Coolest. Summer. Ever.
Insiders will tell you there’s never a bad time to visit Anchorage. But even the staunchest proponent of snowshoeing and winter biking will concede that there’s nothing like summer in this city, where you can, say, explore one of the nation’s largest state parks (almost all 495,000 acres lie within the municipality) by day, then spend your evening among the acclaimed local breweries, restaurants and live music venues before a little pre-bedtime tennis or golf. Because don’t forget: The sun sets after 11pm for most of July, and after 10pm for a good chunk of August.
But summer’s supersized days, which almost make you feel like you’re getting two for the price of one here, aren’t the only things that make the season so epic in Anchorage. There’s also the wildlife viewing, the easy-access hiking, biking and boating—and the seasonal feasting (you won’t believe the gorgeous bounty at the farmers’ markets, on menus—or just out on the trails).
With direct flights from nine U.S. cities (Chicago, Denver, Houston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Portland, Salt Lake City and Seattle), Anchorage is a lot closer than you might think. Plus it's walkable once you get there.
Here are five of the best ways to take advantage of such spectacular circumstances.
Head seven miles east of downtown, to the western foothills of the Chugach Mountains, and you’ll be at the doorstep of the aforementioned mega-park—Chugach State Park— whose 495,000 acres sit mostly within the municipality of Anchorage. For starters, hike the 1.5-mile trail up Flattop Mountain to the football field-sized summit, where the views go a long way toward explaining why this is reportedly the state’s most visited peak: On a clear day, you can see everything from Denali to the Kenai Mountains, to say nothing of the city below. Note that there are also more accessible trails that offer similar views, as well as a quick walk from the parking lot to the overlook. Point is, you won’t want to miss out on some version of this view, nor the surrounding mountainscape.
You’ll also want to check out the bodies of water that delineate the park’s northern and southern borders—Knik Arm and Turnagain Arm, respectively—both of which are branches of Cook Inlet, the connector between the Gulf of Alaska and Anchorage. The drives alone are amazing: If you head out on the Glenn Highway north from Anchorage, not only will you be taking the scenic route along Knik Arm, you can also stop to check out the Eagle River Nature Center. As you head north toward the Knik River, stop to check out the local nature trails, watch for moose and birds, and if you’re an experienced paddler, you’ll also see beautiful kayaking and rafting opportunities.
Meanwhile, heading south from Anchorage, drive The Seward Highway along Turnagain Arm and you won’t take long to understand why this stretch of road is the road-touring trifecta: a USDA Forest Service Scenic Byway, an Alaska Scenic Byway and All-American Road. Literally every pull-off is worth doing, starting with Potter Marsh on the edge of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge, where a boardwalk will lead you to some of the most breathtaking birding in the region. A wide variety of species from Arctic tern to trumpeter swan shows up in summer, with eagles circling overhead and spawning salmon underfoot for good measure. Not that you even need to turn off the highway to see amazing wildlife: You may well see Dall sheep, moose and grizzlies—three of Alaska’s “Big Five”—from the main road.
But one pull-off no one should miss is Beluga Point, where—in July and August—the namesake white whales go after the local salmon. Beluga Point is also one of the best places to witness Turnagain Arm’s famous, surreal bore tide—particularly if you’re traveling just before or after a full or new moon, or during the September equinox. You may even spot local surfers riding the wave.
Of course, there are a couple of Seward Highway stops that could become entire day trips unto themselves. The first is Girdwood, a small mountain town in the continent’s northernmost temperate coastal rainforest, where the hiking and biking are stunning—and so is the tram ride from the Alyeska Resort to the top of Mt. Alyeska, where you’ll have views of Turnagain Arm, hanging glaciers and peak after peak in the Chugach range. The next is Portage Glacier, which you can explore via guided float trips or the famed, five-mile hiking Trail of Blue Ice. The area is also home to the beloved Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, whose residents (many found orphaned or injured) include black and brown bears, elk, foxes, lynx and reindeer. You can walk, drive or even bike through, and may want to book one of a few up-close encounters.
Feast like a local
As much as Alaskans prize their abundant seafood, summer meals are just as much about savoring what visitors least expect: the exquisite and bountiful produce you can grow during a season that’s admittedly short, but with daylight so drawn out that you get the likes of the Guinness World Record-holding head of cabbage (138.25 lbs!) from the outskirts of Anchorage. So by all means, eat your share of salmon, halibut and Alaskan king crab, but also be sure to check out the local berry-picking trails, the Alaska State Fair (August 19-September 5) and Anchorage's wide variety of farmers markets.
You’ll also find a lot of epic eateries in and around Anchorage, but here’s an insider’s favorite lineup to get you started: Have breakfast at Snow City Café, where President Obama and his entourage once famously cleared out the whole cinnamon roll inventory—and where Alaska-grown produce will feature prominently on the menu all summer long. Midday, head downtown to the White Spot Café for what may well be the best fried halibut sandwich in the city (and that’s saying something). Come dinnertime, make your way to Bridge Seafood for the salmon of the day, 'simply grilled' (simple perfection, many would say).
See what’s brewing
Whether you’re looking for a steaming hot brew to fuel the day’s adventures or a cold, bubbly one to toast to them afterward, Anchorage aims to please, with ever proliferating coffeehouse and brewery scenes. By day, check out The Kobuk for a glimpse into old Anchorage—dating back to 1915, the building still has antique fixtures and flooring—and enjoy their signature Samovar Tea with an Old Fashioned donut. Kaladi Brothers Coffee began as a lone coffee cart and has grown into a multitude of shops, thanks to the likes of nitro cold brew deliciousness and a double-coffee concoction called Sludge.
By night, get to know the burgeoning breweries, some of whose reputations have likely preceded them. Anchorage Brewing, for one, is known globally (and is among the best in the world, according to at least one ranking site) thanks to such brews as the notorious Deal With the Devil: a 17.3 percent ABV barleywine released annually. For a lesser known but locally beloved gem, stop by Cynosure Brewing for a lager, Hefeweizen or whatever deliciousness had just been released when you show up.
Come to play
Given the bonus daylight you’re granted during an Anchorage summer, golf and tennis hours start early and extend well into the night. And even if you’re a casual player who wouldn’t normally pick up a club or racket on vacation, this is the place to make an exception for the novelty alone. At the Anchorage Golf Course, for one—a hillside spread with views of the Chugach Mountains, Denali and the city—you may well be sharing the greens with moose, fox or other wildlife. And when you’re playing tennis in the city’s park courts, don’t be surprised if a moose stops by to spectate.
If you’re looking for a more local sport to try, remember that dog sledding isn’t limited to winter. Thanks to helicopters that can land you on glaciers (after absurdly beautiful flights), summer dog sledding is a thing, too.
Check out what's new
Anchorage is ready to welcome both newcomers and repeat visitors to its wild surrounds this year, and the city has a few new tricks up its sleeve. Travelers can now stay at the newly opened Aloft Anchorage, a boutique hotel just two miles from downtown. Westmark Anchorage has reopened after a two-year hiatus, beckoning guests with views of the Chugach Mountains and Cook Inlet. If you’re willing to drive about 40 minutes south of the city, you can check out Alaska’s first Nordic Spa at Alyeska Resort. If a trip away from the contiguous 48 states wasn’t enough to help you switch off from the everyday hustle and bustle, surely the spa’s signature sauna or six hydrotherapy outdoor pools surrounded by a rain forest will do the trick.