If you’re planning a trip to Alaska, you’ll probably fly in and out of Anchorage. Whether you’re on a cruise or an Alaska Highway road trip, the city makes a great base for Alaskan travel adventures, especially if you know the best day trips to take.
Susmita Sengupta traveled with her family to Anchorage for a spontaneous travel adventure. She returned with some great ideas for the best day trips from Anchorage as well as getaways that visitors to Anchorage will definitely want to experience.
An Alaska vacation conjures up images of intense travel planning that usually involves finding out about the best cruises in Alaska. But while doing this, one generally forgets that it doesn’t always have to be so.
You do not have to wait for the ideal occasion or the perfect moment to bask in Alaskan magic. Our family went on a last minute trip. We returned with priceless memories of all the gorgeousness that Alaska has to offer. In the process, we discovered some wonderful day trips and getaways from Anchorage.
Start off in Anchorage
My husband, daughter and I flew into Anchorage one August and clicked our first photo beside a totem in the airport. We settled into our rental car before driving out into a pitch black night, it being close to midnight.
But our trusty GPS helped us reach our hotel safely. We retired to bed quickly, anticipating an early start the next day.
Morning light streamed into our room as we woke up to a beautiful rainbow that stretched over the faraway Chugach Mountains. After the beautiful wakeup call, we were ready to begin our spontaneous Alaska vacation that included Anchorage day trips plus some overnight getaways.
Our first stop: Anchorage Museum, the largest in Alaska, situated in a modernist building that melds with the exhilarating scenery beyond. Spend your time learning about the rich heritage of the many Alaskan Native cultures exhibited through displays of hundreds of artifacts, textiles and objects in the truly spectacular Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center. In addition, there are many changing exhibitions that highlight and explore the singular facets of Alaskan life both historically and in contemporary times.
Alaska Native Heritage Center
For a detailed experience of Alaskan Native life, head to Alaska Native Heritage Center, barely a 15 minute drive away from downtown Anchorage. Here my family and I explored recreated indigenous dwellings such as a longhouse or a semi subterranean dwelling in village sites arranged around Lake Tiulana.
We also learned about the history and heritage of Alaska’s eleven major cultural groups. Displays show clothes made of caribou skin and seal hide. Visitors also learn how a Yup’ik Cup’ik dwelling has a small tunnel to prevent polar bears from entering inside.
For a quick look at local Alaskan wildlife, I recommend a visit to the Alaska Zoo, housing injured and orphaned animals, and providing rescue and rehabilitation. You will see not just moose but polar bears, lynx, Arctic foxes, porcupines, caribou, wolves, Amur tigers and more.
I liked the Tibetan yak exhibit. Did you know that these yaks originated from local yak herds of Alaska?
Outdoor activities in Anchorage
Anchorage is the largest city in Alaska and has a dramatic setting, located between the Chugach mountains and the salt waters of the Pacific Ocean. And you can begin your enjoyment of the scenic beauty from within the city.
Tony Knowles Coastal Trail
Start at the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, eleven miles each way, commencing from downtown and ending in Kincaid Park. For city folks like us, this was the perfect way to get our feet wet in hiking matters.
The trail is relatively flat and provides captivating views of the mountains (you might catch a glimpse of Mt. Denali), the waters of Cook Inlet and mudflats. Watch out for moose as you near Kincaid Park.
Chugach State Park
For another hiking experience within the city limits, we drove to the Flattop Mountain Trail which took us into the Chugach State Park. Did you know that at 495,000 acres, it’s one of the four largest state parks in the United States?
The trails suit various abilities and proffer fabulous mountain vistas even from the parking lot. Bordered by the Alaska Range, Prince William Sound, and Chugach and Wrangell mountain ranges, there is plenty of scenery to admire.
Boomer Travel Tip
Visit our Alaska Travel Planner page before your trip.
We walked a short distance and were rewarded with a scene of Anchorage spread out beneath us on one side. On the other side, Southcentral Alaska’s dazzling range of mountains.
Driving back into downtown Anchorage, I noticed a reindeer hot dog stand. If you too are eager to savor a local delicacy, you could try them at these stands or go to a restaurant.
