The Perfect Week in South-Central Alaska
Food, fishing, and miles of hike-worthy trails make it easy to fill a week exploring South-central Alaska. Stretching from the Copper River Valley across the Mat-Su Valley, down to Anchorage, the Kenai Peninsula, and Homer, and then all across Prince William Sound, South-central makes up a sizable portion of the state. If you’re going to road trip around Alaska, this is where you do it (though nobody would question your decision to add a trip up to Fairbanks to your itinerary). Explore Kenai Fjords National Park, Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark, and bear viewing in Katmai National Park.
1343 G St, Anchorage, AK 99501, USA
Fire Island, in the heart of South Addition, one of Anchorage’s oldest neighborhoods, handcrafts an astonishingly delicious array of baked goods, breads, sandwiches, and savory delights that keep locals lining up for more. The bakery uses as much local produce as it can squeeze into its scones and muffins, offers interesting flavor combos, and serves up a tofu banh mi that is one of the finest tofu sandwiches known to man. If you’re hanging out in Anchorage for more than a day or two, check out the class schedule. You could leave Alaska with some serious sourdough skills. Please note: Fire Island is closed Mondays and Tuesdays, as well as most of January.
409 Overland Ave, Kenai, AK 99611, USA
You can definitely catch this bus, because the Burger Bus isn’t going anywhere. And that’s a very good thing—because you want the cooked-to-order fast food served up out of this so-slow-it’s-stopped bus. Walk into the vestibule that offers coverage from Alaska weather (and a few tables for those who don’t want to eat in their car), peruse the menu taped to the windows of the bus, and order ... joy. The namesake burgers are delightful. If you’re fish’d out, go for beef or chicken. If not, go straight to the halibut burger. Oh, so good. Not up for wrapping your mouth around one of the messy delights? OK, fine. Get a platter of fried halibut and chips. Make sure you post that sucker on Instagram before you down it all. Your friends back home are gonna weep. You’ll win the day.
320 3rd Ave, Seward, AK 99664, USA
Starting a day in Seward without a walk around town and a stop—a long stop—at Resurrect Art Coffee House would be simply ridiculous. The baristas are religious about serving excellent espresso drinks in this former church, a 100-year-old building that offers a warm spot to hang out on one of Seward’s not-so-nice days. But thanks to the often friendly conversations found inside (and plenty of room to read the paper or snag some time with the free Wi-Fi), it’s well worth devoting a piece of even the sunniest morning to Resurrect. Like the people of many an Alaskan town, Seward residents spend a lot of their summers focused on fishing and other busy summer stuff, but once fall rolls in, they turn toward each other for company as well as to solitary pursuits. Resurrect is at the center of both of those worlds as both a gathering place for locals and an art gallery for their work. There’s usually a dog or two hanging out inside, too. It’s just about perfect. The only downside: Resurrect closes at 7 p.m.
27635 Seward Hwy, Anchorage, AK 99540, USA
Don’t blast past this easy-to-drive-by restaurant on the Seward Highway. Open since June 2017, Froth & Forage looks like an unassuming sandwich joint. And it does serve some sandwiches. But you’re not going to get, say, a ham and cheese. Nope. You’re going to get an open-faced shrimp scampi sandwich served with house-cut fries that are topped with truffle oil, garlic, and Parmesan. Oh, and the view out of the window is of Turnagain Arm and the mountains. It’s crazy beautiful. So now you see why you shouldn’t blast past? You’ll want to eat there again—and you can do that on your drive back to Anchorage.
4460 Homer Spit Rd, Homer, AK 99603, USA
The Homer Spit is home to, for the most part, summer-only businesses that cater to tourists, fishermen, and weekend adventurers aplenty. So there’s long been an emphasis on fried halibut and other related goodies. The Spit’s food cred took a serious bump up when La Baleine opened. Though the restaurant has a seriously casual beach-town vibe, the food is not your everyday sandy-feet fare. Emphasizing organic and local ingredients, chef Mandy Dixon—who grew up in the kitchens of her parents’ Alaska lodges (Within the Wild)—serves up elegant but generous dishes, including salmon bowls with brown rice and roasted root vegetables and miso-marinated sablefish. The breakfasts are hearty enough to take you through a full day of paddling the bay.
