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Alaska summer travel: Where to go and what to do

Scott McMurren
Kayaking in front of Shoup Glacier near Valdez.
Scott McMurren photo
A nice view from the end of the Homer Spit looking out on Kachemak Bay.
Scott McMurren photo
Aialik Glacier. Bill Little and Kim Lentz pose in front on Aialik Glacier on a Kenai Fjords National Park tour.
Scott McMurren photo
Worthington Glacier, near Thompson Pass on the Richardson Highway. Headed to Valdez.
Scott McMurren photo
Looking back down the Matanuska Valley at Lion's Head on the way to Glennallen and Valdez.
Scott McMurren photo
The Alaska Railroad car pulls up slowly to pick us up after hiking at Spencer Glacier.
Scott McMurren photo

It's official: Spring has sprung. Oh, I know we're still ensconced in a winter wonderland in Anchorage, but the sun is relentless, and the march toward summer has begun.

As the days get longer, visitors start to show up. By sea, by road and by air --the migration usually starts in May. Are you ready? If you live here, you're already regarded as an "Alaska expert". Here are some ideas to share with this season's houseguests after they recover from their jetlag.

Taking in the 'Big City'

Speaking of jetlag, don't let your visitors dawdle. Chances are good (excellent, actually) they'll be flying in at or around midnight. So on the first day, take it easy. Stretch your legs with a walk through the Alaska Botanical Garden. In addition to the beautiful setting, volunteers have set up all kinds of outdoor displays and gardens that make this a great stroll-about throughout the year.

From there, head to the Alaska Native Heritage Center. There, they'll learn about Alaska's indigenous peoples -- it's a crash course. Check in advance for times to see performers and artists-in-residence.

Afterward, head to the Anchorage Museum. Kids love the Imaginarium and the Planetarium. But don't miss the Arctic Studies Center -- it's part of the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History. I love the Alaska history display, too: earthquakes, fishing, gold rush, the works. Grab a snack on the first floor at Muse, the over-the-top eatery run by my friends at the Marx Brothers Cafe.

But wait -- there's more. Just to set the hook for their life-changing Alaska adventure, drive your bleary-eyed guests up to the parking lot at Flattop Mountain. Here's a map to help you find your way up there -- the route can be a little confusing for those unfamiliar with it.

Stroll to the overlook and take a few pictures. You'll be an odds-on favorite for the Christmas card shot!!

Day Trips worth taking

I've lived here for almost 34 years and I never get tired of the drive down Turnagain Arm. Thank Heaven there are tons of turnouts for photos, because that's what you'll be doing as you take your guests down to Alyeska Resort for the ride up on the tram. The views, the hiking and the year-round play-in-the-snow opportunities will wear them out!

Next, head over to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. Your guests wanted to see bear, moose and caribou, right? Check, check and check. Throw in some musk oxen and wood bison, and you've got an epic wildlife experience!

While you're in the neighborhood, head up the Portage Valley to the Begich-Boggs Visitor Center. Watch the film on glaciers, then drive up the lake and take the Portage Glacier Cruise on the Ptarmigan. This short (one-hour) cruise takes you right up to the face of the glacier. Great fun.

You can choose one of three other great options:

a. Spencer Glacier hike on the Alaska Railroad. Meet at the Portage station for the quick ride on the rails up to Spencer Glacier. There are accessible trails, an optional float trip, and you can even camp out and hike around.

b. 26 Glaciers Cruise. Ride the awesome "Klondike Express" all the way up into College Fjord from Whittier. And yes, there are 26 glaciers. Oh, and then there's the Whittier Tunnel.

c. Cruise to Blackstone Bay. Both Phillips Cruises and Major Marine Tours offer cruises to Blackstone Bay from Whittier. Another tunnel experience!! These are shorter cruises that sail up close to the glaciers and near some of the wildlife in the region.

Day Trippin', part two

After a good night's sleep, it's time to head north to Talkeetna. If you're really ambitious, just grab an espresso to go at Kaladi Brothers and drive up to Talkeetna Roadhouse for breakfast. Your hostess, Trisha Costello, does an EPIC job.

Afterwards, waddle over to the airport and catch a flightseeing trip up to Mt. McKinley. I've flown with three operators: Talkeetna Aero Services, K2 and Talkeetna Air Taxi. They're all great. Choose from a flyover or a glacier landing (my favorite). If you land in the Ruth Amphitheater, you'll understand what McKinley pioneer Brad Washburn meant when he said Denali was his cathedral.

Next to the airport is Mahay's Riverboat Service. Steve Mahay and his crew offer a great selection of jetboat rides up the Susitna River. I took the Three Rivers Tour: the Talkeetna River, the Susitna River and the Chulitna River. This includes a shore stop to visit an old trapper's cabin (actually Steve Mahay's old cabin). Any motorhead will be duly impressed at the awesome display of horsepower as the "Talkeetna Queen" rounds the corner to head upstream against the powerful Susitna River!

Don't forget lunch at Mountain High Pizza Pie. Legendary, I say. Eat there, or get it to go for the ride back home.

Family fun in Seward

Seward. Sure, you can do it in a day, but you always leave something on the table. So go and stay overnight. I like the funky Van Gilder Hotel downtown. There's no restaurant, but I just wander over to the Sea Bean (225 4th Ave.) for exceptional espresso and f-a-s-t wireless internet. For breakfast, eat at the Train Wreck (411 Port Ave.). It's actually called "The Smoke Shack", but everyone calls it the Train Wreck. It's built up inside a train car, one of three Alaska Railroad cars cobbled together with a deck in between. The cafe shares the "wreck" with a small bed-and-breakfast and a bike rental shop.

