Temperatures may drop as you head north of the 60th parallel, but prices tend to go in the opposite direction. The good news? A visit to Anchorage doesn't need to throw your budget completely off-balance.

If you come in the summer and are prepared to take advantage of the warmer weather and long, light evenings to visit alfresco sights, Alaska’s largest city can provide an economical introduction to one of the pricier corners of the United States.

To help your budget go further, here are some of Anchorage’s best free (or almost free) sights. 

Watch avid anglers at Ship Creek

If you don't think fishing is a spectator sport, then you clearly haven’t been to Ship Creek, where every summer aggressive anglers compete for king, coho and pink salmon as they head upriver to spawn. As fishing spectacles go, there’s nothing like it – welcome to the only urban king salmon fishery in the world.

Get your first taste of the action at the wide stretch of river between downtown’s C-Street Bridge and the Knik Arm Power Plant dam and spillway, where the wooden walkway crosses the water. Fishers gather expectantly along the banks from late May to early September. From here, the 2.6-mile Ship Creek trailheads upriver, winding east past industrial warehouses and, later on, more salubrious woodland. There are several access points to river overlooks and gravel bars where salmon crowd in pools from mid to late summer.

Close to the trail’s eastern terminus, the William Jack Hernandez Sport Fish Hatchery has an observation deck and a collection of huge fish tanks that produce up to six million salmon, trout and char a year for sport fishing.

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Map out your trip at the Alaska Public Lands Info Center

In the grand tradition of the US National Park Service, Anchorage’s Public Lands Center is informative, multifarious and free. Housed in the historic Federal Building downtown, this is ground zero for aspiring hikers, mountain bikers, kayakers, glacier gazers and just about anyone looking to indulge in some research on America's "Last Frontier" before heading upstate.

It also acts as a mini-museum with wildlife displays, free movies, fun dioramas, and ranger-led walks of Anchorage offered twice a day in summer. Bring ID and expect airport-style security – this is a government building.  

Dip into cop culture at the Alaska Law Enforcement Museum

Charging a modest $5 entry, this museum captures some of the finer moments of law enforcement in the US’s most rugged and – according to official crime statistics – unruliest state. Highlights include cops' state-issued sealskin boots, a beautifully restored 1952 Hudson Hornet police car and mug shots of film-star, Steve McQueen, who was arrested in Anchorage in 1972 for alcohol-assisted "reckless driving" in a rented Oldsmobile Toronado. 

Fisherman line Bird Creek for the silver salmon run
Salmon season brings fishers to Anchorage in droves © Getty Images / iStockphoto / Karen Timmons

Brave the waters of Goose Lake

Malibu it isn’t, but in the slightly less balmy climate found at 61ºN, Goose Lake is where sun-deprived Alaskans can, at least, pretend. Located just east of midtown in the U-Med district, the park surrounding the lake includes a municipal beach, seasonal lifeguards and a safe, roped-off swimming area. On warm summer days, it attracts bathers, families and enthusiastic tots equipped with buckets and spades.

If you’re visiting from California, or anywhere else where the beaches are sandier and sunnier, you’re probably better off focusing on the forested trails that surround the lake, where you can admire wide-angle views of the Chugach Mountains and observe the resident bird-life, including loons and, as you might expect, geese.

Go people- and wildlife-watching on the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail

Anchorage’s favorite piece of free-access land is the 11-mile Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, a pretty much obligatory hike or bike for anyone who’s been in the city for more than 24 hours. The paved multi-use path begins at the west end of 2nd Ave downtown and passes Elderberry Park before winding through Earthquake Park, around Point Woronzof and finally to Point Campbell in Kincaid Park.

Bisecting forests and mud-flats, the path rarely strays far from the shoreline. Knik Arm and Cook Inlet are the two main waterways en route. On the shore opposite, the Alaska Range glowers intimidatingly while the snowy hump of Denali reveals itself on clear days, appearing deceptively tiny in the distance.

Interpretive signs detail the local flora and fauna and there are handy distance posts marking every half-mile. For an unofficial anthropological study of Anchorage’s citizenry, there’s no better place to be. You’re also highly likely to spot moose (often on the path itself) and sometimes bears in Kincaid Park. Bring bear spray and take the normal precautions.

View sunsets and low flying planes in Kincaid Park

Follow the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail for long enough and you’ll end up in this beloved 1400-acre park, sharing space with mountain bikers in the summer and Nordic skiers in the winter. Occupying the nose of the Anchorage peninsula at the point where it juts into Cook Inlet, Kincaid is threaded with trails and peppered with low hills, sand dunes and a beach that’s known for its fiery sunsets.

Mostly forested with a mix of birch, spruce and cottonwood trees, the park occupies the site of a former Cold War missile base that was decommissioned in the late 1970s. These days, the only jets you’ll see are low-flying Boeings and Airbuses descending into nearby Ted Stevens International Airport.

Anchorage Skyline with a winter reflection
With mountains on all sides, getting close to nature is easy in Anchorage © Rocky Grimes / Shutterstock

Absorb some unexpected art at the Alaska Native Medical Center

Adorning the walls of this 167-bed nonprofit hospital close to the University is a well-curated collection of Alaska Native art and artifacts that is well worth an independent visit, even if you're in tip-top shape. The museum is free and offers some interesting cultural insights.

Take the elevator to the top floor and descend via the main staircase past different displays on each floor that include dolls, basketry and tools from all over Alaska. The center also has a craft shop whose proceeds are invested back into the local arts community.   

Go wild in Far North Bicentennial Park

Bringing the wilderness into the city, Far North Bicentennial Park is an elongated finger of land protruding from the much larger mass of Chugach State Park. Comprising 4000 acres of forest and muskeg, it’s the municipal area’s largest park, equipped with myriad marked trails and home to a protected wildlife preserve – the so-called Campbell Tract.

It’s possible to see moose and bears in the spring and brilliant fall colors in mid-September. There’s also an active grizzly population, and, rumor has it, a lonesome 600lb cow called Betsy who escaped from a rodeo in 2018.

A curious bear looking out from behind trees, Alaska
You don't have to go all the way to Alaska's national parks to see bears – they come to the Anchorage city limits © Rocky Grimes / Shutterstock

Take a downtown art walk around Anchorage

Anchorage has around a dozen eye-catching murals scattered around downtown, along with a handful of handsome statues including a bronze depiction of Captain Cook gazing out over the namesake Cook Inlet. The murals require a bit of walking to see but it's good training for trips to the backcountry.

Pieces worth seeking out are a psychedelic study of Gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson, a 400ft-long whaling wall, and a climate change-themed mural imitating a row of stained glass windows on the side of the Seed Lab building opposite the Anchorage Museum

See artists at work at 4th Avenue Market Place

This shopping mall contains a small collection of Native Alaskan and crafty gift shops, and in a few, you can watch artists at work. Outside, walls are painted with a historic timeline of Anchorage, while inside are displays devoted to the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake, which brought destruction and tsunami waves to south-central Alaska.

Admire architecture and greenery in the U-Med District

The University of Alaska Anchorage, aka UAA, is the largest college campus in Alaska and inhabits a green belt in the U-Med District, four miles southeast of downtown. Spread around the campus is a planetarium showing films on space, a sports arena, live music venues and a burger joint with a deck that faces the mountains.

Next door is Alaska Pacific University, which is anchored by the perfectly symmetrical Atwood Campus Center, an attractive structure embellished with frontal fountains and rectangular columns. Although only built in 1966, the Atwood is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Six hundred Alaska Native representatives met here in 1971 to formalize the landmark Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

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