Talkeetna, AK 99676, USA
There are several small towns around Alaska that make visitors of years past smile. Talkeetna sits pretty high atop that list. A good stopping point between Anchorage and Denali National Park, the town is at once a history stop, arty spot, beer fill-up, hearty food destination, and mountain climbing mecca. Talkeetna is the first step for everybody setting out to climb Denali. But it’s also the go-to for visitors who enjoy quirky little towns with huge personalities. Thanks to cruise-ship bus tours, the town does get a bit overrun during the summer months—but it’s still worth swinging in. And if you happen to be in Alaska during the winter and want to attend a very Alaskan event, don’t miss the Bachelor Auction. The entire town gets revved up and pretty darn drunk. It’s damn fun.
1 West Ishmailof, Halibut Cove, AK 99603, USA
The Slow Food people could learn a thing or two from The Saltry when it comes to really stretching out the pacing of a meal: This restaurant sits a beautiful one-hour ride away on the Danny J ferry (one of the cutest ferries ever), across Kachemak Bay from Homer, Alaska. (Seriously, this meal is not for the seasick prone.) Once the boat arrives in tiny Halibut Cove, you get three hours to dine, explore, and visit the two art galleries in town. (OK, town is a strong word. Halibut Cove is a tiny pip of a place.) For such an out-of-the-way spot, The Saltry serves up a stunningly high-end meal. The seafood-heavy menu depends on mostly local ingredients. (Do not, unless you’re allergic, skip out on the oysters.)
429 E Street
Take your place in line, check the street sign to see what the flavors of the week are (or send somebody up to the shop door to take a peek), and start planning your order. Most of Wild Scoops’ ice creams are made with locally sourced ingredients. Even Alaska-made potato chips make an appearance. Are you a fan of coffee ice cream? Then don’t even play around. Order up a coffee ice cream baked Alaska. They’ll fill a freshly made waffle cone with the sweet cold joy, swirl marshmallow on top, and hit it with a mini blowtorch. You’ll be back for more the next day.
1000 Arlberg Avenue
Situated just 40 miles from downtown Anchorage and the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, this year-round resort feels worlds away, set deep in a glacier-carved valley off scenic Seward Highway. With 304 rooms and a dizzying number of amenities, it also feels like a world unto itself. There are eight dining and drinking options, a fitness center, a heated saltwater lap pool with mountain views, and a spa that provides Arctic mud facials. But guests come to Alaska to commune with the great outdoors, and Alyeska offers its fair share of world-class experiences, including the longest continuous double-black-diamond ski run in North America and more than 1,600 acres of skiable terrain. The staff can arrange excursions that range from heli-skiing and dogsledding tours in winter to naturalist-led walks and glacier cruises in summer. For breathtaking panoramic views, the resort even has its own 60-passenger aerial tram for whisking guests straight from the hotel up 2,300 feet to the top of Mount Alyeska.
939 West 5th Avenue
In 1964, a 9.2-magnitude earthquake—the second most powerful ever recorded—ripped through the south coast of Alaska, devastating much of downtown Anchorage. After surveying the damage, real-estate developer Walter J. Hickel, who would later go on to serve two terms as the state’s governor, vowed to build Alaska’s biggest and best hotel. The result, a massive 546-room complex spread out over three towers, is still the city’s most luxurious, known for its attentive concierge, excellent athletic club, and wealth of dining options. The elegant Crow’s Nest restaurant offers dishes that incorporate French technique with regional ingredients, like king crab–studded bouillabaisse, along with a 10,000-bottle wine collection; on a clear day, 360-degree views include the iconic peaks of Denali. One more reason to visit: The property was inducted as a member of the Historic Hotels of America in 2016.
