Jennifer Shanks recounts the day-by-day excitement of her family’s Covid-safe camping adventure, from grizzly spotting to ATV riding to salmon fishing to whale watching.
By Maryann Jones Thompson
With Covid Summer 2020 stretched out before them, the Shanks family traded home in suburban Boston for the wilds of Alaska.
As a family travel planner running Family Adventures Await, mom Jennifer knew she could arrange a safe and extraordinary trip for herself, her husband, and their three kids aged 11, 9 and 7 – and she was right.
Jennifer spoke to ROAM about the upside of RV rentals, the only-in-Alaska experiences, and the perfection of their 10-day itinerary (see below), which delivered classic adventures from Anchorage to Denali to Seward to Kenai Fords to Homer.
ROAM: How did you decide to go to Alaska during “Covid Summer” 2020?
Jennifer Shanks: Our family of five made the decision to travel from Massachusetts to Alaska last summer because after months of not leaving our neighborhood, we knew we had to get away!
When the realization came that we would no longer be able to take the European trip that we had originally booked, the travel planner in me went into overdrive deciding where our family could still have an epic adventure while obviously remaining healthy and safe.
Alaska was an obvious answer for us because the state naturally offers so much space to socially distance ourselves while still having fun. Last summer, visitors were required to show a negative Covid test upon arrival which made us feel safer, as well (a requirement that was eliminated last month).
One of my hesitations about travel during the pandemic is that the experience would not be the same as it would have been prior to COVID. However, I quickly learned that just because travel looks a little different these days, it doesn’t mean the experience is any less amazing. In some instances, it is even better because there were no crowds!
For example, one of our favorite days was taking a private drive through Denali National Park. Our tour guide drove in a separate vehicle in front of us while our family drove our own private car. We communicated via walkie-talkie, pointing out wildlife and sharing interesting facts about the park. That meant there was no need for our kids to be stuck in face masks all day and we still had the luxury of learning all about the park through a knowledgeable local guide.
While in Alaska, we ate out less often and interacted less with local people than normal, but these minor inconveniences were far outweighed by the extraordinary experiences found in Alaska.
ROAM: How did you decide to RV/camp?
Jennifer: We rented an RV and traveled around Alaska because we felt that it was the best way for our family to socially distance and be self-contained while we were traveling. As you know, Alaska is huge and it was a great way for us to see a lot of the state without being around too many people.
By camping, we spent more time outdoors compared to staying in hotels and resorts which made me feel the most comfortable given we were traveling during a pandemic.
Our kids loved traveling in the RV and staying at the variety of campsites we found. Our sites ranged from waterfront parks, camping inside Denali National Park, and sites near a local fishing spot.
We pre-booked our campsites because we did not want to show up and have nowhere to stay. Local Alaskans do travel by RV, so the best sites are reserved quickly. We booked everything online and it was very easy to do once we mapped our itinerary. The RV company was easy to work with and we were even able to rent fishing poles and all our camping necessities with the RV outfitter.
ROAM: You had so many fun adventures in Alaska! What stood out?
Jennifer: One of the highlights of the trip for the kids was salmon fishing. We fished at the head of a river in Seward, a fishing hole in Homer, and a popular river outside of Anchorage. The locals were more than happy to help the kids set their bait and everyone was thrilled to cook our “catch of the day” on the campfire.
We also really enjoyed a private wildlife tour through Denali, an ATV tour in Denali, a whale watch and Resurrection Bay tour, and summer dogsledding.
ROAM: Tell us about the grizzlies!
Jennifer: The grizzly bear viewing tour was our absolute best day in Alaska. We chose to fly out of Homer because we also wanted to see the quaint town but it is also possible to fly from Anchorage if you prefer.
They don’t tell you until the morning if you will be visiting the bears in Lake Clark or Katmai National Park because it depends on weather patterns and bear activity. We flew out to Lake Clark in a small airplane that fit only my family of five plus our pilot/guide. The morning started off with a thrilling flightseeing trip over the glaciers and volcanoes of the National Park before landing our tiny plane along the beach at low tide.
As we flew into the area, we saw approximately 30 grizzly bears all along the beach! It was beyond thrilling to actually walk toward wild grizzly bear moms and cubs, hunting along the stream for salmon.
Because this remote park is a protected area only accessible by plane, the only human interaction these bears have is through careful tourism. These bears do not see humans as a danger or a food source, so we are able to get within 50 feet of the bears. They ignored us as we quietly watched them interact with each other in their natural habitat. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that we will never forget.
The day was a big expense – in fact, it took up one-third of our entire budget for the trip! – but this unique experience was priceless. We were able to make up for the cost of the excursion in other ways and this was an experience I don’t think we will ever be able to duplicate.
ROAM: How did your itinerary work out?
Jennifer: I think our time was scheduled perfectly. I wouldn’t do anything differently. We had a great balance between Denali and the Kenai Peninsula. We also had a nice balance of scheduled activities and downtime to just relax and enjoy nature. (See full itinerary below.)
Alaska tourism has been hit particularly hard during the pandemic because of the docking of cruise ships – a ban which will likely be extended through 2021. It felt very good to give back to the Alaskan travel industry by visiting by land.
If families are ready to travel in summer 2021, Alaska is a great destination to be socially distant, enjoy nature and see an incredible destination without the cruise ship crowds.
The Best of Alaska Itinerary
The day-to-day plan for the Shanks’ 10-day family RV/camping adventure is below. Contact email@example.com for more details on planning a family RV trip across Alaska.
Day 1 Fly into Anchorage
Day 2 Pick up RV and drive to Denali
Day 3 ATV tour near Denali
Day 4 Wildlife tour of Denali
Day 5 Drive to Seward
Day 6 Kenai Fjords & Wildlife Tour
Day 7 Seward Waterfront Park, dogsled tour, then drive to Homer
Day 8 Grizzly Bear Flightseeing
Day 9 Drive to Anchorage
Day 10 Fly home
Maryann Jones Thompson – March 2021
After a thousand years in publishing as a business journalist, ghostwriter, content strategist and market researcher, Maryann brings her experience traveling as a backpacker, businessperson, expat and mom to writing and editing for ROAM.
© ROAM Family Travel 2021 – All rights reserved
Images and stories to celebrate the best of travel's worst year
It's not just for billionaires anymore.
The French dad behind stunning photos & videos
There's still time to book a much-needed break
Saddle up for a trail ride near San Francisco
Images from a gray and gloriously simple getaway
A winter extravaganza starring millions of geese, cranes and more!
Getaway to a vintage California beach village in "Far West" Marin
10 days of action, with grizzlies, ATVs, salmon, and whales
From N’Orleans to Memphis and from Atlanta to Birmingham, a must-do journey
Overdue for a Napa or Sonoma escape?
Crane’s Beach House is the perfect antidote the winter blahs
Reminders of why we explore—and what that means for future travel
Climb up, stroll down or just enjoy the views
Developing next-generation leaders through study of African heritage
Ski, board, or just play in the powder? We've got your mountain.
All the masterpieces, views and deliciousness - none of the crowds
Oh the places you'll go... from home!
Grab your sweetheart for a getaway - or plan one!
No Pier 39, Union Square or Crooked Street from this local mom.