Locals like to say that Anchorage is only 30 minutes from Alaska: wedged between 5000ft peaks and an inlet filled with salmon and whales, the Big Apple of the north is unlike any other city. Indeed, Anchorage makes a prime home base from which to explore both Alaska's small town charms and big, cinematic scenery one day trip at a time.

From artsy, mural-strewn 'bergs to glacier hikes, from stunning lakes to cozy taverns, from fun road trips to train rides, you might be surprised to see just how much of Alaska is accessible from Anchorage. These are our ten favorite day trips.

Editor's note: During COVID-19, please check the latest travel restrictions before planning any trip and always follow government health advice. Events may be subject to change. 

Rafting at Spencer Glacier, Chugach National Forest, Alaska.
Rafting at Spencer Glacier in Chugach National Forest © Alamy Stock Photo

1. Spencer Glacier

Encircled by mighty peaks brimming with glaciers, Girdwood is a laid-back antidote to the bustle of Anchorage. Home to the luxurious Alyeska Ski Resort and the fabled Girdwood Forest Fair, Girdwood is a dog-and-kid kind of town, with excellent hiking, fine restaurants and a feel-good vibe that will have you staying longer than anticipated.

Getting there: Ride the Alaska Railroad to Spencer Glacier, where you can hike a 3.4-mile trail to the face of the glacier or join a guided walk with a United States Forestry Service Ranger. Whistle Stop hikers have from 1:25pm to 4:40pm to complete the hike and meet the train for the return. 

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A view of the Anchorage skyline from across the waters of Turnagain Arm © Rocky Grimes / Shutterstock

2. Turnagain Arm

The drive out of Anchorage along Turnagain Arm is well worth the price of a train ticket or rental car. Sure, it might be quicker (and probably cheaper) to fly, but staying on the ground will make you appreciate just how close to the wilderness Anchorage really is.

Turnagain Arm Trail, an easy 11-mile hike, begins at Potter Trailhead (Mile 115). Originally used by Alaska Natives, the convenient route has since been used by Russian trappers, gold miners and happy hikers. The trail, with a mountain goat’s view of Turnagain Arm, alpine meadows and beluga whales, can also be accessed at the McHugh Creek (Mile 112), Rainbow (Mile 108) and Windy (Mile 107).

Meanwhile, Potter Marsh (Mile 117) was created in 1916, when railroad construction dammed several streams. You can stretch your legs along the 1500ft boardwalk while spying on ducks, songbirds, grebes and gulls.

Bird Ridge Trail starts with a wheelchair-accessible loop at Mile 102, then continues with a steep, popular and well-marked path that reaches a 3500ft overlook at Mile 2; this is a traditional turnaround point for folks in a hurry. Or you can continue another 4 miles to higher peaks and even better views from sunny Bird Ridge, a top spot for rock climbing.

Getting there: Turnagain Arm is just south of Anchorage and can be reached on the scenic Seward Highway – a worthwhile day trip in and of itself.

Alaska railroad between Seward and Anchorage © mmiwig / Budget Travel

3. Seward

Perched on the edge of Resurrection Bay, Seward offers out-of-this-world views of water, sky, mountain and forest, and is easily accessed by road, boat and rail. Because of its size (and its history as a railroad port), there is plenty of nightlife and there are lots of good restaurants in the picturesque old-time downtown area.

Slurp local oysters backed with champagne at The Cookery or cozy up by the massive wood stove at Resurrect Art Coffee House Gallery. The Lost Lake Trail offers gorgeous views of Seward from alpine meadows. Stoney Creek Canopy Adventures gives you a unique perspective of Seward from its treetop ziplines. Or you can simply stroll the town and admire the many murals – go to the Painted Whale to get a tour led by one of the artists.

Meanwhile, the 127 miles of the Seward Hwy is all Scenic Byway, and there are plenty of turnoffs for gawking and snapping photos. The mileposts along the highway show distances from Seward (Mile 0) to Anchorage (Mile 127). The Turnagain Arm section of this road is from Anchorage to just past the Portage Glacier turnoff (Mile 79).

Getting there: It's only two and a half hours to Seward from Anchorage by car or four by train, but if either seems too long to spend on a day trip, you can also fly – though that's the more expensive option.

Kenai Fjords National Park in Seward is free and was created to protect Alaska’s wilderness  © Galyna Andrushko / Shutterstock

4. Kenai Fjords National Park

Kenai Fjords National Park was created in 1980 to protect 587,000 acres of Alaska’s most awesome, impenetrable wilderness. Crowning the park is the massive Harding Ice Field; from it, countless tidewater glaciers pour down, carving the coast into dizzying fjords. Lucky for visitors, the park is free. The majority of visitors either take a quick trip to Exit Glacier’s face or splurge on a tour-boat cruise along the coast. 

From the Exit Glacier Nature Center, the Outwash Plain Trail is an easy three-quarter-mile walk to the glacier’s alluvial plain. The Edge of the Glacier Trail leaves the first loop and climbs steeply to an overlook at the side of the glacier before returning. Both trails make for a short hike that will take one or two hours; you can return along the half-mile nature trail through cottonwood forest, alder thickets and old glacial moraines before emerging at the ranger station.

Getting there: It's two and a half hours from Anchorage to Kenai Fjords via AK-1 S and State Hwy 9.

Hanging Valley - Chugach State Park
An overlook view of South Fork Eagle River valley and Hanging Valley in Chugach State Park © Getty Images / iStockphoto

5. Eagle River

As you drive out of Anchorage, you’ll soon parallel Knik Arm, while the Chugach Mountains stay to your right. Small communities dot either side of the road, but Eagle River and Eklutna offer the best access to the mountains. Both communities are worthy of a day trip from Anchorage, but to escape the hustle of the city, you can use these small towns as a base for exploring Anchorage and the wilds around it.

