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John Hall’s Alaska Review: A Grand Slam of a Guided Tour

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Imagine for a moment: you sit down to plan your once-in-a-lifetime Alaska trip. You start searching the internet, browsing flights and hotels, comparing excursions and restaurants… And before you know it, you’re completely overwhelmed! Especially in light of the past two years, travel to Alaska has gotten really complicated. Wouldn’t it be nice to have everything arranged for you? That’s where guided tours come in.

I recently had the chance to travel to Alaska on a guided tour with John Hall’s Alaska. While I’ve traveled to Alaska many times on my own, the idea of having a guide was intriguing.

Would I be annoyed at the constraints of the itinerary? (Spoiler: Not at all!)
Would the guide tell corny jokes the entire time? (Yes!)
Would the little band of intrepid couple adventurers welcome solo traveler me in? (Absolutely!)

In the end, I came home with just as many memories as every other Alaska trip I’ve taken – but had spent way less time planning and stressing about putting the whole puzzle together myself.

John Hall's Alaska Review Hero

In this post, I’ll be sharing all about my experience with John Hall’s Alaska on their Grand Slam Alaska tour. I took this tour in August 2021. As I’ll share, there are some things I think were unique about taking the tour when I did; I’m also confident my experience exemplifies the incredible standard of service John Hall’s Alaska provides – and how they help unlock the beauty of Alaska for those who don’t love logistics. Read on for my complete John Hall’s Alaska review!

In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Dënéndeh, Dena’ina Ełnena, Ahtna Nenn’, and Tanana peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.

Note: They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, so there are lots of photos in this post.
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Be Guided or Go Independent?

Most people who visit my site are planning independent travel in Alaska. That’s why they’re Googling to find travel blogs full of accurate information that will help them put together their own itinerary. Some of those people – and others who don’t want to plan it all themselves – will find that the logistics are overwhelming and decided that a guided tour might be better for them to visit Alaska (especially for the first time).

Pros of Guided Tours

I generally love independent travel, but I found there were some real benefits to exploring Alaska on a guided tour:

  1. The pesky logistics – hotel bookings, transportation, meal reservations – are all taken care of for you.
  2. Basically everything is included! What you pay is pretty much the entire cost of your trip.
  3. Someone (your driver/guide) does all the driving.
  4. Your guide is a wealth of knowledge and info throughout the trip, enhancing your experience at each destination and along the way.
  5. You never have to carry your own luggage – it’s put out each morning and waiting for you at the next hotel.
  6. You travel in a group, making friends easily and always recognizing someone to grab a drink with at the bar.

Cons of Guided Tours

However, you do lose some things when traveling on a guided tour:

  • The freedom to change the itinerary on a whim or step off the set schedule.
  • (Some*) spontaneous moments that you can only discover by traveling independently.
  • The ability to constrain yourself to a set travel budget; the price you pay is set for the tour.
  • The option to sleep in. There were many early mornings on our itinerary, simply due to how far we had to travel each day!

To be fair, these benefits and costs are similar across companies. I remember enjoying some of them on the few other guided tours I’ve done (like a Contiki tour to Oktoberfest waaaaay back in 2011). But John Hall’s Alaska offers something quite special, which I’ll cover in the next section.

*This is only partially true – even being in the guided group, you can have incredible moments that are unscripted, unplanned, and unforgettable. (See Day 5 below for an example!)

Choosing a Guided Tour in Alaska

John Hall's Alaska Review - Bus

Once you’ve decided that a guided tour is how you want to explore Alaska, you need to choose a company. I don’t know how many companies offer guided tours in Alaska, but I know there is generally two options:

  1. Guided tours offered through the big cruise companies
  2. Small, independent companies that offer guided tours

Y’all know I’m not a fan of the big cruise ships – they make too much and don’t pay enough back into the local economies. I recommend looking for smaller, independent companies that offer guided tours (like John Hall’s Alaska!).

Here’s what I’d look at when choosing a guided tour in Alaska:

  • How long has the company been operating?
  • What are their reviews? (Sample from their website, TripAdvisor, Facebook, and Trust Pilot if you want to be really comprehensive.)
  • Do they offer itineraries that really interest you and cover as much of what you want to see/do as possible?
  • How closely does their cost match your budget?
  • Do their customers generally match the type of people you want to travel with? (As in, are they of similar age, travel style, lifestyle, etc.?)

There are tons of companies that offer Alaska tours, ranging from Contiki (younger travelers, more budget-conscious) to Intrepid and GAdventures (socially conscious, mid-range) to John Hall’s Alaska (luxurious, higher-price). Based on my research, each one also offers a slightly different itinerary which is impressive given that there are only so many roads and limited overnight stops.

Why John Hall’s Alaska?

