The 2019 Ultimate Adventure In Alaska

North To The Last Great Frontier

For as long as I can remember traveling to Alaska, the last frontier, and being able to experience its endless forests, snowcapped mountains, and plentiful wildlife has been on my bucket list. Visiting Alaska and wheeling some of the trails? That was just a dream. So, when I got the phone call from Smittybilt asking if I’d like to fly to Alaska and co-pilot a Jeep on this year’s 2019 Ultimate Adventure, it was a no brainer. Yes, of course! The level of my enthusiasm and anticipation between being asked and heading to Alaska was almost uncontainable. I’ve been off-roading, turning wrenches, and camping for many years. Being invited to participate in this adventure and to hit the trail with several extremely experienced wheelers, editors of magazines, and off-road business owners was an unexpected honor and the opportunity of a lifetime.

For the past 20 years, Four Wheeler Magazine has been leading a group of off-road enthusiasts on Ultimate Adventure. Every year, they choose a new location and invite a few selected readers, a handful of sponsors, and drivers from previous years. The multi-day trip covers lots of miles and takes on trails every day. It is no cakewalk as the trails are tough and the days are long. This year marked the 20th anniversary of UA and the team at Four Wheeler Magazine decided to tackle Alaska to put the ultimate in Ultimate Adventure.

Welcome to Alaska! Before Ultimate Adventure started, we were able to hop on a floatplane and check out some of the state’s amazing scenery. Things would only get better from here. 

Let’s Get Going

Two weeks before leaving for Alaska, the details about the trip were still a little fuzzy, and I wondered what I had gotten myself into. To find out more, I took a drive down to Chula Vista, California to the Smittybilt research and development facility. There I met with Ryan Kennelly who was the designated driver for the Jeep I’d be co-piloting. He was also overseeing the 2018 Jeep Wrangler JL Unlimited build. Ryan and I had never met and I remember saying to my wife, “I hope we get along because I’ll be spending ten days with this guy.”

When I arrived at the Smittybilt facility, Ryan greeted me and gave me a tour of the shop. I was surprised at how massive it was and how much was going on inside. And then, I got to meet the Jeep we’d drive to conquer the Ultimate Adventure. Ryan and his team had done an incredible job with the build. The Jeep JL had 40-inch Pro Comp tires, a 2.5-inch Rubicon Express lift with coilovers, 1.5-inch body spacers, and bumpers and armor from Smittybilt. They had also just installed their new Smittybilt Gen3 XRC winch, which would end up getting a workout on this trip. Ryan had also ripped out the back seats to accommodate all the gear we’d be taking with us. He also installed a fridge, fuel cans, recovery gear, fire extinguishers, a first aid kit, and had even mounted two cans of bear spray on the roll bar, just in case. We were, after all, heading into the wild.

Our ride for the 2019 Ultimate Adventure was this built 2018 Jeep Wrangler JL. It featured Smittybilt armor, a new Smittybilt XRC Gen 3 winch, 40-inch Pro Comp tires, and a 2.5-inch Rubicon Express suspension system.

Starting Out

After a long flight and a fantastic floatplane tour the previous day, Ryan and I woke early and made our way north to the town of Wasilla. There we needed to check in for tech inspection and attend the first of many driver’s meetings. It was a short drive, so we had time to make a few detours along the way. One led us down a dirt road and up to the top of a mountain, which presented some amazing views. Another pitstop landed us on a beach next to a river. The last was at a fishing hole where we watched some folks reeling in salmon. We both hoped we’d have time to do a little fishing before this trip was over.

Most of the UA2019 vehicles were already parked in the back lot when we arrived in Wasilla. The rigs included a brand-new 2020 Jeep Gladiator on 40-inch tires with a Hellcat motor, a heavily modified Willy’s Wagon, a well-built full-sized Ford truck, a couple of International Scouts, and an assortment of other heavily modified rigs. All of these vehicles were ready to take on whatever Alaska was going to throw at them.

Wheeling to the Knik Glacier was an epic way to kick off the 2019 Ultimate Adventure. 

Getting To The Glacier

I can’t think of a better way to kick off the first trail day than wheeling to the base of a glacier. From our hotel in Wasilla, we drove about 30 minutes southeast to a well-known local off-road area called Jim Creek. It runs along the Knik River and would eventually take us to the base of the Knik Glacier.

