About where to stayWell, you can pitch a tent. Lots of people do. There are campgrounds in all the right places: near Portage Glacier, in Denali National Park, on Homer Spit, pretty much anywhere you might want one to be. The scenery is always spectacular and the facilities in the more visited campgrounds are similar to those found in campgrounds in the Lower 48. Fees are involved but if you're a backcountry hiker you can head for the wilderness where you don't have to worry about fees. You'll be leaving sanitary facilities behind, of course, and you'll need to keep a sharp eye out for brown bears. Even in the campgrounds, it's a good idea to keep food cached away from tents. Bears like bacon for breakfast, too.
The next step up is bed and breakfasts, which are almost always run by friendly folks and which sometimes offer even nicer accommodations than hotels. The price range for these is great. The most expensive one of these I know of in Anchorage costs more than $200 a night during the summer, though its rates drop substantially in the winter. But there are lots of them in Southcentral Alaska: in Anchorage, Girdwood, Seward, Homer and elsewhere on the Kenai Peninsula.
Next come motels and hotels. There are lots of them in Anchorage, including representatives of the major chains such as Hilton, Marriott and Sheraton. An Embassy Suites hotel was under construction in Anchorage in 2007. Seward has a couple of hotels downtown and some motels around the small boat harbor. Homer has several motels on the road into town and a hotel at the tip of the five-mile-long spit that juts out into Kachemak Bay.
At the top of the lodging chain are ... lodges. Some are close to the road system but most of them can be reached only by boat or small plane. They offer often luxurious accommodations and memorable meals in wilderness settings.
If you'd like to see what's available, or even make your reservations on-line, visit the Alaska Scenes reservations page.
About what to seeWell, everything, of course. Denali National Park. Portage Glacier. Kenai Fjords National Park. The Homer Spit. Independence Mine. The Matanuska Glacier. The start of the Iditarod. Fur Rendezvous. If Anchorage is your starting point, the Anchorage Museum of Art and Natural History is a good first stop. In addition to its collection of Alaskan paintings by such artists as Sydney Laurence, ivory carvings and other Native crafts, it has an excellent collection of dioramas and artifacts that capsulize Alaska's history.
Anchorage also has an excellent trail system, including the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail (the state is so young we name things after people who are still living; Tony Knowles is a former Anchorage mayor and the current governor of Alaska) which begins downtown and follows the coastline past the airport to Kincaid Park -- a good place to see moose at twilight. Trails on the Hillside, in Chugach State Park, are convenient for wilderness hikes. (The Hillside is the east side of Anchorage; the hills are mountains, and the city's newer suburbs have begun advancing up them.)
Earthquake Park near the airport is another attraction. This is the Anchorage area that suffered the most severely in the 1964 earthquake. Trees and vegetation have hidden any ruins but the earthquake's wavelike motion is preserved in the look of the ground itself.
Anchorage has a zoo, too, one that specializes in Alaskan animals. It's the place to go if your attempts to see moose or grizzly bears in the wild prove unsuccessful.
If you visit Anchorage in the winter, you'll find two ski slopes right in town -- Hilltop and Glen Alps and another one a short drive away at Alyeska. The Alyeska slope in Girdwood is the one Alaska's Olympic skiers have trained on.
About what to wearThat's an invitation to talk about the weather. Southcentral Alaska enjoys fairly mild temperatures year around, thanks to its proximity to the Pacific Ocean. In addition, Anchorage is sheltered by mountains on all sides so windy conditions are rare (not unheard of, just uncommon).
Typical summer high temperatures in the Anchorage area are in the 60s or low 70s. If the temperature hits 80, it's a major news story in the Anchorage Daily News. But in the absence of wind, 60 is comfortable. And remember that summer days are very long. In late June it doesn't get really dark at night. People are still doing yard work at midnight and, on the Fourth of July, the fireworks aren't set off until after midnight. (Meaning, of course, that we celebrate the Fourth on the Fifth.)
Winters around Anchorage are mild, too. Snowfalls are as gentle as the summer rain. But, if you want lots of snow, Buffalo, New York, or Valdez, Alaska, is a better bet. Temperatures stay pretty much in the teens (Fahrenheit, that is) from November through March with perhaps one or two cold snaps when temperatures drop below zero during that period. The average high temperature in early February, for example, is in the low 20s (Fahrenheit), providing pleasant conditions for cross-country and downhill skiing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling. Winter days are short; in December when they're shortest, the sun rises after 10 a.m. and sets around 3:30 p.m.
Occasionally, as in late January and early February 1999, the winter weather provides some surprises. A chinook wind blew through in late January, raising temperatures from the minus teens to about 40 above in just a few hours (again, in late January 2007, a brief warming trend sent the temperature to a record high for the day of 48 in Anchorage). Then the cold snap returned, keeping temperatures below zero for days and setting a record on Feb. 3 when the high was -13 Fahrenheit and the low was -25. The National Weather Service reported that the high eclipsed the previous record of -12 for coldest high for that date, set in 1947. The normal temperatures for that date are a high of 23 and low of 10. Usually, if you want to experience real cold, you have better luck in Fairbanks, about 375 miles to the north, where it can get to 40 below or lower (the high there Feb. 3 was -39 and the low -49).
Alaska is a pretty informal place. Casual clothes are acceptable almost anywhere and sweaters come in handy year-around. If you're a man, you could wear jeans and a sports shirt to a Broadway touring company performance at the Anchorage Performing Arts Center without being stared at, although most people would be wearing sports coats or suits. But chances are you're not coming to Alaska to see "Cats" or "Phantom of the Opera." If you're coming in the summer, you'll want to pack a jacket. In the winter, you'll want a heavier coat. A parka would be overdoing it, however. I bought a parka years ago and there are winters where I never take it out of the closet (I was wearing it this Feb. 2 though).
You might want to make that jacket a waterproof one. After three or four summers that seem mostly sunny, we'll get one that seems mostly rainy. August is often the rainiest month in Southcentral Alaska. And some popular places to visit such as Portage Glacier and Seward are especially prone to rainy conditions. A rain hat is probably a good idea, but the umbrella can stay at home. Anchorage rainfalls are gentle; in windier places (Portage Glacier often is), an umbrella would be blown inside out in no time.
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