Anchorage isn't just a great place to visit, it's the perfect home base for travelers (and residents) looking to check some major adventures off their bucket lists.
According to the Alaska Travel Visitor Association, more than half of the tourists to the 49th state come via cruise ship, but those who choose to fly in and out of Anchorage will find that there’s so much to see and do within easy driving distance of Alaska’s biggest city.
Containing more than 40 percent of the state’s population, Anchorage is not just a great place to visit (with a thriving food scene to explore), it’s the perfect home base for travelers looking to explore some of Alaska’s most stunning destinations, including Denali National Park, Seward, Homer, Kenai and Whitter.
Here are a few of our favorite once-in-a-lifetime Alaskan adventures to check off your list from Anchorage.
1. Ride the Alaska Railroad and visit Denali National Park.
Even if a couple of days at Denali aren’t in your schedule or budget, consider a train ride to Talkeetna or Denali. It’s a bit of a splurge, but there is no rail trip quite like the Alaska Railroad ride from Anchorage up to Denali. There are numerous ticket options, but the very best way to experience the trip is to stand in the open air between two of the train cars. You’ll take in the most spectacular scenery as the train heads north and climbs into the mountains. The tracks follow popular roads until Talkeetna, when they dip into the backcountry. There are no words to describe crossing Hurricane Gulch, suspended nearly 300 feet above the rocky terrain.
The train ride is great, but to be honest, if you’ve come this far, you have to go to Denali. Don’t be intimidated – though much of Denali is there to provide a trail-less wildlife experience, there are trails for all skill levels in the park.
2. Hike to a glacier before getting on a glacier cruise in Whittier.
Whittier is a small fishing village on Prince William Sound and it’s one of the premier spots to hop a cruise into the surrounding narrow fjords to view dozens of glaciers. Narrow passages and fjords are home to all kinds of interesting wildlife, from sea lions to bald eagles, as well as waterfalls, icebergs and glaciers. The small boats out of Whitter get you up close and personal with some of the most jaw-dropping scenery you could ever imagine. Even in the rain, it’s an experience you will never forget.
The drive from Anchorage is about 60 miles and will require a trip through Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, the longest highway tunnel in North America. The tunnel is only a single lane wide, meaning traffic can only travel in one direction – and the 2.5 miles tunnel is shared by trains and vehicles. In the summer, traffic heading into Whittier is allowed in on the half hour and traffic headed out is allowed in on the hour.
The glacier cruise will cover your morning or afternoon, depending on which departure time you choose, so the other half of the day can be spent in Chugach National Forest checking “hike to a glacier” off your bucket list.
The Byron Glacier Trailhead is about half a mile from the end of the road and has a well-marked pull out. From there, the trail is less than a mile out and back and takes you within feet of Byron Glacier. It’s a mostly-flat trail that’s a little rocky as it follows Byron Creek. The glacier is initially hidden by the trees, but about halfway there you’ll start to catch glimpses and then the trail opens up into a gorgeous vista of the glacier and mountains.
3. Take an overnight trip to Seward for Kenai Fjords National Park and Exit Glacier.
It’s a bit much to try to do Seward as a day trip from Anchorage, but there’s enough to keep you busy that a single overnight trip can make for a pretty amazing 48 hours.
Most of the drive takes you through the beautiful Chugach National Forest. A brilliant detour on the way is Cooper’s Landing, a small town along the Kenai River and Kenai Lake that’s home to a number of float trip companies. You’ll get geared up in all kinds of protective gear, but the ride is gentle and takes you along the Upper Kenai River through the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. From more bald eagles than you can count to the salmon shining brightly in the river, you’ll see more wildlife than you can imagine all while getting a unique view of the surrounding scenery.
Once you’ve dried off, head over to the Russian Lakes Trail, which begins off the access road to the Russian River Campground in Cooper Landing, at milepost 52 of the Sterling Highway. This easy two-mile hike has an incredible payoff at the end, where a large viewing platform gives you stellar views of the Russian River Falls.
From there, head into Seward for dinner and good night’s sleep.
