With its national parks and wildlife, Alaska has been called America's final frontier, drawing visitors from around the world with its snowy landscapes. Although there's little man-made that will leave you impressed, Mother Nature puts on such a spectacle that you'll agree it's like nowhere else in all 50 states. Here are a few of can't-miss destinations that are easily accessible from Anchorage.
North of Anchorage
An easy hour’s drive north of the city lies the small town of Palmer, where Harvest Bed and Breakfast is a great homey option to spend the night. Run by two Alaskan natives, there are sheep, horses, and a very friendly ram in the backyard with a beautiful view of the surrounding mountains. In town, the Valley Hotel Cafe (606 South Alaska Street, Palmer, 907/745-3330) is a great 24-hour diner, but Turkey Red across the street is a healthier choice. Great gourmet breakfasts, artisanal tea selection, and an array of salads and pizzas for lunch and dinner make it worth returning to the spot for any meal.
Five minutes north of town is the Musk Ox Farm. Spend a half-hour watching and learning about these beautiful creatures; if you can snag some time seeing the babies, you're in for a treat.
An hour north of Palmer, just off the Glenn Highway, lies the Matanuska Glacier. This is the most beautiful cascade of ice north of Anchorage, and two-hour glacier hikes are available from several tour companies. Matanuska Glacier Adventures tours are excellent—just leave yourself an extra 15 minutes to get from the highway to the gift shop, where you'll pay and enter through the gates to the starting point for your hike. It's easy to find at mile post 102, right beside a small yellow trading post.
Plus, getting there is half the fun. The Glenn Highway is breathtaking, and it's worth pulling over for the photo ops along the way. The glacier can be seen from the highway, a great place to see it if you're not up for a hike. This massive state requires a lot of driving, and although time passes quickly thanks to the ever-changing weather and light, be sure to give yourself extra time to stop and enjoy what you'll see. Scenic view turnoffs are everywhere, and all of them are worthy of a stop.
Many of these natural wonders receive up to 1,000 visitors per day, so it's best to aim for off-peak days and enjoy the great outdoors without feeling crowded.
South of Anchorage
South of Anchorage is the Kenai Peninsula, otherwise known as Alaska's playground. Take a gorgeous drive around the Turnagain Arm, the second largest tidal flat in North America, where you may even see some beluga whales in the water. Along the way, the town of Girdwood is a quaint ski village nestled between the peaks. The Hotel Alyeska is ski-central in the winter, and a high-end base for anyone wanting to explore the region in the summer. Alpine Air Alaska gives helicopter tours and glacier landings, and Ascending Path offers glacier hikes and many other adventures. Don't miss the thrift shop in the town’s center for unusual Alaska-centric gifts. When you’re hungry, head to Jack Sprat, a cute alpine-looking restaurant with seasonal organic meals creatively concocted to satisfy any post-hike craving.
Many visitors love taking boat rides to see the glaciers and wildlife. If you head down to Seward, a beautiful and easy drive from Girdwood, Kenai Fjords National Park gives you many options. For a rocky ocean adventure, try their popular “National Park Tour,” which makes a long stop at the Aialik Glacier to see some calving action. Prepare to feel the waves and get a little wet; bring some extra food on board, as the snack bar is pretty limited. Before or after your cruise, take an easy hike up to the Exit Glacier, and for a tougher challenge, the Harding Icefield. These well-marked trails are easily accessible from Herman Leirer Road, just north of town. Leave some time back on land for the freshest fish in town at Chinooks Bar, which overlooks the harbor.
If you want a smoother catamaran ride and a more glacier-centric itinerary, head to Whittier for the 26 Glacier Cruise by Phillips Cruises & Tours, in Prince William Sound. The town itself is accessible only via a one-way tunnel, which is also shared by the railroad. It's a thrilling drive through, and is only accessible once per hour, so plan ahead. Once you enter the town itself, you'll feel like you've arrived at the last bastion of civilization. The deep electric blues in the glaciers are best viewed under cloudy skies. Plan your excursions ahead of time because things do sell out, and weather cancellations are common.
However you plan to enjoy the great outdoors, don't be shy about asking locals and hotel concierges for advice. They all know the area and can often point you toward activities and places not found in guidebooks. Just be specific about what you want to see and the level of activity you're up for. You're guaranteed more options than you'll even have time for, but each one will make it well worth the long trek north.