hiking near anchorage ak

Best Day Trips from Anchorage, Alaska

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I’ve long wanted to visit Alaska, but what spurred action was finding cheap flights from Montana to Anchorage. I bought them and decided I’d figure the rest out. Though I knew we would only spend a day or two there, I wanted to find the best day trips from Anchorage, Alaska.

I figured we’d enjoy a couple of Anchorage day trips on either end of our two-week Alaska itinerary and the rest of the time on the Kenai Peninsula. After some research, I realized that there are so many Anchorage day tours, you could use Anchorage as a base camp to explore a lot of Alaska (well, some of Alaska — it’s a huge state).

Even if you don’t have a car while staying in the “City of Lights and Flowers” you can take a day trip from Anchorage to see grizzly bears, walk on a glacier, explore an old mine, go whale watching and so much more.

SIDENOTE: If you aren’t already signed up for Scott’s Cheap Flights email, do it now! That’s how we find a lot of great deals on flights, like these tickets to Alaska.

Anchorage Alaska day trips sign with arrows pointing to various locations

In this post I will share what I think are the best day trips from Anchorage, AK. Hopefully, I will be back to visit and discover more in the near future.

I traveled to Alaska with my husband and 13 and 14-year-old boys. I think most of these trips are family-friendly, but also really fun for adults. And if it isn’t kid-friendly, I will let you know that too!

Getting ready for an Alaska trip? Don’t miss these posts: 

Wherever you go in Alaska, it’s worth getting the Milepost book. “The MILEPOST includes mile-by-mile descriptions of more than 15,000 miles of road in Alaska, Yukon, Northwest Territories, British Columbia and Alberta. Its 600-plus pages detail accommodations, camping, fishing, gas stops, restaurants, attractions and services found along the highways and byways of Alaska and western Canada.” 

Best Day Trips from Anchorage, Alaska 

Log cabin visitor center in Anchorage AK

Alyeska Resort and Girdwood

We spent two nights in Girdwood, a mountain town about an hour outside of Anchorage off the Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet, but a visit would be one of the really fun day tours from Anchorage.

The Alyeska aerial tram whisks you to 2,300 ft in elevation at the top of Mt. Alyeska and to the Bore Tide Deli and Bar and the (free) Roundhouse Museum and gift shop. We rode the tram up one afternoon, had snacks and beers at the Bore Tide Bar, and then walked two miles back down the mountain. (If you walk up, you can ride the tram for free.)

Alyeska Resort in Girdwood Alaska makes a great day trip from Anchorage

As its name explains, the Bore Tide Deli and Bar is a great place to watch the bore tide on Turnagain Arm. The bore tide is essential a very dramatic tide and the water goes way out into the Cook Inlet, leaving the Turnagain Arm very shallow and even drained in places. When the tide comes back, it comes in as a rolling wave which you can watch for miles. Sometimes Beluga whales follow it in. We watched it from a pullout on the road alongside the Turnagain Arm, but I’ve heard it is even better to see from up high. 

Check the Bore Tide Schedule and see if you can coordinate your Alyeska Resort aerial tram ride with it. 

Even without seeing the bore tide, the view from the top of the tram is worth the ticket price. Alyeska Resort also has mountain bike trails, yoga classes, a spa, and restaurants.

View of mountains from Alyeska aerial tram

For other things to do in Girdwood, consider the hiking trails in the Chugach National Forest. It’s a steep, but beautiful walk to Crow Pass or an easy three-mile boardwalk and dirt trail through rainforest to a hand-powered aerial tram over Glacier Creek starting from the Winner Creek Trailhead.

We enjoyed tasty beers at the Girdwood Brewing Company. They had a food truck outside with ridiculously large (and yummy) plates of nachos.

Thanks to Alyeska Resort for hosting us!

Getting to Girdwood and Alyeska Resort

DRIVE: It’s an easy and beautiful 40-mile, 50-minute drive from Anchorage to Girdwood along the Seward Highway and there are several nice stops along the way. 

Get the best deals on rental cars in Anchorage here.

TRAIN and BUS: In summer the Alaska Railroad Coastal Classic train runs twice a day from Anchorage to Girdwood. The train doesn’t quite go to Girdwood, so you have to take the Glacier Valley Transit bus into the village.

boy walking on Matanuska glacier with Salmon Berry Tours in Anchorage

Matanuska Glacier Walk with Salmon Berry Travel and Tours

One of our favorite day trips from Anchorage, AK was walking on the Matanuska Glacier with Salmon Berry Travel and Tours. In this unique Alaska tour, our guide picked us up at our hotel and drove to the Matanuska Valley, stopping along the way to get out and admire the fall foliage and learn about the area. 

best fall colors in Alaska in the Mat-Su Valley

Once we arrived at the glacier — and let me tell you, this glacier blew me away; it was more magnificent and otherworldly than I expected — we got a little safety talk, strapped microspikes to our boots, and followed the guide out onto the ice.

All four of us kept pointing at crevices, turquoise pools, and fractured ice in awe. It was a really special experience.

