My 10 Best Travel Experiences of 2020

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My 10 Best Travel Experiences of 2020

For most of the year, 2020 was the year of non-travel. If you couldn’t see the future and didn’t squeeze your travel into the first couple of months, it would mean missing out on travel for the next several months.

While I did spend more time at home in 2020 than usual, I was fortunate to have been able to travel before the pandemic hit in full force. Fortunately, the nature and wide-open spaces of Alaska allowed me an opportunity to get out into the wilderness during the rest of the year without high risk to my health. So 2020 became the year of exploring Alaska.

In chronological order, here are my 10 Best Travel Experiences of 2020:

Istanbul

I was invited to Istanbul for the Ace of Mice Travel Trade show. I went hoping to make some good connections to develop more tours for my small group tours company. And I did make plenty of good contacts. But shortly thereafter I returned home and it became apparent that I wouldn’t be needing to develop tours and that international tourism would be mostly shut down for the rest of the year. The morning before the trade show began I walked to the Galata Tower to enjoy the 360-degree view from the top. And during the evenings of the show, we were treated to a cruise up the Bosphorus Straits as well as extraordinary Turkish food each evening.

New York City

I have not been in the mood for huge urban areas during the past few years and might have even muttered to myself that “I wouldn’t go to New York City if I got a free trip there”. I have certainly spent enough time in New York in years past. This January I spent about four days there, attending the NY Times Travel Show and visiting some friends in Queens. Spending time with a local friend, exploring some new areas of the city, and eating great food were some of the highlights. I’m glad I returned to New York.

Cuba

While I did not fall in love with Cuba (read: Why I Don’t Like Cuba) I did appreciate learning about the anomaly that Cuba is. I didn’t enjoy traveling alone there but I did get some good opportunities for photography. Havana, especially, was fun to explore and photograph. Given the chance for a re-do on my trip, I might have spent all my time in Havana and brought along my wife. This goes against my usual advice of making sure not to spend all your time in a country’s biggest city.

Los Angeles

Juno was traveling for work to the Los Angeles Travel & Adventure Show. As long as she had a hotel room, I thought I would go down and browse the vendors and speakers at this year’s show. I made some good contacts for my small group tour company and saw some inspiring presentations. Besides the travel show, I got a chance to go to the excellent Broad contemporary art museum. Together we got a chance to see Sting’s musical, The Last Ship. This is the last time we’d live normally in 2020. A worldwide pandemic would soon be coming.

Seoul

From Los Angeles, we flew directly to Seoul, South Korea. Lunar New Year had already passed, which we, unfortunately, could not celebrate with Juno’s parents. About halfway through our visit, the coronavirus was brought to Seoul from China, and we began to live more cautiously. I still made several long walks around Ansan Mountain, my favorite place in Seoul. By the time I had left, the flight home was less crowded and more people were wearing masks. Juno stayed a few extra weeks, working remotely.

The Kenai Peninsula, AK – Russian River & Skilak Lake

In early June, once the weather became warmer, we set out to explore some new spots in Alaska. First up was a hike to the Aspen Flats backcountry cabin in the Chugach National Forest. The rustic cabin is set on the banks of the Russian River between Lower and Upper Russian Lakes. It was a quiet and beautiful spot and we enjoyed the peace of the area. We hiked out the next day, passing Russian River Falls, and drove to nearby Skilak Lake. Our goal was mushroom hunting in the previously burned-out forests. We were moderately successful collecting morel mushrooms but an equal highlight was an almost empty campground at Skilak lake with a gorgeous late-evening sunset.

Backcountry Hiking in Hope, AK

A few weeks later, we went camping in Hope, a historic mining town on a secluded part of the Kenai Peninsula. These days Hope is all about fishing, the outdoors, and live music (during summer’s without pandemics). We hiked about 6 miles out to Gull Rock and pitched our tent for the night, enjoying the panoramic views of the Turnagain Arm and surrounding mountains. We also day hiked a couple of thousand feet up to Hope Point for even better views.

Biking the Denali Highway

A few friends invited me to cycle the Denali Highway over the weekend of the Fourth of July. This route is not the road through Denali National Park, but the original way to drive to Denali NP. It is mostly gravel, stretching 135 miles east to west. I started with my friends, camping the first night with them on a scenic precipice, and continued day two on my own, cycling more than 70 miles to Brushkana Creek Campground to meet Juno and another friend, who were driving. An end of day dip into frigid Brushkana Creek washed the layer of dust off my legs and invigorated my spirit before our dinner and campfire. I cycled the remaining thirty-some miles to Cantwell the next morning.

Biking Denali National Park

With about 90% fewer out-of-state visitors, we thought it would be a great summer to camp in Denali National Park. So we did. And I brought my bike along. Juno and our friend, Denis, spent their days hiking and photographing wildlife while I biked several segments of the Denali Park Road. I continued my tradition of daily dips in extremely cold water. Igloo Creek did the trick, flowing swiftly past the campground of the same name.

Denali Road Lottery 

We returned to Denali National Park in September after winning the Denali Road Lottery. This is a lottery that allows individuals in their private vehicles to drive to the end of the road in Denali National Park. This was during mid-September and we could already see and feel that autumn was over and we were standing at winter’s doorstep. The air was brisk but most importantly, it was clear. We entered the gate when it opened at 7 am and drove into the park further than we ever had and were rewarded with the clearest view of Denali (the mountain) we had ever seen. It was spectacular. 

Honorable Mention – Little Bright Spots of 2020

Looking back, we made the most of this awful year and tried to do what we could in the outdoors when physical distancing was required. We were also limited with spending on account of being out of work for so long. But that gave us more time. There were also little things that we did to help keep us sane in 2020.

Some good memories include “owl mania” in Anchorage when we went on an almost daily basis to Potter Marsh to try to photograph a juvenile Great Horned Owl and her mom, 

I summited O’Malley Peak with my friend Denis, who was visiting from out-of-state. It was a scramble to the top of this 5,250 ft. peak with over 3,000 ft. of elevation gain during our hike.

I completed my first solo 100-mile bike ride, a 7-hour affair with 4,000 ft. of elevation gain and a total of 4,100 calories burned.

Fall in Alaska is an excellent time and place for northern lights viewing and I had several guiding shifts taking groups to remote places for aurora viewing and photography.

In December, as tourism continued to pick up in Alaska, I got several shifts guiding tours at Matanuska Glacier. Even though any job is still work, I feel grateful every time I’m out on the glacier.

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Stephen Bugno
Stephen Bugno
Stephen Bugno has been traveling the world and writing about it for the better part of 20 years. His articles and essays have appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Seattle Times, and Transitions Abroad magazine. He blogs at Bohemian Traveler and edits the independent travel magazine GoMadNomad.com. He most recently set up a tour company offering authentic, small group tours at Unquote Travel. Follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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