So, you’re looking for things to do in Anchorage Alaska?
Many people are taken aback to find that Anchorage is actually a good sized city at almost 300,000. In fact, it is the largest city in Alaska by 267,000! Fairbanks and Juneau vie for the second spot at around 33,000. 40% of Alaska’s residential population lives within the city limits of Anchorage! For the casual tourist, that means there are a lot of amenities and fun things to do in Anchorage.
I first drove into Anchorage in 1996 (read about it here) in an old Ford Bronco with over 200,000 miles that myself and 2 buddies drove from north Alabama. We had a local from Wasilla with us to show us around town. After driving the Alaska Highway through the Canadian Rockies, traveling through the eastern Alaskan Wrangell-St. Elias Mountains, and spending a few days in the more rural areas of the Mat-Su Valley, the inner city life of Anchorage took me by surprise. Some buildings were tall, the traffic was moderate and the options for tourism, shopping and dining were abundant. It took me a couple hours to make the adjustment before I found Anchorage to be a fun place to visit.
Of course, you do have the amenities of modern American city life, but you can drive 10 miles out of town and be in the wild, relatively untamed natural wonders that Alaska is so full of. After having visited Anchorage 7 times, I am going to just give you a few of my favorite things to do. I like cheap adventure, so these are free or inexpensive and still a lot of fun if you just have some time to kill in Anchorage.
Gwennie’s Old Alaska Restaurant: A Great Local Favorite with a Wild Menu
I was first introduced to Gwennie’s in 2008 on the morning I was headed out to the Alaskan Bush via float plane for the first time. I was hanging out with a group of six guys who were visiting Alaska for the first time and we wanted to give them an Alaskan experience on their first morning in the “Last Frontier.” One of the leaders of our trip recommended Gwennie’s on Spenard Road.
As soon as we entered the place, I was sure this was Local Alaska’s finest! The decor included totem poles and Bear mounts. Huge Moose hung on the wall and even giant tusks and a huge Alaskan crab framed in black.
And the people… the people were the best! Large burly bearded men in overalls with their best buddies beside them were scattered throughout the dining areas. It wasn’t overly crowded, but the folks who were there were definitely the locals. We had a long conversation about living in Alaska with our waitress and she did her absolute best to entertain us with great stories and serve us with a true spirit of hospitality.
The menu was not too much different from what you might find in the lower 48, except for the Alaskan crab omelets and the selections made with reindeer sausage. For lunch, you could try the reindeer sausage philly sandwich or enjoy an appetizer of Alaskan halibut chunks. Of course, they had a full selection of Alaskan King Crab, Halibut, Scallops, Shrimp and Oysters. And my favorite, Alaskan Prawns were even on the menu.
What was out of the ordinary with Gwennie’s was the portions. Everything served Alaskan style… huge and more than you can handle! The average plate ranged from $15-25.
Gwennie’s is a great opportunity to experience local Alaskan life and get a great value on some awesome food!
Gwennie’s is located at 4333 Spenard Road in Anchorage.
Alaska Wild Berry Chocolates: A Sweet Place to Visit
I first discovered Alaska Wild Berry Products when my wife first went to Alaska in June of 2000. We ate at SourdoughMining Company (also a favorite eatery in Anchorage) and made our way across the parking lot to Wild Berry Chocolate. When we walked in the front door, we knew this place was going to be special.
The lobby of Wild Berry host what the company calls “The World’s Largest Chocolate Fall.” The fountain is a 6 tier tall chocolate waterfall making it’s way down the tin wall of the lobby. The fall was built when the new location was opened in 1994. Wild Berry’s website states: “It incorporates over 3000 pounds of chocolate, authentic copper candy kettles, and a specially built warming and mixing system. The chocolate gushes out of the fountain, cascades down the kettles, the settles in the swirling chocolate pool.” It is a sight to see.
After checking out the chocolate fall, you can shop the amazing gift shop and candy store of Alaska Wild Berry.
You can find Alaska Wild Berry at 5225 Juneau Street, Anchorage, AK 99518.
Flattop Mountain Trail: The Wilderness Hike with a City View
The 1.5 mile Flattop Mountain trail takes the hiker to the 1,350 foot high summit of Flattop Mountain. The rocky flat bed at the top of the trail is a football sized viewing platform with scenic views of both the city of Anchorage and the wilderness of Alaska. If the weather is clear enough (which is rare) you can see a great view of Denali-“The Great One.” You can even see a piece of the Aleutian Islands if you know where to look and have the right visibility.
The Flattop Mountain trail is found inside the Chugach State Park and maintained by the Alaskan State Park system. The trial is very accessible and the variety of views is unique in that you can view a bustling city below or a vast wilderness beyond.
Wildlife is also abundant on the trail. I have seen Bull Moose and Bear Cubs and most other wildlife you might expect to see in Alaska. There are benches, well maintained trails and cut back views to help the casual vacationer have a great experience. The trail to the summit should take you no more than an hour, but build in time for resting, wildlife viewing and enjoying the wildflowers and plants of Alaska.
You can drive to the parking lot of the trail head at 3101 Glen Alps Road in Anchorage or even take the Flattop Mountain Shuttle bus which gets you to the trail head from downtown Anchorage for $22.
