For residents living in Southcentral Alaska, Memorial Day weekend is the first of many summer trips to the Kenai Peninsula. The roofs of Subarus are stacked high with fishing poles, coolers, tents, sleeping bags and bikes. Pick-up trucks are hitched to ocean-going vessels, cruising south on the Seward Highway.
But with a wildfire rapidly burning south of Soldotna on the Kenai Peninsula, weekend plans could be changing. From Homer to Anchorage, smoke has filled the skies and put air-quality advisories into effect as tens of thousands of acres of wilderness continued to burn Wednesday.
If packing up the family and heading to Seward or Homer isn't the best idea any longer, there are options north of Alaska's big city.
• Smoke-free Interior: At long last, Interior Alaska isn't ground zero for smoke inhalation, as it often is during the summer wildfire season. In fact, the Fairbanks North Star Borough website said the area's air quality was "good" Wednesday.
Chena River Wayside campground host Cathy Tidwell laughed as she explained how lucky Fairbanks has been this year. When not shrouded by smoke, "it's actually quite beautiful" in the Interior, she said. The Chena River State Recreation Site, which includes the campground, is nestled along the Chena River in Fairbanks and still has room for RVs and tent campers over the weekend. There is also a boat launch, picnic area and a horseshoe pit.
If you're taking the trip all the way from Anchorage, there are plenty of sights enroute. But remember, this is a seven-hour drive if you obey the speed limit and get slowed by construction -- always a possibility during an Alaska summer.
• Fantastic four-wheeling: If you can get your hands on a four-wheeler this weekend, Sutton is the perfect place for some good old-fashioned muddin'. In the heart of the small community just 11 miles northeast of Palmer is Jonesville Road -- the street right before the Sutton General Store. Follow it until you hit a big gravel pit. There is a place to pitch a tent and park your truck, trailer or motorhome. The four-wheeling trails are vast and a couple will even take you along Slipper Lake.
• Canoe, fish for pike: Nancy Lake State Recreation Area has something for just about everyone. Bring your own shelter and spend the day playing on the water. There are canoeing trails, the option to rent a canoe, see loons, and hike to Red Shirt Lake, where pike are ready to be plucked from the water. Nancy Lake is located at the end of Nancy Lake Parkway, 6.5 miles off of the Parks Highway, and it typically sees a lot of campers this time of year, so try and grab a spot early.
• Hike up Mount Baldy: If you're just trying to escape for a quick day trip, the Mount Baldy hike in the foothills of Eagle River will get you out of the city, if just barely. The trip takes one to three hours on an established trail. Hikers can expect to gain about 1,300 feet over two miles. Baldy is similar to Anchorage's popular Flattop hike, but not quite as crowded. It's a hike with great views and all sorts of company, with mountain runners, baby packers, paragliders, and even brown and black bears from time to time. If you're looking for more of a challenge, Baldy is also the beginning of the Blacktail Rocks, which will take explorers on a four-to-six-hour hike with a 2,700-foot elevation gain over seven miles. But the higher you hike, the better the view.
• Talkeetna comes alive: Talkeetna, home to Alaska's honorary cat mayor Stubbs and the take-off point for Mount McKinley climbers, will be a happening place this weekend. If you like baseball, don't mind tourists and enjoy the company of a tight-knit community, Talkeetna is the place. Trains will be running, and an adult-league baseball tournament will be underway. Music during Live at Five will kick the weekend off in the park. And not only is Talkeetna incredibly charming, it also has great pizza, good beer and a small-town watering hole with cheap drinks. Oh, and don't forget the treetop zip lining.
• Breathtaking view of Mount McKinley: Byers Lake is in the heart of Denali State Park and nestled at the foot of Kesugi Ridge. Drag your kayak into the water, or rent a canoe and take a tour of the lake, which offers a superb view of Mount McKinley. About 147 miles north of Anchorage along the Parks Highway, this lake can occupy your time for days. There are also picnic spots, hiking trails and bathrooms.
• Stay near Matanuska Glacier: Sheep Mountain Lodge has finally opened for the summer season. About a two-hour drive from Anchorage, halfway between Palmer and Glennallen, the lodge can accommodate those looking to rent a room or cabin, as well as tent and RV campers. And access to Matanuska Glacier is just 12 miles away at mile 102 of the Parks Highway. There's also plenty of wildlife, river rafting, flightseeing and mountain biking in the area.
• Horseback riding, hiking, boating: Eklutna Lake Campground has lots of room for lots of people. Take the Glenn Highway to the Eklutna exit and then drive 10 miles uphill to the lake. This quick trip spot has horseback riding, hiking, fishing, boating and four-wheeling along the 12-mile trail beside the lake. Four-wheeling is only permitted Sunday through Wednesday. Lifetime Adventures Alaska offers kayak and bike rentals, too. There are also day-use areas if you don't want to spend the weekend at the lake, as well as a small fee for overnight campers.