Anchorage, Alaska - Jumping Off Point to the Last Frontier

By Cindy Ross

Visitor's Center in downtown Anchorage, Alaska.
Visitor's Center in downtown Anchorage, Alaska.

The spicy aroma of grilled reindeer sausage wafts up to my window in the Historic Anchorage Hotel.

Down 3rd Avenue, a native proudly lugs a 2-foot long salmon, caught minutes ago at Ship Creek, a stone's throw from the hotel.

A block away on 4th, a massive chunk of glacier sits on the sidewalk, melting, at the entrance to the Kenai Fjords Tour office.


A hunk is placed here every morning to entice tourists to come inside and book a sightseeing trip.

Stuffed grizzlies guard gift shops, tempting shoppers to step inside. An Inuit bone shop is crammed with artwork -- detailed carvings of polar bear hunts on porous chunks of whale vertebrae, dug out of the permafrost. In a fur shop are stacks of caribou pelts, wolves, and every fur-bearing species found in Alaska. We pet a beaver pelt and are astounded by its incredible softness.

"Ah," the smiling native says behind the counter. "So soft it talks to you. Now you are in Alaska."

The first problem you have to deal with when you finally decide on your "Trip of a Lifetime" -- is where to go in Alaska and what to see and do.

Alaska is enormous: 663,267 square miles -- one-fifth the size of the entire continental United States.

It sprawls across four time zones, and if you would position it over the Lower 48, it would stretch from the Atlantic Ocean across the continent to the Pacific, covering the same degrees of longitude of land from Maine to Washington. The coastline exceeds the combined coastlines of all the other states in the U.S., including Hawaii. Where to begin?

Anchorage is the perfect jumping off point for some of the best adventures in the entire state.

Mount Margaret Summit, Denali National Park
Mount Margaret Summit, Denali National Park

As your base, you can head north to Denali National Park on the scenic Alaskan Railroad, and see a wide array of wild animals; then south to the Kenai Peninsula and the charming town of Seward. But first begin in Anchorage's museums, where you can get a background on who the real Alaskans are and what the Last Frontier is all about.

The Alaska Native Heritage Center has five traditional outdoor villages, which illustrate how the five main tribes lived and many still live, while native guides at each site explain their culture.

There are huts from the incredibly windy Aleutian Chain of Islands that are covered in sod with sealskin windows. There are clan houses from the Southeast, made of monstrous cedars and Sitka spruce, so wide the front doors are carved right through them.

Another must-see is the Alaska Museum of History and Art

The first floor is dedicated to Alaskan art with jaw-dropping oil paintings of Mount Mc Kinley. The second floor covers Alaskan history through life-size dioramas tracing 10,000 years of human life. There are Eskimo huts made of driftwood and whalebones with mannequins of natives dressed in furs and translucent sealskins. A documentary film on a modern-day Inuit whale hunt, filmed by Natives, shows a rare glimpse into this still viable part of northern Alaskan life.

Up until this point, a visitor does not need a car, thanks to Anchorage's free public shuttles.

You can prolong it even longer by boarding the Alaska Railroad and head north to spectacular Denali National Park. The scenic line traverses two major mountain ranges and passes under the shadow of Mount McKinley, North America's highest mountain.

Talkeetna, Alaska, colorful homes and establishments in their renegade town.
Talkeetna, Alaska

An excellent stopover point on the railroad is the unique town of Talkeetna, where mountain man meets hippy.

Town folk describe it as "a little drinking town with a climbing problem." Here is the stepping off point for mountaineers hoping to scale the "Great One."

It is also the best place to take a scenic flight over Mount Mc Kinley, viewing the glaciers up close and personal. It's also just a great place to "people watch" and discover a little more about the "Real Alaska."

The main drag is lined with historic wood frame buildings, many dating to the early 1900's.

Antlers and snowshoes are tacked up on their gable ends while on the porches, are colorful flowers crammed into makeshift "pots" of old dog sleds and worn out mountain climbing boots.

Talkeetna Roadhouse is a favorite gathering place with their homemade baked goods, featuring dinner plate size cinnamon buns and sourdough pancakes, made with 1902 starter. A long picnic table out front allows clientele to eat outdoors, family style.

But the beauty of Denali calls, and for us, its back on the train to head "North ... to the Future," (Alaska's motto).

Although the majority of visitors only allow a measly 24 hours to visit this grand park, which is an internationally designated biosphere reserve, you could easily spend a month here. Amarak concessionaire makes it easy with their multiple styles of accommodations. You can stay in a high-end massive log chalet or ride the park shuttle bus back to the end of the road and wilderness camp in the shadow of Denali.

A single road pierces the heart of the 6 million-acre park. It travels for 90 miles through mind-boggling scenery offering some of the finest in wildlife viewing: caribou, wolf, grizzly bear, Dall sheep, to mention just the heart-pounding ones.

There are trails to hike, blueberries to pick, bikes to ride, wild rivers to raft, and even a dinner theatre called Cabin Night, where hearty Alaskan food is served while listening to gold rush tales and music.

Mount McKinley in Denali NP, seen from Sustina River in Talkeetna
Mount McKinley

Everyone who visits Denali National Park longs for a glimpse of the great mountain, but it is usually shrouded with clouds.

It only bears its countenance one day out of three, so it is a great gift when the mountain lifts her skirts. When your time is up, long or short, mountain visible or in, your visit here will probably rank as one of the highlights of your entire Alaskan adventure.

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Taking the Kids: An Un-cruise Alaskan Sea Adventure

Tutka Bay Lodge Luxury Alaskan Style

Exploring the Pacific Northwest

© Cindy Ross Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.


Vacation Travel - Anchorage, Alaska & Beyond - Cindy Ross World's Fare