The terrain was wet and filled with glacier silt. The path took us along the beach and in and out of the adjacent forest. There were several water crossings along the way. One came up to the headlights and made Ryan and I instantly think a snorkel on our Jeep would have been a great idea. In Alaska, on warm days like the one we were having, the water levels can rise as the glacier melt increase. Thankfully, many of the water crossings were less than a foot deep. The ground underneath was soft, but firm enough that our vehicle had no problems with traction.

Eventually, the trail opened up and we found ourselves flying through Alaska. As we approached a small mountain range, we crested a hill and there it was: the Knick Glacier. It was breathtaking! We drove right up to edge of the massive glacier. Like a bunch of kids, we got out and hopped along the sections of ice melting along the shoreline. There couldn’t possibly have been a better way to start this adventure!

The trail was an up and back route, but we took a slightly different course on the way back that had us rolling in some thick mud. Several vehicles were revving up their engines, spinning tires, and flinging mud. Our Smittybilt winch recovered at least four rigs from an almost bottomless mud pit in one section. Even though some drivers got stuck, no one was complaining. Putting your driving ability and your vehicle to the test is what the Ultimate Adventure is all about.

Lots of mud is typical of Alaskan trails and there was plenty on Ultimate Adventure. The Smittybilt XRC Gen3 winches got a very good workout extracting vehicles from the muck.

Finding Eureka

The next morning, we met an Alaskan local who would be leading us through the Eureka trail system. The drive had us winding through the scenic mountains to get to the trailhead that led to an extensive network of paths heading in all directions. The miles and miles of rolling hills and grassland were striking. As far as you could see yellow, red, and green foliage carpeted the ground and trees were few and far between.

These trails were wet and muddy with a few small water crossings that were really just large puddles. One section had a deep mud bog that had vehicles screaming as they revved up to make it through. Ryan took on this mud hole with a wide-open throttle and glided over the mud, making it look effortless. Other drivers had a harder time, and it wasn’t long before the winches were put to work again. The Alaskan mud was thick, and it must have taken at least an hour to get all 20 vehicles though this one section.

The rest of the trail was pretty mild as we rolled along the grassy plains. Eventually, we made it to camp, a spectacular rocky beach along a river. I have camped in some spectacular locations, but this was one of the most beautiful. We all spread out, some drivers breaking out their ground tents, some had some cot tents, and there was even one Jeep with a rooftop tent.

I had brought my backpacking gear that I’ve had forever but haven’t used in years. It was nice to get back to the simplicity of just a small ground tent and a sleeping bag. It reminded me that some of my overland luxury items are just that—luxuries, not necessities.

Hotels were a luxury on Ultimate Adventure with camping more the norm. It wasn’t bad except for one night where the temperature dipped below freezing. 

24 Degrees In Summer!

I will forever be grateful that I had the foresight to bring thermal underwear. That night it got down to 24 degrees even though it was late August. I had known it was going to get cold—this was Alaska—but I was thinking low 40s or high 30s at night. I did not even imagine 24 degrees was even a possibility at this time of year. But, it wasn’t anything a good cup of hot, instant coffee couldn’t cure.

With frozen hands, we packed up our camping gear and ventured out into the grassy rolling hills again. And, while we were driving, our breakfast was cooking. We’d wrapped two large and very frozen cinnamon rolls in tin foil and placed them in the engine bay to warm up as we drove. Two hours later their cinnamon-scented aroma wafted into the Jeep. When we stopped to eat them, it was hard to keep everyone else from grabbing a piece!

We encountered a lot more mud and water crossings with some of the vehicles getting buried up to their axles. It was a day of continually winching someone out of the mud. Even though it was a lot of work constantly pulling out the recovery gear and we didn’t cover much ground, spirits were high and everyone was having a great time. We were in wheeling in Alaska and loving it!

Alaska is a state rich in history. A visit to the Kennecott mine showed just how rugged life was in Alaska’s earlier days. 

