Road and rail routes radiate out north and south, jet airliners touch down at Ted Stevens International Airport and wasp-like seaplanes take off from busy Lake Hood to the more rugged reaches of the Last Frontier. Once you’ve spent a day or two absorbing the city’s urban sights, take your first tentative steps into the surrounding wilderness with one (or more) of these easily accessible day trips.
Why go? A surreal Cold War citadel in an ethereal wilderness setting.
Classified as a city, but with a population of barely 200 people – 99% of whom live in the same building – Whittier isn’t your normal wilderness outpost. Founded as a military supply line in World War II, it came of age during the Cold War. Accessed by a dual-use road-rail tunnel that deposits you on the spectacular shores of Passage Inlet, Whittier is surrounded by a steep-sided circle of waterfalls, glaciers and mountains. Set against all the natural beauty are two incongruous Cold War structures: the skeletal and disused Buckner building, and the 14-story Begich Towers (home to most of the population).
Traveling round-trip on Alaska Railroad’s Glacier Discovery Train train from Anchorage allows a little over six hours in Whittier, plenty of time to visit its concise war-themed museum, undertake a self-guided walking tour of its Cold War infrastructure and explore the edges of the surrounding wilderness. The Horsetail Falls trail ascends behind the “city” through a mix of forest and muskeg to a lofty viewpoint. The more popular Portage Pass trail follows an old native route from behind the road-rail tunnel to a low pass with glacier vistas. Save time for a halibut lunch at the harborside Swiftwater Seafood Cafe afterwards. A word about the weather: It rains here – a lot!
How to get to Whittier
The Glacier Discovery Train runs daily round trip between Anchorage and Whittier, May to September. By road, it’s an 80-minute drive with a possible extra 30-minute wait at the tunnel entrance.
Why go? Backcountry gateway with unusual Russian-Native Alaska heritage.
Home to an only-in-Alaska combination of Russian Orthodox and Alaska Native culture, the 350-year-old Athabascan village of Eklutna (population 70-ish) is dominated by the Eklutna Village Historical Park, where two Orthodox churches overlook a cemetery dating from 1650. The older of the two churches is hewn from spruce logs and hails from the 1870s; the white clapboard and onion domes of the newer structure date from 1962. The highlight of the park is its unusual cemetery sprinkled with a mini-city of diminutive spirit houses (native shrines that provide shelter for the spirits).
If you’ve come for the day, it makes sense to fill the afternoon in and around seven-mile-long Eklutna Lake, the largest body of water in Chugach State Park (which, in turn, is the third largest state park in the US). Ringed by glaciers and high peaks, the lake offers plentiful recreation opportunities, including kayaking, biking and hiking on 27 miles of trails. The classic is the flat Lakeside trail that parallels the northern shoreline for 13 miles to a glacier viewpoint.
How to get to Eklutna
Eklutna is 29 miles northeast of Anchorage on the Glenn Highway. There’s no reliable public transportation.
Why go? A comprehensive outdoor-adventure nexus only 45 minutes drive from Anchorage.
Probably the most accessible day trip from Anchorage courtesy of daily bus and train services during the spring and summer, Girdwood is a small town (population 1800-ish) that’s worth a protracted visit.
With only a day, your best bet is to focus on the Alyeska Resort area, with its comprehensive hotel and year-round aerial tramway. In winter, the tramway shuttles downhill skiers to the top of the trails; in summer, mountain bikes rule the slopes. Most activities can be organized through the hotel, including biking, hiking and alpine yoga. For the full Girdwood experience, hike the two-and-a-half miles up Mt Alyeska and get the tramway down.
How to get to Girdwood
Girdwood is on the Anchorage-Seward train line and served by twice-daily trains: the Glacier Discovery and the Coastal Classic. Alternatively, it’s a 45-minute drive through the distracting beauty of Turnagain Arm.
Spencer Whistle Stop
Why go? A spectacular train ride combined with an easy-going backcountry hike.
Utilizing the Alaska Railroad’s Glacier Discovery train, it is possible to get dropped off close to the Spencer Glacier in the northern reaches of the Kenai Peninsula, then get picked up again three hours later by the same (returning) train.
Spencer Whistle Stop is one of those wonderful, in-the-middle-of-nowhere railroad stations that dot Alaska’s backcountry. Leaving Anchorage in the morning, the train arrives at the lonesome platform at 1:45pm, allowing disembarking passengers just under three hours to follow a seven-mile out-and-back trail to Spencer Lake and glacier (not impossible if you eat lunch on the train first). The hike is flat and easy, the train journey comfortable and spectacular – with refreshments and an unobtrusive commentary thrown in.
By prior arrangement, you can organize a glacier float amid the bergs of Spencer Lake followed by a bobbing journey along the light rapids of the adjacent Placer River.