Snow City Cafe, with its bright and cheerful ambiance, consistently voted as the best Anchorage breakfast spot, fit the bill perfectly. And yes they serve breakfast all day, so I happily tried the “Tundra Scramble”, eggs with reindeer sausage and a slew of vegetables.
Drive Seward Highway: A beautiful Anchorage day trip
Next morning it was time to venture out of Anchorage for the first true glimpse of what Alaska is known for: natural beauty amidst miles and miles of untouched wilderness.
We drove on Seward Highway, considered to be the best scenic byway in America for the head turning views that appear every moment. Barely out of Anchorage we made our first stop at a pullout on Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet, the waterway that flows into the Gulf of Alaska. To our left were the serenely green infused peaks of the Chugach Mountains and on our right the shimmery mudflats of Cook Inlet framed by distant snow capped peaks.
Lucky tourists might catch sight of beluga whales in the waters or Dall sheep on mountaintops. We walked the boardwalk at Potter Marsh, a landing spot for migratory birds. You may also stop by Beluga Point, Bird Point or Windy Creek to soak in the majestic vista.
As we continued our drive, a gorgeous blue and yellow colored Alaska Railroad train passed us by. Though we would not experience a rail trip, I could imagine how thrilling it would be to ride the train through the riveting landscape.
Soon we noticed cars stopping by the roadside. Curious to explore the reason, we stepped out to discover we were close to a mudflat beach. Mudflats are glacier silt that are inherently dangerous as they function as quicksand. “Best to stay away from them!”, is the advice given on most sites. So we stood by our car and pointed our smartphones — the dark grey mud, the rippling waters of low tide, the distant mountains created surreal pictures.
Explore Portage Glacier: a rendezvous with nature and wildlife
Now we were closing in on Portage Glacier, having traveled about 50 miles south out of Anchorage. Once upon a time the glacier was visible from the highway but now it has receded about five miles.
Continuing the drive, we arrived at Begich, Boggs Visitor Center in Chugach National Forest. After learning about the history and geography of the area, we took the cruise to get an up close breathtaking view of Portage Glacier.
For first timers like us, the experience is hard to describe in words when one catches the first glimpse of a natural wonder like a glacier. The ice mountain, shiny blue in color, towered in front of the boat.
The U. S. Forest Service tour guide explained how the color blue has the most energy of all colors. It is reflected back in the sunlight unlike the other colors that are absorbed by the dense, white snow.
Stop at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center
For close encounters with the other premium attraction of Alaska, you can visit the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, as we did after completing our glacier trip. Only a 30 minute drive from Portage Glacier, it made for a perfect excursion on the way back to Anchorage.
As a sanctuary for local wildlife, the conservation center provides easy access for visitors of all ages to delight in a look at a herd of bison or a group of elk and, of course, grizzly bears (brown bears). We also saw caribou in their natural environment.
Visit Scenic Girdwood on a night away from Anchorage
We returned back to Anchorage for the night only to hit the picturesque Seward Highway once again in the morning for our first night away from the city. We were headed for Girdwood, about 40 miles out to the south of Anchorage. Founded as a supply camp for miners who came in search of gold in the area creeks, Girdwood is now a resort town open to visitors all year round.
When the town sank below sea level in the 1964 Great Earthquake, the strongest earthquake ever recorded in North America, Girdwood was relocated to where it is today. We saw evidence of the same as we crossed dead spruce trees eerily dotting the terrain, looking so because the roots had been destroyed by saltwater as the sea moved in.
For a day trip or to spend a night or two, indulge yourself at Alyeska Resort, the piece de resistance of Girdwood. Luxuriously deluxe rooms in an Alpine chalet style hotel offer superlative views of the mountainside.
The resort’s aerial tram is undoubtedly its prized attraction. Within minutes we had risen 2300 feet up the side of Mt. Alyeska.
The alpine views of Chugach State Park below us was mesmerizing. The gondola ride will take you to the upscale Seven Glaciers restaurant, again with extraordinary views of the surrounding mountains, ocean, glaciers and ski runs.
