Sometimes, Alaska visitors find themselves anchored down in Anchorage, as songwriter Michelle Shocked once sang, with days of free time. What to do?
Options are virtually endless, but here are a few ideas, organized by how much time you have.
1 day: Big triple south of Anchorage
Drive south on the Seward Highway to Alyeska Resort in Girdwood. From the lodge, head up the Alyeska North Face Trail, a scenic hike for those used to uphill marches. The real payoff comes at the top, where the Bore Tide Deli & Bar has soda for the kids and beer for parents, plus awesome chili, fries and sandwiches. Even better, instead of trudging back, you can take a free ride down on the tram and take in amazing views of Turnagain Arm. June is the best time — or late May after the snow melts — to avoid the biting flies that arrive around late July.
The quick ride down means you’ll have plenty of time and daylight left. Continue south on the Seward Highway another 11 miles to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, an ideal stop for kids, even kids with tired legs after hiking up Alyeska. All kinds of Alaska critters wander around the park: wood bison, bears, moose, elk, musk ox, foxes, caribou and lynx.
Afterward, take the cutoff to Whittier just down the highway and follow the signs to the Portage Glacier cruise. This is the best way to get a peek at the receding Portage Glacier, which in the age of global warming is no longer visible from the visitor center. The 80-foot M/V Ptarmigan has several sailings each day and gets close to the glacier.
2 days: Living large in the Valley
Looking to pack a potpourri of pleasure into a day or two near Anchorage?
Head north to Mat-Su. There you can see glacier ice thousands of years old. Twenty-eight-mile-long Knik Glacier is perched on the edge of the Chugach Mountains, and perhaps the best way to see it is with a guided tour such as those offered by Knik Glacier Tours, a company that’s been showing off Alaska ice for a quarter-century.
With three-hour tours, you need not devote your entire day to the glacier’s icy vistas. After a drive in a four-wheel-drive vehicle operated by the tour company and an upriver journey in a jetboat (about 8 miles total), you’ll arrive at the sprawling glacier and feel the air temperature dip. Gaze up the face of a glacier hundreds of feet tall.
Your spectacular photos will impress friends back home, and you can boast that you walked in the footsteps of Captain James Kirk and Doc McCoy of “Star Trek.” Twenty-eight years ago, Paramount Pictures used Knik Glacier to film portions of “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.” In it, Kirk and McCoy were rescued from the Klingon ice planet Rura Penthe. Lucky for you, no rescues should be necessary.
With a summit at 900 feet, the glacial erratic Bodenburg Butte (often simply called The Butte) near Palmer doesn’t sound like much. But few hikes deliver as much bang for the buck — easy access and a stunning 360-degree of the floodplain created by the Matanuska and Knik rivers. You can’t get a much better view of the Mat-Su Valley sentinels — 6,119 foot Matanuska Peak to the east and 6,398-foot Pioneer Peak to the south, with icy Knik Glacier in between.
There are two trailheads. The more defined and moderate path is a borough-maintained route on the north side. There’s also an unmaintained track up the south side.
A hike up either side can take as little as 15 minutes or as long as two hours, depending on your fitness and the conditions. Be forewarned that either side can be slippery when wet. Good, sturdy hiking shoes or boots help. Keep in mind, too, the top of the Butte is often extremely windy. Bring a jacket, even if the daytime temperature is expected to exceed 60 degrees.
An added bonus: If you’re missing your yoga class while vacationing in Alaska, Midnight Sun Yoga of Palmer hosts 10 a.m. classes on the first and third Saturdays in June, July and August on the iconic Butte’s summit.
Located on a Colony farm in Palmer, the Musk Ox Farm began operating in 1964 and in summer is open into September. The long-haired musk ox is also known as oomingmak, or “the bearded one,” and produce what many consider the finest and warmest wool in the world.
For a small fee, visitors walk past the animals’ fenced-in areas and learn the history and biology of these Paleolithic ruminants from the knowledgeable staff. There are more than 80 animals, but in particular look for older oxen named Leo, Aquarius, Littleman and Phoenix.
Each spring, farm workers tend to the new calves and collect hair shed from the musk ox undercoats. Those fibers, called qiviut, are considered softer than cashmere and warmer than wool when spun into yarn, which you can purchase in the farm’s gift shop or in the downtown Anchorage shop, Oomingmak, an Alaska cooperative owned by hundreds of Alaska Native women who knit each item by hand in a signature pattern of their village.
