Spread across an alluvial plain between the lofty Chugach Range and the waters of Cook Inlet, Anchorage is Alaska’s largest city. In less than a century since its founding in 1914, this former tent city has grown into the economic, commercial, and transport hub of the state. With excellent museums, theaters, parks, and shops, Anchorage is not only the perfect urban foil for Alaska’s wilderness, but an ideal jumping-off point for adventures farther afield.
The original tent city on the shores of Ship Creek was a service camp for the Alaska Railroad. An early sale of lots led to the growth of downtown Anchorage on the nearby bluffs, while the banks of Ship Creek developed into the town’s port, shipping, and industrial district. The massive Good Friday earthquake of 1964 destroyed parts of Anchorage, but construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the 1970s completely changed the profile of the city. A large share of oil revenue came to Anchorage, leading to an explosion of growth. The downtown area was revitalized with new sports arenas, civic centers, and performing arts venues, and outlying suburbs were integrated into the urban area.
Today, the municipality of Anchorage, with a population of over 300,000 people, includes not only the city proper, but also the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER), several vil lages along Turnagain Arm, and a string of suburbs, includ ing Eagle River and Chugiak, along Knik Arm. It also takes in the vast swathe of Chugach State Park, which brings the “real Alaska” right to the city’s back door. To the north, the growing Matanuska-Susitna (Mat-Su) Borough provides space and a more outdoorsy lifestyle than is possible in Anchorage proper. All year round, travelers will find numerous good hotels and excellent restaurants. In the summer, however, downtown Anchorage comes into its own, bustling with visitors from across the world who stop off to see the sights and prepare for adventures in the more remote parts of the state.
1. Anchorage Museum
Covering 170,000 square feet, including 2 acres (1 ha) of landscaped public space, Alaska’s largest museum reopened in 2009 following a $106-million expansion. The museum houses exhibits on Alaskan history, science, and Native culture, along with some of the state’s finest art.
The Imaginarium Discovery Center is a highlight, as are the planetarium and artifacts from Alaskan Native cultures. Additionally, the museum hosts approximately 20 visiting exhibits annually from around the world.
Considered one of Alaska’s most popular painters, Sydney Laurence (1865–1940) is perhaps best known for his series of paintings of Denali (formerly known as Mount McKinley), including this iconic depiction of the mountain in enigmatic Alaskan light. Several of Laurence’s atmospheric landscapes are on display at the museum.
2. FOAST Law Enforcement Museum
Founded with a handful of officers in 1941 as the Alaska State Highway Patrol, Alaska’s law enforcement agency also served as the Territorial Police and the State Police before being named the Alaska State Troopers in 1967. The Fraternal Order of the Alaska State Troopers (FOAST) established the museum in 1991. In the early days, the Troopers protected half a million square miles (1,295,000 sq km) of territory using the fairly basic technology of the time. One display exhibits a typical 1940s law enforcement office, where sealskin boots, snowshoes, a clunky period radio, type writer, and tele phone illustrate the wide range of duties a trooper was expected to fulfill.
The most popular exhibit is the shiny 1952 Hudson Hornet patrol car, one of the fastest vehicles of its era, now lovingly restored. Other dis plays showcase memorabilia from the days of the US Marshals, including a poster offering a $1,000 reward for Alaska’s first serial killer, Edward Krause, who killed ten people between 1912 and 1915. Another intriguing device is the Harger Drunkometer, a confounding forerunner of the modern breathalyzer.
3. Log Cabin Visitor Information Center
Operated by the Anchorage Convention and Visitors Bureau, this helpful center is in the heart of downtown Anchorage. The flower-bedecked, sodroofed log cabin is a favorite spot for photos, and outside there are equally picturesque signposts showing the distance in miles to many international cities.
The main visitor center fills a second building. Here you’ll find visitor brochures, free guides to nearby parks, and other publications, plus helpful staff to answer travel questions.
4. 4th Avenue Theater
Designed in 1941 in classic Art Deco style by B Marcus Priteca, the old 4th Avenue Theater, also known as the Lathrop Building, is the quintessential Anchorage land mark. Construction began in 1941 at the cost of one million US dollars, and the building opened to the public with the film The Al Jolson Story. With 960 seats spread over its main floor and the balcony, the 4th Avenue Theater served as the city’s only movie house for over four decades.
Remarkably, the theater survived the enormously destructive 1964 Good Friday earthquake, which leveled other buildings along 4th Avenue. A restoration project in the mid-1980s revived its opulent Italian marble and walnut wood interiors, which are adorned with impressive bronze relief murals depicting scenes from Alaskan history. Though currently closed, there are plans to redevelop the building; however, the theater’s historic significance means that this has met with opposition.
