Top Things to Do in Southern Alaska
Alaska is one of those states that is like that project you say you will always finish or get to but never actually gets done. I always hear people say how they want to visit Alaska but I know of only a couple that have actually made the trek out there. I am telling you this now, stopping putting this visit off and get out there right away.
As soon as the plane started descending below the clouds and I could see the mountain ranges going on forever, I do not think my jaw dropped from the beauty that was surrounding every corner while I was there. We were only able to scratch a tiny part of the state but could only imagine how beautiful some of those more remote, untouched landscapes could be.
You will probably start your journey in Anchorage, being the largest city in the state with the biggest airport to fly in to. One thing to remember when planning your trip is what time of the year are you going to visit. If you come in the winter plan for little to no daylight or if you come in the summer plan for daylight pretty much 24/7. This was probably one of the coolest experiences coming from somewhere that has sunlight half the day year round. So having to force your self to bed at 11 at night even though it felt like 2 in the afternoon was an interesting feeling.
Once in Anchorage you can call the city your home base and venture out to some of the top things I think you should do. Or you can do what we did and stayed in Anchorage a couple days and do the southern activities and then we headed a little farther north to Wasilla (shoutout to Krazy Moose Subs) for the rest of the trip to do all the northern activities. And obviously get yourself a rental car because nothing is ever near each other in this state.
Fly Through the Denali National Park
I am going to start off with my top thing you should do in Alaska, take a flight through the mountains that make up Denali National Park. This section is going to be a bit full of information to help you plan as I am sure a lot of people’s top things they want to do when visiting Alaska is go to Denali National Park. And you might be surprised to hear I never stepped foot in the park, GASP! I know might be a bit surprising.
Here is why I skipped going into the National Park (on foot since you still have to buy a park pass even for flights since we still technically entered the park) versus doing a flying tour of the park. First thing to know is you can only go 15 miles into the park via your own personal vehicle so if you want to go the entire 92 miles of the road you will either need to jump on the bus or walk. It should be noted the road also does not go the entire length of the park only about half of it and the bus tours take anywhere from 6 to 12 hours to do.
Unless you plan on spending a couple days in the area either by camping in the park or staying in any of the surrounding wilderness lodges then a day trip would be a very long day. This was a bit much for us with only having a little over a week in the state and several other activities we wanted to do, so something I thought would be good to point out to others planning their trip.
Another reason for flying is the airstrip the planes launch from is half the distance it takes to get to the park. So if you were thinking the 6 to12 hours in the park is not too bad, know it will still take about 4 hours to get to the park if you are coming from Anchorage (and 4 hours back). K2 Aviation (who I recommend flying with as they were incredible) flies out of Talkeetna which is only 2 hours outside of Anchorage. I am going to throw in here that Talkeetna was a surprise hit, the town had such a quaint small town feel with lots of local stores and restaurants all with a rustic lodge atmosphere, pretty much what I would expect an Alaskan town to look like. So this town is also worth the visit.
I think the next reason why I went with a flying tour is I felt like I got much closer to the mountains. My original flight tour I signed up for was going to land us in the middle of the mountain range right on a glacier, unfortunately they had to cancel due to fog rolling in at the top of the mountains making it impossible to land. When researching the park I felt like when on a bus tour, you were still a decent distance away from the mountains. To get up close to the mountain range then would have required some time hiking, which in turn means you would need to budget much more time for the park. Although the one advantage to doing a bus tour through the park allowed for more opportunity to see nature and wildlife roaming naturally through the habitat, something you would not catch from the plane.
I am sure you thought this as soon as you started reading this section was ‘but it probably costs $1,000’. As I mentioned earlier, I went with K2 Aviation as they had phenomenal reviews (and I echo them) and their tours range from $230 to $370 each with an additional $100 if you want a glacier landing (which I would recommend going for, not every day you get to land on a glacier in the middle of some of the highest mountains). Yes, a bit steep but when you compare to the cost of doing one of the bus tours in the park, it was not all that more expensive. The full bus tours through the park range from $101 to $240, with the price going up the longer the tour will last and the longer the tour the more immersive it will be. If you do not want to pay for a bus tour and just want to explore on your own, the transit bus will vary from $50 minimum, pending how far into the park you want to go the price will go up. Thus the prices could be very similar between going into the park versus doing a flight.