They Were A Hardy Folk

That night, we stayed in Glennallen in a rustic hotel. We had many miles to go to get to our destination, so our day started early. And, in typical UA2019 fashion, we didn’t know exactly where we were going. Miles into the day, we encountered one of the dustiest roads I’ve ever been on. It was so dusty that the group had to maintain a significant distance from each other for visibility. I think it was at least 4 miles from the lead vehicle to the tail rig. Thankfully, we all had excellent communication and everyone was in tune with the turns and obstacles ahead.

After putting down some solid miles, we arrived at a parking lot on the edge of the river. There we would meet two tour vans that would take us to the Kennecott Mines, a national historic landmark. Many old buildings, including some restored ones, fill the site. There was rusty mining equipment, industrial gears, old mining train carts, and the remnants of all sorts of machinery. This group of gear heads was in awe of all the equipment. We all imagined how hard it must have been to live and work here in the harsh Alaskan winter. I was thankful the leader of the group added this stop to our adventure so we could soak in a little history.

We were in no hurry to leave, but we had to make it to our campsite. We drove late into the night towards the east side of the Denali Highway. There we ventured off onto a tight trail that had a few rocky obstacles. Eventually, the trail ended at an open field where we set up camp for the night. Thankfully, the temperature didn’t drop to 24 degrees.

Whether on the highway or the trail, we always traveled in a convoy of twenty-plus vehicles. Getting that many vehicles through the trail can make for long days, but it was always a lot of fun. 

The Denali Highway

The next morning Ryan and I were both up early and had time to spend a few minutes chatting with some of the other drivers before heading out. We put in a lot of road miles, but we didn’t mind at all since we were cruising along the Denali Highway, one of the most scenic roads in the U.S. Add a caravan of 20 amazing vehicles and it was a pretty cool experience.

The next trail we explored is in a well-known area where Christopher McCandless journeyed into the Alaskan wilderness and attempted to live off of the land. McCandless was vastly unprepared for the harshness of Alaska and sought to return to civilization, but became trapped on the wrong side of a swollen river. Eventually, he would perish inside the school bus he had used for shelter. Jon Krakauer told McCandless’s story in the famous book Into The Wild. The book served as the inspiration for the 2007 film of the same title starring Emile Hirsch. We traveled along the route McCandless explored, encountering a whole lot of mud.

After a few miles, we found ourselves in one of the deepest, longest sections of mud we’d encountered during the adventure. Mud was flying everywhere, drivers were getting stuck one after the other, and someone even busted a tire bead trying to hammer through. It was tough going, and it took us many hours to get across just a small section of trail. In the end, we all came out on the other side to find more water crossings and tight trail sections through the forest. But we were still wheeling in Alaska and loving it.

We arrived on a rocky beach next to a river. The water was too high for us to continue, so it was a great place to stop and take a break before heading back. That meant more water crossings and mud before making it back to camp. It wasn’t until around 11:30 pm that we were finally slipping into our sleeping bags.

The amazing beauty and terrain of Alaska makes it an extremely unique place to get on the trail. Doing it with a great group of people and rigs makes it even better.

The Home Stretch

The last few days had us traveling several miles along the highway, exploring more trails filled with deep water crossings, encountering rocky terrain, and climbing epic mountains with breathtaking views. The group stopped at a local coal mine and, one of my favorite stops, the Museum of Alaska Transportation and Industry where we saw some amazing old trucks, trains, tractors, planes, and just about anything else transportation-related.

The vehicles in our convoy tackled every trail thrown at them during our Alaskan adventure. We had a few small breaks, a flat tire or two, a broken U joint, and a busted differential. But through all those challenges, everyone came together to get through the trail. And got back on the road again to our journey’s end.

The author (on the right) and Ryan Kennelly contemplating how soon they can return to Alaska.

Final Thoughts

I’ve had many people ask me how my trip was. I say the same thing over and over. It was once in a lifetime trip. I am so thankful to have been invited to be a part of this amazing adventure. Ryan and I will have stories to tell for a lifetime. I can only hope that I get to explore Alaska again someday. If I’m ever invited to join an Ultimate Adventure again, there will be no hesitation. Yes, please. Sign me up!

Oh, Ryan and I did finally get an opportunity to do a little fishing. While we could see salmon fishing in the stream, none of them had any interest in what we were serving up. We’ll have to go back again.