Every now and then, somebody asks me for advice on what to check out in Alaska. First of all, plan on staying there for at least two weeks and make Anchorage your home base. This should give you enough time to spend a few days in Denali, a few in the Kenai Peninsula, and the Anchorage area in between. Also, go in late June during the Summer Solstice. Alaskan winters have their own set of options as well (auroras, cross country skiing, etc.), but I have no idea where the best places are for that.
Spend a few days in Denali National Park. Make this your main priority. Even if you blow off everything else, do not pass up the chance to see that mountain. Every other vista I saw up there pales in comparison. And the mountain isn’t the only thing to see in the park, there are in fact, six million acres of beautiful wilderness up there.
If you don’t feel like going all the way into the park, they have a good trail system around the welcome center. The Mt. Healy Overlook Trail offers a good day hike to the mountain’s summit, just above the headquarters. If the weather is clear, you can catch a glimpse of Denali’s summit, 80 miles southwest.
The park offers shuttle buses into the park’s interior, stopping at Wonder Lake, the best known place to see the Alaska Range. According to the park rangers, Mt. McKinley appears out of the clouds one in every three days. It’s a gamble as to whether or not you will see the mountain, unless you decide to camp at Wonder Lake for several days, which I plan to do when I go back.
Numerous other options exist for day hikes, multi-day backpacking expeditions, packrafting trips, cycling, so on. Rangers at the backcountry office can help you get an itinerary figured out if you’re looking to do something ambitious.
Not convinced yet? Check out this sweet Flyover Video.
To the south, the town of Talkeetna is a great place, buzzing with backpackers and mountaineers in the summer. If you don’t have time for a big expedition in Denali, you can see a good view of the range from an overlook in Talkeetna. Two air taxi companies offer flightseeing tours, where they fly around the mountain and then land on one of its glaciers. So if it’s too cloudy to see the mountain from the ground, you might luck out and see it in flight. One of those tours costs about $400, but I’m sure it’s worth it.
The Kenai Peninsula
A two hour drive south of Anchorage will bring you to the Kenai Peninsula, which is loaded with things to do and see. The drive itself along the Turnagain Arm is beautiful. The highway winds along the north edge of the fjord with the view of the Kenai Mountains, five miles south across the water. Chances are pretty good that you’ll catch a glimpse of beluga whales, eagles, moose, and Dall sheep.
As a cyclist, the Bird to Gird Trail from Girdwood to Bird Point is one of the best bike paths I have ever seen. It winds along the mountains above the Turnagain Arm for thirteen miles. Rent a bicycle from the Girdwood Ski and Cyclery and check it out.
The port town of Seward sits along the side of Resurrection Bay, and offers many options for backpackers and tourists. Many people take glacier cruises out to the fjords to the west. Mountains, glaciers, fjords, and sea life are all abundant. Outfitters in the town rent out kayaks and offer trip packages if you’re the sort of person who would enjoy paddling across the bay and camping in solitude.
A short drive to the north will bring you to the Exit Glacier and the edge of the Kenai Fjords National Park. A day hike on the trails alongside the glacier is doable. If you’re up for the challenge, the Harding Icefield Trail will take you high up the side of the glacier and within eyeshot of the ice field where it begins.
The town of Homer, a three hour drive west of Seward, is another popular coastal town in the summer. It is known for the Homer Spit, a four mile strip of land that reaches into the Kachemak Bay with a stunning view of the mountains on the other side. Set up camp along the spit, and you won’t be disappointed. Options also exist here for kayak rentals, flightseeing, fishing, cabin rentals, and so on.
Anchorage has plenty of things to do. I enjoyed its hole in the wall taverns like Darwin’s Theory, Humpy’s, and Moose’s Tooth. The Glacier Brewhouse is a great restaurant and home brewery with a great selection of craft beer and locally caught salmon and halibut entrees.
The Downtown Bicycle Rental is a bike shop that rents bicycles out during the day. Take one and ride it around the city bike trails and forest parks. They are very well maintained and lots of fun. The shop also shuttles people up to the trailhead of Flattop Mountain just east of town, where you can take a short hike to the summit and see all of Anchorage, and maybe Denali if the weather is clear.
The Alaska Railroad depot is right in downtown and is a great option for trips to Seward, Whittier, Denali, Talkeetna, and Fairbanks if you don’t feel like driving. I took the one to Seward, and many of the train cars had upper decks with dome shaped windows on the ceiling, offering great panoramic views of the landscapes. An announcer describes the scenery as the train goes along, providing lots of interesting facts about the land.
The Glenn Highway is another great drive, going northeast of Anchorage through mountain ranges for a few hours. You’ll reach the Matanuska Glacier around mile 100, which can be seen from the highway. Numerous options are close by for campgrounds, cabin rentals and roadhouses.
The 142 Bus
Finally, if you’re thinking about visiting the Magic Bus on Stampede Road, my advice is this: Instead, go to the 49th State Brewery in Healy and get a cold beer and a picture in front of the prop bus they used for the movie. That’s why they have it there. I didn’t see the Stampede Road, but everything I have read about it seems to indicate that it is in a very boggy, mosquito infested, uneventful part of the park. That, and trying to ford the Teklanika River is dangerous at best. For all that trouble, I would just as soon put that time into exploring Denali.
If you are serious about it, do your homework and learn the basic backpacking skills, especially river traversal. My suggestion is to use a packraft, which has the packed size and weight of a tent. You can bring it to a big river, inflate it, paddle across, and then put it back in your backpack. Local outfitters in the area rent them out.
Really, if you’re going anywhere for more than just a day, make sure you’re prepared when it comes to backcountry skills, knowledge, and gear. Basic things like waterproof layers and boots, synthetic base layers like wool or polyester, bug spray, a GPS, bear safety, etc. The REI in Anchorage is a great place to find almost everything you need, and learn from experienced backpackers. Getting through the alpine wilderness isn’t rocket science, but it can be very unforgiving to people who aren’t prepared.
The fact is, Alaska is full of amazing places to see. This list only covers a few of them. You’ll know that soon enough, and you will want to go back. I guarantee it.
Read my story: Part 1: Cycling Denali Under the Midnight Sun