Road trips are fun, but it can be exhausting moving hotels every night, packing and unpacking. For a change of pace, make Anchorage your basecamp for exploring Alaska.
So many of the top things to do in Alaska are just a day trip from the Municipality of Anchorage. Pick a downtown hotel to serve as your base and prepare for an adventure each day of your visit. Come back in the evening and enjoy the local restaurants just a short walk from your hotel.
Pro Tip: There is a continuing rental car shortage around the United States, and Alaska is no different. I met a couple on my visit who opted to take their trip without a car due to the $4,700 quote for a two-week rental. You may think you need a car due to Alaska’s vast space, but from Anchorage, there are transportation options for all of these day trips. The Alaska Railroad Depot is just a short walk from downtown hotels. Many tour companies will pick you up from your hotel. If you do decide to rent a car, book it well in advance to ensure availability and a good rate.
Thank you to Visit Anchorage for hosting me on a press trip to learn about this destination. I stayed at the Marriott Anchorage Downtown, and it was an easy walk to the Alaska Railroad Depot and local tour companies.
Hiking Along The Seward Highway National Scenic Byway
The Seward Highway to Portage is the perfect route to enjoy breathtaking scenery and wonderful hiking no matter your fitness level. There are also stops along this route where those who are less mobile can still enjoy this trip. Print the Chugach State Park Brochure (PDF), which has more detailed information.
When stopping, check to see if it is a day use area that requires a parking fee.
McHugh Creek Recreation Area
The McHugh Creek Recreation Area at milepost 111 is a day use area with a $5 parking fee. There is a crashing 20-foot waterfall just a short walk from the parking lot. It can be a quick stop to just enjoy the waterfall, or you can hike the McHugh Trail, which is 6.4 miles out and back with 1,500 feet in elevation gain. It was challenging but worth the views.
Potter Marsh at the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge provides one of the most accessible places in Alaska to see wildlife. When you step out onto the boardwalk you will have incredible views of Turnagain Arm on one side and the Chugach Mountains on the other side. I could have stayed here all day. Just such a peaceful stop. More than 1,500 feet of boardwalk allow easy access over the marsh, where you can view hundreds of ducks, geese, and trumpeter swans. In the streams below, look for schools of salmon. In the distance, you may spot a black or brown bear, bald eagles, and even a moose.
Bird Point Scenic Overlook
The Bird Point Scenic Overlook is one of the best areas to experience the scenic beauty of the Turnagain Arm as well as the Chugach and Kenai Mountains. From the parking lot, you can access the Girdwood to Indian Bike Path, known colloquially as the Bird to Gird trail. The paved trail is 13.3 miles one way and parallels the Seward Highway. The overlook is accessible, and Beluga whales are often seen a few hours before high tide during the salmon and hooligan runs.
I am an obsessive reader and always read the interpretive signs. The signs at Bird Point are very informative, so take the time to check them out. If you time it right, you may even get to see the bore tide, which is a wavelike tidal flow back into Turnagain Arm.
Pro Tip: Stop at Windy Corner to see the Dall Sheep at Mile 106. You’ll know you are at the right spot when you see lots of parked cars and people looking towards the cliffs. The white sheep really stand out against the dark color of the craggy cliffs.
Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center
What an adventure exploring the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. On the 1.5-mile scenic loop, there are over 200 acres of animal enclosures. At one point, you can turn 360 degrees and see mountains everywhere you look. The animals, most of which were injured or orphaned and require year-round care, are kept in their natural habitats. You can walk, bike, or drive the loop.
On the day I visited the animals were very active. The two coastal bears, JB and Patron, put on quite the show, and I was able to see them from the boardwalk that goes through their enclosure.
There are a variety of tours where you can feed the animals. The moose encounter is very popular. During the summer months, the Forget Me Not Foods food truck is on site with a variety of snack and lunch options. Have a refreshment and support a small, local business. You can also help support the center by purchasing your souvenirs at the Be Wild Gift Shop.
The Alyeska Resort is a luxury resort located about an hour’s drive from Anchorage and is just stunning. It sits at the base of Mount Alyeska and is surrounded by the Chugach Mountains. Catch the Alyeska Aerial Tram from the resort and take a ride to the top of the mountain. Views are magnificent, and you can see seven hanging glaciers from the summit! Make sure to visit the Roundhouse at Alyeska Museum, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. You can’t miss its distinctive octagonal shape as you ride the tram up. It first served as a warming hut in the early days of the resort, and it is now a museum, interpretive center, and gift shop.
The Girdwood Valley is filled with hiking trails, everything from easy to difficult hikes. I loved the Winner Creek Trail, which starts at the base of the tram. It is very accessible, with a packed dirt trail and very little elevation gain. It weaves through a lush rainforest for two and a half miles until reaching a dramatic river gorge, which makes a good turnaround point. Make sure to wear bug repellent, as this was the one place on my trip I noticed Alaska’s infamous mosquitoes.
Pro Tips: Spend the night at Alyeska Resort and enjoy the charming small town of Girdwood. You can venture out to the Seward Highway if you want to enjoy more time in the area. The Alyeska Resort has some great restaurants. I ate at the Sakura Asian Bistro, which was outstanding and had excellent service.