5. Resolution Park
Named after Captain Cook’s flagship, Resolution Park offers visitors one of the best views in Anchorage, taking in Cook Inlet and both Mount Susitna (a magnificent low mountain to the northwest, also known as The Sleeping Lady) and spectacular Denali on a clear day. The active volcanoes south of Denali, Mount Spurr and Redoubt, are also visible.
The centerpiece of this small park is the Captain Cook Monument, commemo rating the 200th anniversary of James Cook’s exploration of Alaska. An 18thcentury British naval officer and explorer with a natural talent for physics and mathematics, Cook led several expeditions around the world. In 1776, on his third voyage in HMS Resolution, he sailed north along the continent’s west coast in search of the Northwest Passage (a naviga ble link between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans), and passed the presentday site of Anchorage, giving his name to Cook Inlet. Derek Freeborn’s lifesized bronze statue, based on the one in Whitby, UK, from where Cook first set sail, was donated to Anchorage during the US Bicentennial celebrations in 1976.
Just one block east, in front of the CarrGottstein Building, is Josef Princiotta’s fabulous 1973 bronze sculpture, The Last Blue Whale. Adding a wonderful sense of perspec tive is a small beleaguered boat on the ripples of water near the tail of the gigantic whale.
6. Oscar Anderson House
This historic home was built in 1915 by Oscar Anderson, a Swede who is said to have been the 18th resident of the original tent city of Anchorage. While still living on the beach after his arrival in town, Anderson established the Ship Creek Meat Company and the Evan Jones Fuel Company. Due to a shortage of building materials, his house, the first permanent woodframe structure in town, had only one and a half stories and mea sured just 800 sq ft (72 sq m).
Anderson lived here until his death in 1974, and two years later, it was deeded to the City of Anchorage by his widow. The building has since been meticulously restored to reflect the period in which it was built, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Various exhi bits reveal the history of the city, and many of Anderson’s original belongings are on display, including a working 1909 player piano. A Swedish Christmas open house is held here in traditional style each December. Next to the house, Elderberry Park offers great views of Knik Arm and the chance to spot beluga whales.
7. Alaska Native Heritage Center
Situated in a lovely wooded corner of Anchorage, the Alaska Native Heritage Center uses exhibits, workshops, and outdoor displays to preserve and perpetuate Native Alaskan culture. One of Anchorage’s most popular attrac tions, this educational and cul tural institution gives visitors the opportunity to experience a range of diverse Native traditions at a single site.
Among the center’s highlights are five Native “villages,” which are based on broad tribal groupings that draw upon cultural similarities or geographic proximity. Native Alaskans throughout the site interpret aspects of their cultures.
8. St. Innocent Russian Orthodox Cathedral
The heart of Russian Orthodox activity in the Anchorage area, this beautiful cathedral was named in honor of the erudite 18th-century bishop Ioan Veniaminov. Arriving in Unalaska in the early 1820s, he built churches and schools, developed a written version of the Aleut language, and produced an Aleut Bible, for which he was canonized in 1977 as St. Innocent.
Due largely to the efforts of such missionaries, Alaska is today the leading diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church in the Western Hemisphere. The most striking features of St. Innocent are its 12 blue onion domes. As with most Orthodox places of worship, the cathedral is full of beautifully colored icons, paintings, and religious artifacts. Although the cathe dral is usually closed to the public, its opulent interior can be seen during services, on feast days, or during other significant events of the Russian Orthodox calendar.
9. Tony Knowles Coastal Trail
The most popular biking and jogging trail in Anchorage, the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail passes the attractive Elderberry Park on the down town waterfront and follows the coastline south to Kincaid Park. One of the highlights along the 11 mile (17 km) trail is Westchester Lagoon, where walkers can observe waterfowl or cross over to the gravel beaches of Knik Arm. On clear days, there are great views across Cook Inlet to the volcano, Mount Spurr.
Midway along the route, Earthquake Park has exhibits on the devasta ting 1964 Good Friday earth quake, which created the dramatic bluff visible here. At the southern end of the trail, the 2 sq miles (5.7 sq km) Kincaid Park, a forested glacial moraine area, offers excellent summer hiking and a network of Nordic ski trails in the winter. The park also has the city’s largest population of moose.
10. Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum
Located on the shores of Lake Hood, the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum is a mustsee for anyone interested in the lives and achievements of traditional bush pilots and their planes. There is detailed coverage of the state’s World War II history, including the Japanese invasion, along with collections of artifacts, photo graphs, aviators’ clothing, and newspaper accounts of high lights in Alaskan aviation.