In the morning, head out to Kenai Fjords National Park, just about 15 minutes outside of town, where you can hike right up to Exit Glacier, part of the Harding Icefield. Exit Glacier is one of the most popular road-accessible glaciers in the world. There are a bunch of different hiking options here, from a full accessible loop at the Visitor’s Center to the 1.2 mile Exit Glacier Overview path that takes you quite close to the side of the glacier. It’s a moderate path, but worth the effort. For hardcore hikers, there’s the Harding Ice Field, which gains 1,000 miles of elevation for every mile of the 8.2 mile round trip hike.
Markers have been placed along the road into the park showing the glacier’s recession over the past 120 years, a stunning reminder of the effects of climate change.
4. Do a day trip along Turnagain Arm.
Just south of Anchorage, the Seward Highway hugs the shore of Turnagain Arm, arguably one of the most beautiful stretches of highway in America. Chugach State Park’s 3,000-foot mountains rise out of the ground to the north.
As you leave Anchorage proper and the Seward Highway starts to cut east, there’s Beluga Point, named for the white whales that can be spotted here, especially in mid-July through August when salmon are running in Cook Inlet.
From there, it’s just another 25 miles to Alyeska, where you’ll hike the incomparable Winner Creek Trail and take the resort tram up 2,300 feet to the top of the peak. The tram offers views of the Turnagain Arm, up to seven “hangingâ€ glaciers, and the Chugach Mountain range. There’s observation deck at the time with stunning panoramic views. There’s a small deli, so settle in for lunch or come later in the day for breathtaking sunset views.
When you head back down, go past the tram terminal, almost like you’re going to walk up the mountain and you’ll find the trailhead for the Lower Winner Creek Trail. This is a fairly easy hike that takes you into Alaska’s northernmost rainforest. After just more than two miles, you’ll find Winner Creek Gorge, which you’ll hear before your see. The creek is forced into a narrow break in the rock – only about 15 feet wide – and the water tumbles and spills through it.
Less than a half-mile later, you’ll come to the reason for taking this hike: the hand tram.
This rope-suspended tram carries you across Glacier Creek via metal cage. It’s fully safe and regulated and it’s one of the most amazing things you’ll ever do on a hike. It’s also a lot harder than it looks. Let others in your party – or a party waiting on the other side – give you a hand. There’s nothing quite like hanging suspended in the gorgeous Alaskan wilderness as you move yourself along the ropes.
From there, you can turn around and head back or finish the final mile of the trail that takes you to Crow Creek Road. From there, Crow Creek Mine is only a few hundred yards up the road. When you’re done exploring, catch the free Glacier Valley Transit bus that picks up at the mine every 20-30 minutes during summer and takes you back to town or the hotel.
As you’re heading down the hill and back onto the Seward Highway to go back to Anchorage, stop at the Alpine Bakery at the corner of Alyeska Highway and Alaska 1 for giant and delicious pastries. Grab some sugar to refuel or a pastry to start off your next morning right.
5. Go sightseeing in Anchorage proper.
There’s a lot you can do on foot or with a bike in Anchorage, but since you’ve already rented a car to do the rest of the trips on this list, you’ll definitely want to use it to head out and explore Flattop Mountain. Located in Chugach State Park, you can climb the steep trail that’s a 1.5 mile, 1,350 foot vertical climb, or you can drive up and have a short walk from the parking lot to get nearly 360 degree panoramic views. On clear days, you’ll be able to spot Denali and the Aleutian Islands. There are tough trails that take off from the parking lot, for the more adventurous hikers, but everyone who visits Anchorage needs to take the hour to drive up here and soak in the city spread out below them.
The Tony Knowles Coastal Trail is an 11-mile trail that travels from downtown all the way around the western tip of the Anchorage bowl. It’s a great way to get the feel of the great outdoors while still being right in the city. It’s also nearly guaranteed you’ll see wildlife along the way. You can pick it up most anywhere, but one of the best ways to see it is to rent a bike. If you don’t have time to explore the whole thing, then head down towards the airport and park at Earthquake Park. Start by exploring this area that commemorates the 1964 earthquake. From there, it’s an easy 2.5 mile walk (or drive) down to Point Woronzof Park, which has amazing views of the Cook Inlet and is a stellar spot to watch the sunset. It’s also one of the places you may be able to see Belugas.