Unfortunately, the Seven Glaciers Restaurant was not open the night I stayed. This AAA Four-Diamond restaurant offers a chef’s tasting menu with wine pairings. It also has stunning views, as it is perched on the summit of Mount Alyeska, and the tram ride is included with your meal.
Whittier And The 26 Glacier Cruise
Visiting the city of Whittier is a very scenic day trip from Anchorage. You can drive, take a motorcoach, or — my favorite — hop aboard the Alaska Railroad. The breathtaking ride runs along the Turnagain Arm to Portage, where the railroad tracks divide. The line heading to Whittier passes through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, one of the longest highway tunnels in North America. The one-lane tunnel is used for both trains and vehicles and alternates on a set schedule. I caught the train at the Anchorage Railroad Depot just a short walk from my hotel. It was such an interesting ride, and even though I had explored the Seward Highway the day before, it was a different viewpoint from the train.
Upon arrival in Whittier, I departed the train and walked across the street to climb aboard the M/V Klondike Express for the 26 Glacier Cruise offered by Phillips Cruises. The trip takes 5.5 hours, passes 26 glaciers, and loops back to Whittier. The luxury catamaran takes day cruising to a whole new level and is accessible for those with mobility issues. There are comfortable, heated seating areas as well as outdoor viewing areas. The best part was the USB ports at each table; I was able to keep my phone with its camera charged up for the whole trip. A very nice seafood chowder lunch was included and was very good. Make sure to try the margaritas made using Glacier ice. There are also a variety of other snacks and beverages available for purchase. Complimentary coffee, hot tea, and ice water are provided.
This trip was just amazing. We cruised through Prince William Sound, which has one of the largest concentrations of tidewater glaciers in the world. Cruising up College Fjord, where the glaciers are named after schools, I had the incredible experience of seeing the Harvard Glacier calve, or break, and a massive chunk of ice crashed into the water.
In addition to the glaciers, there was also quite a bit of wildlife to be seen. A pod of Dall’s porpoise frolicked around the boat, and the captain even turned the boat around so everyone had the opportunity to see them. We saw plenty of sea otters and sea lions throughout the day as well as migratory birds. It makes for a long day with the cruise and train ride, but it was so worth it. One of those travel memories I will treasure forever.
Matanuska Glacier Walk
The Glacier Walk with Salmonberry Tours was by far my favorite day trip from Anchorage. This was an epic nine-hour adventure.
The day begins with your guides picking you up from your hotel. It is about a two-hour drive to the Matanuska Glacier from Anchorage. We stopped in Sutton and toured the Alpine Historical Park with Almeria Alcantra, an Alaska Native whose ancestry is Holikachuk, Dene, and Aleut. She gave a very interesting tour about the Athabascan peoples in this area. Something she said really resonated with me: “By learning the Indigenous place names, you can help bring back the language and culture.”
We eventually arrived at Matanuska Glacier. Everyone on the trip was issued our glacier gear, which included helmets and microspikes. With prior arrangement, the company also provides winter gear and boots available to loan. It was sunny and warm the day I toured, so I was comfortable with a light jacket. You will need well-fitting hiking boots. Salmonberry guides have Alaska commercial drivers licenses, are Wilderness First Responders, and are Glacier Trekking and Rescue trained, so you are in good hands. After a safety briefing, we were on our way.
On this trip, you need to be able to walk for two hours on uneven surfaces. I am on the chunky side but walk three miles up and down hills regularly at home. I was able to keep up with the group, and the guides accommodated me when I felt like one section up a hill on the glacier was too challenging. There are also sections where you cross small crevasses, but the guides help you across, and I never felt unsafe.
It is a short hike down to the glacier, and once we got closer, there were picnic tables where you could put on your microspikes. Trust the spikes! They really do hold you and keep you from slipping, especially going downhill. It took me a bit to really trust that the spikes would hold my weight going downhill. The Matanuska Glacier is just breathtaking — and very noisy, which was a surprise. You hear constantly running and dripping water as well as cracking. Looking at the valley glacier, it is hard to take in that it is 27 miles long and four miles wide. The walk gives you the opportunity to see meltwater pools, ice caves, crevasses, and that unique glacial blue color in the ice. The guides allow plenty of opportunities for photos and will take them for you as well. Truly an adventure.
Once the walk is done, there is time for a well-deserved lunch break. We stopped at the Long Rifle Lodge, which was a fun local spot filled with taxidermy animals including a Kodiak grizzly and a black bear. Lunch is included in your tour, but alcoholic drinks and desserts are an additional cost. Note that we ate around 2 p.m., so make sure to eat a good breakfast, and you may want to bring a snack for the ride to the glacier. After lunch, we headed back to Anchorage and were dropped off at our hotels.
These are the day trips I took during my visit, but there are so many more I wished I had time to do. You can still go dog sledding in the summer months. The rivers and streams surrounding Anchorage are perfect for a fishing trip. Seward is about a two hour drive from Anchorage, and day cruises to the Kenai Fjords National Park are available. Maybe next trip, because I will definitely visit again.