How to See Alaska Without Stepping Foot on a Crowded Cruise Ship
There's no question that Alaskan cruises are popular, but why not skip the lengthy buffet lines and bingo games. There’s so much more to see when you use Anchorage as a home base and explore the state by train, plane, bike and foot. Here are 10 ways to see Alaska that don’t involve a cruise director or a shore excursions desk.
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Photo By: Erin Gifford
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Get Lost in Alaskan History
There’s so much to learn about Alaska. A fantastic place to start is in Anchorage at the Anchorage Museum, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Here you’ll find exhibits on the first peoples of Alaska, the state’s dramatic landscapes, even advertising and portrayal of Alaska in television shows and ad campaigns. For those eager to see totem poles (outside of popular cruise ship port, Ketchikan, that is), head to the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage, which takes a deep dive into the life and history of Alaska’s native peoples.
It’s an absolute must to see Alaska from the sky by way of a seaplane. Several flightseeing tours depart from Anchorage, some for as little as 30 minutes, taking travelers up and over the Chugach Mountain Range in search of Dall sheep, then across Turnagain Arm to see beluga whales. You may even be able to see Mount Denali in the distance. A few three-hour tours take travelers all the way to the summit of Denali, encircling the regal mountain for all the snaps you can take.
Sample Alaska's Native Fare
To indulge in authentic flavors of Alaska, you won’t need to go further than a parking lot in downtown Anchorage for the weekly Spenard Food Truck Carnival. Here you’ll find Mobile Munchies 907, a simple food truck parked alongside vendors touting fish and chips and pulled pork sandwiches. Order the Halibut Taco Plate or Reindeer Brunch Pizza. Better yet, order both. You won’t want to miss Alaskan fry bread, reindeer sausage and Akutaq (a tasty Eskimo ice cream made with wild berries). You’ll also find reindeer dogs on street corners throughout Alaska.
Ride the Rails Across the State
The Alaska Railroad is a state-owned railroad that takes travelers all across the state, from Fairbanks in the north to Seward in the south, making it a cinch to reach state gems, like Denali National Park and Chugach National Forest, neither of which can be reached by cruise ship. Book a day trip and upgrade to a GoldStar railcar for seats in a glass-dome car and inclusive dining (the Stuffed Sourdough French Toast with reindeer sausage is divine).
Pedal Along Anchorage's Bike Paths
Rent a bike or e-bike in town and set off on the 11-mile Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, which hugs the Cook Inlet in Anchorage. Along the way, there are a number of parks worth a stop, including Earthquake Park. This wooded, interpretive area tells the story of the 1964 earthquake (the largest quake in North America) that created its unusual, hilly landscape. Keep your eyes open for moose, which often stop for a bite alongside (or even on) the bike trail.
Take a Glacier Cruise
Okay, so you do need to set sail, but on a high-speed catamaran, not a huge cruise ship. The five-hour 26 Glacier Cruise with Phillips Cruises & Tours sets off daily from nearby Whittier into Alaska’s Prince William Sound for a look at more than two dozen captivating glaciers, including Surprise Glacier and Harriman Glacier. Keep your eyes open for wildlife too, like sea otters and seals. Watch and listen for glaciers to calve, dropping massive chunks of ice into the ocean.
See the State on Foot
Get off the cruise ship and head for the mountains, like Flattop Mountain at Chugach State Park, which sits just south of Anchorage. The Flattop Peak Trail takes hikers up to the summit for panoramic views. Pose with the U.S. flag firmly planted at the top, a reward for managing the final rock scramble. A less-challenging Blueberry Loop Trail at Chugach State Park affords equally magnificent views with less of an elevation gain. Thunderbird Falls and Bird Ridge are other popular, scenic hiking trails in the area.
Sample the Local Beer Scene
Anchorage has been called an under-the-radar beer town, so you’ll want to visit at least one of the dozen or so in-town breweries to sample an Alaskan ale, pilsner, stout or cider. Double Shovel Cider Co. is Alaska’s first micro-cidery and it’s a local favorite, using hand-picked apples and berries. Spend an afternoon at 49th State Brewing Co., home to one of the best rooftop bars in Anchorage. Sample multiple craft brews on a four-hour guided tour with Big Swig Tours.
Go Whale Watching
There are plenty of ways to see whales in Alaska, including by seaplane and by boat cruise. Many also venture out for a drive along the Seward Highway to Beluga Point, a well-known, rocky outpost for seeing pods of beluga whales from the shoreline. Dedicated whale watching tours, like the four-hour Gray Whale Watching Cruise and Orca Quest Cruise with Major Marine Tours, take guests out to the Kenai Fjords near Seward in hopes of spotting these fascinating mammals.
Take in the Views from Mount Alyeska
Make the short drive to Alyeska Resort, a ski resort in nearby Girdwood. The aerial tram takes travelers on a three- to seven-minute ride up the mountain to an elevation of 2,300 feet to be awed by the views of Alaska from the summit of Mount Alyeska. It’s not uncommon to see bear and moose from the tram, so keep your eyes open. Enjoy lunch from the observation deck and enjoy a short hike before making your way back down the mountain.