Anchorage, Alaska: Big City Meets Rugged Frontier

Lisa Fritscher October 13, 2010 No Comments

Anchorage Alaska

Our first impression of Anchorage

After two wonderful weeks in Seward, Alaska, it was time to move on. We had a fantastic time, but were ready to take on the big city. Of course, the term “big city” is relative in Alaska. Anchorage is, by far, Alaska’s largest metro area, holding nearly half of the state’s population. In a state twice the size of Texas that must mean Anchorage’s population is immense, right? Surprisingly, it is not. The greater Anchorage area is home to fewer than 400,000 people. Still, compared to tiny Seward (population 3,000), it was a major change. 

Alaska Railroad 

Alaska Railroad

The Alaska Railroad is definitely a top draw

Seward and Anchorage are well connected by both road and rail. Although we heard that the drive is wonderfully scenic, we both love trains and travel frequently by Amtrak. We couldn’t resist the allure of the Alaska Railroad. 

Begun in 1903 and completed in 1923, the Alaska Railroad did not turn a profit until 1938. Control was turned over to the state in 1985, and the railroad’s focus turned to the burgeoning tourist market. Today the Alaska Railroad offers travelers glass-domed observation cars, fully narrated sightseeing and on-board gift shops. Two classes of service are available: GoldStar and Adventure Class. 

Alaska Railroad View from Dome Car

The view from the shared dome car was stunning

We opted for the less-expensive Adventure Class service, which provided comfortable seating downstairs and a shared observation lounge above. Officially, the railroad asks passengers to limit their time in the lounge to 15 minutes at a stretch, so that everyone has a chance to use that space. However, our train was not full and there was never a crowd. 

Downstairs, a comfortable bar area offers large picture windows for a change of scenery. We did not visit the dining car, although we hear that the food is excellent! Snacks are available at the bar, or you may pack your own. We arranged disabled seating, which provided a spot near our seats to park Dad’s ECV. The trains are equipped with an old-fashioned hand-cranked lift, and the employees operating the lift were extremely good-natured about the extra work. 

Alaska Railroad Scenic View

See how small the train looks against the mountains!

The Seward to Anchorage route is ranked as one of the most scenic in the world, and with good reason! Every mile brought a new view, from hidden waterfalls to sheep grazing on the mountainside. Sadly, we also saw the remnants of an avalanche that derailed a lumber train only three months before our trip. Thankfully no one was injured in the resulting crash. 

Alaska Backpackers Inn 

Alaska Backpackers Hostel

The Alaska Backpackers Hostel was everything we expected an Alaska hostel to be

We had reservations at the Alaska Backpackers Inn, a hostel located on the edge of downtown Anchorage just blocks from the train station. Since the distance was short, we decided to walk. What we didn’t know then is that, like Seward, Anchorage was devastated by the Good Friday Earthquake of 1964. Measured as an 8.6 on the Richter scale and a 9.2 on the moment magnitude scale, the earthquake was the most powerful ever to hit North America. Several downtown streets actually dropped an average of 11 feet. 

Third Avenue dropped about 11 feet during the 1964 earthquake

This sharp change in elevation led to some tricky moments with the ECV, but we arrived at the hostel unscathed. In fact, Dad managed to survive the entire Anchorage visit without an ECV disaster. I’m the one who, a few days into our stay, slipped on gravel while negotiating a steep hill and slid out on my rear end! It’s just too bad Dad wasn’t a little quicker with the camera. 

The hostel was huge by hostel standards, with dozens of dorms and private rooms. Access to both the hostel and each room is controlled by key card, adding a layer of security not found in all hostels. There was a mixup with our reservation–we had booked two dorm beds in a mixed-gender dorm, but on arrival were informed that there are no mixed-gender dorms. We were given a private room with bunk beds at no additional charge, where we remained for the first three nights until the mixup was solved. We then moved to a four-bed dorm down the hall, although we never ended up with roommates. Our rate was $25 per person per night, a massive bargain given that nearby hotels charge upwards of $200 per night. 

