For many, a trip to Alaska is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. There are a lot of ways to make the most of an Alaska adventure, but our favorite is to immerse yourself in the things that make Alaska Alaska. There's Alaska treasure hidden among the snow-capped peaks around Anchorage. Literal treasure in the form of gold that anyone can pan for, and metaphorical treasure in the form of unspeakably beautiful ice-blue glaciers. Add in a touch of Alaska culture and history, and a stop or two to celebrate the fact that Anchorage's brewing scene is booming, and you've got an essential adventure that might leave you wanting to come back for more.
If you want some background on Alaska's gold and glaciers before diving in, head to the Anchorage Museum. The state's largest museum, it's chock full of art, history, and information. From "The Art of the North" to an exhibit on cultures in Alaska (featuring 600 artifacts from the collections of the Smithsonian, all interpreted by Alaska Native advisors), this is an insightful look into the inspiration, culture, and stories unique to Alaska. Add in a bevy of rotating exhibitions ranging from art installations to programs with performances and workshops, and you've got a museum worth coming back to time and time again.
Matanuska Glacier State Recreational Site is right off the Glenn Highway Scenic Byway, and its main feature is (naturally) the Matanuska Glacier. A nature trail leads to points offering views of the glacier. Although the park doesn't provide access to the icy mass, the trail is the easiest way to catch a glimpse of it. Guided tours do offer direct access to the glacier, and many meet up in the area. In the summer, you can camp, hike, or even raft on the Matanuska River (which is created by the glacier). The park is open in the winter, so you can ski, snowshoe, or snowmobile here as well.
In 1886, gold was discovered just north of Anchorage in the Susitna and Matanuska river basins, and in the granite of the Talkeetna Mountains. Prospectors flooded the area hoping to strike it rich, and while, for the most part, the boom faded as quickly as it started, some mines remained active through the 20th century. Independence Mine was only one of these lucky mines, and it produced nearly 6 million dollars worth of gold from when it opened until its closure in 1951. Today, the mine is preserved as a state park and shows visitors what it was like living in one of Alaska's largest gold mining camps. The Mine Managers' House has been turned into a museum, and you can take a self-guided tour through buildings scattered across the rest of the area. It's a gorgeous part of the state for a scenic drive or a berry-picking hike.
Keep with the glaciers and gold theme of your trip and stop at the Glacier BrewHouse, if you find yourself in need of a break. Whether you want to warm up with a roasty oatmeal stout, or you're looking for something more refreshing, like a raspberry wheat, the beers here are focused on being easy to drink. There's no bad time to stop by the BrewHouse, as it serves weekend brunch (with dishes featuring Alaska-caught seafood and reindeer sausage) as well as lunch and dinner. Whether you're looking for light bites to go with your beer, or you're craving pasta, steak, pizza, or burgers, the menu has something for everyone. They cook their meats on a special, alder wood-fired rotisserie, so it's bound to be a memorable meal.
Unlike Independence Mine, the Indian Valley Mine National Historic Site was a small operation run by a man named Peter Strong, who was one of the few 86ers who stayed in the area to keep mining after the rush ended. Today, the claim is a National Historic Site. Tour historic buildings on the homestead, pan for gold, and admire the gardens. You can get a good view of the famously high Turnagain Arm bore tides from here, and if you're lucky, spot eagles and beluga whales.
The Crow Creek Gold Mine was home to a hydraulic gold mining operation. In fact, people still dig up gold here. If you really want to search for treasure, this is the place to do it. The mine offers buckets of dirt you can pan through as well as sluice boxes, in addition to prospector tours ... and if you want to bring your own metal detector or suction dredge, those are welcome as well. There's also a collection of historic structures (including the mess hall built in 1898). The grounds are impeccably kept, so even if you're just looking for a little hiking and history, Crow Creek is perfect.
For a different view of Alaska's glacial beauty, make a reservation at Alyeska Resort's Seven Glaciers Restaurant. It's more than a meal; it's an experience that begins from the moment you arrive. The adventure starts with an aerial tram ride to the restaurant, which is on the mountain ... during the whole meal, you'll be surrounded by incredible views of forests, granite peaks, and the ocean. The restaurant is aptly named, as you can view seven different glaciers as you enjoy your meal. The menu emphasizes local ingredients, and there is a top-notch wine selection to go with it. Save room for dessert ... you can't leave without trying the Baked Alyeska.
Hundreds of years ago, Portage Glacier and five others were part of one large glacier that filled and shaped the entire 14-mile-length of Portage Valley, forming it into the stunning landscape we see today. Portage Glacier is still massive; it stands an incredible ten stories tall. It's truly something that has to be seen to be fully believed. Stop by the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center first, as it has tons of great info on glaciers (you can touch a real iceberg, tour a simulated ice cave, and see live ice worms.) Then take a boat tour of Portage Lake or a hike to catch a glimpse of the glacier itself.
The boat tour takes place aboard the MV Ptarmigan, operated through Portage Glacier Cruises. It lasts about an hour, and the trip is narrated by a U.S. Forest Service ranger. If you want to watch the glacier "calve" (that's what it's called when hunks fall off a glacier into the water, turning into icebergs), head to the boat's open-air top deck. As for hiking, there's a 5-mile trail called The Trail of Blue Ice that's perfect for spotting glaciers, salmon, and more.
Spencer Glacier, like Portage Glacier, is also located in the Chugach National Forest. It's more remote than Portage, though, and in a setting that will make you feel like you've traveled back to the Ice Age. The other unique thing about Spencer Glacier is you need to take a train to reach it. Hop on the Glacier Discovery Train to the Spencer Whistle Stop; you can pick it up right in Anchorage, or if you have a car, closer by in Portage or Girdwood. Once you arrive at the Spencer Whistle Stop, you can choose to take a guided or unguided tour to reach the behemoth itself. Unguided, you can hike 3.4 miles (that's one way) to the glacier's terminus, and if you plan to backcountry camp, there are plenty of side hikes around the lake. Well-equipped non-experts could also solo kayak or packraft Spencer Lake (known for its "gardens" of bright blue grounded icebergs) and the braided Placer River, a network of river channels separated by small temporary islands.
There are some awesome guided tours of the glacier as well, if you'd rather not deal with equipment and pick-up/drop-off logistics. Options include Ascending Path's kayak/hike across the glacier itself, Chugach Adventures' comet heli hiking and rafting trip, Ascending Path's overnight camping adventure, Chugach Adventures' lake and river float, or Chugach Adventures’ Glacier Blue Kayak and Grandview Train Tour.
You'll have to go all the way to Kenai Fjords National Park near Seward to visit Exit Glacier and the Harding Ice Field, but since this is one of the most easily accessible glaciers in Alaska (like Matanuska, you can walk right up to it, no boat or heli-hike required), it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. In fact, the glacier is the only part of the park accessible by road. There are plenty of trails above and around the glacier and ice field, and rangers lead guided tours of the glacier and give talks several times a day during the summer.
Whether or not you actually strike it rich digging up gold, or get to watch a glacier calve, you'll leave with a uniquely Alaska experience under your belt, and more than a few unforgettable memories.
Banner Photo Credit: Jody O.Photos - Visit Anchorage
At the heart of air, road and rail travel in Alaska, Anchorage has phenomenal access to national parks and outdoor adventures. Find glaciers, 1,500 resident moose, views of Denali and 300 miles of wilderness trails in one place. The city blends the best of these natural wonders with urban amenities.