Alaska is the farthest north and west US state. Portions of the state are due north of Hawai’i and the Marquesas Islands. It is also the largest state, so unless you are planning to spend a month here, I’m going to make the strong suggestion that you focus on a particular region. Alaska is not really a place where you can sprint and do all the things in a week so we are breaking it down into a three-part series: Southeast Alaska, Southcentral Alaska, and Denali and the Best of the Rest (including lodges, aurora viewing, and places off the beaten path).
From the second greatest tidal swing in North America to glaciers, the Kenai Fjords National Park, and the highest peak in North America (Denali), Southcentral Alaska is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream come true. In part II of this series, I will focus on the key spots to visit in Southcentral Alaska: Kenai, Anchorage, Mat-Su Valley, & Talkeetna. This article discusses summer travel, but I will share more about winter travel in part III.
There’s only one big airport: Anchorage. The only other large airport for out-of-state flights in this part of the state is Fairbanks, which will be covered in part III. Speaking of airports, we are back to pre-Covid airport traffic levels. Sometimes airport security takes a REALLY long time if you aren’t TSA PreCheck so make sure you arrive two hours early if you are going through the main line. And yes, there are lots of other small landing strips in the region as we Alaskans love jumping in tiny planes and landing on dirt, water, and ice.
In Anchorage, visit the Alaska Native Heritage Center to learn about the many tribes that comprise the overarching term “Alaska Native,” check out the Anchorage Museum, play in one of the many parks, hike up Flat Top, or picnic and watch planes take off at Lake Hood, the world’s busiest seaplane base.
There’s only one road in and out of Anchorage. Rent a car or RV, but do it WAY in advance. There are almost no rental cars available in the summer (for example a 3-day rental in June 2021 cost $800 USD). Alternatively, take the train—it is a great, cost-effective option that avoids the hassle of driving and leaves you free for wildlife spotting!
Now it’s time to make a choice: north toward Denali or south to the Kenai Peninsula? We have two seasons, winter and construction, so an easy 40 mile drive on a map does not equate with 40 minutes. Since there’s often only one road, there’s no alternate route if the road closes due to an accident.
The Southern Route
Heading south takes you down the Turnagain Arm, an often windy, two-lane road that weaves along the edges of mountains and water toward the Kenai Peninsula. The tidal changes are so dramatic that there are bore tides. The really adventurous folks surf or kayak them while others kite surf with the wind. The Seward Highway (named for its final destination) takes you past Girdwood and Alyeska Ski Resort. Take the tram up to the top for amazing views!
With kids, a great stop is at the end of the arm at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC). Almost all of Alaska’s zoos and wildlife centers are primarily rescued operations and AWCC also has a bison breeding program! AWCC is located in what used to be Portage, a town wiped off the map during the magnitude 9.2 Good Friday earthquake in 1964. If you keep an eye out you can spot ruins of cabins. From there you can go towards Portage Lake and Whittier (with glacier cruises on more tranquil water) or continue south towards Seward or Homer. A trip to Whittier requires a drive through the longest highway tunnel in North America (2.5 miles). It is a one-way adventure and the direction changes every 30 minutes.
If you head onto the Kenai Peninsula, you are headed into what often gets called Alaska’s playground. Beautiful scenery, stunning rivers, and peaceful lakes. This is where people go fishing for salmon and halibut. The Russian River is a fly fisher’s dream. The Kenai and Kasilof Rivers are sport fishing and dip netting territory. Homer and Seward offer charters for offshore fishing. The Kenai boasts white water rafting on Six Mile Creek. The hikes are too numerous to name, although popular local favorites include Resurrection Pass (38 miles), Russian River Falls, and Exit Glacier.
Seward, on the NE of the peninsula, is the jump point for cruises into Kenai Fjords National Park. There are a number of different companies that offer tours of varying lengths. Personally, I like the middle-length ones—long enough to get a good shot at seeing all the animals and glaciers, but not so long that I rue being on the boat. Find a catamaran-style and take Bonine if you get a little queasy because the Gulf of Alaska gets swells. Seward also has the Alaska SeaLife Center, which is great for kids! Exit Glacier, near Seward, is both beautiful and heartbreaking. It is a kid-friendly hike where there are signposts marking the years of the glacier’s recession. There is a more strenuous trail connected that leads to the Harding Ice Field.
Homer, at the southern tip, has a hippie vibe with great fishing and incredible views. Activities include hikes, fishing and sea kayaking in Kachemak Bay. You can easily do flightseeing to Katmai National Park out of Homer if you want to go in search of the biggest brown bears in the world.
The Northern Route
Heading north from Anchorage takes you to Wasilla, Palmer, and Talkeetna. Near Palmer, fun things include a Musk Ox Farm and walking on Matanuska Glacier. Hatcher Pass is beautiful for hiking in the summer and cross-country skiing in winter. Wasilla was where Sarah Palin used to live (no, you can’t see Russia) and is the largest town in the area outside of Anchorage. You pass through it on the way toward Denali and Talkeetna.
There are many fun fishing creeks and lakes with campgrounds out this way: Montana Creek, Nancy Lake State Rec Site, and Byers Lake Campground just to name a few. You can find cabins for rent all over this region.
Talkeetna is the jump-off point for Denali climbers and a major tourist attraction. It is a quaint little village with an old historic main strip and a laid-back vibe. This is where you go flightseeing to Denali without going into the park. While there are lots of options, our little family and one other recently used K2 Aviation for a 2-hour flight. Our kids (ages, 2, 4, 5, and 6) were treated amazingly well. They had car seats already installed in the planes for the youngest 3 (the 6-year-old got a booster pad) and special child-sized earmuffs to block the plane noise. Our little ones LOVED it. Once we were on the ground, they were gifted stickers and little wooden planes they flew all over the property. We did a two-hour flight and the kids all passed out at the 90-minute mark. The pilot said they made it longer than normal. This is the larger of the planes, a 10-seater. You can go from Anchorage to Talkeetna and back in a day, but it is an all-day adventure.
Pro tips when visiting Southcentral Alaska:
- Touch the glacier at Exit Glacier or Matanuska Glacier.
- If you get seasick, use the tours out of Whittier, not Seward.
- Try the fireweed ice cream.
- Don’t be afraid of flightseeing on small planes.
- Bears and moose could be anywhere. Seriously. Be aware of your surroundings, especially when hiking and keep kids close-ish, making plenty of noise.
Did you miss part 1? Check out all of the amazing things you can find in Southeast Alaska here and keep an eye out for part III where we’ll be exploring Denali and the best of the rest.
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