An Alaska Getaway That Combines Outdoor Adventure with Culture and Comfort
The gateway to America’s most beautiful wilderness areas, Anchorage is also a bucket-list destination unto itself.
As the pandemic both slows down and drags on, that other epidemic is only getting worse: cabin fever. While any getaway can provide immediate relief, to get fully inoculated you should seek some wilderness exposure. Fortunately, America’s biggest and most sparsely populated state is fully stocked with large doses of outdoor adventure and bucket-list travel experiences, just three and a half hours from Seattle.
The best part? With Anchorage as your base camp, you can access some of the most pristine areas in all of North America without sacrificing the comfortable amenities some of us consider essential to a vacation. Set between the salt waters of Cook Inlet and the 5,000 foot peaks of Chugach State Park, Anchorage has a convenient international airport, outstanding hotels, world-class restaurants, 10 museums, unique shopping, a thriving craft-brew culture, and three ski resorts. As a vacation getaway it serves up an ideal menu of urban pleasures and natural wonders that you can blend and adjust to your taste. Keep scrolling for a sample itinerary and get inspired.
Day 1—Discover Anchorage
Stunning wilderness views, museums, and shopping—all within 20 minutes of downtown.
Grab breakfast at the bustling Snow City Cafe, and let the delicious coffee and friendly vibes prime you for the day. Then get the lay of the land. Option 1: Rent a bike and cruise the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, an 11-mile path along the Anchorage shoreline. Expect stunning views of the seashore and bay, and possibly a moose! Option 2: Drive to the Glen Alps trailhead in Chugach State Park. The sweeping panorama from the overlook close to the parking lot encompasses the Anchorage skyline, three volcanoes and, on a clear day, Denali, the tallest mountain in North America. The trailhead is also the starting point for a steep-but-worth-it, hour-long hike to the summit of Flattop Mountain, as well as a sprawling network of hiking, biking, and skiing trails, some of which extend into the neighboring backcountry.
Later, head to the Anchorage Museum, and get familiar with the history, art, and culture of the North. Budget at least two hours for this museum; it’s the state’s largest. Be sure to squeeze in the Alaska Gallery and its rich displays of artifacts and dioramas, and The Arctic Studies Center, an affiliate of the Smithsonian, which houses a treasure trove of fascinating Indigenous artifacts returned to Alaska from D.C. in collaboration with Alaska Native advisors.
Afterward, shop and explore the city. On Summer weekends, the Anchorage Market & Festival hosts over 200 vendors and is a delightful hunting ground for Alaska-made souvenirs while enjoying live entertainment and yummy street food. For museum-quality collectibles from local artists and craftsmen, hit Aurora Fine Art. For an only-in-Alaska keepsake, visit Oomingmak, a store run by a cooperative of several hundred Native women, who make caps, scarves, and other items from qiviut, a hardy Native fiber derived from musk ox wool. Other worthy stops in the downtown area include the family owned Cabin Fever gift shop, and, for authentic Native arts and crafts, the Alaska Art Alliance, where you may meet some actual makers. For dinner, book a table at Ginger, which excels at local seafood prepared with an Asian influence.
Day 2—Dig Deeper
Learn about Indigenous culture, paddle a kayak, or hike the nearby wilderness.
Depending on the weather, you could start your day paddling a kayak around Eklutna Lake, about an hour north of downtown. Or spend the morning at the Eagle River Nature Center where family-friendly activities are scheduled year-round. There are lots of easy hikes through a natural wonderland teeming with wildlife, including eagles, moose, salmon, beaver, and black and brown bears. Multiple viewing decks reveal prime photo ops. In late summer, or early fall, you may catch some bears fishing for salmon.
Almost 15% of Alaska’s population are of Indigenous descent, more than any other state. Anyone traveling from the lower 48 should block out a few hours to experience the Alaska Native Heritage Center. (There’s a shuttle from downtown during the high season.) You can tour six distinct, life-sized dwellings that showcase the heritage of the largest Alaska Native cultures. Traditional games, dances, craft activities for kids, and art displays combine for a contextual learning experience that is authentically Alaskan. Take the guided tour, and chat with the friendly, highly informed staff to get the most out of this visit.
By day’s end, you’ll be ready for some more worldly pleasures. Alaska is legendary for its craft breweries (many credit the glacier-fed water) and there are plenty to choose from. The Loft restaurant at Midnight Sun Brewery, famous for its barley wines and stouts, is a fine place to start your exploration of Anchorage’s craft brew culture. Many local bars feature live music, so check to see what’s happening while you’re in town.
Day 3—Get out of Town
Make the most of Anchorage’s amazing location with an easy day trip.
Anchorage can keep you busy for days but it’s time to venture outside of town. In the winter, hit the steep slopes at Alyeska Resort which has 7 lifts and 76 trails, awesome summit views, and an astonishing annual snowfall of 669 inches. And your options aren’t limited to the resort runs. Board a helicopter for a day of heli-skiing in pristine powder and steep mountain terrain. Or, take the Alyeska Aerial Tram (reopening in December) to the top of Mount Alyeska and tuck into some stunning views and locally sourced seafood at the award-winning Seven Glaciers Restaurant. Finish the day with a sauna and a soak at the Nordic Spa, opening in December.
(Since the lifts stay open until 10 pm on winter weekends, you could actually spend the morning watching the wolves, wood bison, and moose at the nearby Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.)
There are 60 glaciers within a 50 mile radius of Anchorage, so if you’re visiting between May and September a glacier cruise is a must-do. The 26 Glacier Cruise, departing from Whittier, is a five-and-a-half-hour outing in a high-speed catamaran that takes you around Prince William Sound where you’ll get within 1,000 feet of some massive glaciers, close enough to see them calve. To get there you can drive, take a bus, or board the iconic Alaska Railroad. Whichever mode you choose, the commute to Whittier will likely end up in your vacation highlight reel.
Day 4—Finish on a High Note
Take to the air for a once-in-a-lifetime day of adventure.
You’ll want to end your Alaska adventure on a high point. And you can literally do that with a flightseeing tour. Alaska is big. Texas, California, and Montana would comfortably fit inside its borders and still leave a little room for Rhode Island. But with more planes and pilots per capita than any other state, Alaska actually feels like an accessible outdoor playground for vacationers. Depending on the season, flightseers can do a day of fly-fishing, glacier hiking, bear viewing, dog-sledding, and much more.
There are so many flight service options to choose from, depending on the season and the weather, that you’ll have to do a little homework. Rust’s Flying Service, an established Anchorage operator based on Lake Hood next to the airport, leads a three-hour tour of Denali National Park and Preserve that includes incredible views of the summit and spectacular scenery, and which culminates with a glacier landing where you can get out and take photos. Alaska Helicopter Tours offers year-round dog sled tours. After an exhilarating run through snowy trails (they’ll even let you do the mushing!), you can cuddle up with the dogs before taking the chopper back to town. Finally, grab a reindeer sausage with caramelized onions at Red Umbrella Reindeer to hold you over until dinner, and start planning your next trip to Alaska.
Where to Stay
Hotel Captain Cook (from $185) is a local institution (President Obama slept here) and has delightful mountain and water views.
The Lakefront Anchorage (from $133) has a more rustic ambience and sits on Lake Spenard next to a floatplane base, convenient for flightseeing.