35 Richardson Hwy, Valdez, AK 99686, USA
Dreaming of chasing fresh, untrammeled powder? Then Tsaina Lodge, widely regarded as the birthplace of the Alaskan freeskiing scene, is for you. Its location on Thompson Pass, a gap in the Chugach Mountains known for its record-setting snowfalls (averaging over 700 inches a year), and dramatic slopes combine for epic heli-ski exploits on runs that average a steep 3,500 feet. Come summer, the repertoire of helicopter-assisted adventure excursions widens: Fly out to fish, hike, or glacier trek the seemingly limitless surroundings. Après-activity luxuries await back at the lodge, which is situated on the grounds of what had once been an avalanche-safe roadhouse, built in 1949. The dilapidated building was bulldozed and rebuilt in 2012, and the result is a boutique hotel that stands out for its modern, contemporary design. Floor-to-ceiling windows look out onto either glacier or forest from each of the 24 rooms, and there’s a gym, yoga space, and spa—along with a fine-dining restaurant with a focus on local seafood, meat, and game, and the reopened Tsaina Bar, legendary among early freeskiiers.
1034 W 4th Ave, Anchorage, AK 99501, USA
My first day in downtown Anchorage, I took in lunch at Snow City Cafe. As soon as I entered, I knew I was going to love this place. The ambience is created by an eclectic mix of part diner, part espresso bar, part bakery. The walls are covered with fascinating photos of dogs from sled teams, along with the names of their mushers. Although I could seriously eat bacon every day, I know my doctor would not appreciate that, so I rarely do. However, nearly every time I sit down to a meal in a cafe that serves breakfast all day, I get the exact same thing: two eggs over easy, bacon, potatoes, wheat toast, and an enormous amount of Tabasco. That was my plan for this meal, but after looking at the menu, I decided to order two eggs over easy, hash browns, and wheat toast and substitute Snow City’s housemade salmon cakes for the bacon - this is Alaska after all - and I couldn’t be happier that I did. The hash browns were amazing, as well – I don’t know what their secret ingredient is, but whatever it is, it’s working. I love to include photos of the people working in an establishment whenever I can, but the cafe was packed and I was unable to pull anyone from their duties. They were busy taking care of customers, and you have to appreciate that. We had a 35-minute wait and it was well worth it. If you’re ever in Anchorage, Snow City Cafe needs to be one of the first stops you make.
194 Olympic Mountain Loop, Girdwood, AK 99587, USA
Most people visiting Girdwood are there to ski at Alyeska or hike the trails in the summertime. When I lived in Alaska, these were common activities for me as well, but during the months I was in Girdwood, I also never missed an chance to hit The Bake Shop. A quintessential small-town restaurant, you can’t really go wrong with anything on their menu, but The Bake Shop has the most amazing killer sourdough pancakes you will ever taste. Seriously, they’re UNREAL. Another favorite is their potatoes with havarti cheese and their coffee is great also.
1411 Lake Shore Drive
Homer Brewing Company is no Johnny-Come-Lately to the craft beer craze, as they’ve been crafting brew since 1996. Pop into their tasting room for a flight of beer samples and then decide which you want to take home in a growler. Plenty of merchandise is available, as is their own brewed chai tea mixes (both sweet and more traditional spicy), and local oysters can be pre-ordered as well.
3300 Old Seward Highway
This pizza-and-beer joint is a favorite after a long day of hiking. Besides salads, sandwiches and Korean-style chicken wings, there are more than 35 gourmet pizza options, spanning from vegetarian to Santa’s Little Helper with red peppers, cilantro and four kinds of meat. Broken Tooth Brewing, the company’s brewery arm, keeps a rotation of craft beers on draft.
171 Lindblad Ave, Girdwood, AK 99587, USA
Family-friendly Chair 5 Restaurant lures visitors with its gourmet burgers and pizzas, including pies with unique toppings (try its Thai Chicken pizza), as well as deep-dish options. Originally opened in 1983 at another location, the restaurant remains a go-to spot for locals in search of draft microbrews.
Blackstone Bay, Alaska, USA
Gather up a bunch of people. Get in a car (with camping equipment, food, Frisbees, firewood, bug repellent, whatever else). Head to the town of Whittier. Rent kayaks from a local company. Get a water taxi to drop you, your friends, the gear, the kayak, and everything else you bring along at whatever camping area they recommend in Blackstone Bay. Then spend a few days paddling the bay to watch the area’s many glaciers calve (don’t get too close), see waterfalls, and picnic at random beaches. This is car camping at its boat-camping finest. You can bring everything, though be prepared to do some schlepping. (Some paddling experience is recommended for this outing. Rescue equipment would be helpful too—probably not necessary, but it won’t hurt to bring it along.)