Outside Alaska Hostel

A separate smoking area was convenient for smokers and non-smokers alike

The massive kitchen and dining room were connected to a comfortable living area with couches and a big-screen TV. There was a smoker’s tent outside, a large hang-out area with picnic tables and chairs and a large bucket for cigarette butts. It was a wonderful idea, providing a weather-resistant gathering space for smokers while keeping smoke well away from the main doors. 

Getting Our Bearings 

Sourdough Cabin Alaska

This is known as a sourdough cabin, from an old term used to describe men who had survived their first Alaskan winter

Other than a sightseeing tour by trolley, there is really no need to leave Downtown Anchorage at all. The walkable (mostly flat, except for the streets dropped by the earthquake) area is packed and overflowing with history, culture and tourist attractions. We headed to the corner of Fourth Avenue and F Street to get our bearings. There are three visitor centers within a half-block of each other providing endless free maps and guidebooks, a large free museum and plenty of helpful locals to offer assistance in planning and booking local activities. Free walking tours depart throughout the day from the Alaska Public Lands Information Center, while trolleys depart from the Log Cabin Visitor Center diagonally across the street. 

Alaska Mudflats

The mudflats are like quicksand

We took the free Captain Cook walking tour, which provided a lot of information on Alaska’s European settlers as well as a great view of the mudflats. Similar to quicksand, mudflats are sticky and tough to negotiate. Walking on the mudflats is never recommended. 

Earthquake Park Alaska

Before the 1964 earthquake, this was an exclusive neighborhood

Next up was the one-hour sightseeing trolley. We visited Earthquake Park, once an exclusive neighborhood called Turnagain Heights. During the Good Friday Earthquake, the entire neighborhood was swallowed into the earth! Another highlight was the world’s busiest floatplane base, located at Lake Hood. Always keep an eye out on the road ahead, as moose and bears sometimes find their way onto the busy city streets. 

Ulu Factory 

Ulu Factory Alaska

If you buy an Ulu knife, this guy will teach you how to use it

Located along the waterfront, the Ulu Factory was one of those places you must see to believe. We hopped on a free trolley at the Log Cabin Visitor Center for the short ride. The half-moon shaped Ulu knives are uniquely Alaskan, having been in use for at least 5,000 years. They are endlessly practical, slicing through tomatoes and tough animal hides with equal ease and maintaining a razor sharp edge with little maintenance. We watched craftsmen hand-making the knives, observed a practical demonstration on how to use the knives, and eventually purchased one for ourselves. It’s been an excellent investment, and the price was reasonable. 

Next door is Dallas Seavey’s WildRide Sled Dog Rodeo. Dallas is the son of 2004 Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey. Having met his mother and brother in Seward, we were hoping to meet Dallas, but the show never fit into our schedule. However, we did meet Dallas’ wife Jennifer at a street festival during our trip. The entire family is fascinating, and we enjoyed spending time with all of them. 

Ship Creek Alaska Fishing

Ship Creek provides excellent fishing and birdwatching

If you are into fishing, you could scarcely do better than Ship Creek. Public access is located behind the WildRide tent. Derby-style combat fishing tournaments are held regularly throughout the year. Check with the local authorities before getting started, as fish populations are tightly regulated and catch limits may change depending on the current state of the population. 


Anchorage Museum Alaska Pipeline

A mock-up of the Alaska Pipeline at the Anchorage Museum

Anchorage is filled with museums and sightseeing spots, and we took in as many as possible. Ambitiously covering the entire history of Alaska from prehistoric times through today, the massive Anchorage Museum is easily worth two days of dedicated time. We only had half a day to spare, so we opted for one of the many guided tours, included in the admission fee. 

Alaska Native Heritage Museum

The Alaska Native Heritage Museum honors 11 separate indigenous peoples

The Alaska Native Heritage Center was near the top of our must-do list, and we carved out a full day to see it. A free trolley departs from the Log Cabin Visitor Center downtown. The center is dedicated to all 11 indigenous peoples, and is overseen by a 30-member panel of Elders and Tradition Bearers from all tribes. 