I ended up taking the Denali Experience Flight Tour (with glacier landing which I mentioned ended up getting canceled). Its about an hour flight on a small plane that fits probably about 20 people max. One lucky person may even get to sit up in the cockpit. The pilot will even talk to you about what your flying over and can ask questions back to him.
This was one of the best experiences I had ever done on one of my vacations and highly recommend everyone to do this when coming to Alaska. I am sure if I was able to land on a glacier in the middle of the mountains with Denali in the background would have made it so much better. I hope this gives some insight in helping you decide how to do Denali National Park as this was one of our more logistic-ly discussed parts of the trip.
Visit a Glacier
If you opt out of flying through Denali or just skip the glacier landing add on do not worry, there are other ways to check out Alaska’s many glaciers. One of the easiest, most accessible glaciers near Anchorage is the Matanuska Glacier. You can pretty much drive your car right to the bottom edge of the glacier and hike on it as soon as you get out of the car. The ride takes about two hours from Anchorage but well worth it driving through the valley between two snow capped mountain ranges. Just make sure you pack proper clothing and shoes as it is ice after all. You can climb on the glacier at your own pace or there are several tours in the area if you would rather explore the glacier with a guide.
If you want a little more adventure for your glacial visit consider Portage Glacier. Unlike Matanuska’s steps from your car door access, once you park your car in Whittier it will take about six miles round trip on the Portage Pass Trail if you hike all the way to the glacier (about two miles less if you only go to when the trail drops you off at the edge of Portage Lake). The views will be great and different from Matanuska, which melts off into a river along the highway, Portage melts off into a giant glacial lake surrounded by pretty much nothing but nature and mountains. You can even catch the glacial waterfall run offs from the Burns Glacier if you trek all the way to the base of Portage Glacier. This hike is also about an hour and a half car ride from Anchorage, as long as you time yourself correctly to go through the tunnel. I know what you are thinking, wait, what? Yes, you will have to drive through a two and a half mile one way tunnel over a shared roadway with the railroad. So every half hour for fifteen minutes the direction of traffic switches and make sure to remember to pay the toll for use of the tunnel. Maybe its because I do not really have unique, long tunnels where I live but I thought this experience was quite unique.
If you do not want to deal with passing through the tunnel or hiking six miles you can also take a cruise around Portage Lake out to the glacier. You can take the one hour cruise through Portage Glacier Cruise for $45/ticket or if you do not feel like driving from Anchorage have them pick you up for $90.
I would recommend though if you are going to do a cruise (which I recommend doing), just make the trek through the tunnel out to Whittier and do a Phillips Cruise Glacier Tour. This tour allows you to see several different glaciers in Passage Canal and Blackstone Bay as well as several turquoise waterfalls like you are in an exotic location and not the wilderness of Alaska. You may even get lucky like we did and also get to experience the beauty of whales and otters swimming through the bay. The shorter three hour cruise is about $130 while the longer six hour cruise costs about $160 but both come with a hot meal and the ability to purchase alcohol on board and the overall tour was totally worth it. As I mentioned earlier, even in the dead of summer remember to dress appropriately as it can still be freezing out. The cruise recommends checking out the town before your cruise but in my opinion I do not think you need to do this. Whittier is pretty much just a cargo port with a couple small places to grab food or a gift so I do not think it is necessary to spend much time in the actual town.