Eagle River has something of a city center; the Eagle River Town Square is off Business Blvd and has just about every business you’ll need. The Bear Paw Festival is worth the trip just for the Slippery Salmon Olympics, which involves racing with a Hula Hoop, serving tray and, of course, a large dead fish. Most people, however, come here for the drive down Eagle River Rd or to take a hike.

Getting there: Eagle River is less than half an hour from Anchorage along Glenn Highway / AK-1 North.

Visitors dining inside the Swiftwater Seafood Cafe, Whittier, Alaska, USA
Diners at Swiftwater Seafood Cafe in Whittier, a town that has ties to the Cold War era  © Alamy Stock Photo

6. Whittier

Whittier is a wonderfully weird Cold War anachronism set on the edge of some sublime coastal wilderness where rugged fjords dispatch tumbling glaciers into Prince William Sound. Even by Alaskan standards, this is a bizarre outpost. The “town” is dominated by two Cold War military installations: the hopelessly ruined Buckner building and the equally incongruous Begich Towers, a 14-story skyscraper that houses most of Whittier’s population.

Activities in the area include following a marked historical walk around the spooky monuments to Whittier’s Cold War past. You can also take a deluxe boat cruise past a profusion of Prince William Sound’s glaciers, or head uphill on the Portage Pass Trail for an immediate wilderness fix and great views at this trail two miles outside of Whittier.

Getting there: Arriving in Whittier from Anchorage after a spectacular ride on the Alaska Railroad alongside the waters of Turnagain Arm is a special experience.

Russian-orthodox Eklutna Cemetery with its colorful graves and spirit houses, Alaska. Image shot 07/2017. Exact date unknown.
The Russian Orthodox Eklutna Cemetery is full of colorful graves and spirit houses © Alamy Stock Photo

7. Eklutna

In one direction, just west of the Eklutna Lake Rd exit at Mile 26.5 of the Glenn Highway, you have the 350-year-old Alaska Native village of Eklutna, home to Eklutna Village Historical Park. In the other direction is the gorgeous 7-mile-long Eklutna Lake, which offers lots of recreation opportunities, including kayaking, biking and hiking on 27 miles of trails.  It’s worth every minute once the sky suddenly opens, unveiling a stunning valley with a glacier-and-peak-ringed lake, the largest body of water in Chugach State Park, at its center. 

Getting there: Eklutna Lake is 10 miles east of the highway on Eklutna Lake Road. 

Nagley's store, Talkeetna, Alaska, USA.
Talkeetna is an artsy town with community spirit, and it offers ample outdoor activities © Alamy Stock Photo

8. Talkeetna

Downtown Talkeetna is a strip of gift shops, guide services, restaurants and old-school saloons. And it's awesome: artsy, playful, infused with community spirit, but also self-aware enough to market itself to the thousands who come here seeking a view of Denali and a dip in the funky energy that permeates the mountain's main climbing base.

The Talkeetna Historical Society Museum is a great introduction to the area's indigenous and frontier past. So is the Belle's Interpretive Trail, which strolls past interpretive signs laying out local history. The Talkeetna Riverfront Park affords great views of Alaska's scenery, not to mention fish doing their best acrobatic routines. 

If you're here for the outdoors, roll down the local waterways with Talkeetna's knowledgeable river guides – if you're lucky, you'll get a view of Denali from the Chulitna River. You can also hire an Alaska Nature Guide for trips to local lakes or even a trek into the bush by plane. Zipline tours are available in the area, as is dogsledding and salmon fishing charters.

Getting there: Talkeetna is just two hours from Anchorage via AK-1 S and State Hwy 9, and can be reached by car or bus.

Palmer is a former coal mining town that is known for growing world record size vegetables © EQRoy / Shutterstock

9. Palmer

Filled with old farming-related buildings, Palmer at times feels more like the Midwest than Alaska, except that it’s ringed by dramatic mountains. Many downtown venues exude 1930s ambience, with antique furniture and wood floors. For those who want to skip the city hassles and high prices of Anchorage, Palmer is an excellent option with just enough choices in lodging, restaurants and sights to keep you satisfied for a day trip or a weekend getaway.

Nearby Palmer, the town of Knik boasts a rich sled-dog history, since it's the home of many Alaskan mushers (and checkpoint 4 on the race route). For more information about this uniquely Alaskan race, stop in at Iditarod Trail Headquarters. Outside, you can get a short sled-dog ride (around US$10, from 9am to 5pm) on a wheeled dogsled.

Getting there: Palmer is just under an hour from Anchorage via AK-1 North or about an hour and a half by train.

A man riding his mountain bike on the Palmer Valley Road near Hope, Alaska on a sunny summer day in South-central Alaska
The Palmer Valley Road near Hope, a tiny and quiet town that attracts a weekend city crowd © Alamy Stock Photo

10. Hope

Hope has beautiful views of Turnagain Arm, a quaint and historic downtown, wonderful gold-rush-era relics, and incredible camping and hiking opportunities. Life here moves a little slower. It's close enough to Anchorage to attract a weekend city crowd, but tucked away enough to stay tiny and quiet. It's authentic, pioneering, friendly and esoteric. Most tourist services close October to May. 

Sixmile Creek is serious white water, with thrilling – and dangerous – rapids through deep gorges that survivors describe as ‘the best roller coaster in Alaska.’ The first two canyons are rated Class IV; the third canyon is a big, bad Class V. It's a four- to five-hour round-trip. Dress warmly and bring extra clothes.

The Hope area also provides numerous opportunities for the amateur panner, including a 20-acre claim that the US Forest Service (USFS) has set aside near the Resurrection Pass trailhead for recreational mining.

Getting there: The Seward Highway will get you to Hope in about two hours.

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