My friends, we have passed the halfway point of summer. If you have children in your life, perhaps they are currently enrolled in an enriching camp experience, or tramping through the great Alaska wilderness on a multi-day backpacking adventure. Or perhaps you are like me and did not have the right combination of planning, PTO and surplus funds to sustain that all summer long.
Alaska is synonymous with epic outdoor excursions. But sometimes the week calls for a simple, fun activity that doesn’t require three weeks of planning, multiple stops at AMH and REI and a 72-hour weather forecast.
Consider this a low-key, little-to-no-planning, achievable-in-an-afternoon list of suggestions for families this summer.
We’re tackling this in two categories. First up, category 1:
It’s gorgeous outside! Let’s take the kids out!
The beach at Kincaid Park: It wasn’t too long ago that every other person in Anchorage had their own “secret beach,” and inevitably you’d find out they were all talking about the same one. That beach has become an officially marked destination, but it still feels a bit like a magical secret. To get there, you can start at Kincaid Chalet and walk an easy mile downhill on the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. After turning left onto the marked trailhead, navigate some steps and a bit of a grassy bluff to reach a fine, sandy beach. It’s a great place to make driftwood forts, have a picnic, or just watch the wind turbines spin lazily off in the distance at Fire Island. Beyond the beach are mudflats that people like to play in — it looks like fun but be advised that the lore around mudflats turning deadly is grounded in truth.
The Alaska Zoo: What I learned to appreciate once I had children is that The Alaska Zoo is arranged as a sprawling but contained track, punctuated by cool animals to see. This tends to work well for both zoom-ie kids and more thoughtful, observant temperaments. There’s even a small playground and coffee shop. It takes about an hour to go through, but different animals come out at different times, so there’s always something new. Open 9 a.m.-8 p.m through August. Admission is $17 for residents with an Alaska ID, $15 for seniors or military, $10 for ages 3-17 and free for ages 2 and under. Tickets for tours and animal feedings available at extra cost.
The zoo will be hosting one more summer fun day on Aug. 12, with cotton candy, a scavenger hunt, petting zoo and live music. Knock on Wood Marimba Ensemble will be from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. and Silver Train blues ensemble will be from 2:30-4:30 p.m. Free with admission (alaskazoo.org).
Free outdoor concerts: Anchorage has stepped up its outdoor concert series in recent years. You can bring the family, get some food truck dinner and spread out on a picnic blanket for a free show each Wednesday or Thursday through the first week of August.
Downtown: Thursdays are for Live After Five in Town Square Park from 5:30-8 p.m., with local bands and prize drawings: H3 plays July 13, Vintage Retro plays July 20, Cold Country is July 27 and Woodrow is Aug. 3.
Peratrovich Park will have shows from 12-1 p.m. Wednesdays: Loaded Karma on July 12, Melissa Mitchell on July 19, River Livers on July 26 and Hurricane Dave closing the series Aug. 2.
Anchorage Park Foundation and the Concert Association are collaborating on a program that brings live music to different parks throughout the city. The final three concerts are at 7 p.m. Thursdays: Todd Grebe & Cold Country at Balto Seppala Park July 13; “rowdy classical” Chamberliners ensemble at KFQD Park July 20; and Medium Build & Rosie Rush at Hilltop Ski Area July 27. (More information at anchorageconcerts.org)
Potter Marsh: Potter Marsh is at the southern end of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge. Young children will have fun tromping along the 1,550 feet of boardwalk, where you can catch sight of migrating birds including Canada geese, grebes, Arctic terns and, in the spring or fall, trumpeter swans. Head south on Seward Highway and turn into the Potter Marsh parking lot. If you have a train-obsessed kiddo, the Potter Section House is just across the highway and worth checking out for the decommissioned rotary snowplow and a little railroad speeder for children to climb around on. (Mile 115)
Road trip to Girdwood: Just under an hour’s drive from Anchorage, Girdwood gives you the feeling of getting out of town without the commitment. The Beluga Point pullout at Mile 110 is a good stop en route, and you really can see belugas from there sometimes. Older kids might be ready for a Bird to Gird bike trip — 12 miles each way, but you can start at multiple points between Indian and Girdwood. Girdwood has a magnificent, castle-themed playground alongside a skate park, and Lower Winner Creek Trail is a mild, pleasant walk through the woods that begins just behind the Alyeska Tram building and ends at Crow Creek Road.
A tram ride to the top of Mount Alyeska is spendy but would be such a blast ($48 adults 19+, $38 youth, $10 children under 5). Learn about historic mining practices and pan for gold at Crow Creek Mine ($6-$13 for admission, plus special tours; 601 Crow Creek Mine Road). Girdwood has so many good food options that you can hardly go wrong; we usually head home with a takeout order of sweet potato fries from Jack Sprat or an enormous slice from Coastal Pizza.
Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center: This wildlife sanctuary is just a short distance past Girdwood on the right. It has a fun, 1.5-mile loop that you can walk or drive and see brown bears, porcupines, musk oxen, lynx, and more. The center also offers guided walking tours and educational programs. Open 9 a.m.-7 p.m. (last entry at 6 p.m.) 7 days a week through Sept. 15.
