Alaska is big. Extreme weather is kind of its thing. The state is full of bears, moose and other animals you really don't want to tangle with. It's no accident there are reality shows dedicated to highlighting just how dangerous/remote/weird Alaska can be. No wonder so many travelers prefer to let a middleman sort things out. Whether a cheap cruise or an expensive fishing trip, if you want to have your hand held -- or if you just feel like blowing a bunch of cash -- operators are standing by. It doesn't have to be like that, though. Anyone with a bit of common sense (and maybe a bit of water-resistant gear) can easily cobble together a great introductory visit to the 49th state on their own. Here's how you do it.
First, fly to Anchorage.
More than half of Alaska's population can be found in or around this surprisingly normal city. Anchorage is an easy flight from major gateways in the West and a not-terrible connection from many other major population centers in what Alaskans refer to as "the lower 48." (For a list of the lowest fares available to ANC right now, click here.) Upon landing, pick up a rental car at the airport and point it towards your hotel, just as you would anywhere else. There's no truly great place to stay in Anchorage; go with what gives you the best value for your money. For example, a handful of new-ish properties in the Midtown area (the SpringHill Suites, located on scenic University Lake, is fine) offer free wireless internet, parking and breakfast, plus larger rooms and suites -- perfect for families.
Good. Now, stay.
Alaskans who do not live there are fond of saying (over and over again!) that Anchorage is just thirty minutes from Alaska. Dumb joke, yes, but also a statement of fact -- the array of adventure on the city's doorstep is mind-blowing. Not that you even need to leave town to get your nature on -- cyclists will see plenty of wildlife on the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, a paved, 11-mile stretch leading out of the center of town and down along Turnagain Arm, the giant body of water that stops the city in its tracks on three sides. Rent some wheels (Trek Store -- in Midtown, next to the Embassy Suites -- is the real deal) and go. For more adventurous types, Flattop Mountain (elev. 3,510 feet) is a popular spot for a bit of exercise. Here, you're basically rock scrambling by the end; winds can whip up so fast on the treeless peak, you may have to squat to keep from being blown over. When all's said and done, you might feel a little like Shackleton, but to many Alaskans, this 1.5-mile climb is a mere stroll in Central Park.
Now, go hike a glacier.
Feeling like a big man or lady? As previously stated, Flattop's nothing. To really up your street cred, go for a glacier hike. Nothing fancy required -- just get out of bed, grab a coffee at one of Anchorage's many fine caffeine dispensaries (SteamDot Coffee and Side Street Espresso are best, while we're on the subject) and drive out north (two hrs.) along the Glenn Highway, past the town of Palmer, toward Matanuska Glacier. Some people drive to the beach in the summer, Alaskans go hang out on glaciers. All you need is the proper footwear and the admission fee (it's up to $20 per person nowadays, still worth it) and you're set. For a more in-depth experience, outfitters near the glacier will get you all geared up with crampons, helmet and trekking pole, but it's not essential. For an even softer adventure, head south of town (2.5 hrs) to Kenai Fjords National Park, where Exit Glacier can be viewed via a tame, one-mile loop from the visitors center.
Next, see the rainforest.
What better way to follow up a glacier hike with a day in the rainforest? In winter, the town of Girdwood, a little over half an hour from Anchorage, is ski central; in summer, you come for the outstanding hiking. A five-mile loop through Winner Creek Gorge takes you into coastal rainforest that'll have you feeling as if you've stepped into a more temperate Jurassic Park, but with bears instead of dinosaurs. Some hikers prefer to go the guided route, and that's fine -- for $69, guides from The Ascending Path will take you out on a fun, two to three hour excursion.
Now, go rafting. Or floating.
Ever been floating? Not in your pool, but on a raft, down a river? It's the ultimate lazy man's adventure, but you've already hiked on a glacier and through a rainforest, so go ahead, take the day off. Two-hour tours ($59) down the Upper Kenai River with Alaska River Trips are the sort of thing anyone could handle, while the more adventurous and easily bored should definitely look into NOVA's challenging Six Mile Creek whitewater trip in the Chugach National Forest. The half-day trip down Class 1V-V rapids (that's some serious rapids) costs $99-$149 depending on the tour. Not only is it a great trip, the guides do all the thinking for you, providing any necessary gear and guidance. Bonus: On a warm day, you can go swimming before and after. Both of these excursions are, once again, a reasonable drive out of Anchorage.
Finally, make sure to hit Prince William Sound.
You know those pictures of everyone out on the deck of a ship, gawking at glaciers? (Like the one above?) And you think to yourself, oh, my, that would be nice, to just cruise past a bunch of glaciers? Here's a tip: To get to the really good stuff, you've got to get off the big boat and on to a little one. So why not just book the little one yourself? One of the better glacier viewing cruises you can do in Alaska is the one through Prince William Sound. Phillips Cruises & Tours operates out of the weird little town of Whittier, about an hour and a half from Anchorage. Two cruises are offered, one at $99 and one at $149; the latter takes in no less than 26 glaciers during the five-hour sailing. Either way, you're getting face time with one of the most incredible bits of real estate in what you've already gathered is a pretty incredible state. Lunch is included.
Remember to make time for the city itself.
There are plenty of things to do in Anchorage that don't involve nature -- it's a real city, one that can be a lot of fun, particularly in summer, when festivals and farmers markets crowd the calendar. Eating and drinking here can be a lot of fun as well -- if you can, get down to the mostly tourist-free (for now) Midnight Sun Brewing Co. for solid beers and beer-appropriate eats. See-worthy attractions are a little scarce, but the Anchorage Museum, with its David Chipperfield-designed expansion, a large collection of Alaskan art and artifacts, the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center and a great planetarium shouldn't keep you away from the great outdoors for too long, but this is definitely worth a visit if time allows.
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All photos courtesy of Travel Alaska and the Anchorage Convention and Visitors Bureau.