How to get to Spencer Whistle Stop
The Glacier Discovery Train runs daily round trip between Anchorage and Spencer Whistle Stop, May to September.
Why go? A short yet challenging mountain climb on the outskirts of the city.
On a warm day in summer, the most Anchorage-y thing to do in Anchorage is to head southeast to the cusp of the Chugach National Forest to climb the rocky hump of Flattop Mountain with several hundred locals. Neither the region’s tallest nor its most spectacular mountain, Flattop has, nonetheless, been adopted as a classic weekend fitness test for adventurous urbanites.
Though the trail measures just one-and-a-half rugged miles one-way from the Glen Alps trailhead, hikers will be guaranteed plenty of company, the odd bit of scrambling and a stupendous view on arrival. Para-gilders use the summit as a launch site, while more robust walkers carry on to a second, taller summit immediately behind Flattop.
How to get to Flattop Mountain
The Glen Alps trailhead is a 25-minute drive from downtown Anchorage. Making things easier for car-less visitors is the Flattop Mountain Shuttle, a minibus that leaves Downtown Bike Rental daily between May and September. Hikers can book the shuttle both ways or choose to rent a bike and return on two wheels to the city center afterwards (it’s mostly downhill).
Why go? A bike-able suburb with options to branch out into a sprawling state park.
Eagle River is classified as a suburb of Anchorage and is close enough (16 miles) to the streets and shops of downtown to reach by bike. A dedicated cycle lane parallels the Glenn Highway heading north from Anchorage’s city center with the waters of Knik Arm to the left and the Chugach Mountains to the right.
While the neighborhood itself feels like a separate town with a small urban core and options to fuel up on coffee or pizza, it’s largely used as an entry gate to the less-tamed attractions of Chugach State Park to the east. Access is via the 13-mile long Eagle River Road that dead-ends at a nature center, where several short trails lead out to salmon streams and beaver dams.
In July, the town hosts the uniquely Alaskan Bear Paw Festival. The event is famous for its Slippery Salmon Olympics, which involves racing with a large dead fish in one hand and a tray balancing a full glass of soda in the other.
How to get to Eagle River
Eagle River is less than a half-hour northeast of Anchorage along the Glenn Highway. People Mover bus #92 runs from Anchorage City Hall to Eagle River five times daily, Monday to Friday.
Why go? Prime agricultural region with an interesting pioneering history.
If you like your cabbages extra large and your streets sprinkled with retro-1930s ambiance, this diminutive city of 6000 souls located 43 miles northeast of Anchorage is worth a detour. Palmer is the Alaska you’ve probably never fantasized about, an agricultural hub filled with old farming-related buildings that could pass as a bucolic bite of the American Midwest if they weren’t ringed by dramatic mountains.
Born during President Roosevelt’s New Deal, Palmer was a great social experiment that transplanted 200 farming families from the Depression-era Dust Bowl to Alaska, where they cultivated a new agricultural economy. Trainloads of Midwesterners were deposited in the Matanuska and Susitna Valleys, both deemed suitable by the government for industrious farming.
Original buildings from the 1930s still stand throughout Palmer, many of which maintain their hearty, wooden farm feel. Descendants of the pioneering colonists, who refer to themselves as Colony children or grandchildren preserve their story in the Colony House museum bivouacked in one of the old farmhouses.
Palmer’s 20-hour-long summer days produce freakishly large vegetables. To gaze upon the biggest giants, visit during the 12-day Alaska State Fair in early September.
How to get to Palmer
Palmer is under an hour from Anchorage on the Glenn Highway. Interior Alaska Bus Line runs between Anchorage and the city, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, year-round.
Why go? Former gold mining area recolonized by wilderness.
The alpine passage known as Hatcher Pass, 20 miles northwest of Palmer, cuts through the Talkeetna Mountains leading to meadows, ridges and glaciers. Gold was the first treasure people found here; today it’s footpaths, ski trails, abandoned mines and popular climbs that outshine the precious metal.
The main attraction is Independence Mine State Historical Park, a massive, 272-acre abandoned gold mine that sprawls over a gorgeous alpine valley. The 1930s facility, built by the Alaska-Pacific Mining Company, was for 10 years the second-most-productive hard-rock gold mine in Alaska before finally closing in 1955.
Today you can explore the structures, hike several trails and take in the stunning views at Hatcher Pass. From the visitor center, follow the Hardrock Trail past the dilapidated buildings including bunkhouses and a mill complex that is built into the side of the mountain and looks like an avalanche of falling timber.
How to get to Hatcher Pass
You’ll need a car. First, drive to Palmer on the Glenn Highway, then take the Fishhook-Willow road a further 20 miles.