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Perched on the very edge of the wilderness, Anchorage is the doorstep to an Alaskan adventure. Drive one of the two roads out of Anchorage for just 20 minutes in either direction, and the office buildings fade away and traffic lights turn into mountain-studded horizons, crystalline salmon streams and the bold promises of the Last Frontier.
It’s no surprise that you’ll find some excellent day trips from Anchorage. Wilderness is just a few steps out of downtown, with mountains, wildlife and adventure all on offer. These following day trips are our favorites.
This little ski town – home to the state’s largest ski resort, Alyeska – is a 45-minute drive from Anchorage down the curvy two-lane Seward Highway. The drive itself is worth the trip as it’s lined on one side by the steep walls of the Chugach Mountains and Turnagain Arm on the other. You might spot Dall sheep, beluga whales, bald eagles, and the powerful bore tide churning up the Arm.
Once in Girdwood, you’ll have plenty of great options to fill your day. The town is nestled in a rainforest valley and ringed by gorgeous peaks. Hike one of the many excellent trails, including one that takes you to a hand tram across a gorge (the Winner Creek Trail). If your legs aren’t feeling up to a climb, ride the Alyeska Aerial Tram up to the top of Mt Alyeska. You’ll have panoramic views of Turnagain Arm and multiple glaciers, and definitely some pics for your social media accounts.
Don’t skip any meals in Girdwood; this tiny town has a disproportionate number of excellent restaurants. Try the Bake Shop for homey breakfasts and Jack Sprat for creative cuisine with a view. Come hungry and fuel up for your adventure, and then replenish those calories on the other side of it.
Another 20 minutes down the highway from the Girdwood turnoff is the gorgeous Portage Valley. This 14-mile-long valley is packed with hanging glaciers, a rushing pastel-blue river, and, at the end, namesake Portage Glacier. The Trail of Blue Ice wanders alongside the two-lane Portage Valley Rd, offering gentle and family-friendly terrain for walking or cycling.
At the end of the road is the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center, perched on a glacial lake bobbing with icebergs. Here you can watch an excellent film about the glacier, and learn more about this river of ice through interactive exhibits. Glacier viewing cruises to the face of Portage Glacier depart five times per day in summer.
Just past the visitor center is North America’s longest highway-railroad combo tunnel. The Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel is 2.5 miles long and connects to the old military town of Whittier. Driving the tunnel is a unique experience and worth the exploration.
In the opposite direction, about half an hour up the Glenn Highway, is Eagle River. At first glance, this Anchorage bedroom community offers a collection of stores and restaurants. But the town offers some excellent hiking and wildlife spotting opportunities. At the end of Eagle River Road is the Eagle River Nature Center. Family-friendly, the center offers talks, classes and guided hikes of the area. You can wander along Eagle River, where the mountains tower in vertical walls, or along shorter loops with interpretive signs. This area is one of your best bets for spotting moose and even bears.
Just off the highway from Anchorage is a turnoff for Hiland Rd. If you’re feeling up for an alpine hike, drive to the end of the road and head out to Eagle and Symphony Lakes. This trail meanders 5.5 miles through alpine meadows full of flowers and follows the south fork of Eagle River (really just a rushing stream at this point) until it reaches the two lakes at the end of a glacier-carved valley. The two lakes are markedly different from each other; one is a surreal, glacial blue, and the other dark and clear.
Nestled into the Talkeetna Mountains, which are sharper than the nearby Chugach, is the green and dramatic Hatcher Pass. You’ll drive up the winding Palmer-Fishhook Rd to Independence Mine State Historical Park, where you can explore the outbuildings and tailings of this once-prosperous gold mine. Take a self-guided tour or read up on the history at the visitor center and museum.
Several hiking trails branch off the road. One of the more popular ones is to Reed Lakes, a 7-9 mile round-trip hike that takes you to two ice blue lakes in a magical mountain ringed setting. It’s somewhat difficult and will take a full day, but the otherworldly valley is worth it.
Finish your day with a meal with a view at Hatcher Pass Lodge or drive back to the farming community of Palmer for a farm-to-table meal.