Right now you can’t go out on the glacier without a guide or special permission. Our tour had 12 people and two guides, which felt like a very reasonable number. You know we like to ask a lot of questions and we were able to do that.

glacier walking tour from Anchorage Alaska

After the glacier walk, we ate lunch (included) at the Long Rifle Lodge with a view of the glacier and golden trees that made it hard to concentrate on the food.

For most of Salmon Berry Travel and Tours day trips, Anchorage is the base, but they also run tours all over the state. In fact, they have so many tours, I could write a whole post on the options.

Thanks to Salmon Berry Tours for the media rate!

Getting to a Salmon Berry Tour

SHUTTLE: They make it super easy and pick you up at your hotel and whisk you away to somewhere wonderful in Alaska. Or you can meet at their downtown Anchorage office across the street from the Log Cabin Visitor Center.

Thanks to Erin from AK on The Go for helping me organize our trip! She also has two books that can help you plan your trip to Alaska with kids:

glacier cruise from Anchorage Alaska

Glacier Cruises in Alaska

One of the things everyone raves about is a glacier cruise in Alaska. These day cruises are about more than just seeing glaciers, of course, you may see whales, sea otters, seals and sea lions, and eagles, and other wildlife. Another highlight of an Alaska glacier cruise is seeing the rugged landscape from the sea.  

Anchorage whale watching can be done from a pullout on the Seward Highway when the beluga whales follow the bore tide, but for a better chance to see whales, I recommend getting out on Resurrection Bay from Seward or Prince William Sound from Whittier.

For an Anchorage glacier cruise, there are several options. We chose to take the Kenai Fjords Tours’ Kenai Fjords National Park Tour (that’s a mouthful!). We were staying in Seward, but for a day cruise, Anchorage can still be your basecamp. 

As promised, this boat tour was one of the highlights of our trip. We saw seven orcas, a couple of pods of sea otters, several bald eagles, a smack of jellyfish (did you know a group of jellies is called a smack?), seals and sea lions, and a calving tidal glacier. 

sea otter in Resurrection Bay Seward alaska

We actually saw several glaciers from the boat, but getting up close to the Aialik Glacier, watching icebergs bob around the boat, and witnessing the crashing of the glacier into the sea was mesmerizing. I won’t soon forget that experience, nor will the rest of my family.

The trip included lunch and there was a bar on the boat for purchasing hot chocolate, beer, or other drinks and snacks. The captain gave a great interpretive tour and was able to get us close, but not too close, to wildlife. 

Kenai Fjords Tours offers other tours, too, including a family-friendly shorter tour that stays in Resurrection Bay and another that includes kayaking at Fox Island. 

Thanks to Kenai Fjords Tours for hosting us!

tidal glacier from the deck of Kenai Fjords National Park boat tour

Getting to Seward from Anchorage

DRIVE: It’s about 2.5 hours and 127 miles from Anchorage to Seward on the highly scenic Seward Highway. Get the best deals on rental cars in Anchorage here.

TRAIN: The Alaska Railroad Coastal Classic train will take you right to Seward and the Kenai Fjords Tours Alaska day cruise is timed to leave after the arrival of the train.

BUS: The Park Connection Motorcoach offers an Anchorage – Seward Express that will get you there in time for your glacier cruise Seward. The driver even does a little interpretation so you can sightsee along the way.

Another option for Alaska day cruises is to take the Phillips Cruise 26-Glacier Tour. As the name says, you’ll see 26 glaciers on this tour which leaves from Whittier. Rather than cruising in Resurrection Bay, this is one of the Alaska boat tours that explore Prince William Sound.

Getting to Whittier from Anchorage

DRIVE: It’s about 60 miles and 1.5 hours from Anchorage to Whittier and you have to time it right to get through the one-way tunnel (more on Whittier days trips below). Get the best deals on rental cars in Anchorage here.

TRAIN: The Alaska Discovery Train is a fun way to get from Anchorage to Whittier and is timed with the day cruises.

BUS: Phillips Cruises teams up with a motorcoach company to take you from Anchorage to Whittier in time for their cruises.

Day Trips from Anchorage to Denali National Park

One of the Anchorage, Alaska day trips we decided to forgo this time was to Denali National Park. Not that we didn’t want to go, it’s just that Alaska is such a big place that we wanted to dedicate our time to a relatively smaller area.

Personally, I am not sure I would want to do a day trip from Anchorage to Denali anyway because the weather is infamously fickle and you could spend all day on a bus or shuttle and never see the highest mountain in the United States anyway. My preference would be to spend a few days at one of the lodges inside Denali National Park and hope for at least one day of decent weather.

That said, you may feel differently or only have this one chance and want to take a day trip to Denali from Anchorage. That’s great! There are a bunch of options. The majority of the 92-mile Park Road that leads into the heart of the park is not open to private vehicles, so the best way to explore the park is by bus. There are two types of buses that take people into the park: narrated tour buses and non-narrated transit buses. 

Denali National Park is a day trip from Anchorage

Getting to Denali from Anchorage

BUS: Find a bus tour that does day trips from Anchorage to Denali.

TRAIN: Take the Alaska Railroad for overnight Denali trips from Anchorage. This won’t work for just a day trip as the train doesn’t arrive until evening.

