Where should I go in Alaska?
January 27, 2012 9:29 AM   Subscribe

Yet another travel question. I am hoping to go to Alaska with my sisters either in July or August. I know there are lots of Alaska questions already about specific cities/towns but… I don't even know which part of Alaska to go to!

We're coming from NY. We're four women, ages 21-32. Um… we'd like to do this on a reasonable budget. We have probably 5-7 days for this trip.

Things we're interested in doing - this is tricky. Some of us are into the outdoorsy side of things - hiking, fishing, climbing, seeing wildlife, kayaking, etc. Some of us are into the vacation aspect - eating in nice restaurants, drinking at bars, relaxing in beautiful places, maybe going to a spa or hot springs? I particurly love live music, museums, festivals and stuff like that. I guess my question is, what part of Alaska should we visit that has something for everyone? Should we bother trying to travel between two cities/regions or will we not have enough time?

I'm sure I will post questions in the future about hotel recommendations and stuff like that, but for now I just need to know where to focus my research!
posted by silverstatue to Travel & Transportation (10 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I can personally vouch for these locations being just swell in the summertime:
  • Based in Anchorage, you can explore the Chugach Mountains and Cook Inlet.
  • Homer/Seward/Kenai Peninsula. You can feast on fresh salmon and halibut right out of the water in Seward during the summer.
  • Denali National Park (be prepared for rain/cool weather if you go in August)

posted by Currer Belfry at 9:42 AM on January 27, 2012

Have you considered a cruise? The outdoorsy people can book shore excursions, and the vacationy people will have a ship full of restaurants/bars/spas/live music that travels with them.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:46 AM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

You can do outdoor stuff everywhere in AK.

There is only one place resembling a 'city' in AK and that is Anchorage. If you look at the Anchorage real estate listings, you will see every fourth house is pictured with a moose in the front yard. You can do outdoor stuff inside the city limits of Anchorage.
posted by bukvich at 9:53 AM on January 27, 2012

Chena Hot Springs is about an hour north of Fairbanks, and probably one of the best things to do around Fairbanks. The other hot springs are not developed and not really suitable for tourists.

But Fairbanks is in the Interior, 300 miles from Anchorage. If you're interested in visiting Interior, I'd highly, highly recommend taking the Alaska Railroad from Anchorage to Fairbanks, with a stop at Denali for a day (train Anchorage -> Denali, ~4 hours, stay overnight, explore park for a day (take a bus tour), stay a second night, next day train Denali -> Fairbanks, ~4 hours).

The train is probably the best way to travel from Anchorage to Fairbanks and see things. Fairbanks is uh, kind of small and I wouldn't plan more than a day. For instance, you could fly in from Anchorage, bum around on the coast, take the train up to Fairbanks, go to the hot springs, then fly out of Fairbanks. That could be a nice trip. But it sounds like you want more coastal stuff, so:

Along the coast, Homer was interesting to visit. The drive from Anchorage to Seward is very pretty. Seward has a nice sea life center. The drive coming into Valdez is also beautiful. (But driving anywhere in Alaska takes a while - people underestimate how big the state is.) I recommend taking a glacier tour by boat from either Seward or Valdez - take the longest tour, assuming nobody has seasickness issues. You'll see a lot of wildlife and it's a great day trip.

Have a great trip! (No, you probably won't see northern lights in July/August - too much daylight.)
posted by griselda at 10:15 AM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Copper River Valley! I grew up there, and it is amazing in the summer. Not much rain, though if you're unlucky it might be cloudy all week. You could spend a few days there hiking and doing outdoorsy stuff, and then spend the rest of your time in Anchorage for live music, festivals, museums, spas and everything else you're interested in.

I do think it's worth it to get out of Anchorage for a few days. The drive from Anchorage to the Copper River area is great, you'll probably stop like fifty times to take pictures of the mountains and animals you'll see along the way.
posted by lali at 10:17 AM on January 27, 2012

I live in Anchorage and I came in here to say just what bukvich said: Anchorage is the closest thing to a city in Alaska and there is plenty of nature and outdoors-y stuff to do here. Flattop Mountain is very close by that you can climb, Kincaid Park is full of wildlife, the Coastal Trail is awesome for walks and bike rides. It has spas and movies and live entertainment; bars can be found in every single Alaskan town, it just depends on your comfort level.

Anchorage is a great central hub for visiting other places. Towns outside of Anchorage that can be reached with a bit of driving (but the views are spectacular):
-- Girdwood is about a half hour south of Anchorage and is home of Alyeska ski resort - with plenty of summer events and hiking opportunities. There's even a bike trail that goes from Bird Point (very close to Anchorage) to Girdwood that is a beautiful ride.
-- Cooper Landing is 1.5 hours south, great place to float down the Kenai River in a raft and do some fishing.
-- Seward is 2.5 hours south of Anchorage and there are a lot of great day cruises and charters to be done there.
-- Homer is a 4 hour drive south of Anchorage with lots of fishing options.
-- Talkeetna is about 2.5 hours north of Anchorage and they hold a really fun Bluegrass Festival in the beginning of August.
posted by rhapsodie at 10:19 AM on January 27, 2012

bukvich is right, Anchorage is the only real city in Alaska if you want a luxury/vacation experience. If you go to the smaller towns, hotels and such will be more expensive for less amenities, especially in the summer. Be prepared for sticker shock on everything. Food, gas, everything.

