Alaska Excursions

Alaska Excursions

A wide range of trips throughout Southcentral Alaska.

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Around Anchorage

Exciting adventures await within a short drive of Anchorage

For some, a day trip from Anchorage is as simple as arriving at Lake Hood and hopping aboard a floatplane for the ride of a lifetime. Or it's riding the Alaska Railroad north to Talkeetna or south toward Whittier or Seward.

But others prefer to be in control.

For them, the area just outside Anchorage offers day after day of exciting adventures.

One of the best ways to spend a day is driving south on the Seward Highway along Turnagain Arm. Spend enough time and you'll get to see one of North America's largest tidal ranges, up to 39 feet. If you time it just right, you might see the natural wonder of a bore tide. And the potential animal sightings include Dall sheep, moose, bald eagles, trumpeter swans, arctic terns and, on rare occasions, beluga whales.

So open your eyes, head the car south and expect a perfect day outing. Your destination may be Girdwood, the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center in Portage Valley or, perhaps, Hope on the south side of Turnagain Arm, but at least half the fun will be getting there.

The Seward Highway was designated a National Scenic Byway in 1998 and is considered by many residents to be the most beautiful drive in Alaska.

On your way south, consider these stops:

- The Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge at Potter Marsh. It's the first place you'll come to on the way out of Anchorage on the highway and is one of the best places to look for waterfowl in all of Southcentral. The marsh is home to arctic terns, trumpeter swans, Canada geese, grebes, gulls, ducks and other birds. Salmon return to the waters every summer and the marsh is a great place to see them. There is a walkway over the marsh.

Nearby are the Potter Section House Historic Site, built in 1929 to serve the railroad, and one of the trail heads for the Turn-again Arm Trail. The trail stretches about nine miles and runs parallel to the highway. Hikers will enjoy excellent views of the Kenai Mountains and Turnagain Arm.

- McHugh Creek. It also allows access to the Turnagain Arm Trail. The creek spills down a waterfall next to the highway. It's a great place for a picnic or a short hike. There are picnic shelters and tables available and there are spotting scopes to help visitors look for Dall sheep.

- Beluga Point is probably the most accessible place to look for whales. The white beluga whales travel back and forth along Turnagain Arm searching for food. The whales are small, but they're easy to spot because of their color. Their numbers have been declining recently and they are not seen as often as in the past.

Beluga Point also is one of the first places people gather to watch for a bore tide and it's a great place to view a summer sunset.

- Windy Corner. This is the best spot to see Dall sheep. The all-white sheep cling to the rocks above the highway and sometimes will come down right along the road to eat grass.

There are several pullouts along the highway for sightseeing. Be smart and take advantage of them. Don't look for wildlife while you're driving.

- At Indian, visitors can get a Gold Rush history lesson or an excellent workout.

Indian Valley Mine (www.indianvalleymine.com ) dates to the early 1900s. Some of the buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places, and today the family-run business offers gold-panning lessons and guaranteed gold discovery. Buy a bag of dirt for $3 to $50 and do some panning.

"We have a hands-on approach to teach people how to pan for gold," said owner Arlene Cowles. "This is a family business, and our three kids are the tour guides. This isn't some fast-paced place. It's not the average tour stop, but people seem to like it."

If you'd rather pedal than pan, jump on your bicycle (or put on your walking shoes) to enjoy the Indian-to-Girdwood bike path. The path runs alongside Turnagain Arm, a portion of it following the old Seward Highway route.

- Bird Creek area. You can fish and watch others fish at the creek. There is a trail head for a hike up Bird Ridge, challenging but worth the effort. The Bird Point Scenic Overlook has excellent views of Turnagain Arm and is another good place to watch for a bore tide. You can also access the bike path to Girdwood.

- Girdwood is worth a day all by itself. Some of the activities include tram rides, glacier hiking, tandem paragliding, hiking and downhill mountain biking at Alyeska Resort (www.alyeskaresort.com ), a wintertime ski resort that receives hundreds of inches of snow. Last December, 283 inches of snow fell on the upper portions of the mountain.

The 60-passenger tram is one of Alyeska's most popular attractions, offering rides to the 2,300-foot level of Mount Alyeska. The resort's Seven Glaciers restaurant is at the top of the tramway. A ride is $16, unless you're dining at the restaurant. If you're willing to hike up the mountain, the ride down is free.

Also in the Girdwood area are the Crow Creek Mine, the site of an 1898 gold mining camp, and many hiking options. One of the best is the Winner Creek Trail, a 51u20442-mile round-trip trail that includes boardwalks and crosses several bridges. The trail leads to a hand-pulled tram crossing Glacier Creek, which is about 100 feet below.

Girdwood has a surprising number of excellent dining options. In addition to the Seven Glaciers, other restaurants include the award-winning Double Musky Inn (www.doublemuskyinn.com ), Jack Sprat (www.jacksprat.net) and Chair 5 Restaurant (www.chairfive.com ). After lunch or dinner, stop by the Girdwood Center for the Visual Arts, a cooperative of about 40 artists, on Olympic Mountain Loop. There you will find paintings, pottery, photography, wood turning, glass art and a variety of small gifts.

- Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (www.alaskawildlife. org ) at Mile 79 is one of the few places in Alaska that can guarantee wildlife sightings. The 200-acre refuge is home to dozens of animals including bears, moose, wood bison, plains bison, musk oxen, caribou, Sitka blacktail deer, elk, coyotes, foxes and a bald eagle.

The center takes in orphaned animals. Some animals never leave, but some move on to zoos in other parts of the country or world. Last year, three brown bear cubs came to the center, and they are destined for a zoo in Minnesota. They will spend another summer in Alaska.

Visitors can drive through the park, but it's more interesting to walk. The animals are kept in large, natural enclosures. Executive director Mike Miller said the natural setting encourages the animals to act as they would in the wild.

"The problem you have with animals in captivity is when they're in small enclosures, they look and act like they're in captivity," he said. "Nothing will ever replace when you see a bear in the wild, but in our big enclosure they act like they naturally would. They den up naturally.

"Our big bears are in 18 acres with a pond. I've seen them a million times, but they're still just too much fun to watch. You see them out running and playing. It's very natural."

Admission to the conservation center is $7.50 for adults and $5 for children and seniors. There is a maximum charge of $25 per car.

- The last stop is a combined visit to the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center and Portage Glacier. The best way to see the receding glacier is from the MV Ptarmigan tour boat.

The Begich, Boggs Visitor Center (783-2326) near Portage Glacier is one of the most visited sites in Southcentral Alaska. It is on the Portage Highway off the Seward Highway south of Girdwood. In addition to a view of Portage Lake, which often has icebergs from the glacier, the visitors center includes exhibits about Portage Valley, Prince William Sound, Alaska animals and stories about Alaskans.

Daily interpretive walks include the Iceworm Safari on Tuesday and Saturday afternoons. A guide takes visitors to the toe of Byron Glacier where they search for iceworms.

HEADING NORTH

While a trip along the Seward Highway offers tons of fun, heading north out of Anchorage offers another day full of activities.

Eklutna Lake is a popular entrance point to the 500,000-acre Chugach State Park. The seven-mile-long lake is fed by a glacier and surrounded by beautiful mountain peaks that rise more than 7,000 feet. Lifetime Adventures (www.lifetimeadventures.net , 1-800-952-8624) rents bicycles, kayaks and camping gear right at the edge of the lake. The company has a popular paddle-and-pedal trip. Guests paddle a kayak from one end of the lake to the other, then return on bicycles.

The 13-mile-long Lakeside Trail parallels the lake. The trail is easy for most bicycle riders and can be hiked in about six hours, one way. ATVs are allowed on the trail Sundays through Wednesdays. The 21u20442-mile Twin Peaks Trail is popular with hikers because of its easy access to good views of the entire Eklutna Valley. Berry picking is good at the upper portion of the trail.

The Bold Ridge Trail is about 31u20442 miles and starts at Mile 5 of the Lakeside Trail, so it's more than eight miles one way. The trail climbs steeply into the alpine tundra. The moss-covered tundra supports an abundance of wildflowers and berries. Occasionally, bears or wolves are visible on the surrounding mountains. The trail provides excellent views of the Eklutna Valley and glacier.

The Eagle River Nature Center (www.ernc.org) at the end of Eagle River Road offers wonderful hiking and wildlife-viewing opportunities. There is plenty of information on Chugach State Park and local geology, mammals, birds and plant life. The center offers guided hikes.

Other attractions north of Anchorage include Thunderbird Falls at Mile 26 Glenn Highway and the Eklutna Historical Park, at the Eklutna exit from the highway. The park is home to St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Special sections editor Steve Edwards can be reached at sedwards@adn.com or 257-4316. Visit his Alaska travel blog at www.alaska.com/alaskology.

Ride the rails The Alaska Railroad has trains that depart daily from Anchorage. The trips include:

- DENALI STAR: The train stops at Talkeetna, Denali National Park and Fairbanks. It leaves Anchorage at 8:15 a.m. Day trips to Talkeetna include a jetboat tour ($183-$389) or river rafting ($193-$399).

- COASTAL CLASSIC: The train heads to Seward. It leaves Anchorage at 6:45 a.m. The train ride can be combined with several trips aboard day cruise ships into Kenai Fjords National Park.

- GLACIER DISCOVERY: The railroad offers several day-trip excursions. On the Spencer Glacier Float Tour, guests ride the train to Spencer Glacier and enjoy a gentle float among the icebergs at Spencer Lake and down the Placer River; the Glacier Explorer allows visitors to explore the icebergs on Spencer Lake in a modern version of an Alaska Native canoe (each is $181). The train to Grandview includes views of Trail, Bartlett and Spencer glaciers ($99). Other trips can be combined with cruises in Whittier or Seward.

- FOR MORE INFO: Visit the Alaska Railroad's Web site at www.alaskarailroad.com or call 1-800-544-0552 or 265-2494.

- ANOTHER OPTION: Gray Line of Alaska offers tours aboard its McKinley Explorer glass-domed railcars. They are pulled by Alaska Railroad engines. For more information, visit www.graylinealaska.com or call 1-800-544-2206.

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