Few cities anywhere in the world have such spectacular scenery within a few hours’ drive or train ride as Anchorage, Alaska. Some visitors make the journey here a road trip to start it all, driving up the Alaska Highway—open all year—from the USA or western Canada. There are plenty of flights here though and the state hosts Alaska Airlines, so it’s easy to just rent a car upon arrival.
There’s seldom a lot of traffic in Anchorage and roads leaving the city are well-marked. All of the excursions here are off of two routes. One heads south down the Kenai Peninsula, the other heads north toward Denali National Park.
See the Glaciers from the Water
Receding glaciers from the last Ice Age carved up the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska with gorges and fjords. The best way to see the awesome force of the ice is to go on a day cruise that explores the waterways and passes glaciers that are sometimes still dropping into the sea. The calmest option is to go on a Prince William Sound Glacier Cruise from the port of Whittier.
The scenery is more dramatic on a Kenai Fjords National Park Cruise that weaves in and out of various fjords from the port of Seward, but you do have to cross some open water that can get rough at times. In both cases you’re likely to see some wildlife, such as bald eagles, sea lions, otters, and even whales. The cute white beluga whales like to play in the waters you’ll pass on the Seward Highway—a national scenic byway—on the way to either port in a car.
Get Close to Alaska’s Animals
Close to Whittier and accessible by car in an hour from the city is the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. This non-profit center cares for rescued animals that cannot return to the wild, plus a herd of bison that are raised here first than released. You will see huge grizzly bears and brown bears, perhaps a rescued black bear cub. There’s a resident porcupine that lost a leg, a herd of moose, wolves, and some elk with giant antlers. Naturalists give guided tours and some of the animals you can touch.
You can connect this with a trip to Spencer Lake (seen in the very top photo) for hiking near a glacier, paddling around icebergs, and rafting down the Placer river with Chugach Adventures.
Heading North From Anchorage to Denali
Denali Mountain—also known as Mt. McKinley—is the highest peak in North America at 6,190 meters. You’ll have to get an early start to visit it on a day trip as it’s approximately a five-hour drive from Anchorage to Denali National Park. It would be better to spend the night in the area to be able to explore the wilderness on hiking trails or by biking on the road going through the park. (The park has more than 2.4 million hectares of protected land.) You can also get there via Alaska Railroad and It’s also possible to purchase seats on a sightseeing plane to view the snowy peaks from the air.
Sled Dogs and Fishing in Wasilla
Alaska’s main sporting event is the annual Iditarod Dogsled Race, which takes place each March. The course covers 1,000 miles (1609 kms) from Anchorage. You can visit the headquarters visitor center in Wasila any time of year though and learn more about this unique event. Some sled dogs stay at the headquarters and in the summer they lead visitors on dog cart rides instead of through the snow.
Less than two hours by car from Anchorage, Wasilla is also a favorite fishing area for visitors. There are several spots where you can go on guided fishing trips to hook your own king salmon or go fly fishing for trout.
Ski Alaska in Girdwood
If arriving outside of the peak summer season, it’s quick 42 miles (68 kms) to Alaska’s premier ski area, Alyeska Resort. This self-contained area is anchored by a fine hotel that connects to the aerial tram traveling to the top of the mountain and there are 76 total ski runs. You can use the area as a heli-skiing base to explore fresh powder in the backcountry, or for the less adventurous the town of Girdwood also has ice skating and snow shoeing areas.
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Article by Tim Leffel, who also wrote Gawking at Glaciers in Wild Alaska as editor of Perceptive Travel. All photos by Leffel except fishing photo courtesy of Valley River Charters and Denali photo via Wikipedia Creative Commons. Trail map from Alyeska Resort.