I really wouldn't go to Alaska without visiting Denali National Park, for what it's worth. If you're lucky to catch it on a clear day and get to see the mountain, it'll blow your mind.
posted by griselda at 11:01 AM on January 27, 2012

So, if I had a week in Alaska, I would do one of two things

1) Base out of Anchorage with day trips to places north and south (good for scenery, hiking and some city stuff)
2) Base out of Juneau and use the ferry to get to Haines/Sitka/Ketchikan/Gustavus/etc. (great for scenery, water activities and marine life)

Since you want to do some city things as well, however, that leaves you pretty much based in Anchorage. Here are some good threads with all the advice the three regular Anchorage contributors (hey, there, charmcityblues and rhapsodie!) and others have about dining etc.

Here are some (or 1-2) day trips out of Anchorage (mostly) pasted from another thread- you can chain the Girdwood/Seward/Homer trips together, in that order (or the reverse), and do the same with the Palmer/Talkeetna/Denali:

Girdwood: hike the Winner Creek Trail through the rainforest, take the tram up the mountain for a brown bag lunch, hike back to your car and drive to Jack Sprat's for dinner (make sure you have the yam fries) or the Double Musky if you don't mind a long wait. Or hike up to Crow Pass/Raven Glacier and back. Or bike the paved trail from Girdwood to Indian along the Arm. Or sneak into the saltwater pool at the fancy schmancy hotel while your friends use the spa there. Or follow the bore tide up the inlet (google "bore tide" Chugach and 2012 in a month or two when they have the predictions up). On your way further south, stop at the Widlife Conservation Center out of Portage.

Seward: Hike Exit Glacier, or, better, the Harding Ice Field. Best of all, hike the Lost Lake Trail, bring a bathing suit and swim in every lake (be prepared to hitchhike a bit). Or find a 2-1 deal on a Kenai Fjords trip (they're everywhere, or you can spend $100 on an Alaska TourSaver at a grocery store if you're going to to a lot of that kind of stuff); you should get out on the water at least once on your trip.

Homer: take the boat across to the Saltry for lunch. Or go on a bear tour into Katmai (this was seriously awesome, and very expensive, but worth it). Walk on Bishop's Beach, then have breakfast at Two Sisters. Later, dinner at Fat Olive's. Or charter a water taxi and a kayak and get a public cabin or a yurt across the bay for a few days. Drive up to the top of the mountain (I think it's Skyline Drive) for a great view by the radio towers. Or just go to the free ocean museum, or the cheap general museum, or browse around in the art stores. Homer even has a spa! and a meadery, brewery and winery, which all offer tours.

Palmer: hike the super-gorgeous and interesting Reed Lakes Trail, or if you're not into hiking just drive up to the very top of Hatcher Pass and enjoy the tiny wildflowers and the gorgeous scenery. Lunch at the Red Beet, or dinner at Turkey Red.

Talkeetna: walk around, watch the mountain, wander around the river confluence, buy a just-returned climber a beer at the Talkeetna brewing company, talk to the nice lady at the Flying Squirrel and have some rugelach there. If you're flush and it's a perfect day go flightseeing around Denali- again, expensive, but you'll never forget it. You can also leave on my favorite Alaska hike of all time, Kesugi Ridge, from around here. All of the pullouts on the way up to Denali are worth it.

Denali: Get a trip on an early bus, and take a lunch, water and a bunch of snacks. GET OUT OF THE BUS and wander around any place that looks interesting- some easy simple places like Tattler Creek, Primrose Ridge, at the stop at Polychrome Pass, up pretty much any braided glacial river, and around Eilson Visitor Center. Then just hop on any green bus that is going the right direction and carry on up the road. I personally do not think it is worth it to go past Eilson; it makes for a very very long day if you go to Wonder Lake and it gets progressively less interesting. On your way back to Anchorage, stop at Parks 229 just south of the park for a very nice lunch or dinner that you wouldn't think exists in the middle of nowhere.

If you need any answers/links/recommendations tailored to any specific requests, please feel free to ask.
posted by charmedimsure at 12:49 PM on January 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you so much for these awesome suggestions! I'm going to delve deeper into all the links and stuff after work tonight. Charmedimsure, you're getting some emails from me in the future :)

oh man, the kayak tours... I don't know if I can wait until August. So excited!
posted by silverstatue at 12:57 PM on January 27, 2012

Anchorage might be the closest thing to a city in Alaska, but Juneau is far prettier. (and honestly, I would guess that it has everything that you would want anyways. I would suggest checking out the southeast including Juneau (ie by ferry or other ship) in addition to Kenai peninsula and Denali National Park. Keep in mind that Alaska is huge and these places are all a bit of distance from each other.
posted by fieldtrip at 9:21 PM on January 29, 2012

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