Visit a (Abandoned) Gold Mine
One thing Alaska is known for is their infamy during the gold rush and because of this they had several mines. I would recommend checking out the Independence Mine State Historical Park especially if you are taking a trek out to the Matanuska Glacier, as the Hatcher Pass Road that the mine is located off is not far off the route. The park is filled with several abandoned buildings and old mining equipment, tracks and trestles. Just pay the $5 parking fee and allow yourself to go on a self guided tour of the camp. The location is also breathtaking being placed in a bowl at the top of a mountain giving stunning views of the surrounding area. When you are done exploring the mine you can also explore the surrounding hiking trails, but be prepared even in the summer this area can still be filled with snow. The road up to the mine, Hatchers Pass, is also great with its many twisty curves going up the mountain allowing for ample overlooks into the valley below as well as the turquoise blue rivers from the melting mountain snow.
You can also visit places for panning for gold but I would recommend maybe just passing on these. I find these places usually gimmicky and never find any gold anyways.
Take a Ride on the Alyeska Aerial Tram
Less than an hour south of Anchorage is the Alyeska Ski Resort and its aerial tram. The view from the top of the mountain into the valley and bay in the distance is incredible. Although not much to do at the top, there is a restaurant to eat at which continues the views into the valley and bay, making this one of the most amazing restaurant views I have had. The cost for the tram is $35 or with a $20 dining credit the ticket costs $45, thus you get $10 in free dining credit. You wont need a lot of time here but the views from the top is totally worth it. And the short time here is ok because even the drive down Seward Highway to the resort is one of the most beautiful drives I have ever taken. The road winds right along the bay with the massive mountains jutting up to the sky on the other side of the water. There are several turnoffs to stop and take in the beauty. You may even get a view of some whales swimming along side you.
Once done with exploring the mountain top I recommend exploring the surrounding area. The trail I recommend taking is the Winner Creek Trail. This trail is a rolling trail that meanders along the Winner Creek half the time. There is one unique part of the trail where you have to cross Glacier Creek. You might be wondering what’s so unique about crossing a river? Well since the passage over the river sits high in the air you actually will cross in a hand tram. Yes a cart that you have to pull yourself across on, or if you are there during a busy time the people waiting on each side will pull the tram across for you.
Since this trail is a six mile there and back trek, you will have to do this part twice but definitely a cool interesting experience, especially when you are not expecting it. Or if you have multiple cars, you can leave one at the parking area for the entrance to the Winner Creek Gorge Trail Head so that then you do not have to backtrack towards the ski resort.
Take a Hike
You are in one of the most naturally beautiful places in the world how can you not go for hike into its stunning wilderness. If you want something a bit more meandering similar to the Winner Creek Trail, check out the massive Kincaid Park just south of the Anchorage Airport. There are miles upon miles of trails to traverse through this park, some right along the waters edge and lots of chances to catch many of the local wildlife from bears to moose and more.
If you want something that’s more of a challenging hike, I recommend checking out the Flattop Mountain Trail. Just on the outskirts of the greater Anchorage area, about thirty minutes, sits the start of this trail. Now you can take one of the shorter but still great views down into the valleys on the one and a half mile Blueberry Loop but I suggest going big. The Flattop Trail is just over three miles with 1400ft of elevation gain. It might sound like a lot at first but the first half of the inclined section was nicely set up with stairs and a nice flat section half way up to take a break and enjoy the view. We unfortunately did not make it all the way up to Flattop Peak but can only imagine the views from the top. There is also a nice overlook area right next to the parking lot as well looking down into greater Anchorage for those that might want to get decent views but can not hike too much.
Another hike I would suggest checking out is the Twin Peaks Trail. This hike is about an hour outside Anchorage or about thirty minutes south of Wasilla (or a good halfway stop if traveling between the two cities). The entire trail is about eight miles there and back but you do not need to do the entire trail as there are random points on the trail to get some amazing views into the valley at Eklutna Lake surrounded by the towering mountain ranges. If you do not want to go climbing in elevation you can stay down along the lake on the Eklutna Lakeside Trail. This is also a very long there and back trail but easy to go and turn around when you think you’ve had enough time taking in the beauty of Alaska’s nature.
