With just over 300,000 inhabitants, Anchorage offers all the creature comforts and amenities of a big city. Yet, a 30-minute drive will take you to a completely different world, into the Alaskan wilderness with abundant wildlife, glaciers, snow-covered mountain ranges and altogether spectacular landscapes.
The largest city in the state of Alaska, Anchorage is a hub for transport and, despite its remote location, is easy to get to even if you don’t have a car. Try and avoid the bus services though, as they can be a bit temperamental.
Do remember that Alaska has its own time zone and is one-hour behind the Pacific Time Zone (i.e. the American Western coast).
It pays to do a bit of shopping around before booking your flight to Anchorage, as you can find really good deals if you are willing to compromise. For example, I flew from Los Angeles with one stop in San Francisco and paid only half of the price I would have flying direct from San Francisco.
My arrival at Anchorage Airport at 11pm on an August Sunday night was somewhat a baptism of fire, or rather water, as the skies seemed to have opened just for me and I was welcomed by a deluge of biblical proportions – almost! It quickly cleared off though and I was fortunate to enjoy a balmy 20˚C throughout my stay (it does get cooler north of Anchorage so take warm clothing even in the summer months).
Despite the time of day, the airport was still a busy place buzzing with activity and a lot of excited men carrying various hunting and fishing tools.
I picked up my rental SUV from Economy Car Rentals at the airport and headed for the Microtel Inn & Suites Anchorage, a 5-minute drive away. With rooms that are basic but perfectly comfortable and adequate, it is a good option for a no-frill, convenient base from which to explore the area.
What to do in and around Anchorage
Hike or Cycle the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail
Anchorage has a selection of fine museums to visit, but if you have come all this way, you really must go out and discover Alaska’s unspoilt natural beauty, and the Coastal Trail is the ideal way to do so.
A 10-minute drive from the hotel where I was staying, Earthquake Park is where the trail starts. Eleven-mile long, it is suitable for hiking, walking, running and rollerblading, and, in the winter, skiing. It is very popular with tourists and locals, due to the spectacular views and its ease of access.
It winds along the coast from the town centre to the chalet at Kincaid Park and is one of the prime areas to spot moose. It will also take you around the fault line of the 1964 earthquake which devastated Anchorage. With a magnitude of 9.3, it is the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in US History.
Due to its proximity to the Arctic Circle, the summer days in Alaska are very long – it wouldn’t get dark until 2am when I was there in August. This means that, although I started hiking the trail at 8pm, I was able to walk in broad daylight for a couple of hours.
The trail goes through fragrant forests, offering fantastic views of downtown Anchorage and its skyline, and if you’re lucky, you might even spot beluga whales. Mount McKinley, now known as Denali again after being recently restored by Barack Obama (see http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-34105298), towers the area majestically.
The trail is a feast for the eyes, and I even saw a very large Bald Eagle, but a word of caution: some areas are swampy, so if you don’t want to be some mosquito’s dinner, apply insect repellent liberally – I didn’t and had ample opportunity to regret it!
The Trail also crosses the Lanie Fleischer Chester Creek Trail at Westchester Lagoon.
You can find more information about the trail as well as maps at http://anchoragecoastaltrail.com.
Drive the Seward Highway
If the word “highway” conjures up images of traffic jams and exhaust fumes while you’re hitting your head repeatedly on the driving wheel wondering if you will ever see your family again, rest assured that it’s not what the Seward Highway is about.
A 200-km scenic road hugging the coast from Anchorage to Seward, the highway will astound you with stunning views of the Kenai Mountains in the background, the Chugach State Park’s 3,000-ft mountains on your left and the very tidal Turnagain Arm on your right. And that is just for the first section of the highway from Anchorage to Portage!
Stopping at Bird Creek provides a great view of the many eager fishing folk, attempting to hook the mighty Salmon. I have never seen so many fishing in one spot.
Portage Valley has a special claim to fame, as it bears witness to the devastation brought by the 1964 earthquake, with remnants of trees drowned by saltwater when the landscape dropped by up to 10m. It is flanked by what is left of the Portage Glacier that used to extend the whole length of the valley. In the summer, it is a carpet of bright flowers.
There is a fantastic picture waiting to be taken at every turn of the road. Be it the spectacular Turnagain Pass, the highest point on the highway at milepost 70, the breathtakingly blue and green Kenai Lake formed from glacier water, or the beautiful meadows and rainforests of the Lost Lake Trail, you will be spoilt for choice.
It is also a paradise for wildlife lovers with plenty of opportunities to spot huge salmons at Bird Creek. The Seward Highway also crosses the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Centre, with very sleepy resident moose and bears. Other species you may encounter are deer, reindeer, muskoxes, bisons, buffalos and Bald eagles. An hour and a half from Anchorage, it is a good place to grab a bite to eat.
The Seward Highway, which used to be a vital artery in the economic life of the original settlers, will take you through the historic heart of Alaska. Fur traders from Russia, explorers from Europe, gold prospectors, fishing history, the towns and fisheries on the way testify of the endurance and ingenuity of people who built a life in this beautiful but harsh environment.
For a detailed itinerary, accommodation and information on historic sites along the way, visit http://www.alaska.org/guide/seward-highway.