The Seward Windsong Lodge offers great accommodations out on Exit Glacier Road. And there's a great restaurant on site too: The Resurrection Roadhouse. I love the "Bacon Bleu" burger -- big enough for dinner!

You have to go to the Alaska Sealife Center. It's a "must see" attraction for everyone. See "Woody" the big sea lion. See the puffins. See the floor-to-ceiling aquariums. Awesome!

But you also have to sail out to see Kenai Fjords National Park. Both Kenai Fjords Tours and Major Marine Tours offer cruises around Resurrection Bay and into Kenai Fjords National Park. I like the "National Park Tour" that goes out to Aialik Glacier. In addition to the big ice, you'll see lots of wildlife: sea lions, eagles, puffins, maybe a whale or two, Dall's porpoise and the occasional moose or mountain goat on the shore.

Adventures in Denali

Unless you're flying in, it's impossible to do Denali in a day or two. Plan on three days. You can take the Alaska Railroad up to Denali National Park. It's a popular run. In fact, you can combine it with a hotel stay at the Denali Princess. Princess has its own private rail cars.

If you opt to stay at the park entrance, make plans to take the bus ride into the park. That means getting up early to catch the Tundra Wilderness Tour. This 53-mile ride offers a great chance to see some wildlife. If you're lucky, Denali will be out -- but don't bet on it.

Another great activity at the park entrance is a raft trip down the Nenana River. This is serious white water! You can choose the "mild" or "wild" ride. Tip: don't fall in. The water is v-e-r-y cold.

For a deep-track Denali adventure, consider heading back to the Kantishna Roadhouse near Wonder Lake. Fair warning: this is not cheap. Packages start at $440 per night. But that includes everything: the bus ride from the park entrance, meals, lodging and activities. The roadhouse is located at the end of the park road (90 miles), just outside the national park in the old mining community of Kantishna. It's a great venue to view Denali, take a hike with one of the naturalist guides, ride mountain bikes on the trails, or even just relax. There's also fly fishing on on nearby Moose Creek.

Instead of taking the bus back to the park entrance, consider flying back with Kantishna Air Taxi. You can't miss Denali -- it's right there! The flight offers an incredible perspective of the park, of course.

Meanwhile, in Homer...

Sure, it's a long drive from Anchorage. But the scenery is spectacular. Head out to the end of the Homer Spit right away, just to walk along the beach. The Spit is also where you can catch the Seldovia Bay Ferry over to Seldovia. It's a great cruise across Kachemak Bay, and the town of Seldovia is charming. Walk on the "Otter Bahn" trail to Outside Beach. Fish for salmon from the bridge. Go kayaking in sheltered Seldovia Bay.

Back in Homer, eat at Fat Olive's (276 Ohlson Lane). They've got yummy pizza and great wine-by-the-glass. For breakfast, eat at the nearby Two Sisters Bakery. The selections are downright sinful, in my opinion. Just close your eyes and point to something. You won't be disappointed (hint: cinnamon rolls).

We usually stay at Land's End at the end of the spit. But if you've got a few people in tow, rent one of Tina Baugher's cabins. It's a small cluster of cabins conveniently located between Fat Olive's and Two Sisters Bakery. It's also two blocks from Bishop's Beach, and birdwatchers will love the brief stroll to the boardwalk at the end of the street. The boardwalk overlooks the Beluga Slough and leads up to the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center. This is a great venue for folks to learn about the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. Admission is free.

The Golden Circle

Save this trip for last. It's so incredible, with plenty of optional side trips. But the basic itinerary is to head north into the Matanuska River valley towards Glennallen. Again, be prepared to stop along the way for photos. The river. The glacier. The mountains. Don't yawn and roll your eyes -- your visitors think you're a genius.

Two hours out of Anchorage, stop in at Sheep Mountain Lodge for lunch or dessert. Um, let's just cut to the chase here: get the Glacier Cookie. It's a giant cookie with ice cream, chocolate syrup and whipped cream. Two thumbs up.

At Glennallen, fill up at The Hub, the gas station at the intersection of the Glenn and the Richardson Highways. Then, head south towards Valdez. If you're still hungry, stop in at the Copper River Princess Lodge, about 14 miles south. The lodge sits up on a bluff, overlooking the Copper River and the Klutina River. You can see the Wrangell Mountains and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. There's free wireless internet. And great food. I usually get the steak sandwich.

Head south to Thompson Pass and Worthington Glacier. If you're tired of sitting down after five or six hours in the car, get out and hike up to the glacier!

After you crest Thompson Pass and start heading down Keystone Canyon into Valdez, watch for two scenic waterfalls: Horsetail Falls and Bridal Veil Falls. They're both beautiful, which is why there are big turnouts in the road. Everybody stops. Don't miss it.

In Valdez, make plans to sail with Stan Stephens out to Columbia Glacier or Mears Glacier. It's a great trip. Or, paddle around with Tim Duffy and the crew out at Pangaea Adventures. We did a kayak trip with him out to nearby Shoup Glacier.

Stay the night in Valdez. Eat dinner at The Fat Mermaid, two or three doors down from Pangaea right at the harbor.

The next morning, take the ferry from Valdez to Whittier. I like the fast ferry (Chenega). Just roll your car right onto the ferry for a three-hour trip across the sound.

On arrival in Whittier, head back to Anchorage!

If this quick-reference guide doesn't offer enough eye-candy to impress your visitors, it's time to unfriend them on Facebook!

Online Resources:

Official Alaska State Vacation Planner. The Alaska Travel Industry Association puts out a great guide.

Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based travel marketing consultant who has lived in Alaska for three decades, spending much of that time traveling the far-flung corners of the state. Visit his website at www.alaskatravelgram.com. And follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/alaskatravelgrm for breaking updates.