Turnagain Arm: Where the Mountains Meet the Gulf
One of the most beautiful drives in all alaska heads out of town to the south/southeast. Seward highway is the only way to by
car to get from Anchorage to the Kenai Peninsula where you can see some of Alaska’s most amazing sea life! But before you get too far along that spectacular highway, you will pass by the Turnagain Arm. The Turnagain (Turn-Again) is one of two narrow branches of water (along with the Knik Arm) at the north end of the Cook Inlet which leads to the Gulf of Alaska. There are some amazing natural events that occur at this arm that stretches to the east.
The rising and falling of the tides greatly impact what this branch looks like. In high tides, the water flows into the arm and sea life (even beluga whales) can often be seen from one of the lookout points along the arm. Also, north of the highway the cliffs are very steep and are home to dall sheep and mountain goats.
It is a spectacular place to spend a couple hours. Along the road you will find many pull-offs and wildlife viewing areas. Moose can often be seen grazing the meadows and Eagles soar overhead throughout the day. During high tide, Beluga Point, about 20-minutes south of Anchorage, may have a display of beluga whales.
One of the most amazing occurrences of the Turnagain Arm is the Alaska Bore Tide!
The bore tide is a series of waves that surge up the Turnagain Arm as the tide from the Gulf of Alaska is coming in. It can be up to 10 feet tall and some folks even surf the bore tide in summer months. Because the Arm both gets shallower and narrower as it makes its way inward, the water gets pushed together in a force of nature which creates the huge bore tide. Click here for wonderful instructions on how and when to view the bore tide. There is even a chart to identify when the best bore tides can be expected.
In addition to having amazing sights in itself, the Turnagain Arm is the route to the next three items on my things to do in Anchorage list. From wherever you are in Anchorage, you should have no problem finding the way to Alaska Highway 1-South or simply follow your GPS as if you were going to Seward.
Portage Glacier Lake and Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel
My first visit to Portage Glacier was in 1996 and the glacier actually stretched to the base of the glacier bed to Portage Lake. Ice chunks were floating in the water and the view of the glacier was gorgeous. It has retreated significantly since then and the glacier is not visible any long from the western shore of the lake. However, this is still a great place to visit and a Begich, Boggs Visitor Center now provides visitors with excellent information and interactive education about the Portage Valley. The visitor center is run by the Alaska Forest Service.
After a stop to dip your toes into the freezing cold Portage lake and a walk through the visitor center, you can drive through Alaska’s famous Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel. The tunnel was repurposed from being a railroad tunnel (opened in 1943) only to a dual-purpose railroad/car tunnel in 1998, making it the longest dual-purpose tunnel in North America and the 2nd longest tunnel of any type.
The tunnel alternates between vehicle and train every half hour and only goes one direction at a time as it is a one-lane 2.5 mile passage through the mountain. Every 15 minutes the direction of traffic changes between Bear Valley to Whittier. Occasional passenger or cargo trains must use the tunnel as well, so there may be a 15-30 minute delay at any time throughout the day.
The drive through the tunnel is a unique experience for the Portage Highway traveler. The toll for the tunnel is $13 per vehicle and the summer schedule runs from 5:30 AM to 11:15 PM. Click here for more information on the tunnel.
Whittier Small Boat Harbor
Just on the other side of the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel (Whittier Tunnel) is the small town of Whittier, Alaska. Whittier sits on the edge of the Prince William Sound. The feature of Whittier is the Whittier Small Boat Harbor. Along the waters edge, you can see tourists and fisherman coming and going in their small boats in and out of the Sound.
There are some nice family owned restaurants along the piers and the quaintness of Whittier can take your breath away due to its isolation from the rest of the world. The tunnel access just came available to vehicles in 1998. It has a very small town Alaska feel and has some spectacular views and opportunities to see some amazing glaciers and sea life with the many local charter tours.
You can often see sea otters and other small animals right alongside the pier in Whittier. Whittier also serves as a popular cruise ship dock for multiple cruise lines.
My children and I enjoyed a quiet Sunday afternoon lunch at the Wild Catch Cafe in Whittier in 2016 and it was such a wonderful experience.
Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center: A Surefire Wildlife Spotting
The final activity that I would like to recommend if you are looking for things to do in Anchorage is the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Girdwood, just to the southwest of Anchorage on the Seward Highway. This can be coupled with a day trip to Whittier or Portage Lake. The Center is a wonderful place to take the children as it has the feel of a local zoo.
The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center is a sanctuary for injured and orphaned animals with most of the species being permanent residents. You can see Black Bear, Brown Bear, Bald Eagles, Reindeer, Elk, Caribou, Wolves and other native Alaskan animals.
The Center is also actively pursuing the restoration of the native Wood Bison, North America’s largest land mammal. These Bison were thought to be extinct. The only captive herd of Wood Bison in the United States is found at the center. In 2015, 130 Wood Bison were successfully released to the wild in Alaska with hopes to restore the population.
Bring a picnic and enjoy a half-day at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center at 43350 Seward Highway, Girdwood, AK 99587.
Enjoy These Things to Do in Anchorage
As much as I enjoy getting into the Alaskan backcountry, sometimes it’s just nice to experience the comfort of civilization. That’s when I take a day or two out to eat, shop and play in Anchorage. There are plenty more activities at your fingertips, these are just a few of my favorites.
If you have any questions about activities feel free to contact me in the comments below or here.
What are your favorite things to do in Anchorage? If you are headed that way, what are you most excited about?
Seriously, let me know in the comments below.