Tickets $20 for adults, $16 for ages 5-17, children 4 and under are free. (Mile 79 of the Seward Highway; alaskawildlife.org)
Eagle River Nature Center: This is a cozy cabin center surrounded by many miles of trails. The center itself has classes for children of different ages, from toddler hikes and story time to Jr. Naturalist classes and courses on medicinal plants. Some events require pre-registration and payment while others don’t, so check their site for details. (32750 Eagle River Road in Eagle River; ernc.org)
The best of Anchorage public playgrounds:
It feels a little weird to offer up playgrounds as a suggestion in a place like Alaska. However, if you just need a way for children to burn energy and have fun for a couple hours, a good playground can be a beautiful thing.
Of course, not all are equal. I honed my list of top Anchorage playgrounds during the pandemic with two major criteria: variety and quality of playground equipment and distance from a major road, because my kids are runners.
South Anchorage Sports Park: Generic-sounding name aside, this is basically the Six Flags of Anchorage playgrounds. This park has everything: a massive spider pyramid net, a roller slide so rattling it will make your skull vibrate, a swing set, outdoor sound installation and sand pit with diggers. But the crown jewel is the double-decker spinning top thing (the technical name is “rotating playground net climber” an internet search informs me), which will either thrill or terrify both you and your child. If you’re someone who complains about how “they” got rid of all the “fun” playground equipment in the ‘80/’90s/’00s, you’ll love it. (769 W. Klatt Road)
Margaret Eagan Sullivan Park at Westchester Lagoon: The playground by the lagoon has some great equipment, which is funny because the kids always end up climbing around on the wooden calisthenics gym that’s been there since the 1980s. The beauty of this park is its different modes, which can include: intense jungle gym, pre-school diversions, yelling as loud as possible in the tunnels, and looking for teeny jumping fish. In the summer there’s a small standup shop selling ice cream, soda and other concessions, which is either a perk or a pain depending on your child’s stamina pleading for treats.
Jewel Lake playground: The centerpiece of this playground is a big pirate ship climbing structure, followed by a childrens’ zipline, but what really makes it outstanding is sunny days and vibes. On nice summer days you’re likely to find multiple birthday parties, people playing on the beach, music, the smell of grilling, people sunbathing and even swimming. Squint your eyes and you’ll almost forget you’re living in the subarctic.
A relaxed take on water sports: A recent innovation in our household has been to borrow or rent a paddleboard or kayak and take it to a small lake in the middle of a city park (Little Campbell Lake is a favorite, but any small body of water will do). Slap some life vests on those kids and go look for lily pads. Kayak and paddleboard rentals run about $50-$60 for the first night at outfitters such as REI or Alaska Outdoor Gear, but you probably know someone with one sitting around, I bet.
A relaxed take on hikes: There are a shocking number of children and young people who can book it up a mountain with the fittest of adults, and there are many excellent guides for that kind of hiking. This is not one of them. But if your family is feeling like a relaxed hike — e.g., a flat hike — I like the options of: the trail to Byron Glacier (near Begich Boggs Visitor Center in Portage); Lower Winner Creek trail in Girdwood — especially in August, when there are blueberries just steps off the trail; and Eklutna Lakeside Trail, which circles the brilliant turquoise-colored waters of Eklutna Lake (Mile 26.5 Glenn Highway).
Now, for category 2
It’s crummy outside; Let’s take the kids out ... to somewhere inside.
The Anchorage Museum: Every part of the museum is worth spending time in, but for parents, key points of interest will be at the east end of the ground level. Older children will have fun in the Discovery Center , widely known as the Imaginarium, where there are many interactive exhibits about earth sciences, including a marine tank. See if your child will succeed in the time-honored Anchorage-kid pursuit of trying to get the bubble chamber all the way over their heads before it pops. For parents of littles, there’s a spacious room to one side with pre-school toys and activities. There are daily shows at the Planetarium and the museum always has a range of creative and interesting classes.
Admission is $20 Adult (18-64); $17 if you’re an Alaska resident. Kids 6-12 are $10. Free for children 5 and younger. Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily May-September. (anchoragemuseum.org)
Alaska Aviation Museum: Anchorage is an airplane enthusiast’s mecca, including those enthusiasts who may be under, say, three feet tall. The Aviation Museum lets you get up close to some historic planes, and even walk around inside a Boeing 737. You can climb up into the old Merrill Field Control Tower Cab and watch planes take off from Lake Hood, the busiest seaplane base in the world. Open every day from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Adults are $17.50, children 3-13 are $10.50; family rates available.
Alaska Museum of Science and Nature: This museum focuses on dinosaurs, birds, whales and Alaska marine life, the ice age of Alaska, and rocks and minerals. Exhibits include a full-size pterosaur, a wooly mammoth, and touchable wolves and bears. Also, prices are super reasonable for a museum: $8 for adults (19+), $8 for ages 3-18, toddlers are free. (201 N. Bragaw, just north of the Glenn Highway)
Trampoline parks: It might sound commercial, and not very Alaskan-with-a-capital-A, but hear me out. If the weather is truly terrible, if you’re really feeling cooped up, a trampoline park can be an amazing afternoon out with the kids. They bounce around like crazy on various springy, padded surfaces, and you sip a latte on the sidelines (or, get out there with them). I would be lying if I didn’t admit that trampoline parks have saved a few dreary weekend afternoons in my house. Get Air Trampoline Park is at 11051 O’Malley Centre Dr., Shockwave Trampoline Park is 3101 Penland Pkwy M-8. Tickets are about $10-$17 for jumpers; no charge for supervising adults.
(Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly described an exhibit at the Anchorage Museum as having a marine petting tank. Guests are not allowed to touch inside the tank.)