Destination Name: Anchorage
Common Nickname: Anchortown
Anchorage is in south-central Alaska at the north end of the Cook Inlet, where the Turnagain and Knik arms hug the city in a Captain Hook-like grip. To the south, the long inlet pinches out to the Gulf of Alaska, wrapping around the Kenai Peninsula.Denali National Park is about 240 miles north. Lake Clark and Katmai national parks and Kodiak Island are a bush flight away.
Primary Active Pursuits
It’s a tall order to narrow down the options around Anchorage to a few words. Just about any outdoor adventure is within reach: hiking, wildlife viewing, glacier walking, fishing, rafting, kayaking, climbing, Nordic and alpine skiing, fat biking, and more. The mountains, glaciers, and sea in the region could keep you busy for weeks. That said, in summer you can pack a lot into a 20-hour day. Who needs sleep?
Just south of Anchorage, Chugach National Forest and Chugach State Park combine 9,000 square miles of the most accessible wilderness in Alaska. Ask where to go hiking and invariably you’ll hear of Flattop Mountain, the most-climbed peak in the state. And it is a lovely choice, quickly ascending through hemlock forest to emerge on the scrabbly flanks of the—well—flattopped peak. About 1,300 feet and 1.7 miles of huffing brings you to the 3,510-foot summit. For something less obvious, more arduous, and with loftier views, tackle Wolverine Peak, a hefty 4.7 miles one-way up 3,500 feet. Along the coast, the Turnagain Arm area is a popular pick.
Fifteen minutes from downtown, Kincaid Park is a gem, with fast, flowy mountain bike trails that thread through leafy forest in stacked loops and cross sandy dunes to the sea. When snow flies, the trails transform into fat biking heaven. (Heck, you ride a fat bike here during the summer and try to contain your grin.) The park’s Nordic ski trails are also top notch.
The Coastal Trail
The paved Coastal Trail meanders 11 miles along the Cook Inlet from downtown to Kincaid Park. This easy-rolling route is perfect for a mellow spin. Point Woronzof is a good spot to watch the sun set, although you might have to stay up until almost midnight.
Prince William Sound
An hour’s drive southeast to Whittier passes through the longest auto-rail tunnel in North America and brings you to the shores of Prince William Sound. From here, hop on a boat to cruise past glaciers whose fingers dip into the sea and blast icy wind on your cheeks. Expect to spot harbor seals, sea otters, Steller sea lions, Dall’s porpoise, bald eagles, puffins, and perhaps even whales. Phillips Cruises & Tours will take you out all day. If you prefer to go by kayak or a more custom approach, talk to Lazy Otter Charters.
Anchorage enjoys a temperate climate that’s moderated by the sea, so temperatures rarely stray into the extremes. For warm-weather pursuits, shoulder season is best, mid-May to mid-June or September. Avoid peak summer months unless you want to battle for table space with sneaker-clad cruise-ship passengers. Winter ushers in a whole new range of outdoor pursuits.
Other Cultural and Recreation Gems
If you don’t have a car, hop a train. The Alaska Railroad departs from downtown to places farther afield. For a day trip, ride the Glacier Discovery Train and get off at the Spencer Glacier Whistlestop in Chugach National Forest, where you can hike to a glacier overlook or go glacier hiking and sea kayaking. The Coastal Classic is another good route, chugging south to Seward on the Kenai Peninsula and back in a day.
How about surfing a tidal bore? The Cook Inlet tides are the second biggest in North America. As the tide marches in, it kicks up a tidal bore—a large wave big enough to surf during the highest tides (about half of the month, centered around the new and full moons). Time it just right, and you’ll get a 10-minute ride.
Just 40 miles from Anchorage, Alyeska Resort is Alaska’s largest ski resort, with 1,610 acres overlooking the sea. Plan for powder; the mountain gets 669 inches of snow a year. You can even hop a helicopter to ski the Chugach backcountry with Chugach Powder Guides. Or roll over to Aleyska in the summer with a mountain bike.
No trip to Alaska would be complete without flying in a bush plane. Head to Lake Hood, right in Anchorage, which is the busiest seaplane base in the world and climb into a small craft for flightseeing of glaciers, Denali, Prince William Sound, bears, and more. Rust’s Flying Service can take you to great heights.
Denali National Park is a tad far for a day trip (unless you go by plane), but it’s still merits a mention since it’s home to the highest mountain in North America. On a clear day in Anchorage, you can see all the way to Denali, which rises to 20,310 feet.
Lodging and Dining
Not far from the airport, the Spenard Hostel is the best bet for those who are pinching pennies. Just $29 buys you a bunk for the night. For good value in the heart of downtown, check out Susitna Place, which has spectacular views overlooking the Cook Inlet. The Copper Whale Inn is another good choice, just one block from the Coastal Trail. For a taste of Anchorage from the old days, nestle into the Historic Anchorage Hotel, a charming building from 1936 that is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Wipe the fog from your morning eyes with a cup of fair-trade coffee and ridiculously delicious baked goods at Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop. When lunch rolls around, you might amble over to 49th State Brewing Co., a happening spot with big-screen TVs, tasty food, handcrafted beer, and one of the only outdoor patios in Anchorage. For fast, authentic Mexican grub, hit up Taco King, a small Alaskan chain with several locations in Anchorage. If upscale Mexican sounds better, check out Tequila 61. Tacos are half price on Tuesdays. Whatever you do, find time to eat fish—halibut and salmon are fresh off the boat. Or slide back fresh oysters with champagne at the Bubbly Mermaid.
For a night on the town, head over to the Williwaw, where you can grab a bite before live music cranks up. Don’t miss the secret speakeasy upstairs. Head to the back of the bar to the old telephone booth and pick up the phone to request a password for entry. Prepare to wait for a while for your handcrafted cocktail. The Spanish gin and tonic is so refreshing it’s like swimming under a waterfall.
For a guided tour of Anchorage breweries, hook up with Big Swig Tours. They’ll show you around for an afternoon, and also offer a morning bike ride at Kincaid Park on their Bike and Brew Tour.
Best Single Reason to Visit
The saying in Anchorage is that it’s 15 minutes from the rest of Alaska. If you can visit just one place in the Last Frontier, Anchorage is a good choice, with just about any Alaskan activity nearby, plus easy access from the lower 48.
Visit Anchorage is the clearinghouse for whatever you need to know. Peruse the website or visit one of the two visitor centers in town. If you need anything for your outdoor adventures, Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking has the gear. For second-hand scores, The Hoarding Marmot is laden with deals.
Want someone to show you around? The friendly fellows at Greatland Adventures offer tours of everything cool there is to do in Anchorage—fat biking, hiking, glacier trekking, rock climbing, sea kayaking, ice climbing, beer drinking, and even dog sledding.
A slight note of caution but no cause for alarm: in downtown Anchorage, you’re bound to encounter people who seem down on their luck. Best to take cabs after dark and, if walking, make sure you have company along.
Avery Stonich is a freelance writer based in Boulder, Colorado, who has traveled to more than 50 countries in search of adventure. Visit her website at averystonich.com and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.