Anchorage, Alaska » With 586,412 square miles of land, it is hard to know where to start when visiting Alaska. Anchorage is a solid first choice. It is Alaska’s most populous city and thus has the lion’s share of metropolitan attractions, many of which are located downtown and easily reached by foot. However, with fewer than 300,000 residents and spacious acreage, the area still feels commodious. Family friends who are longtime residents of Anchorage recently offered to show us around their hometown, and three generations of our ohana eagerly took them up on it.
Located between Denali National Park to the north and the cruise port-studded coastline with its scenic Kenai Peninsula to the south, Anchorage is a convenient stopping point for a road trip. Yes, winters can be frigid, averaging 20 degrees. However, summer months average a temperate 65 degrees with up to 24 hours of daylight during the summer solstice, providing extended sightseeing time.
A must-see on any visitor’s list is the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, whose Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center, Thomas Planetarium and Imaginarium Discovery Center opened last year. The former is the museum’s crown jewel, with comprehensive exhibits of Alaska Native culture with objects ranging from ceremonial clothing to everyday utensils.
The center engages the senses: Visitors can touch oversize computer screens to delve further into the background of various artifacts, watch films of Alaska native narratives and hear elders recount stories. The latter takes place in the Listening Space against a backdrop of sounds such as moving ice, a clan house hearth fire, Athabascan fiddle music and the rushing Yukon River.
IF YOU GO …
The adjacent ConocoPhillips Gallery displays contemporary native art. On the next two levels are changing exhibitions, with a lovely view of Anchorage and the surrounding Chugach Mountains from the top floor.
The Alaska History Gallery is another highlight. A huge oil pipeline, hanging kayaks, replicas of native homes, and tools used during the gold rush are among the many well-documented exhibits and dioramas on display. This comprehensive gallery covers Alaska’s history through the present day.
Back downstairs, the state’s stunning landscape is the focus of the North Gallery. The most fun is the Imaginarium Discovery Center, where children and children-at-heart can launch a miniature hot-air balloon, generate an earthquake, stand inside a bubble and create an aurora borealis. Nearby, the auditorium and Thomas Planetarium offer a variety of films and shows.
Downtown Anchorage is easily walkable. Just three blocks north of the museum is the Anchorage Market and Festival, and along the way, at Fourth Avenue and D Street, is the starting point for the annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which ends in Nome, more than 1,000 miles away.
The Anchorage Market and Festival is the city’s answer to the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet with its lively gathering of vendors, locals and tourists. It’s the place to find unusual omiyage: mammoth ivory fossils, aurora borealis photos, ulu knives, moose-shaped charms, Russian Matryoshka nesting dolls and scrimshaw. Reindeer jerky, birch candy and Alaska honey all fall under the "eat local" rubric. There is even a Kids’ Market where proceeds from the items sold go to help local children. The free entertainment includes vocal performances, poetry readings, magic shows and dance demonstrations.
Walking two blocks south past the quaint log cabin Visitor Center and then two blocks west leads pedestrians to the start of the Anchorage Light Speed Planet Walk. This unique scale model of the solar system has stations for the sun and each of the planets laid out so that each step between orbits represents 300,000 kilometers.
Half a dozen blocks to the west is Elderberry Park and the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. Not far along the trail is Resolution Point, where a statue of Capt. Cook gazes seaward (in winter it is easy to imagine he is hoping to find the warm weather of Polynesia). From here, on a clear day, there are expansive views of Cook Inlet, Mount Susitna (aka the Sleeping Lady) and Mount McKinley. The trail is frequented by bicyclists, who enjoy the seaside panoramas as well as the opportunity to sight bears, moose and beluga.
The Alaska Native Heritage Center is a few miles east of downtown and well worth a visit. At the center’s Gathering Place, dance, songs, storytelling and other performances are presented frequently. The theater shows five different films every half-hour on a rotating basis. In the Hall of Cultures there are artist studios, a statehood exhibit, a children’s art adventure area and cultural galleries covering Alaska’s 11 native cultures and 21 languages.
Outside, five sites representing the major native groups are situated around Lake Tiulana. These include the Athabascan; Yup’ik and Cup’ik; Inupiaq and St. Lawrence Island Yupik; Unangax and Alutiiq (Sugpiaq); and the Eyak, Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian. Each area has a life-size replica of a traditional home where staff workers provide cultural lectures and demonstrate skills such as totem pole carving. Guests can wander through the sites on their own or take one of the 75-minute guided tours. Gray whale bones, underground residences and split-bow kayaks are among the many intriguing exhibits.
For those who have time for a day trip, an hour’s drive south of Anchorage is Portage Valley in Chugach National Forest, which offers opportunities to hike a glacier, fish for trout, watch salmon head upstream, and cruise picturesque Portage Lake with its floating chunks of aquamarine ice. The Begich, Boggs Visitor Center houses award-winning exhibits, provides educational lectures and features the film "Voices from the Ice."
Nine miles south along Portage Glacier Highway is the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, reputedly the longest highway tunnel in North America at 2.5 miles. The tunnel is one-way and shared by both vehicles and trains, so be sure to check the alternating schedule before heading down. At the end of the tunnel is Whittier, a sparsely populated city but frequent port of call for cruise ships, with a picturesque harbor flanked by snowcapped mountains.
Alaska is indeed the Last Frontier in many ways, with its vast stretches of wilderness, arctic climate and remote location shaping its unique culture. When exploring Anchorage and its environs, understanding these values will lead to a deeper understanding of Alaska and its people.
Monica Quock Chan is a Honolulu-based freelance writer.