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As Alaska’s biggest city, Anchorage is home to fantastic restaurants, fascinating museums, and incredibly close access to the rest of Alaska. While some locals might call it “Los Anchorage” because of the “big city” problems you might see here, I consider Anchorage to be an essential part of any Alaska itinerary.
Having grown up in the Anchorage area, I was fortunate to see a lot of this part of the state; my family took day trips and weekend trips to have different experiences and see different sights. Maybe I’m a bit biased, but this is why I always encourage people to spend some time based in Anchorage – both to enjoy all the city has to offer, plus to strike out and have a few adventures without switching hotels every single night.
If you’re planning to base yourself from Anchorage and strike out to explore The Last Frontier by doing a series of day trips, you’ve come to the right place. Below are the best Anchorage day trips to plan, both near and far, ranging from glacier adventures to sightseeing to incredible wildlife encounters. Don’t be surprised if you – like me – still have a few on your Alaska bucket list after your trip.
In this post, I promote travel to destinations that is the traditional lands of many Alaska Native groups, including the Aleut, Athabascan, Haida, Inupiat, Tlingit, and Yuit peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
Anchorage Day Trips to the North
When it comes to planning day trips from Anchorage, your first decision is pretty simple: north or south. There are only a few highways in Alaska and that at least makes the first parts of planning a little simpler. Let’s start by looking at some of the Anchorage day trips you can plan by heading north out of town; I’ve organized them from nearest to farthest.
Not that I’m biased or anything, but there’s a reason my old hometown is #1 on my list of Anchorage day trips. Actually, several reasons.
First, Eagle River is close to Anchorage, just a 10-minute drive from the big city. It’s an easy drive on the Glenn Highway from Anchorage to Eagle River, and there’s plenty to do, to fill a day.
Speaking of that second reason, some of my favorite things to do in Eagle River include:
- Heading out to the Eagle River Nature Center to walk around and hike; this is hands-down the most scenic part of the valley.
- Climb Mt. Baldy, the popular hiking trail that is great if you want a challenge.
- Grab a pint at Matanuska Brewing Company, which has a location right in town and great burgers too.
Best of all, you don’t need to book a tour or arrange any specific activities in advance to plan a day trip from Anchorage to Eagle River; these are just activities you can turn up and enjoy – like a local, which I was!
If you’re looking for a less common day trip destination from Anchorage, Eklutna will fit the bill. As you might be able to guess from the name, Eklutna (“Idluytnu” in Dena’ina Athabaskan) is a native village – the longest continuously inhabited Athabascan settlement in the area –, a 35-minute drive north of Anchorage along the Glenn Highway.
While passing through, you can stop to admire the two Saint Nicholas Orthodox Churches, part of Eklutna Historical Park. The Old St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church was built in 1894 and moved to its current location in 1900; the new church was built next to it in 1962. There are also colorful spirit houses that cover the graves of past villagers. (These spirit houses are a fantastic example of the uniquely combined cultures you can find in Alaska, honoring the Athabascan tradition of building such structures over graves with the adornment of Russian Orthodoxy.)
If you’re (also) up for a more outdoor experience, drive the extra half-hour up into the Chugach Mountains to spend time at Eklutna Lake. This is a great spot to head out on a hike (Twin Peaks trail kicked my butt in high school), rent a kayak and go paddling on this glacial lake, or rent a bike and ride on the lakeside trail to try and grab a glimpse of distant Eklutna Glacier (Idlu Bena Li’a).
On your way back to Anchorage, you could also stop and walk the easy Thunderbird Falls trail to see a 200-foot waterfall.
I’ll be honest, Palmer is a part of Alaska I haven’t really spent much time; the most I did when growing up in the Anchorage area was during the Alaska State Fair each August. (If you’re visiting in mid- to late August, be sure to check the dates and make time for this unique experience!)
It’s a 45-minute drive from Anchorage to Palmer, which is the gateway to some other great day trip destinations like Matanuska Glacier and Hatcher Pass; you could easily plan a day trip to visit all three if you pay attention to driving times and tour schedules.
Within Palmer, there are cool things to do too; the reindeer farm or musk ox farm are both crowd-pleasers especially if you’re traveling with kids. Colony House Museum is also a fascinating if you’re curious to learn how colonists from the Iron Range region in the Lower 48 (northern Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin) ended up settling in this part of the country.
If you’ve read any of my other Alaska travel resources, you know that I am a huge proponent of flightseeing tours; they’re expensive, yes, but they’re also a great (and sometimes the only) way to see certain parts of Alaska.
Knik Glacier is one of those Anchorage day trip destinations that is primarily (or perhaps best) accessible by plane or helicopter. There are a number of tour operators that offer helicopter or fixed-wing flights out over the glacier with sweeping views of the Chugach Mountains and other glaciers too.
You can also do land tours in the Knik Glacier area. There are ATVing, jetboat, and combination tours that show off this relatively isolated part of The Last Frontier that’s so close to Anchorage.
In most cases, you’ll need a car to reach the start of your tour; it’s about an hour drive (one way) to reach the end of Knik River Road where many operators are based.
