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Expecting summer visitors? These 3 trips will give them a great Alaska experience

  • Author: Scott McMurren
    | Alaska Travel
  • Updated: June 8
  • Published June 8

People enjoy the sunset at Beluga Point south of Anchorage on Thursday, March 26, 2019. (Photo by Bob Hallinen)

If your friends and relatives are not here now, they’re certainly on their way north to see you. Chances are good, too, that they consider you an Alaska expert since you live here.

Part of the job description is telling them where to go and what to do. If you’re lucky, you get to tag along on some great adventures. There are plenty of resources to help you, including ADN’s own Visitors’ Guide. Here are some of my favorite made-on-the-fly itineraries.

Tour A

Anchorage to Girdwood and Portage. The easiest day trip starts with one of the coolest drives along the Turnagain Arm. Before you leave town, though, stop at Potter Marsh and take your folks out on the boardwalk. Watch for birds, sure. But head down to the end where the salmon are swimming up from the inlet. And where there are salmon, there are trout. No fishing, though!

The first scheduled stop is the tram at Alyeska Resort. Whether you get out and hike around in the snowpack or just hang out by the Roundhouse, the tram ride is a fast way to some great views. Energetic hikers can walk up, of course. Then you can get a free ride back down the mountain.

Or, rent one of Alyeska’s bikes and take the mountain trails back down the hill.

However you get down from the mountain, meet back at the car and head down the highway. If you want to see all of Alaska’s wild critters in one stop, visit the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. There’s no guarantee the bears will be out, but you cannot miss the wood bison. There’s a whole herd. Also moose, caribou, musk ox and eagles.

Then, make tracks to the Alaska Railroad depot at Portage. The train leaves for Spencer Glacier at 1:25 p.m. each day. It’s just a 20-minute ride, but it’s a fun trip. There’s an easy trail from the train drop-off to the lake for a great view of the glacier. The train comes back three hours later for you to hop on and ride back to Portage.

Variations: The Turnagain Arm drive along the Seward Highway is the gateway to three other key adventures for visitors:

Whittier

Whether it’s a boat ride out to Blackstone Bay or a full-blown 26 Glaciers cruise, Whittier is the perfect launch to an adventure on Prince William Sound. You have to get an early start from Anchorage and time it so you make the tunnel opening.

Seward

It’s another early wake-up to drive the 127 miles to the small boat harbor from Anchorage. There, you can catch a variety of scenic cruises into Kenai Fjords National Park with Kenai Fjords Tours or Major Marine Tours. Typically, you’ll spend five to seven hours on the water — and it’s a blast. In addition to the big glaciers like Bear Glacier and Aialik Glacier, you’ll see whales, sea lions, eagles, puffins, Dall porpoises and lots of seabirds. Don’t miss it.

If you don’t go out on the boat, you still can hike to a glacier. Exit Glacier is just a few miles out of town and it’s the only road access to Kenai Fjords National Park. Then, you’ll have time to visit the Alaska Sealife Center. I never get tired of seeing the sea lions and otters swim around in the giant aquariums. The Alaska Sealife Center also rehabilitates rescued animals from around the state.

Homer

It’s possible to drive the 220 miles from Anchorage to Homer in one day. But you might be worn out for any big activities once you get there. Spend the night, then go fishing the next day with one of the operators that leave from the small boat harbor on the Homer Spit.

There are several adventures you can take from the Spit. You can catch the Seldovia Ferry and explore the town for the afternoon. Stroll from the harbor to Outside Beach on the “Otter Bahn” trail.

You also can take a water taxi from the harbor over to the trailhead to see Grewingk Glacier. Pack a lunch. You can make arrangements with your boat captain to pick you up at a different location so you can get a good view of Halibut Cove on your walk back from the glacier.

Foodies can arrange for a half-day cooking class at Tutka Bay Lodge. Water taxi from the Spit is included. The lodge has a cooking school inside an old crab boat that’s beached near the lodge, which caters to nature-lovers and anglers from around the world.

Tour B

North to Talkeetna. Many of your visitors may think they want to go to Denali. Some of them are serious, and of course you can keep going the extra 100 miles north of Talkeetna to the entrance.

But for your friends who want to get a good look at the mountain, a trip to Talkeetna may be just the ticket. It’s just a two-hour drive north of Anchorage on the Parks Highway, so you can get there in time to go on a jetboat ride with Mahay’s Jetboat Adventures. There’s a nice trip that goes up the Susitna River to a re-created trapper’s camp. The bonus is some great views of Denali, Foraker and Hunter from the water. Watch for beavers, moose and bears. Whitewater enthusiasts can pick the “Devil’s Canyon Adventure,” which goes farther up the river into some serious Class V waters.

Other activities in Talkeetna include a zipline with Denali views, fat bike rentals and some delicious craft beer at Denali Brewing.

Tour C

The Great Circle: Glenn Highway, McCarthy and Valdez. This is one trip where you want to be the guide! Head northeast on the Glenn Highway through the beautiful Matanuska Valley. This is a stunning drive — and you definitely want to keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel with all of the ups and downs as you climb out of the valley. There are plenty of places to pull out for a great shot of Matanuska Glacier at the top of the valley. It’s a five-hour drive from Anchorage to Chitina, on the banks of the Copper River. You can stop here and fly the last 60 miles to McCarthy, Or, you can pick your way through the gravel road at 35 miles per hour. There are several places to stay in McCarthy, including Ma Johnson’s Hotel. Or, stay up in the ghost town of Kennicott at the lodge. Spend a couple of days there so you can hike out on the glacier (St. Elias Alpine Guides provides crampons on their hikes). Then check out the refurbished mine buildings from what once was the world’s largest copper mine.

After your Kennicott adventure, hit the road and head south on the Richardson Highway toward Valdez. You’ll pass Worthington Glacier, drive up over Thompson Pass and then down through Keystone Canyon with several beautiful waterfalls. There’s plenty to see and do in Valdez, including kayak trips to Shoup Glacier and Columbia Glacier cruises. Spend the night. Time your visit to take the ferry across Prince William Sound to Whittier. Then, instead of driving 300 miles back from Valdez, it’s an easy 60-mile trip from Whittier back home to Anchorage!

There are plenty of variations on these tours, but it’s a great start for a full-immersion trip for your visitors.

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