The museum also preserves an extensive collection of historic aircraft, including: a 1928 Stearman bush plane that was among the first to land on Denali in 1932; one of only two remaining 1928 Hamilton Metalplanes; Merle “Mudhole” Smith’s 1929 Cordova Airways TravelAir; a 1929 Loening seaplane first flown to Alaska Territory in 1946 by former governor Jay Hammond; and a 1931 Fairchild Pilgrim aircraft. A 100-seat theater is available for view ing a library of film footage about Alaska’s early pilots.
11. Alaska Wild Berry Products
Located on the banks of the scenic Campbell Creek, Alaska Wild Berry Products is a pop ular tourist attraction. It boasts the world’s largest chocolate waterfall, a 20 ft (6 m) cas cade of melted chocolate, which conjures up images of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Through observation windows, visitors can watch as the company’s jams and sweets are made. A stroll around the Wild Berry Park and Village leads to a trail and reindeer enclo sures. The attached Sourdough Mining Company serves tradi tional Alaskan fare and holds gold panning demonstrations. Visitors staying downtown can call for a free pickup. There’s another outlet in Wasilla.
Alaska’s only indoor water park, H2Oasis has activities for all ages. The Lazy River encircling the park offers tubing opportunities as well as a Riverwalk, a fitness walk in slow running water, three times a week. A Wave Pool provides body surfing at a balmy 27° C (80° F) – even in winter.
The Pirate Ship features slides for chil dren. Visitors can barrel down a 500ft (150m) water coaster on an inflatable raft, or bodyslide down the tamer enclosed water tube. Adult swimmers can later relax in a whirlpool spa.
13. Eklutna Historical Park
Forming the centerpiece of the tiny village of Eklutna, the Eklutna Historical Park was established to preserve and portray the heritage of the Athabaskan people. Founded in 1650, it is the oldest continually inhabited village in the Anchorage area. With the coming of Russian missionar ies in the early 19th century, most of the locals converted to Russian Orthodoxy, as evidenced by the onion-domed St. Nicholas church.
The adjacent cemetery has over 100 graves covered with colorful “spirit houses,” decorated according to individual family traditions. Early 20th-century implements used here and Athabaskan bead work and snow shoes can be seen at the Heritage House museum. A 3-mile (5-km) return walk, over the Glenn Highway and through birch forests, leads to scenic Thunderbird Falls. During the winter, this 200-ft- (60-m-) high cascade becomes a spectacular icefall.
Historically best known as a farming community, the town of Palmer nestles beneath Matanuska Peak and the Talkeetna Range along the glacial Matanuska River. Founded as a social experi ment in 1935 as part of President Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal, it was settled by 200 Midwestern families.
Each family in the newly established Matanuska Colony was given 40 acres (16 ha) of land for vegetable farming, growing hay, and raising dairy cattle. Today, while farming is still important, Palmer’s outskirts are rapidly turning into bedroom suburbs for Anchorage, due mainly to the city’s dwindling land and high costs.
The surrounding Matanuska and Susitna Valleys, popularly abbreviated to MatSu, are now among the fastestgrowing regions of Alaska. Well worth visiting is the Colony House Museum, which reflects one of the five basic farmhouse styles available to the Colony farmers. Inside, their story is told with old news paper articles, period furnish ings, and artifacts. For 12 days in August and September, Palmer hosts the Alaska State Fair, the state’s biggest annual event, drawing nearly half of Alaska’s population. The fair features the valley’s famous giant vegetables, as well as other agricultural displays, crafts, livestock, food and retail booths, live music, a rodeo, Native dancing and blanket tossing, and a range of competitions.
15. Bodenburg Butte
Rising out of the farmlands on the Knik River flats south of Palmer, the 900 ft( 270m) high Bodenburg Butte is one of the Matanuska Valley’s most prominent landmarks. It was created when Knik Glacier rode over a small knob of resistant bedrock, leaving a glacierscraped dome known as a roche moutonnée. Once used for military training, it is now a popular picnic and hiking spot with a windy summit from where parasailers can launch out over the flats.
The steep trail leading to the sum mit starts opposite the Reindeer Farm and soon passes from the stands of birch at the base into open grassy ridges and rocky bluffs near the top. The twohourlong round trek is worth it for the views from the summit, which take in the Palmer area and Knik Glacier.
16. Musk Ox Farm
The Musk Ox Farm is home to the only domestic herd of musk oxen in the world. Hunted to extinction in Alaska in the 19th century, they were reintroduced from Greenland in the 1930s. Musk oxen now inhabit Nunivak Island, the Seward Peninsula, and the North Slope of Alaska.
Anthropologist John Teal started the farm in Fairbanks in 1964. Now located in Palmer, the farm gathers qiviut, the fine underwool of the musk ox, and distributes it to Native women. They spin and knit the qiviut into soft, warm garments using patterns and motifs unique to their vil lages. The farm is open to the public and runs short tours.