles from civilization, we were unplugged in our cabin with a wood stove, propane lights and outhouse. I spent days hiking across spongy tundra while my husband fished at Wonder Lake.
The solitude was a profound experience difficult to come by. Even the sound of my voice robbed nature of a chance to speak. In those moments of stillness, we had some of the most engaging, transformational, life-giving conversations I’ve known.
Day 19: Camp Denali to Denali Park Entrance
A 5-hour shuttle returned us to the park entrance, where we stayed at Denali Park Village. On the banks of Nenana River, the family-friendly property has tours, hiking, rafting and the Cabin Nite Dinner Theater.
Days 20-22: Denali to Anchorage, 231 miles
Final nights led us to our comfy favorite, Home2 Suites in Midtown Anchorage. We rode to Whittier — the gateway to Prince William Sound — and booked the 26 Glacier Cruise with Phillips Cruises & Tours. Our boat pushed through ice-filled waters past otters and seals.
We went out with a bang at Kincaid Grill, where local oysters and salmon paired beautifully with soft jazz and fine wines. That final morning, I returned to San Diego, compliments of Alaska Airlines. My husband headed for Cabo.
At the end of it all, I’d like to think the trip changed me, to find strength in the promise of today and freedom in the potential of tomorrow. Perhaps it will wear off, but for now, the profoundness of nature has left me wondering if maybe, just maybe, God lives in Denali.
Kast-Myers is travel writer based in Vista. Her website is www.marlisekast.com.
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