Ride the Rails
Another top thing you should do is take the train through Alaska Railroad from Anchorage down to Seward known as the Coastal Classic Train. For half of the ride you are riding right along with the water and mountains beyond. This section pretty much parallels the Seward Highway you will take to get to Alyeska Resort and any of glacier cruises (just now everybody gets to sit back and enjoy the amazing scenery instead of someone driving). Once the train hits Portage you leave the water and travel through the high mountains till you get to Seward with nothing but you, the train and breathtaking nature. Once in Seward you will have some time to explore the town as well before the train turns back to Anchorage in the afternoon. If you do not want to explore the town on your own you can partake in several day activities instead then.
The train also has food and beverage access to make the ride that much more enjoyable and relaxing. You can also explore on the train and sit in the Vista Dome car to get almost 360 views with the roof also being glass as well. This trip is a bit expensive at about $179 per person with nothing included so be aware of this, about the same price of the glacier cruise but nothing included but the beautiful ride.
Catch Your Dinner
One last thing I recommend doing is going on a fishing trip. What better way to get fresh Alaskan salmon then from an actual Alaskan river. It can not get any fresher then that. Although I am not a seafood fan, yes I know it surprises many people since I am a foodie, I still love going out and casting a line (and I had plenty of friends that offered to take my catch). And yes, some of the charters will be able to pack and ship your fish back to your home if you do not plan on cooking it for dinner that night.
There are several fishing trips you can take, most a couple hours outside of Anchorage. You can head north and take some trips in Susitna River Valley or head south for the Kenai River. Most trips will cost a couple hundred dollars and you will also need fishing licenses and a king salmon stamp. Although your fishing charter should know the rules, do beware that Alaska has fishing regulations that if they reach their catch threshold, this could keep you from being able to catch any salmon (as what happened in our case and our charter was canceled). If you are luckier then us and get on a charter make sure to pay attention to what your charter requires of you.
These are not so much big activities to do but thought I would give a couple other things you should check out.
Anchorage Market – This is a huge flea market in downtown Anchorage with lots of local vendors selling various products from local items to kitchy touristy items. They even have entertainment and a decent amount of food stalls. The market happens on Saturdays and Sundays in the summer months.
Moose’s Tooth Pub & Pizzeria – One of the highest rated places to eat in Anchorage and I see why. The pizza is delicious (no New Haven pizza but still tasty) and they even make some decent house beers. The place is popular which means it is always busy so build this into your time frame or you can grab a beer and hang out in the courtyard while you wait for an open table.
Wild Scoops – Also in downtown Anchorage not far from the flea market is this homemade ice cream shop. They make small batch unique flavored ice cream like Pecan Pie, Pumpkin Gingerbread, even Beet ice cream. The always have a long line out the door so you know its good.
Any Roadside Drive Thru Coffee Hut – Maybe this is just me but it was so unique to constantly drive by these random coffee huts placed in the most random places that are smaller then my apartment bathroom. And all you do is drive up right to the window, which makes up most of the side of the building and go. I know what your saying that is how a drive thru usually works. I get it, I think it was just so interesting to see these tiny coffee huts everywhere that I had never seen before especially when the only coffee I will pass on my way to work is Dunkin about 50 times.
If your wondering why I left one big one off my top things to do list, dog sledding (I mean I get it, Alaska is know for the Iditarod and you remember watching Balto), well that is because I did not do it nor researched it. Years ago in Canada I had done dog sledding in the heart of winter in Quebec and had a blast sledding on actual snow and felt like it would not be the same trying to do some summer dog “sledding”, which is really just being pulled in a cart. If you so desire to do summer dog sledding go for it, I just think half the experience is actually sledding on snow. If you find yourself in Wasilla though there is a small Iditarod museum with some artifacts from the races and a short video to watch. If your lucky they may even have some sled dogs on sight to see or puppies to check out. And if you do they, they have a short track circuit that the dogs can pull you around in a cart on for a few dollars.
So there you have it, my top things you should do when visiting the Southern portion of Alaska. Have you been before? What were some of your top things to do when you went? If you have not been before hopefully this encourages to make Alaska your next vacation destination.