Adventures in Anchorage: exploring Alaska’s city in the wilderness
Visitors are drawn to Alaska’s biggest city for its perfect blend of outdoor opportunities and urban advantages. Bring your hiking boots and build up a healthy appetite, as Anchorage’s adventure, gastronomy and cultural scenes are all worth delving into. From the Chugach Mountains that serve as the backdrop to the city, to the local cuisine served up in a fancy dining room or from a street cart, you can occupy yourself here for days – and you should.
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A biker on the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, with the Anchorage city skyline and Chugach Mountains in the background © Danny Daniels / Getty
Urban hiking and biking trails
First things first: Anchorage is a city on the edge of the wilderness. Anchorage locals know that the key to living in this far northern city is taking advantage of its seemingly limitless miles of trails. Moose, bear and salmon nose their way into and around town via greenbelts and large parks, and you can do the same. From biking numerous shady bike paths to climbing Flattop Mountain, all levels of adventure are on offer.
Rent bikes downtown and follow the paved Tony Knowles Coastal Trail from the city center, out past the airport and to Kincaid Park. Your opportunities for spotting moose are numerous, as they like to munch the greenery along the trails. On a clear day you can catch views of Denali and steaming volcanoes across Cook Inlet.
Flattop Mountain is the peak locals build their legs on as children, and at 3550ft it’s a manageable feat. The main trail at Glen Alps is steep and requires a scramble at the top, but those in the know like to hit the backside trail. Recently redone, this trail has a gentler incline than its frontside counterpart and lets you gain altitude without ruining your attitude (or your quads).
If your outdoor confidence level is above average, consider climbing any one of Anchorage’s front range peaks. Despite the proximity of the city, the crowds will be few. Wolverine Peak, Little O’Malley and Near Point are all good options.
Restaurants and breweries
Fresh caught seafood, locally grown greens and brewed beer will have you tempted to stay in town and taste it all. You shouldn’t settle for anything but the best, and fortunately Anchorage has a lot of players bringing their top game to the table. At the Bear Tooth Theatrepub and Grill your salmon might be served with a Tex-Mex twist and a giant margarita, or you can pick up your own filet to grill at New Sagaya City Market.
On Thursdays in summer the Spenard Food Truck Festival offers a wide variety of ever-changing food carts; everyone in the family will find something to eat.
Anchorage is home to more than half a dozen breweries, and counting. Many of them serve food, and are perfect spots to refuel after a day in the mountains. They’re all good, but Midnight Sun Brewing Company and Anchorage Brewing are particularly well loved.
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An exhibit on Alaska Native life inside Anchorage Museum’s Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center 6 © Chuck Choi / Anchorage Museum
Museums and cultural centers
If you don’t have the time or money to visit an Alaska Native village on your visit, don’t miss the Alaska Native Heritage Center. This 26-acre cultural center features engaging exhibits, live song and dance performances, and the opportunity to witness traditions that have been preserved for thousands of years.
The Anchorage Museum is another don’t-miss. This world-class facility is home to the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center, and with two major additions over the past few years the slick and shiny museum could easily be at home in a larger city. Contemporary art, much of it created by Alaska Natives, line the walls, and rotating exhibitions keep the cultural content fresh. The Discovery Center is a wonderfully engaging space for kids, especially if the weather pushes you towards inside explorations.
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A single road leading into Denali National Park, with the mountain Denali in the background © Chase Dekker Wild-Life Images / Getty
Beyond the big city
Anchorage’s surrounding communities and wilderness access points provide even more adventure opportunities. Only two roads lead out of Anchorage, roughly heading north and south; rent a car and take them both.
Drive south on the Seward Highway and within minutes you’ll be hit with a panorama of massive peaks, an inlet that fills with a rushing bore tide and, if you’re lucky, beluga whales and Dall sheep. You could spend an entire day stopping at each pullout for photos, but keep driving. About 45 minutes out of Anchorage is Girdwood, home to Alaska’s only large ski resort, Alyeska. Seven glaciers surround the Girdwood Valley, and the dining options are as high quality as Anchorage’s. Hiking, downhill mountain biking and blueberry picking in late summer are just a few of the activities you can enjoy.
Not long past Girdwood, the Seward Highway winds on to the Kenai Peninsula, famous for its salmon fishing, rugged coasts and rafting, kayaking, camping and hiking opportunities.
Head north out of Anchorage on the Glenn Highway, which eventually connects to the rest of Alaska’s road system. It’s a half-day drive to Denali National Park, but if you want to take a day trip, head to Palmer. This farming community is only an hour’s drive out of Anchorage and was settled by colonists from the US Midwest in the 1930s. This is where Alaska’s famous giant produce grows under the everlasting sun.
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A traveller walking atop Matanuska Glacier © Piriya Photography / Getty
Just out of town is Independence Mine State Historical Park, an abandoned goldmine set amongst towering peaks and wildflowers. And a little farther down the Glenn Highway is Matanuska Glacier, which glows an ethereal blue. You can see it from the highway, or take a guided trip to walk atop it and explore.