Kenai Peninsula Borough, Homer, AK 99603, USA
When Kirsten and Carl Dixon, owners of Within the Wild adventure lodges, bought Tutka Bay Lodge, they were surprised to find that it came complete with an old boat. A very old boat. The Widgeon II carried troops during World War II. Now? The boat is grounded, with a rope humorously lassoed around a nearby tree. (Rope or not, it wasn’t going anywhere.) Kirsten, a chef who puts a worldly spin on Alaskan ingredients, decided the Widgeon II’s next life would be as a cooking school. Open to lodge guests and day-trippers who are ferried to class via water taxi from the town of Homer, the school offers lessons in how to cook reindeer, perhaps, or, if you’re lucky, Spanish-influenced tomato bread soup with salmon bacon.
4380 Homer Spit Rd, Homer, AK 99603, USA
If you find yourself in Homer Alaska, a visit to The Salty Dawg Saloon is in order. What I remember of Homer Alaska is fishing boats, cool air off the water, and friendly people. What I liked about the Salty Dawg Saloon was its charming rustic building, a little wooded cabin off a lighthouse. So much of Alaska’s spirit seems reflected in a history built on character, necessities, and natural resources, not on anything superficial or flashy. This Saloons building has real history and tells a story through all its past lives of post office, school house, water tank holder, and more (as can be read on the website). The drinks were the common ones of any American Bar, and the attire just as common being jeans and heavy sweaters mostly. The walls and ceiling are lined with money and notes from all the people that have pasted through over the years. It certainly is a place I would not mind finding myself in again one day.
625 C Street, Anchorage, AK 99501, USA
Though the Anchorage Museum has a hyperlocal focus on Alaska, the curators understand that, thanks to climate change and the Arctic (not to mention reality TV), the rest of the world is also very focused on the state. A recent expansion and retooling of the museum’s permanent exhibition about Alaska will reflect the state’s ever-expanding role in the world. But the hyperlocal will remain, of course. Along with the small museums that dot the state and the museum at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks (also well worth a visit), the Anchorage Museum tells the story of the Native peoples who have lived on this land for years, as well as the Russians, Europeans, and, eventually, Americans who moved in to claim the land as their own. The museum also has a strong emphasis on art of, and inspired by, the state.
1212 4th Avenue, Seward, AK 99664, USA
You can’t help but be awed by what a glacier and a few thousand years can do to a landscape. As we hiked closer to Exit Glacier I become aware of the enormity of this sheet of ice that has carved out the valley and the river behind us. Signposts marking how far the glacier has receded point to how fragile the glacial ecosystem is.
23264 Gold Cord Road, Palmer, AK 99645, USA
While Independence Mine State Historical Park is officially open only during the summer months, Alaskans know that the best time to check out the former mine buildings is after there’s plenty of snow on the ground. It’s a golden (pun intended) opportunity well worth exploring. Thanks to snowshoes or cross-country skis, the entire mine area becomes a giant playground. Skiers make loops around the mine buildings, picking up some serious speed on the downhill. Snowshoers have the run of the place; with 15 feet or more of snow in some spots, snowshoes are the safest way to wander. Walk right up to the building windows to take a look at the mine-era relics, including rusted food tins and plenty of tools. The best bit? The photo ops. The gray and red buildings make for quite the pretty pictures against a blue sky.
Glenn Highway, Sutton, AK 99674, USA
The Matanuska Glacier is one of the easiest to reach from Anchorage, and the largest one in the state accessible by car. The 229-acre recreation site is best for learning all about the science of glaciers. (You can also just go to a pullout on the highway if your goal is a quick photo before continuing on.) To trek out onto the glacier itself, you need to head off the Glenn Highway at mile 102 and onto private land, where you’ll pay a $30 access fee. It’s worth it! Area guide companies offer the chance for newbies to take their first steps onto a glacier or, even better, to do some ice climbing.