Specific to John Hall’s Alaska, here are some details I want to call out:

  • John Hall’s Alaska has been operating in Alaska for almost 40 years (since 1983). Alaska is their area of expertise (but also offer other tours around the U.S. and world).
  • Through their activities and pricing, John Hall’s Alaska aims for a more mature traveler – like many of you who read my blog.
  • John Hall’s Alaska guides are specialists in both Alaska travel and seeing Alaska through their own passions (like theatre, history, and the outdoors).
  • John Hall’s Alaska has a wide variety of unique itineraries – from “Three Bears of Alaska” (which takes you from the Kodiak browns to the Arctic polars) to the Grand Slam Alaska tour (a “best of Alaska” itinerary of the top spots I recommend on a first trip).

While I’m not sure can “go wrong” by choosing any established, well-known tour company operating in Alaska, John Hall’s Alaska is certainly one of those expert-level tour companies that go way beyond most to provide an unforgettable and enjoyable experience.

My John Hall’s Alaska Grand Slam Experience

John Hall's Alaska Review - Bus

Getting more specific, I want to share a day-by-day recap of my own trip. Before I start, I have to make a couple of notes. First, this itinerary was modified for 2021 and the limited options available for that year. It was shorter by one day than their standard Grand Slam Alaska tour.

Second, this tour will be changing in 2022 and beyond due to a landslide in Denali National Park. I’m not exactly sure how John Hall’s Alaska will accommodate the inability to reach Kantishna by bus – I don’t think they know at this point either! – but you can sign up for the waitlist for 2022 Grand Slam tours to be updated when the itinerary is released.

Okay, let’s dive in!

Day 0: Arrival in Anchorage

My John Hall’s Alaska experience started on my arrival day. I flew into Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport and arrived around 9:30pm. John Hall’s Alaska had a representative there waiting for me; she provided transportation to my hotel: the Captain Cook Hotel. I was excited to stay here as it’s one of the best hotels in Anchorage and I’ve never stayed there!

Instead of spending time at the check-in desk, she took care of that and delivered my bag to my room. I was starving, so I went straight to Fletcher’s, a restaurant in the hotel, where I had a meal voucher. While enjoying a reindeer sausage pizza and local craft beer, I was mistaken to be the tour guide more than once! (This was a common experience since I was the youngest on the tour by over a decade…)

I hoped to spot a few fellow guests at the restaurant, but no joy. Most people had arrived much earlier in the day or the day before and were already done with dinner or out enjoying a different restaurant. I retired to my bed, ready for an early start to the tour the following morning.

It’s worth noting here that John Hall’s Alaska specifically requests certain room classes – so everyone in the tour had an upper-level corner suite for this night!

Day 1: Anchorage to Whittier to Valdez

After some confusion about when-to-be-where, I arrived late for our group breakfast. It was certainly auspicious to walk in mid-introduction as our guide Mark was speaking. I got to introduce myself to the whole group at once. It turned out there was another Valerie traveling in the group as well!

We then boarded a motorcoach for a short Anchorage tour; little did I know that Mark took us on basically the same route as the Anchorage Trolley Tour. (So if you are doing the Grand Slam Alaska, you don’t need to do the trolley tour too!) We then disembarked at the Alaska Railroad depot, and I took a short walk to a nearby fishing spot, Ship Creek (yes, the salmon were running!).

We rode the Alaska Railroad to Whittier, where we immediately boarded a boat operated by Stan Stephens Cruises. They ferried us through Prince William Sound to Valdez.

Along the way we stopped at a fish hatchery, Mears Glacier, and for a bit of whale watching. It was a seriously epic ride – especially as the weather improved throughout the day. Lunch and dinner were provided on the cruise.

Upon arriving in Valdez, we had the night to ourselves. I went for a walk to explore a bit more. I strolled through the Marina, enjoyed a milkshake from Northern Treats (a local spot), and hiked up the Overlook Trail. That night, I slept well at the Totem Suites, a newish property in Valdez.

Day 2: Valdez to Wrangell-St. Elias to Fairbanks

As I was full of that special travel energy, I rose early to go for a run in Valdez. I went for a run out to Dock Point Trail, which is a great little hike in Valdez (one of many cool things to do!). I then returned for breakfast at the hotel before departing.

We left Valdez by motorcoach and drove out through Keystone Canyon, stopping at several waterfalls. Along the way our guide Mark gave us tons of info about the Gold Rush in Alaska (one of his areas of expertise); we were following the “Trail of ’98.”

We continued north, making a stop to admire the Wrangell Mountains before an extended stop at the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Visitor Center. We didn’t really get into the park – this is something high on my list for next year!

The rest of the day we made an extended drive north to Fairbanks, about 360 miles in total. We stopped a few more times, notably at the Gakona Lodge roadhouse for lunch. There we met the family that owns and runs this piece of Alaskan history and explored the property.