I’ve already mentioned Hatcher Pass as a place you can visit from Palmer; it’s a 75-minute drive from Anchorage (so another 30 minutes beyond Palmer, up into the Talkeetna Mountains – more on Talkeetna below).
Hatcher Pass is one of those coveted experiences for people visiting Alaska… Once you hear about it, you’ll want to do it! For most people this means driving up-and-back to visit Independence Mine State Historical Park, which teaches visitors about the history of gold mining in Alaska dating back to roughly 1897.
If you have a rental car that is permitted to drive on the Hatcher Pass Road (check your contract), you could also make a loop road trip instead: visit the mine, then cross over the 49-mile mountain pass. Most people on this road are Alaskans out to enjoy hiking trails accessible only from this seasonal roadway; you’ll also get to see almost-untouched scenery and some mining ruins on the mountain slopes. I did the drive in August 2022, and it was as stunning as I remember from doing it as a child.
If you’re looking for a truly unique experience, there’s perhaps no more memorable day trip from Anchorage than heading out to hike on Matanuska Glacier. Yep, you read that right: you can go hiking on a glacier. In Alaska. Pretty easily, too!
If you already plan to have a rental car, you could compare some of the tour companies based out at the glacier and drive yourself there to start your tour (a two-hour drive); this is what I did in summer 2022, but I also spent a night out near the glacier to make the timing of that tour more convenient.
An even easier option is to book the Glacier Walk Tour from Anchorage-based Salmon Berry Tours; they pick you up at your hotel/accommodation, do all the driving, and get you back to the city at the end of the tour.
Whether you drive yourself out there or book a tour, the experience at the glacier is the same: once you arrive at the glacier, a guide will set you up with microspikes and a helmet and guide you out onto Matanuska Glacier itself. You’ll then spend time hiking out onto the ice, learning about glaciology, and taking some pretty epic photos.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, you must go on a guided tour to visit Matanuska, and pay an access fee; it’s not something you’re allowed to do on your own.
The furthest destination to the north that you can visit as a day trip from Anchorage is Talkeetna. It’s just over a two-hour drive from Anchorage to Talkeetna, and it’s well worth it if you have the time and want to be on the road that long in a single day. (Note that you can’t take the Alaska Railroad to Talkeetna for a day trip; you will need a car.)
As I said though, Talkeetna is worth it though, and there’s lots to do to fill your time there:
- Explore Historic Downtown Talkeetna – Since the 1970s and the completion of the Parks Highway, tourism has been a primary driver in Talkeetna, but the town has fought to retain its off-beat charm. Many downtown buildings are historic and embrace their part in Alaska’s history, such as Nagley’s General Store and the Talkeetna Schoolhouse.
- Mahay’s Riverboat Adventure – If you wanna talk about operators that have been around forever in Alaska, Mahay’s Jet Boat Adventures has to make the list. They’ve been running boats on the Nenana River since 1975; today their riverboat tours are one of the top things to do in Talkeetna. They offer both a three-hour Wilderness Excursion and a five-hour Devil’s Canyon Adventure.
- Flightseeing to Denali – K2 Aviation has been operating in Alaska for decades, and offers an incredible flightseeing tour from Talkeetna – including the option to add a glacier landing to any of their tours based on availability and weather. This makes the experience similar in part to the Fly Denali tour I love.
I also have an entire list of things to do in Talkeetna if you want even more options.
Anchorage Day Trips to the South
Okay, now let’s talk about the Anchorage day trips you can take that are located south of the city. From Anchorage, the Seward Highway runs south and several day trip destinations can be found along that highway.
Located about 45 minutes drive south of Anchorage, Girdwood is a fantastic day trip destination. And, despite being home to only about 1,000 people, there’s more than a day’s worth of things to do in Girdwood.
No visit to Girdwood would be complete without visiting the Alyeska Resort and enjoying some of the amenities there, such as riding the Alyeska Tram up Alyeska mountain to hike around or grab a drink or meal at the restaurants and bars up there, or soaking in the hot springs at the brand new Nordic Spa. I’ve ridden the tram many times and visited the spa during my 2022 trip; while I don’t think the resort is worth an overnight, these two experiences are definitely essential for a Girdwood day trip.
You should also plan on a hike in the Girdwood area. Crow Creek Pass is a great out-and-back challenge for avid hikers, Virgin Creek Falls is iconic with its namesake falls; and Iditarod Trail is historic but not for the reason you might think based on its name. The latter trail was part of an original transportation trail across Southcentral Alaska, and is not specifically tied to the Iditarod Race – but gives you a sense of how important dog-sledding was in Alaska’s past.
Girdwood is also home to some great restaurants if you want a meal or two while visiting.
Fun fact: I worked at the Portage Glacier Visitor Center for approximately one month when I first started my job at Holland America Line back in the summer of 2004. Man, that was a commute!
Portage Glacier is located about 80 minutes south of Anchorage along the Seward Highway; it’s great in combination with Girdwood or Whittier (next on this list), but can also be done on its own if you don’t want to pack too much in during a given day.