Be sure to visit on a day when the weather is good, as the massive museum and theater are only part of the appeal. Outdoors, a ring of life-size traditional dwellings is staffed by cultural representatives who explain life in their society. 

Alaska Law Enforcement Museum

Free of charge and packed with information, the Alaska Law Enforcement Museum is worth a visit

The free Alaska Law Enforcement Museum, located across the street from the 5th Avenue Mall downtown, is a great place to learn more about frontier life. We got caught up in the extremely long film loop at the back of the museum and spent much longer than we intended. Plan to stay for at least two hours. 

Bear Square Alaska

Bear Square offers a sort of "Alaska in a box" experience

Back on Fourth Avenue, we couldn’t resist stopping by Bear Square. This “Alaska in a box” tourist trap uses virtual reality and other technologies to allow visitors to experience most of Alaska’s highlights all in one stop. Dog sledding, hot air ballooning, salmon fishing and gold panning are among the simulated activities. Everything is separately priced and quite expensive, making it really only worthwhile for those who have very limited time to spend in Alaska. 

Shopping and Dining 

Fifth Avenue Mall Alaska

The Fifth Avenue Mall is sleek, modern, and quintessentially Alaskan

The 5th Avenue Mall is a great way to reconnect with life in the Lower 48. Look for major chain stores such as Nordstrom and Eddie Bauer and a food court filled with the usual chain fast-food options. Of course, the mall is still quintessentially Alaskan–don’t miss Once in a Blue Moose, located on the first floor. We ended up in the mall several times, whether using the free WiFi in the food court or simply browsing through the shops. 

Fourth Avenue Marketplace Alaskan Dancer

A Native Alaskan dancer frequently performs at the Fourth Avenue Marketplace

The 4th Avenue Marketplace contains an eclectic scattering of local artisan shops and gift stores. A stage at one end is sometimes used for Native Alaskan dances and cultural demonstrations, while the Earthquake Exhibit documents the effects of the 1964 earthquake on downtown Anchorage. 

Downtown is filled with pricey restaurants and hole-in-the-wall dives. Some of our best meals came from local dives, including the massive portions and staggeringly low prices of the White Spot Café. Local delicacies such as caribou, king crab and reindeer are everywhere, including outdoor food carts, and are well worth a try. 

Street Festivals 

Peratrovich Park Anchorage Alaska

Peratrovich Park is one of many popular spots for free summer concerts

Alaska’s summers are short, and Anchorage residents try to pack in as much fun as possible. An expansive Weekend Market along the waterfront, free concerts in Peratrovich Park and inexpensive off-beat theater productions at Cyrano’s Off-Center Playhouse are just a few major draws. After hitting our must-sees in the first few days, we changed tactics. Instead of making a plan, most days we simply wandered out of the hostel and down the street. Within a few minutes, we were caught up in a new activity or simply engrossed in conversation with a friendly local. 

What We Learned and Tips for Parents 

Log Cabin Visitor Center Anchorage

Take a break in front of the fire at the Log Cabin Visitor Center

Anchorage manages to strike a perfect balance between big city and small town. Friendly, welcoming locals make everyone feel at home, and it is common to see the same people over and over again. Yet the city offers so many things to do, it would be impossible to do them all in one visit. We met one traveler at the hostel in Seward and again at the hostel in Anchorage who does the same Seward-Anchorage-Fairbanks route each year. She says that on every trip she sees something new or has an experience she has never had before. 

Anchorage is a fantastic destination for kids. A low crime rate and endless attractions ensure that kids are both safe and engaged in their trip. The museums and tourist attractions offer tours and special activities geared towards children, and there are plenty of green spaces to simply run and play. Take time out to meet and chat with the locals, and you will be amazed at how much everyone learns.

avatarAbout the Author:

Lisa is a full-time travel writer. She lives in an RV with her disabled father and writes about their experiences. Although she has no children of her own, Lisa loves being an Aunt to her own relatives and the children of all her friends. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Travel Confessions.

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