Anchorage: On the Edge of Wilderness

Don’t overlook this appealing, energetic city in your rush to enjoy the Alaskan wilds.

Downtown Anchorage with mountain view and Cook Inlet in foreground, Alaska, image

Anchorage sits at the foot of the Chugach Mountains.

Flattop Mountain, Anchorage, Alaska, image

A hike up Flattop Mountain is one of the highlights of a visit to Anchorage.

Anchorage Museum exterior, Anchorage, Alaska, image

The facade of Anchorage Museum includes custom insulated fritted glass.

Signs marking distance from Anchorage, Alaska, image

Distances from Anchorage are measured in air miles.

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Standing on the summit of Flattop Mountain, the most climbed peak in Alaska and a high point of a visit to Anchorage, you take in the wild and refined sides of the state in one sweep. Cook Inlet spreads out before you, and the Chugach Mountains—dark green below, white above, steep everywhere—frame the east side of the scene. On a clear day, snow-covered Mount McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America, juts up over 140 miles to the north. Look down at the meadows beneath you, and you might see a moose or a brown bear, but probably not both at once.

Mostly, though, you see Anchorage, a city of about 290,000 residents that covers more than 1,900 square miles. (That’s bigger than Rhode Island, although comparing other states to anything in Alaska seems unfair.) From above, Anchorage looks like an expanse of birch trees and evergreens with some houses, shopping centers, and high-rises thrown in to fill out the space. But when you’re back at ground level, the city really comes through: a big-time museum of art and artifacts, busy restaurants, brewpubs, a botanical garden where flowers and trees grow like crazy in the long days of summer, and an 11-mile path along the waterfront where joggers and bicyclists cruise past mansions and moose-friendly marshes.

I trekked the steep, 1.7-mile trail up Flattop expecting to see a lot of other out-of-towners, cameras in hand, filling up their memory cards. Instead, I ended up sharing the view with Nancy Morris, a 60-year-old teacher who has lived in Anchorage for 12 years. “I’m not hard-core, just typical,” she says, clambering hand and foot up a barely perceptible stretch of trail near the rocky summit. “I hike in the summer. In the winter, I skate-ski on groomed trails out my back door. It’s heaven.”

The great outdoors is a given, but Anchorage has great indoors, too. The glassy, gleaming Anchorage Museum downtown must be the best man-made attraction in the entire state. Its ground floor features classic and contemporary Alaskan artwork, including well-known landscapes by Sydney Laurence and a drawing by Inupiaq artist James Kivetoruk Moses depicting the hassles of trying to teach wild caribou to pull a sled. A science and activity center allows kids to make tsunamis that wash over beleaguered miniature villages and to poke at starfish and sea cucumbers in an icy touch-tank. The museum’s Arctic Studies Center—an offshoot of the Smithsonian Institution—features more than 600 artifacts from across the state: a fishing float fancifully carved into the shape of a sea otter’s head (whiskers and all), a parka made of seal intestine, a gangly sandhill-crane spirit mask made of wood and feathers that must have been a showstopper during Yupik ceremonies. Arctic living brings out both ingenuity and transcendent artistry.

The rest of the hopping, compact downtown—roughly bordered by Second Avenue, Ninth Avenue, M Street, and A Street—offers plenty of Alaska-style diversions. You can pick up books about puffins or Sarah Palin at Title Wave Books, sign up for a boat tour of Portage Lake and Portage Glacier, or eat a pound of fresh king crab legs with new red potatoes at Phyllis’s Cafe & Salmon Bake. The upscale restaurant Orso puts a Mediterranean spin on salmon, halibut, reindeer sausage, and other Alaska staples. Its wild-mushroom-stuffed ravioli with smoked Copper River salmon tastes robust and earthy. On the same block, diners and drinkers sit practically shoulder to shoulder under the barnlike vaulted ceilings of the huge Glacier BrewHouse. Locals tend to go for the India pale ale, or so a waitress says, while people from the lower 48 prefer the amber ale. True to type, I can report that the amber goes down light and smooth.

Alaskan themes find beautiful expression in the galleries along G Street and West Fourth Avenue, the center of a growing Anchorage art scene. “Locals used to leave this area to the tourists,” says Katie Sevigny, co-owner of Sevigny Studio. “Now they come down here, get a cup of coffee, walk around, look at the art, and enjoy their own downtown.” She can’t take credit for the glowing sheet-metal sea lion hanging on the wall, but a colorful octopus painting by the front door is all hers. Her style? “I don’t know,” she says. “People just say it makes them happy.”

Nearby, Alaska Ivory Exchange sells brown bears carved out of fossilized whalebone, scrimshaw scenes etched on ivory from mammoth tusks, and baskets woven out of baleen fibers from filter-feeding whales. A colony of raku-fired puffins shines like polished copper at the upscale Aurora Fine Art gallery. The spirit mask depicting an orca chomping on a beluga looks as if it belongs in a museum.

Walk down a small hill on the edge of downtown and you get an instant reminder of the wildness that surrounds—and runs through—Anchorage. Anglers line the banks of Ship Creek trying to tap into the annual migrations of king salmon from May through July and silver salmon from July through October. The creekside Comfort Inn offers free fishing gear to guests and a deck where onlookers can watch the big fish swim the gauntlet. You can decide which side to root for.

If downtown seems wild, you should check out the suburbs. Just 15 miles to the south along the Seward Highway, you have a decent shot at seeing pods of marshmallow-white beluga whales at aptly named Beluga Point. And some 27 miles to the northeast, at the Eagle River Nature Center, a short stroll leads to a clear salmon stream or a longer walk to miles of birch forest, meadows, and potential wildlife sightings along the original Iditarod Trail. About one mile down the trail, I heard some urgent wolfish howls bouncing off the valley walls. That may not count as a sighting, but it was close enough for me.

Less than an hour later, I was back downtown, considering my options while sipping a mocha with Spicy Mayan Drinking Chocolate at the Modern Dwellers Chocolate Lounge. Wolves and high-grade caffeine—it was really shaping up into an exciting Anchorage afternoon.

Photography by Visions of America LLC/Alamy (signs); Frank K./Wikipedia (cityscape); Dan Terzian17/Wikipedia (view from Flatttop Mountain); James Brooks/Wikipedia (Anchorage Museum)

This article was first published in March 2012. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

If You're Going: 

Request the Western Canada & Alaska TourBook and Anchorage and Alaska & NW Canada maps at AAA.com or any AAA branch. To find a place to stay, visit AAA.com/hotels. For more information, contact Visit Anchorage: 524 W. Fourth Ave., (907) 276-4118, anchorage.net. Area code is 907 except as noted.

To do and see Alaska Native Heritage Center Walk through a replica village, watch elders teach the next generation how to sew sea lion mukluks, and catch dance performances. 8800 Heritage Center Dr., (800) 315-6608, alaskanative.net. Alaska Zoo Polar bears and other northern animals. 4731 O’Malley Rd., 346-2133, alaskazoo.org. Anchorage Museum 625 C St., 929-9200, anchoragemuseum.org.

Eats Moose’s Tooth Pizzas and local beers. 3300 Old Seward Hwy., 258-2537, moosestooth.net. Orso 737 W. Fifth Ave., 222-3232, orsoalaska.com. Phyllis’s Cafe & Salmon Bake 436 D St., 274-6576, phyllisscafe.com. Urban Greens Subs and salads. 304 G St., 276-0333, urbangreensak.com.

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