Visitors can only get as close as the fences allow, but you'll have no problem seeing the handful of new calves born each spring.
If you have spare time after that, head to the funky and fun town of Talkeetna, where you can catch a flightseeing tour around the flanks of North America’s tallest peak — and sample tasty food and local beer after you’re done.
3 days: Kachemak cornucopia
If you drive, getting from Anchorage to Homer on the shore of Kachemak Bay takes about five hours (it’s less than an hour if you’re flying). Once there, many options await in this scenic town with a Bohemian vibe.
From Homer Spit, dozens of sport fishing boats take anglers out for a day of halibut fishing. Most passengers take home their two-fish limit; one must be a small fish no more than 28 inches, but the second could be a bruiser weighing more than 200 pounds. With halibut fillets typically costing more than $20 a pound at your grocer’s seafood counter, a day of fishing for more than $200 seems quite reasonable.
Once back on land, wander the iconic Homer Spit, the 4 1/2-mile wisp of land that juts into the bay, while you wait for your halibut to be vacuum-packed.
The Spit houses the community’s boat harbor, barge terminal, large vessel dock, charter fishing operations, adventure outfits, trinket stores, art shops, seasonal restaurants, million-dollar condominiums and Homer’s most upscale hotel.
Visitors come from all over the world for the unobstructed views of two mountain ranges, four volcanoes and miles and miles of open sea. They buy fish and chips, ulus, hoodies and lattes. And they belly up to one of Alaska’s most famous bars, the Salty Dawg Saloon, which is housed in a log cabin that has served — over the last century — as a coal company office, railroad station, grocery store, residence and post office.
Even if you’re not terribly hungry, stop at the Little Mermaid restaurant or you’ll regret it. Its fresh seafood, local produce and hand-tossed pizzas are all memorable. If you don’t have to wait before being seated, consider yourself blessed.
At 5 p.m. that evening, or the next, take the 29-passenger Danny J Ferry ($41) across the bay to Halibut Cove and sample another delicious dinner at The Saltry Restaurant before making the return trip at 9 p.m. This is more fine dining on locally grown or caught food. Coastal Living website author Ann Hood called it “the best meal of my life.
“I have only four brief hours to eat halibut ceviche and oysters and shrimp poke, to wash it down with a Kung Fu Girl Riesling or King Estate Pinot Gris. ... There is no place in the world with food this artful, this good, with this view. As I board the Danny J, full and happy and clutching my jar of pickled salmon, I know one thing for sure. I will do it again someday.”
To fill in any free time, consider:
• The Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies and, in particular, its Creatures of the Dock Tour.
• Bishop’s Beach Park, where you and the kids can make all sorts of intertidal discoveries in tide pools.
• Homer Farmers Market. Smaller, friendlier and funkier than big markets in Anchorage and Fairbanks. Open Wednesday and Saturday.
• Two Sisters Bakery: This Homer mainstay located off Bishop’s Beach makes killer pastries. Make it your last stop on the way out of town and stock up on savory pastries, Danishes and a strong cup of fair trade, organic coffee for the road.
5 days: Kings and corn
Visitors with gobs of money who want an unforgettable experience guaranteed to wow their friends might sample a package dubbed “Kings and Corn” by the Tordrillo Mountain Lodge. The combo pairs late-season heli-skiing with fishing for king salmon, an impressive Alaska double few can claim to have pulled off. One big reason: a $12,000 price tag that includes a stay at the company’s lodge on the Talachulitna River.
“It’s kind of a gem, a little secret we’ve had for years,” said Melanie Roth, the lodge’s director of marketing. “But now people are kind of aware of it. We’ve been doing it so long.”
If photos of hoisting a king salmon and carving turns in the Tordrillo Mountains aren’t impressive enough, there’s this: Among the lodge’s guides are former Olympic gold medal downhill champion Tommy Moe and Dave Hahn, who, according to Outside Magazine, has reached the summit of Everest 15 times — the most of any non-Sherpa climber — and the top of Denali 21 times.
Last year, a Luxury magazine review said that during the mid-June to early July season, there’s “plenty of daylight for waterskiing, stand-up paddleboarding and kayaking around Judd Lake. Apres-ski, relax lakeside in a hot tub with margaritas made with 2,000-year-old glacier ice while a chef makes dinner and selections are pulled from a 500-bottle wine cellar."
This time of year, many Alaskans — and more than a few visitors — will be elbow to elbow, combat fishing in various Southcentral waterways. Not you.