When my family first moved to Alaska in ’92, Portage Glacier was one of the most easily visible and accessible glaciers in Alaska: you could literally drive your car into the parking lot at the Visitor Center and see the glacial terminus in Portage Lake plus plenty of icebergs. By the early 2000s, the glacier had receded around a corner and required a boat tour to visit; now, you still need to take a boat tour, but only small portions of the glacier still touch the lake. The last time I visited (late season), there were also no icebergs in the lake, so seeing anything at all depends on when you visit.
In any case, the Portage Glacier cruise is a one-hour boat tour, and costs $45 for adults/$25 for children.
While in the area, you can also stretch your legs on the 3.2-mile out-and-back Byron Glacier Trail. It gives you another great glacier view; keep your eyes peeled for moose who love these kinds of forested areas.
As already mentioned, Whittier is a great day trip destination from Anchorage; if you’re not arriving here by cruise ship and have the time, it’s worth figuring out the logistics to get here. (One, you’ll need a car and two, you’ll need to plan around the schedule of the one-way Anton Anderson tunnel.)
Once in Whittier, the most common thing to do is set out to explore Prince William Sound. This waterway is home to an incredible number of tidewater glaciers, and the 26 Glacier Cruise is the best way to see as many as possible (more than 26!).
On land, there are a few hiking trails that outdoors-folk might enjoy, like the challenging Portage Pass Trail (still on my list) that gives views of Portage Glacier on clear days and Horsetail Falls trail to a nice vista (again, only on a clear day).
If you read this whole post and are uncertain about choosing between a day trip to Whittier or Seward, I have a guide comparing the two.
Spencer Glacier is a neat little option; it’s not accessible on the main roadway, so your only option is to take the Alaska Railroad on their whistle-stop service to Spencer Glacier Station (en route to Seward down south).
This is actually something I have never done; I’ve passed Spencer Glacier on the train, but haven’t had the time in my schedule to hop off and spend part of a day here before catching the train back to Anchorage. I know that while there, you can go hiking, rafting, kayaking, and try SUP to enjoy the remote wilderness and scenic beauty.
My friend Nicole has a great guide to planning a day trip to Spencer Glacier if this sounds vaguely interesting and you want to learn more.
Ah, Hope, how I love thee! Hope is my favorite Alaskan small town – and there are a lot of great contenders, so that says something.
On a map, it doesn’t look far from Anchorage to Hope, but there are no direct routes over Turnagain Arm, so you’ll be taking the long, scenic route around. The ~90-ish mile drive takes about 100 minutes, but don’t be surprised if it takes longer due to photo stops, traffic, and construction (which all happens during the short summer season).
Once you arrive in tiny Hope, you might wonder what the fuss is about. This small gold-rush boom-now-bust town has a cute history museum and library, offers incredible salmon fishing opportunities, and is also the terminus for some awesome river rafting; I definitely want to try rafting on my next visit after my Alaskan rafting adventure in Summer 2022.
The furthest you can potentially day trip from Anchorage, Seward sits at the end of the Seward Highway. It takes 2.5-3 hours to drive from Anchorage to Seward, so this makes for a particularly long day trip; if you have more time, I’d definitely recommend spending a night (or two) in Seward to enjoy all this coastal town has to offer.
The absolute must-do in Seward is going on a cruise in Kenai Fjords National Park. There are lots of Kenai Fjords cruise options, so you can take a look at when you want to depart Anchorage, what time the cruises leave for different lengths of time on the water, and plan accordingly.
If you’re visiting during the long summer months, you might also have time to visit the Alaska SeaLife Center to get up close and personal with some of the native animals of the area or take a short hike at Exit Glacier, the only glacier in Kenai Fjords that you can reach by car.
After dinner in the Seward area, you can then make the return trip to Anchorage – just be prepared for the return trip time.
Other Anchorage Day Trips
There are just two other destinations I want to mention that are technically Anchorage day trips if you are up for the adventure – and have the budget in your Alaska trip. Both offer roughly the same thing, but in unique ways.
Katmai National Park
Alaska is home to 8 national parks; most people visit 2-4 of them during their trip (Denali, Kenai Fjords, and possibly Wrangell-St. Elias or Glacier Bay depending on their itinerary). If you want to tick another off your list and see the iconic shots of bears enjoying fresh salmon dinner, Katmai National Park (or neighboring Lake Clark National Park) are essential.
Katmai is not on the road system, so you’ll need to book a flight tour from Anchorage to visit the park. My recommend provider is Rust’s Flying Service; they offer Katmai flightseeing tours in July when the salmon start to run in that park.
Lake Clark National Park
As the season wears on, the salmon – and thus the bears – and thus the tourists – move to another area. Rust’s shifts their flightseeing tours to Lake Clark National Park in August and early September when the bear-viewing prospects are better.
In both cases, it costs $1100-$1200 per person to do a flightseeing tour to Katmai or Lake Clark, and takes 10-12 hours. This is something I’d love to do on one of my future trips, but haven’t had a chance to swing it yet due to visiting other parts of the state first.
And there you have it: over a dozen great ideas for day trips from Anchorage to other parts of the state. Have any questions about these Anchorage dai trip destinations? Let me know in the comments below!
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