50 Hikes 50 States Project–Alaska
Exactly two years since we started our 50 Hikes 50 States Project, we arrived in Anchorage, Alaska, to do our 50th hike. We might have saved the best for last because all the worlds collided in Alaska, producing a hike with history, nature, old friends, a wedding vow renewal, and the best vegan pizza in the US.
While our house in Denver underwent its estate sale to launch us out of our home into our nomad life, we escaped to Alaska for our last hike in this crazy hiking adventure. The hubs’ buddy from college invited us to his gorgeous home in Eagle River, where we got to know his beautiful wife, amazing daughter and sweet dog in a scrumptious home overlooking the Eagle River Valley. These locals had hiked it all, but surprisingly, we found a trail that they hadn’t completed. Off to the Eagle River Nature Center we went to partake the Iditarod Trail to Dew Mound Trail Loop.
In the Footsteps of Four Paws
Famous globally, the “Iditarod” is a dog sledding race in the middle of winter in Alaska that tests endurance, teamwork, and passion as dog teams mush over 1000 miles through the wilds of Alaska for days on end in search of the bragging rights of an Iditarod win. It’s quintessentially Alaskan, and hiking an historic portion of the Iditarod Trail fit squarely in our criteria for this 50 Hikes Project.
The 6-mile loop starts at the Eagle River Nature Center, which sadly was still closed due to Covid. But this didn’t stop us from grabbing some maps and intelligence to start our hike. First stop was a breath-taking view over the river with the Chugach mountains reflecting in its waters. We were off to a good start.
Local Knowledge, Local Gains
Having locals, Dana and Miles, hiking with us made us veer off the trail to see things they had enjoyed previously. A log cabin, a yurt, a coveted view. But the cool thing was, we ended up hiking further than they had in the past, finding ourselves eventually at Echo Bend.
On the way there, though, Dana pointed out things that only locals would know, including “puzzle plants” or, native Field Horsetail and “nature tattoos.” Kids break off pieces of puzzle plants at their joints, putting them back together in a variety of ways. With the alder bush, kids take the underside of the sticky leaf and press it into their hands. They then remove the leaf and rub dirt into the stickiness, creating a nature tattoo of a beautiful leaf. Now that’s my kind of tattoo!
Along the way, we looked for bear and moose. Hikers ahead alerted us to a bear, but we never did see it. Its gamely smell permeated the air, reminding us to yell, “Hey, Bear” every once in a while. Just when we had given up seeing a moose, she popped up off in the distance, nearly camouflaging her largeness in the aspen woods.
As Steve and Miles caught up on ex-wife antics, Dana and I strolled through the woods talking about her beautiful, custom-made, mala making business (check her out on Instagram!) and our pending nomad adventure. Little did we know that these small conversations throughout the weekend would inspire them, too, to sign up for Trusted Housesitters and to set forth some future benchmarks for their version of their nomad life. This thrilled us to no end.
Halfway through the stroll on the Iditarod Trail, we came to Echo Bend. A giant bank of rolling gray rocks added to the glacier toned water of Eagle River. Miles explained the salmon season, noting that no fishing was allowed here, but if you could fish here, it’d be a great place to hook a variety of the pink behemoths on their way to spawn up river. Later in the day, he’d take us to downtown Anchorage to witness the beginning of “combat fishing season” where the first fleets of fish freshly arrive for their dash up the salmon ladders through the aggressive lurers of anxious early season fisherpeople.
Although I no longer eat fish, I was starting to see reasons to dig in (see my Hawaii post.)
It Wouldn’t Be Alaska without a Moose
After echoing at Echo Bend, we made the turn in the loop and headed back towards the visitors center. Whereas the hike out was on relatively flat grade on the Iditarod Trail, the hike back journeyed into the hills. Steep short ups followed by steep short downs. I wished I had my poles, and I was glad I had my boots. “Hey, Bear!” became a much more frequent outburst.