A first look at Seward on the Kenai Peninsula
A drive of around two hours from Girdwood took us to Seward on the Kenai Peninsula. Nestled amidst the Kenai Fjords National Park and Resurrection Bay, Seward is a charming coastal city with sublime views.
There are many ways to explore the beauty of Seward. Visit the national park or take a glacier cruise or a whale watching cruise. Or drive up to Exit Glacier to walk the network of trails. It’s the only part of Kenai Fjords National Park with vehicular access.
Visit the Alaska SeaLife Center
Unfortunately due to heavy rains when we reached Seward, we had to change our sightseeing itinerary. Our time was spent at the Alaska SeaLife Center which unsurprisingly turned out to be a delightful way to expend a couple of hours.
The aquarium is a cold water marine science research center that offers educational activities for children and also rehabilitates injured marine animals. The exhibits are singularly eye-catching.
From the sea lion habitats to the seabird aviary (the deepest seabird dives in North America) to the giant Pacific octopus exhibits, each one was a sight to behold. Though it was pouring in sheets, we stepped out into the open air terrace overlooking Resurrection Bay to catch sight of cute seal pups swimming in the rolling waters.
Enjoy lunch at Summit Lake Lodge
For a break in the journey to Seward you can add a detour to Summit Lake Lodge, where we stopped for lunch. This is a family owned lodge built with hand hewn local timber and logs, with guest cabins and dining facilities (dinner option available only for hotel guests). We enjoyed a lovely lunch while enjoying the stunning view of the mountains and completed our stopover with a short walk around the pristine Summit Lake.
To the North of Anchorage : Talkeetna Getaway
Our next sojourn took us to Talkeetna, gateway to Denali National Park (official website here), about a two hour drive to the north of Anchorage. Charming and laid back, Talkeetna turned out to be an idyllic jaunt for a night away from Anchorage.
This little town is located at the confluence of three rivers, the Susitna, the Chulitna and the Talkeetna. We walked along the rivers’ shore to enjoy superb views of the giant, fast flowing waters.
The next day we strolled over to Main Street dotted with a few restaurants and tourist shops where we browsed shelves of local food, art and tchotchkes and gazed at walls adorned with antlers and furs.
On a leisurely hike along a mini trail, we were excited to see a variety of wild mushrooms growing on the forest floor: large brown ones, pretty yellow ones, bright orange with white dots, we had never seen such mushrooms earlier.
And then of course the rain gods smiled on us once more. Undeterred we decided to drive to the Talkeetna State Airport to get a look at planes.
The airport is mightily busy in peak season as it operates flightseeing and glacier landing services to Denali National Park. Due to bad weather we saw that flights were grounded and the single strip runway was packed with brightly colored Cessna planes.
Things to see near Talkeetna
A sweet distraction near Talkeetna is located at mile 1.1 of Talkeetna Spur Road. Kahiltna Birchworks sells syrups and sweets made from birch trees tapped in the Talkeetna area.
Sampling the syrup I discovered that birch syrup is not as sweet as maple but has a mild, fresh taste. The store offers tours and the shop also sells other Alaskan food products and local art.
The drive to Talkeetna will take you through Knik where a stop at Iditarod Trail Sled Race Headquarters and Museum is a must. This world famous dog sled race that covers 1100 miles between Anchorage and Nome began in 1973.
The Iditarod’s historical beginnings happened when sled dogs were used to deliver life saving medicines during a diphtheria outbreak in Nome in 1925. The museum is a splendid log cabin building and houses memorabilia related to the race.
In nearby Wasilla you can halt and take a peek at Dorothy G. Page Museum, housed in a log cabin built in 1932. The museum presents the history of Wasilla, local art and antiques, mining history and of course the history of mushing. It is named after the woman who is well known in these quarters as the Mother of the Iditarod.
Our impromptu trip shows that an Alaskan holiday need not be an intimidating affair. The 49th state might be a bit difficult to reach but with a smidgen of forethought one can easily visit Alaska to see and explore its jaw-dropping scenery, myriad wildlife viewing opportunities, rich and varied history and amazing beauty.