We also stopped in Delta Junction (for an underwhelming buffalo burger and to see the end of the AlCan Highway), at a point along the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, and at a silly souvenir shop called the Knotty Shop.

That evening we pulled into Fairbanks and stayed at the Bear Lodge in Fairbanks. This is a sister property of Sophie’s Station Suites where I stayed on my last trip to Fairbanks (February 2020); it was nice with big rooms but otherwise no-frills.

Day 3: Fairbanks

After a long day on the bus, it was nice to wake up knowing we were based in Fairbanks for a full day. After breakfast, our group went to the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum. You might recall that I loved this museum during my last trip, and was excited to get back. Best of all, my favorite dress was still on display and the guide that showed me around was also there!

We then boarded the bus for a quick stop at the famous Antler Arch and then on to Trailbreaker Kennel. This is the family kennel of four-time Iditarod Champion Susan Butcher; her husband and daughters operate the kennel since her passing. We learned about training huskies, how mushers prepare for races, and even met a few husky puppies that needed socialization. (Happy to oblige!)

For the afternoon, we boarded the Riverboat Discovery paddle wheeler. It chugged up the Chena River to the Indian Village Living Museum. There, we had a chance to learn more about Native Alaska communities in Interior Alaska before returning to our bus and heading to dinner at the Fairbanks Salmon Bake.

To be honest, this is the one day I would change a bit if I had control over the experience; the Riverboat Discovery and Salmon Bake felt very “Disneyland-ish” compared to some of the other activities I know are available in Fairbanks (like Chena Hot Springs and Running Reindeer Ranch).

Day 4: Fairbanks to Denali

Everybody back on the bus! We started early with breakfast at The Cookie Jar (a Fairbanks institution) before heading south toward Denali National Park.

We made a quick stop in the community of Nenana; there’s a railroad museum there as well as a few cool abandoned railcars. (I probably shouldn’t have climbed in, but Alaska’s good in letting you assess your own risk that way!).

Another hour south, we passed through Healy and entered the Nenana River canyon. At the Denali National Park Visitor Center, we had time to browse the gift shop and stretch our legs. We then boarded onto a Denali Backcountry Lodge bus for the 90-mile, six-hour drive to Kantishna – at the far end of the Denali park road.

The drive into the park was spectacular; I got the front seat and was able to spot wildlife along with our driver, Mike. We saw the Denali “Grand Slam:” moose, grizzlies, Dall sheep, and caribou up close and personal. We made stops at each of the park road rest areas: Teklanika River, Toklat River, and Eielson Visitor Center. The mountain wasn’t out, but other than that – it was a great ride.

Upon arrival, we checked into our cabins at the Denali Backcountry Lodge. I later learned that this is one of only three lodges operating in Kantishna, and the only one with personal, running water toilets. Hallelujiah! We enjoyed happy hour and dinner as a group before turning in for a night of sleep in the most remote part of Alaska I’ve ever visited.

Day 5: Denali National Park

For our full day in Denali, I rose early for breakfast and a guided hike; while dining alone, several young people from another group joined me, and it turned out that they had used my blog to plan their trip (hi, Anna & Mike! 👋). It goes to show that Alaska is truly a very big small place; spontaneous happenings do occur even on a guided trip, too!

A short van ride took my hiking group to McKinley Bar Trail. This is the only human-made and maintained trail in this part of the park. Denali is a backcountry park so most people set out in areas where there are no trails. Over the course of five miles, we hiked through Taiga forest and muskeg to the silty, rocky riverbed of the McKinley River. On a clear day, the mountain would have been resplendent from the far point of this out-and-back hike, but low clouds continued to obscure her.

After lunch, we had a short gold panning demo by “Kantishna Charlie,” aka our guide Mark in a hilarious getup. Then I took another van, this time to Wonder Lake. There I did a bit of tundra tramping, going off-trail to explore the spongy terrain and pick blueberries by the handful. My Xtratufs got a good workout this day! I also had a short time to relax and read by the lake before a bus took me (and others in the area) back to the lodge for another happy hour and dinner.

On a whim, I decided to commit to a flightseeing tour if the weather improved; that evening I boarded a tiny Piper Cub with a pilot named Hawk and a few fellow guests. We soared above the glacially pock-marked tundra toward the north face of Denali: the Wickersham Wall. During the hour-long flight, we had sweeping views of most of the mountain. We also got a close look at the Muldrow Glacier (Indigenous name: Henteel No’ Loo’) which was surging down the valley at 65-feet per day.

I was bushed after the long day and almost 10 miles of hiking; I turned in early and missed a lovely campfire which shows that you should always stay up late and rise early while traveling!

Day 6: Denali to Talkeetna

Rise early indeed – we were on the bus and departed Denali Backcountry Lodge at 6am! We had to make the six-hour drive back out of the park to continue our itinerary. Along the way, we saw more wildlife, though not as much as our drive in, nor a close.