Snowshoeing through here in the winter might be a ton of fun if you like deep snow and temps that could dip down into the negative 20s. Me, no. Not so much. But I could certainly see the draw and the beauty to an environment only moose would love. And Alaskans. 🙂
Our six-mile trek turned into seven due to all of our detours to overlooks, cabins, yurts, and special spots. By the time we got back, we were ravenous. A quick check in to ensure King Caspian, the resident pup was fine, then we drove the 30 minutes into Anchorage for dinner.
The Best. Pizza. Ever
Miles’ friend owns the restaurant, Hearth Artisan Pizza, and Miles swore it was the best pizza in North America. I thought, “Uh, the best pizza in North America is in Alaska?” I was a bit skeptical. But Miles does come from the food industry where he’d been a French bakery specialist, so he’s got some legitimate chops.
We ordered three pizzas after devouring their Tuscan salads (yum yum yum, by the way.) I won’t waste bytes on the pizza filled with meat (which they loved), but I’ll certainly described the other two. One was vegan, the other vegetarian.
Let’s start with the vegan Voodoo Child. Adored the name: loved the pizza. Anything that starts off with bbq jack fruit immediately gets my attention. Put the jack fruit on top of a garlic aioli, add some pickled jalapenos, roasted cauliflower, top it with housemade vegan mozzarella and add a sprinkle of fresh cilantro and you might be making my own love child. Gold stars, platinum trophies, and diamonds on top. Why couldn’t anyone in the lower 48 think creatively like this and produce such deliciousness? Best. Pizza. Ever.
For all you vegetarians that follow along, let me tell you about the vegetarian option that I also adored. First I want to say kudos to Hearth for having three vegetarian choices on the menu. At a pizza place, vegetarians pies aren’t that hard to create, but Hearth went out of its way to create chef-inspired unique options that are more than just onions, tomatoes, mushrooms and green peppers. The vegetarian delight we picked was called the Hieronymus Bosc.
The name caused me to do a little research. Hieronymus Bosch (notice the extra “h”) was a 16th century Dutch painter known for his macabre and nightmarish renditions of hell. His most famous early piece called “The Garden of Earthly Delights” depicts a mashup of the Garden of Eden with the Last Supper. I love this artist already. Now whether or not the Hearth chef was a Bosch aficionado or not, I didn’t talk to him, but I’m going with a guttural yes followed by a frothy toast of a healthy stout.
Back to the pizza. The Hieronymous Bosc reminded me a bit of California Pizza Kitchen’s Pear and Cheese Pizza they used to have. But honestly, it’d be insulting to Hearth to put up that equity. Hearth takes it way beyond national taste buds by adding in Bleu cheese, provolone and its secret ingredient, a spicy, hot honey glazing. The flavors mush together with the thinly sliced Bosc pears to produce a melt-in-your-mouth Alaskan surprise of pure giddyness. Hands down, I’ll give this one the Best. Vegetarian. Pizza. Ever.
Who knew? Good job Alaska.
A Renewed Marriage
To top off a great day, the hubs threw me a curve ball. Ten years ago, we had gotten married on top of the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau. (See How to Get Married on a Glacier.) With our ten year anniversary looming in July, he figured that since we were in Alaska, we should renew our vows. And right there, over bbq jack fruit pizza, he proposed again. With friends looking on, I said, “Yes” all over again.
Prince William Sound Surprises
The next day, Alaska’s weather came in force, changing our plans. Instead of a walking tour of downtown Anchorage, the hubs and I road tripped to Whittier, Alaska. On the way, we popped in on a few glaciers, experienced a train tunnel where cars borrow time, and terrific views of Prince William Sound, home to the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
And, we finished our 50 Hikes 50 States Project. I can’t imagine a better way to top of the end of our adventure. If you want to see where we’ve been or read more about the project, take a look here.
Alaska, we’ll be back.