by Roy Stevenson | Photo © Ken Graham Photography
From glaciers and salmon-packed rivers to fine dining and cultural museums, few American cities can compare with Anchorage’s abundance of gorgeous natural scenery and big city amenities. There aren’t many cities where you can pan for gold in the morning and, in the afternoon, explore a museum that boasts one of the country’s finest displays of Alaskan Native culture.
From Anchorage you can take an excursion that includes a cruise around the Prince William Sound—past no less than 26 towering glaciers—and later that evening, gaze out over a dramatic panorama of six snow-capped mountain ranges while dining in a plush, white-tablecloth restaurant.
So diverse are Anchorage’s attractions that you can tour the Alaska Native Heritage Center in the morning and then, driving back to your hotel, pull over on the roadside 30 feet from a grazing moose. And the locals won’t be the least bit surprised when you tell them.
Anchorage Bucket List
Indeed, Anchorage’s bucket list of natural and cultural sights is both wide and deep. There’s enough sightseeing in and around this city of 290,000 to keep you entertained and awed for a solid week—longer if you want to chill out in a luxurious lodge set among some of the world’s most pristine mountains and forests.
For a crash course in Anchorage’s history and culture, start your trip at the Anchorage Museum. Inside this cavernous, futuristic building, the History Gallery shows Alaska’s history from pre-contact times to the present. The museum’s flagship gallery, the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center, displays marvelous natural history and American Indian exhibits. The Art of the North Gallery reflects Anchorage’s regional landscape, its early exploration, and lifestyles and wildlife.
To absorb downtown’s vibe, take the Trolley ride, a 15-mile tour where you learn about Anchorage’s history while you trundle past the town’s eclectic collection of old and contemporary buildings.
The Alaska Experience Theater, located downtown, offers four Alaska-themed films including A Northern Lights Adventure and Epic Aurora.
A short drive out of town, another of Anchorage’s cultural “must-sees”—the Alaska Native Heritage Center—provides an information-packed introduction to the state’s native heritage. Here, you walk around a small lake and drop in on six life-sized traditional Native dwellings. Time your tour to finish so you can catch the native dance performance back in the Welcome House. Then stroll through the Hall of Cultures to see interactive displays about the state’s cultural groups.
The one-hour Segway Tour (a segway is a motorized stand-up scooter) around Lake Hood is an enlightening experience. Bush pilots flying floatplanes are considered a standard mode of Alaskan transportation, like we in the mainland use buses and trains. On the Segway tour you’ll see floatplanes taking off by the dozen—up close and personal—from the world’s busiest seaplane basin. Watching the floatplanes line up, rev up, and then gradually part with the water is a great reminder of how heavily Alaska depends on aviation. Around 800 planes take off each day from this small lake.
The Segway tour finishes adjacent to the Alaska Aviation Museum, on the south shore of Lake Hood. The museum is well worth a tour, even for non-aviation buffs. Kids love this place, with more than 20 vintage aircraft, flight simulators, a restoration hangar and plenty of interactive displays.
To most visitors, the quintessential Alaska tourist trifecta would consist of a helicopter flightseeing trip, landing on a glacier, and a ride on a dog sled. You can check all three off your list in one trip, from Peter Schadee’s Knik River Lodge, about an hour’s drive from Anchorage, near Palmer. The lodge’s specialty is its on-site Tanalian Aviation helicopter tour that takes you up the wide river valley to land on the Knik Glacier.
After the chopper lands on the snow, you transfer onto one of Jodi Bailey’s dog sleds. Then you feel the cold wind on your face during an invigorating sprint around a 2-mile loop, towed by a team of excited, baying sled dogs, Iditarod style. Then, later, your helicopter will land farther down the glacier where you walk around the natural ice sculptures and past icy cold streams. Cap off this fun all-Alaskan day by dining in the lodge’s yurt restaurant.
To get to the 26 Glacier Cruise by Phillips Cruises & Tours, take the Alaska Railroad’s navy blue and yellow Glacier Discovery Train the 60-plus miles from Anchorage to Whittier, your cruise embarkation point. The train and the cruise boat pass through some of Alaska’s most breathtaking scenery. The Klondike Express catamaran offers a smooth ride through Prince William Sound’s Esther Passage, and past College and Harriman Fjords’ majestic alpine and tidewater glaciers and waterfalls.
Alaska boasts 100,000 glaciers, and you’ll see 26 of her best on this cruise, with the boat chugging close enough to hear the loud “crack” while you see massive chunks of ice calving off the glacier faces. The cruise is narrated by a National Forest Service Ranger, and includes a hot lunch. If you’re lucky you’ll see clans of happy, barking seals and sea lions lounging on tiny icebergs and the occasional humpback or orca whale breaching the surface.
If you haven’t had your fill of animals, visit the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. You reach the center via the same Glacier Discovery Train, and get off at Portage Station in Girdwood. A shuttle takes you the rest of the way. You’ll see moose, caribou, elk, brown and black bears, bison, arctic fox, lynx, must oxen and other critters here.
Likewise, the Eagle River Nature Center, a 20-minute drive north of Anchorage, offers guided nature walks featuring a host of local characters: bears, Dall sheep, moose, lynx, wolverines, and eagles and salmon.
Anchorage offers a multitude of other tourist attractions including gold panning, mountain trail hiking, mountain biking and botanical gardens. Anchorage is also a jumping off point for Denali National Park and its many lodges, easily accessed via the Alaska Railroad.
With Anchorage’s heady blend of outstanding attractions, the biggest complaint visitors have is that they wish they’d had more time.
When You Go
Find tourist information downtown at Anchorage’s Log Cabin Visitor Information Center, anchorage.net
The Alaska Culture Pass gives you low-cost admission to the Alaska Native Heritage Center & Anchorage Museum, alaskaculturepass.org
Attractions & Excursions
>> Anchorage Museum, anchoragemuseum.org
>> Alaska Aviation Museum, alaskaairmuseum.org
>> Alaska Experience Theater, alaskaexperiencetheatre.com
>> Anchorage Trolley Tours, anchoragetrolley.com
>> Segway Tours of Anchorage, segtours.net
>> Eagle River Nature Center, ernc.org
>> Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, alaskawildlife.org
>> Alaska Railroad, alaskarailroad.com
>> 26 Glacier Cruise by Phillips Cruises & Tours,
>> The Hotel Captain Cook, located downtown, captaincook.com
>> Alyeska Resort, located 27 miles from Anchorage
in Girdwood, alyeskaresort.com
>> Knik River Lodge, located 50 miles from Anchorage
in Palmer, knikriverlodge.com
>> Snow City Café, popular breakfast spot
>> Glacier Brewhouse, hand-crafted beer
and elevated pub grub
>> Middle Way Café, organic fare
>> The Crow’s Nest, fine dining with a view