Back at our larger, more comfortable motorcoach, driver/guide Mark turned our wheels south. We stopped for lunch at 229 Parks. Chef Laura Cole has made a name for herself in the Alaska restaurant scene – as well as nationally due to her James Beard Award nomination and appearing on several cooking shows. This was easily the best meal of the trip, and I’m planning to recommend this to everyone with a rental car visiting Denali in the future.

On the way to Talkeetna, Mark regaled us with stories of Alaskan history and the sweeping views around us. This stretch of the Parks Highway is my favorite, especially Broad Pass (which I incidentally slept through!).

Upon arriving in Talkeetna, we made one stop at Talkeetna Birch Works, a birch syrup company. I finally got to try Birch Water and Fireweed ice cream!

We were pre-checked into our rooms and had time to explore town before using a dinner voucher to enjoy the local fare. I had a pizza and beer at Mountain High Pizza Pie, as the wait times at nearby Denali Brewing Company were insane. I then walked back to the Talkeetna Alaska Lodge, making a detour to the fascinating Talkeetna Cemetery along the way.

Day 7: Talkeetna to Anchorage

On our final full day, we had a slight lie-in before boarding the bus to make the 2.5-hour drive from Talkeetna to Anchorage. Back in the big city, we started with a scrumptious lunch at Simon & Seaforts, an Anchorage institution that’s famous for special occasions.

Then we were dropped off at the Anchorage Museum, which has finished its expansion since my last visit and is even more impressive than before. A few new exhibits and galleries show off the history of Alaska, Alaska Native artifacts and art, classic and modern art by Alaskan artists, and other media formats.

We also had time to explore Anchorage on our own before a final group dinner. I did some souvenir shopping, strolled the streets, and visited a few sights around downtown.

Our final dinner – located at the Captain Cook where we were staying again – was a joyous affair. It was filled with speeches and silly stories, and I was reminded deeply that group tours are excellent at giving you a family to travel with.

Some folks left on red-eye flights this night, while others like me had part (or all) of the next day on our own to enjoy more time in Anchorage.

Day 8: Anchorage & Departure Home

There were no official tour activities on this final day, beyond a voucher for breakfast and pre-arranged shuttle to the airport. I spent the day busy doing research for other posts on this blog: I saw Star the reindeer (unofficial mascot of Anchorage!), took the Anchorage Trolley Tour, went to the Anchorage Market at its new location, and went hiking with my friend Nicole.

In the evening, I had dinner before catching the shuttle to the airport. My flights home were long and took me until the following morning – but for just 8 days, it was a jam-packed trip!

Final Verdict: My John Hall’s Alaska Review

After a whirlwind week visiting a huge swath of Southcentral and Interior Alaska with a group of folks from around the country… what’s my final verdict?

If you’re considering a group tour in Alaska, John Hall’s Alaska is a great option. Specifically, the Grand Slam Alaska tour is great for first-time Alaska visitors. This tour itinerary samples the best that Alaska has to offer; it visits many of the cities and sights I recommend in my itineraries for independent travelers, with way less planning or on-the-ground fuss. Best of all, this particular itinerary allows you to experience different parts of Alaska in a way you might not be able to do on your own.

What Would I Improve?

I try and keep it real with my readers, which includes mentioning the things I didn’t love (like that buffalo burger) or would improve – so you can have a full and accurate picture of what you might experience if you follow my travel path.

As I already mentioned, there are a few improvements I would make to this tour; it may be these are normally improved but my experience was affected by supply chain issues and the whole situation this year *gesticulates widely.* That said, here are my thoughts:

  1. I would look at some other activities in Fairbanks; there are some that feel less… mass-toursim-y (“Disneyland-ish”) that would still be true to the standard John Hall’s Alaska holds.
  2. Some of our meals were less than thrilling; we had box lunches and sandwiches a few times where there might be better catered options (this one might be a 2021 issue).
  3. This is silly, but I wish there had been a bit more time to sleep! Because of the adjusted itinerary (again, a 2021 thing), I was completely knackered (as the Brits say) by the end of the tour. Early mornings, long days, and late nights of adventure are unforgettable – but also exhausting.

Other than that, I had an incredible time, and can really see the appeal of guided tours as a way to travel – especially as I mature or in destinations where the logistics are overwhelming (a 2021+Alaska thing!). These were relatively minor issues in the grand scheme of the amazing week I spent on the Grand Slam Alaska tour with John Hall’s Alaska, and I hope they assure you that the tour was really that fantastic in every other way.

Ready to book?

You can sign up for the Grand Slam Alaska waitlist on the John Hall’s Alaska website. Be sure to put in my website as to where you heard about the tour so they know I recommended it to you!

Have other questions about guided tours in Alaska or John Hall’s Alaska specifically? Let me know in the comments or join my Alaska Travel Tips Facebook group!

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