Self-Drive Tour of Anchorage

We sometimes forget that Anchorage can be one of the most interesting places in Alaska, offering a unique mix of urban development set amid wild land. To snatch a sense of the state’s only real city, take this quick, two-to-three hour driving tour.

It works whether you’re a local resident with a house full of wired (and maybe jetlagged!) guests—or a visitor with a rental car and few hours free to explore. Perfect for that first afternoon after arrival.

Start Downtown

Ponder the tallest buildings in Alaska and the state’s industrial basin with the Alaska Railroad, Ship Creek and the Port of Anchorage. Follow the path along Ship Creek, home to a gritty (and yet fun) salmon sports fishery. Cross the pedestrian bridges to get mid-stream views of active angling, or visit the dam upstream with a fish ladder used by coho and chinoonk salmon. Then park on Fifth Avenue west of L Street at Elderberry Park, with its cool little playground and access to the paved Coastal Trail along Knik Arm, where you can watch for ship traffic and see migrating birds. If it’s open, the historic Oscar Anderson House—one of the oldest buildings in Anchorage—will introduce you to Anchorage’s pioneer past. It’s basically a micro-museum. The Captain Cook Monument is two blocks north on L Street, with its own fabulous view of the waters visited more than two centuries ago by the famous explorer.

Go West

Take Northern Lights Boulevard all the way to Point Woronzof Park for a stunning vista of the mouth of Knik Arm and Mount Spurr Volcano in the Tordrillo Range on the western horizon. If you have time, walk down the steep access road to a gravel beach next to the roiling tide and its powerful hissing current. To witness the drama of one of the biggest tidal ranges in the world, secure a stick or rock at the water’s edge and then watch how fast the level changes. During a strong rising tide, it’s almost as though the ocean is chasing you up the beach. (In winter, this beach can be littered with giant ice boulders.) During the drive out or back, it’s also easy to swing into Earthquake Park—with displays and information about Great Quake of 1964 and how it jumbled and up-ended the surrounding land. To snap the best postcard image of the Anchorage skyline against the mountain backdrop, try the downtown overlook near the intersection with Postmark Drive.

Next Stop, Kincaid Park

Summer or winter, the 1,400-acre park with its meandering access road offers the best chance to spy a moose from the car. Go all the way west on Raspberry Road, where you will see big trees, the city’s outdoor recreation mecca and old bunkers that were once part of a Cold War missile base. If you have time for a more extended walk, drive around to the Jodphur Road entrance to play on the city’s active sand dune.

Side Trip Into The Woods

Take Tudor Road to Campbell Airstrip Road into Far North Bicentennial Park and park at the Campbell Airstrip Trailhead. Walk across the old bridge over the clear-running and gorgeous South Fork of Campbell Creek and then take a stroll on the creekside path leading west (away from the mountains.) It’s one of the most handsome mini-hikes in the city, a great way to experience the spruce-birch ecosystem that dominates the Cook Inlet region. Step down into the gravel bars and look for fish holding in the deep pools. But you may also want to thrill your visitors with this fun fact: When salmon are running, the surrounding forest plays host to many urban brown bears, often one of the densest concentrations in the region. (Having said that, the chances of seeing a brown bear near the bridge are low. This is not a dangerous outing!)

Then Get High

Drive to the Glen Alps Trailhead in Chugach State Park and walk out the short paved trail to the overlook. The 2,200-foot elevation provides intimate contact with real tundra and views of rugged peaks—the easiest access to the alpine realm in Alaska. On a clear day, you can see the Denali massif with Hunter and Foraker to the north and three Cook Inlet volcanoes (Spurr, Redoubt and Iliamna) to the west and south. The whole Anchorage Bowl yawns at your feet, a toy city bounded by the immensity of Knik and Turnagain arms with a mountain-scape backdrop beyond words. If you have time, a half-mile walk leads to the power line corridor, with an overlook up upper Campbell Creek—a great place to look for moose, especially in the fall. Another alpine destination with views, hiking and berry picking is up Arctic Valley Road.

Getting There

Latitude: 61.2180556
Longitude: -149.9002778
Driving Directions