Between Anchorage and Seward, AK, USA
Few highways have as many moods as the Seward Highway. The 125-mile road, which runs from Anchorage down to Seward, can be all cheery sunshine one day—with views of snowcapped mountains, beluga whales, and surfers riding the tidal bore—and cranky the next, with socked-in mountains, mist, and mean-looking whitecaps on the water. Whatever the mood, there’s a load to see. It’s completely fair to say that driving the Seward, named an All-American Road and a USDA Forest Service Scenic Byway, is both the journey and the destination. (The road is also well-known for horrendous traffic jams during the summer—it’s the only road leading south down the Kenai Peninsula out of Anchorage.)
Spencer Glacier, Alaska 99664, USA
If you prefer your adventures to be a mix of stunning natural sights and the easy-and-gentle side of the spectrum, hop the Alaska Railroad to Spencer Glacier. The train trip south provides plenty of “oohing” and “aahing” as you gaze out on Turnagain Arm and its mountains. Enjoy a snack along the way. Yes, this one is all about relaxation. Once the train gets to Spencer Glacier, stroll down the wheelchair–accessible mile–long trail. At the lake, there are many options, including a float trip past icebergs and out to the glacier; a slightly more energetic kayak trip; or, if you really want to get up close with the glacier, ice climbing. (That last one leans more hard-core—and will give you undeniable adventure cred back home.)
Hope, AK 99605, USA
A favorite summer hangout for residents of south-central Alaska—especially those from Anchorage, the region’s big city—Hope has a massive personality for such a tiny town. Turn onto Hope Highway from the Seward Highway, drive 16 miles, and then the fun begins. Summer in Hope officially kicks off with opening weekend at the Seaview Cafe & Bar, where some of Alaska’s best bands play. Daytime in Hope is for lazing about, shopping the local galleries, and exploring the tiny history museum—not to mention hiking, playing with dogs, biking, kayaking, or just tossing a Frisbee around. There are plenty of camping spots in town (for both tent campers and RVers), but some of the best ones are just up the road, at the Porcupine Campground.
Kennicott, Chitina, AK 99566, USA
One of America’s least-visited national parks, Wrangell–St. Elias deserves a lot more attention. Alas, the park is hard to get to (requiring a slow drive down a super-bumpy road or a flight in), and though there are several guide companies at the ready, hiking or organizing a backpacking adventure within the park has much more of a DIY component than, say, Denali. But the day-trippers who go—and stay at the hotels in the tiny former mining towns of McCarthy or Kennicott—always talk up the wonder of a visit to Kennecott Mines (yes, spelled differently than the town and neighboring glacier). Go on a guided tour of the mine buildings, and find out what it took to work and live deep in the Alaskan wilderness in the 1900s.
The first night camping at Brooks Camp comes with a free dose of buzzing energy. After all, the only thing keeping the bears that hang around the area from wandering through the campground—and up to your tent—is a round of electric fencing. But fear not: There haven’t been any bear incidents here. This is no Disney production, but there are safety measures that will keep you feeling like you’re alone in the backcountry. Cradled between Brooks River and Naknek Lake in Katmai National Park, Brooks Camp gives overnight access to something that most visitors to Brooks only dream of: fewer people at the viewing stand to watch the big brown bears of Katmai do some fishing, bathing, and fighting. You’ll need to bring your own camping gear and food. Rather have somebody else do the cooking? Pony up for meals and cocktails at Brooks Lodge.
Seward, AK 99664, USA
Paddle offshore on a short excursion or load into a water taxi for a day trip exploring Caines Head, Fox Island or the Aialik Glacier. Bald eagles often soar overhead: Listen for their distinctive cackle (the majestic shrill associated with America’s national bird is, in fact, the dubbed cry of a red-tailed hawk). Kayakers should also be alert for sea otters, harbor seals and leaping salmon. As you would on any Alaskan activity, wear synthetic clothing, dress in layers and bring along a waterproof jacket and trousers.
46514 sidelinger Trail
The family-friendly Glacier Lake Trail weaves among spruce and cottonwood stands before emerging onto broad beaches. This relatively flat stroll yields big results with glorious vistas of the ice and surrounding peaks. Most visitors prefer to hike the 5.3-kilometer (3.3-mile) path, then exit via the 1.5-kilometer (less than a mile) Saddle Trail for boat or floatplane rides back to Homer. Don’t plan a roundtrip without researching the weather: Afternoon breezes often complicate pickups at the Glacier Spit Trailhead.