Having a short amount of time to explore a new place presents its own set of challenges, no matter the place. When the destination is Alaska, getting the most out of each day may mean making choices that at first seem limiting, but can offer first-time travelers a rich introduction to The Last Frontier.
Not surprisingly, one of the biggest challenges is distance. Depending on the itinerary, a tourist could reasonably expect to log 1,000 ground miles in a week in Alaska, on top of air travel to and from the lower 48. To Montanans, this won’t seem like a stretch, but when the vacation clock is ticking with so much to see, you’ve got to balance patience with payoff, leisure with energy.
With that in mind, a series of day trips out of Anchorage is ideal for the Alaska novice. It may be as comfortable as a sightseeing ride to Grandview and back on the Alaska
Railroad or as thrilling as shooting Class IV and V rapids on Six Mile Creek toward Hope. Here are just a few detailed examples, accompanied by photos by The Gazette’s Casey Page.
Drive 2½ hours north of Anchorage to this bustling town where you’ll find a mix of inhabitants ranging from off-the-grid wanderers to well-equipped explorers en route to a climb of Mount McKinley or one of the other peaks in the Alaska Range. Stop at the Twister Creek for a pint of Denali Brewing Co.’s finest and some lunch (perhaps the I Can See Russia Burger, featuring coleslaw and Russian dressing).
The big draw for day visitors is taking a “flightseeing” tour from one of the air taxi services that operate in town. Talkeetna Air Taxi flies over the range at regular intervals throughout the day, and packages range from generous fly-bys of the South Face to the once-a-day, oxygen-tank-aided Summit tour of Mount McKinley, aka Denali. Make sure to include the glacier landing for an extra fee; it’s worth every penny.
As you take the Seward Highway south out of Anchorage, the view opens up to Cook Inlet and a branch of it called Turnagain Arm. The highway follows the shoreline and offers a view of the changing tides. A little more than halfway down the stretch, roughly 40 miles, is the turnoff north to Girdwood, which leads by extension to hiking opportunities and, of course, Alyeska Resort. Skiing is king at Alyeska, but the resort is open year-round, and the area brims with summertime activity.
Take the tram from the hotel for some hiking on the mountain; the more adventurous can return to the hotel via trails on mountain bikes. While the elevation at the top of the lifts is less than 2,800 feet, the expansive valley views make the short tram ride worth the pricey ticket. It’s most impressive while standing at the edge of some of the entry points skiers take during the snow season. The vertical drops and chutes — with names like “Ragdoll,” for instance — seem all the more daunting when they don’t have any snow on them.
The Seward Highway drive south from Anchorage can take you to this port town on Resurrection Bay in as little as three hours. If you take advantage of the multiple pullouts along the way — spotting Dall sheep on the cliffs above the highway on the north side of Turnagain Arm, gawking at mountains favored by backcountry skiers and snowmobile riders south of the arm, or taking in views of Kenai Lake after the turnoff onto Highway 9 — the drive can take longer. Much longer.
Once in Seward, it’s almost impossible not to get out on the water. An excursion may include a fishing charter or a tour to view marine wildlife and coastal features. The latter are a great value, and the shorter outings will leave enough time to take in other opportunities on land, whether it’s a visit to the Alaska SeaLife Center or a supper of freshly caught fish at Ray’s Waterfront. But the three-hour tours won’t leave any tourist feeling shortchanged. The wildlife is abundant and the bay views are breathtaking.
Just in case Mother Nature thwarts your outdoor plans, punch your ticket here. The massive four-story building houses traditional exhibits, many centered on Alaska’s native cultures and the exploration and settlement by whites. The displays on the history of the Alaska Pipeline are especially engaging. It’s only up until Sept. 7, but the temporary exhibit “Gyre: The Plastic Ocean” is a knockout, placing environmental challenges into a context that even the most-hardened skeptic would find difficult to dismiss. But there’s also a lot a promise for the upcoming “Cabin Fever,” an aptly scheduled wintertime exhibit about how extensive isolation and darkness affect human behavior and emotion.
On the lighter side, the Imaginarium at the Discovery Science Center features interactive displays on the laws of physics — plastic balls suspended by jets of air; a rope-and-pulley system that allows a seated youngster to hoist himself high off the ground; an eight-foot-high, glass-encased Rube Goldberg machine; a giant soap-bubble maker and so on. Families with kids are bound to spend plenty of quality time here; those without kids will enjoy it, too. It’s the definition of intellectual fun.
At the easternmost point of Turnagain Arm is the turnoff onto the Portage Glacier Highway. The scenic drive takes travelers to Portage Lake, then through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel (2-1/2 miles long) leading to the port town of Whittier. Here, water-bound tourists explore Prince William Sound, either by kayak or tour boats. Be prepared to spend more time on the water if you go out on tour; they last four to five hours and they’re more expensive than the Seward launches. The bonus here, in addition to the wildlife and shore views, is the opportunity to watch glacier calving.
In town, take a stroll on the boardwalk and down to the docks to check out some boats, visit gift shops and stop for a basket of halibut fish and chips at the Swiftwater. However, be sure to pay attention to the forecast because, as some Alaskans will tell you, “The weather’s always ****tier in Whittier.”
Plan for weather
Weather, like distance, is a challenge for Alaska travelers. While a trip during the summer solstice — with daylight extending well past midnight — is enticing, it’s no guarantee of sunny skies and warm temperatures. Anchorage is, after all, a coastal city where cloud cover and rainy conditions are the rule, not the exception. Even the warmer, drier months of July and August have their share of long-sleeve days. But gray skies should not deter anyone who has an itch to visit Alaska. As vacation destinations go, it’s enjoyable and worthwhile — and the vistas, especially, will stick in your memory long afterward.