ANCHORAGE, ALASKA

Anchorage, Alaska, is big-city living. It is home to more than a quarter-million people—nearly half the state's population. The city has shopping malls, national discount stores, movie theaters, fast-food restaurants, fine dining, high-rise hotels and a busy international airport. That makes Anchorage an abnormality in a state where the featured attraction is wilderness—specifically Denali National Park, the Kenai Peninsula and Katmai National Park. Alaska's residents joke that visitors can't really claim to have seen the state until they leave Anchorage.

But, as with most places in Alaska, the wilderness is never far away. Some of the state's premier natural attractions are within a day's travel. If you visit in summer, you'll have extra time to see the sights—there are 17-21 hours of daylight per day then.

Geography

The city occupies a wide and relatively flat point of land where Ship Creek flows into Cook Inlet in south-central Alaska. The southern edge of Anchorage borders on the waters of Turnagain Arm (a branch of Cook Inlet). The Chugach (pronounced CHEW-gatch) Mountains rise to the east, and the Anchorage Bowl—as the whole area is called—stretches approximately 15 miles north to south and 10 miles east to west at its widest point.

There are two major highways: the New Seward Highway, which heads south from downtown toward Seward and Homer on the Kenai (pronounced KEE-nye) Peninsula, and Glenn Highway, which heads northeast, eventually connecting with the Alaska Highway at Tok. The Parks Highway is the main road to Denali National Park and Fairbanks. It branches off the Glenn Highway 35 miles north of Anchorage.

History

. For centuries, the Tanaina natives inhabited the area. The first European settlers didn't arrive until the early 1900s.  In 1915, Anchorage became a primary staging area for workers building the federally financed Alaska Railroad, which connected coastal Seward with inland Fairbanks. By the 1930s, more than 3,000 people lived in Anchorage, and its importance grew during World War II when both Elmendorf Air Force Base and Fort Richardson Army Post were built to help defend Alaska from possible Japanese attack.

After Alaska gained statehood in 1959, Anchorage prospered until the massive Good Friday earthquake of 1964. The second-most-powerful earthquake in the world during the 20th century, it had a magnitude of 9.2, killed 115 Alaskans and caused billions of dollars in damage. Most of the structures in the city today were built after the quake.  Another significant event that has shaped Anchorage was the discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay in 1968, and the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the 1970s. The city quickly became a base for oil companies and other businesses, and its population more than tripled during the next decade.

Potpourri

Alaska has 128 times more land covered by glaciers than all the remaining states, with a combined 100,000 glaciers. There are 60 glaciers within 50 miles of Anchorage.

Moose frequent yards and streets throughout Anchorage, and there are about 1,500 of the animals in residence within city limits, as well as about 250 black bears and 60 brown bears.

The annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race has a ceremonial start in Anchorage and travels about 1,000 miles from Willow to Nome, although the exact route differs each year.

Anchorage is Alaska's largest Alaska Native village, home to members of all 11 Alaska cultural groups.

On a clear day in Anchorage you can see 20,320-ft Mount McKinley, North America's tallest mountain, which is 130 miles north of downtown. You can also see six mountain ranges: the Alaska Range; the Chugach, Talkeetna, Tordrillo and Kenai mountains; and the Aleutian Range, as well as two volcanoes.

Anchorage, which stretches 1,705 sq miles from Portage Glacier to Eklutna, is about the size of the state of Delaware.

 
 

Sightseeing

Before dashing off to outlying sights such as Denali (pronounced deh-NAH-lee) National Park or the Kenai Peninsula, you should spend some time in Anchorage itself. With its museums, art galleries, restaurants, parks and trails, flower-filled city center and scenic shoreline, the city is worth at least a day of sightseeing and possibly more.

A trolley car leaves from in front of the log-cabin visitor center at Fourth Avenue and F Street hourly 9 am-5 pm for a one-hour tour of downtown (about US$20 adults, US$7.50 children ages 6-12). We also recommend a drive south along Turnagain Arm to Girdwood, stopping at the Potter Marsh Bird Sanctuary and the numerous scenic overlooks to watch for beluga whales or Dall sheep. For the best views, take along a pair of binoculars.

Dining Overview

Commercial fishing is an important part of Alaska's economy, and fresh seafood is a mainstay at many Anchorage restaurants. The state is famous for its salmon (especially king and red salmon), which is always wild—not farm-raised. Fresh halibut, with its beautiful white meat and delicious flavor, is another favorite from the local waters, as are crabs (notably king crab), oysters and clams.

Driven to extremes by the midnight sun, residents and visitors alike may find themselves eating dinner as late as 10 pm in the summer months.

Dos & Don'ts

Don't feed the wildlife, and do dispose of garbage properly. The city has had a problem with bears wandering into the city for food.

Do turn on your headlights when driving on the highway and do use caution when driving on the highway, especially after dark, as moose and other wildlife may dart across without warning.

Do take insect repellent during summer months.

Do take an eye mask if light interferes with your sleep. Anchorage experiences 17-21 hours of daylight during summer months. Because of the daylight, don't expect to see the aurora borealis (northern lights) during the summer months.

Do make reservations at restaurants and rental car companies during summer months.

Do take plenty of layers: The weather can change rapidly, and what starts out as a sunny day could change into a chilly, stormy afternoon, and vice versa.

Travel 42

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Courtesy of: Darla Logsdon

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