FLIGHTSEEING: Scenic flights around Denali get you up close – some even land on a glacier. You will need to get yourself to Talkeetna for this.

DRIVE: If you choose to drive (5 hours, 237 miles), you can go 15 miles into the park to Savage River. From there you can walk the easy, 2-mile Savage River Loop along the river or climb the steep Savage Alpine Trail 4 miles to a ridge with sweeping views of the area. Get the best deals on rental cars in Anchorage here. 

Alaska Bear Viewing from Anchorage

We really wanted to do some bear viewing in Alaska, but we were there at the wrong time of year. The best time for Anchorage bear viewing (or anywhere in Alaska) is May through the end of September.

Alaska is famous for its big brown (grizzly) bears, especially those that live in Katmai National Park, Kodiak Island, Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, and Brooks Falls.

When bear watching from Anchorage Alaska read signs like this one about bear safety

For grizzly bear watching, Alaska might be the best in the world. As salmon swim out of the ocean and up streams and rivers to spawn, bears gather around to eat them. Then tourists gather around for bear watching in Alaska.

As I mentioned, Alaska bear tours go to several places depending on the season. From Anchorage, you really just need to sign up with one of the flight operators and let them tell you the best spot at the moment. They will likely even pick you up at your Anchorage hotel.

Getting to Alaska Bear Watching from Anchorage

FLY: The most famous spot for bear viewing, Anchorage is probably Brooks Falls. This is a 2.5-hour scenic flight from Anchorage. If you’ve seen the photos of salmon jumping out the water and small waterfalls, and bears catching them, that’s Brooks Falls. I have a couple of friends who are professional wildlife photographers and they say this spot is not to be missed.

Big River Lakes/Lake Clark National Park and Preserve is a newer hot spot for Alaska bear adventures at the entrance to Lake Clark Pass. You’ll often find two to six bears gathered to fish for salmon where Wolverine Creek empties into Big River Lakes and it’s a 50-minute flight from Anchorage.

Katmai National Park and Preserve may be the best bear viewing in Alaska as many bears gather on the tidal flats there. I’ve read that there are often 2-3 times as many bears there as other places in Alaska. For Katmai bear viewing, flights leave from Soldotna, Kenai, or Homer.

salmon spawning in Russian River near Anchorage

DRIVE: We walked out to Russian River Falls near Coopers Landing on the Kenai Peninsula in an effort to see bears. We were a little late in the season and didn’t see bears, but did see salmon flinging themselves up the rocky cascades and falls. It’s an easy hike – 4 flat miles round trip – and worth the effort even without seeing bears. If your main drive is seeing bears, consider one of the other locations as most tour operators guarantee you will see bruins. Get the best deals on rental cars in Anchorage here. 

We used Day Hiking Southcentral Alaska by Lisa Maloney to find hiking trails on the Kenai Peninsula and around Anchorage and the Matanuska–Susitna Valley. 

More Day Tours from Anchorage

If you want to make it easy to find a day trip from Anchorage, check out these Anchorage tours booked through Viator. Many, if not all of their tours don’t require you have your own vehicle which is a bonus. We’ve used Viator on several trips and have always been happy with our outings.

Independence Mine State historical Park is an Anchorage day trip

Hatcher Pass and Independence Mine State Historical Park

When we left Alyeska Resort for Anchorage we realized we didn’t need to turn in our rental car until late that night, so we sought out day trips from Anchorage by car. There were a lot of options, but we kept hearing about Hatcher Pass/Independence Mine and decided to check that out.

The autumn colors were stunning when we visited and the State Park was very interesting. What’s truly awe-inspiring is the surrounding mountain landscape. Hatcher Pass has a rich history of gold prospecting, claims, and active mining. We walked around the site, reading interpretive signs and asking questions in the visitor center.

You can even do some Hatcher Pass gold mining (gold panning, really) at the State Park. We didn’t do it, but it looked like fun.

Indepence Mine entrance near Hatcher Pass Alaska

After touring the Hatcher Pass gold mining site, we hiked up to Gold Cord Lake and things got even more stunning. The trail is two miles round trip and gains 480-feet of elevation. The lake is nestled in a couloir and doesn’t reveal itself until you are practically on top of it.

hiking trails at Hatcher Pass Mine lead to Gold Cord Lake

Beyond Independence Mine State Park is Hatcher Pass. Hatcher Pass offers access to extraordinary mountaineering terrain, beautiful mountain scenery, berry picking, hiking, biking, and horseback riding in the summer. It also offers mountain skiing, snowboarding, sledding, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling in the winter.

We used Day Hiking Southcentral Alaska by Lisa Maloney to find Hatcher Pass hikes and Hatcher Pass trails. 

Check the Hatcher Pass weather cam if you have any concerns about the weather or just want to take a peek. It’s at the Hatcher Pass Lodge where you can rent cabins or have something to eat.

mountains and fall colors at Hatcher Pass near Palmer AK

Getting to Independence Mine State Park and Hatcher Pass from Anchorage

DRIVE: Independence Mine State Historical Park visitor center is about 1.25 hours and 60 miles from Anchorage. It’s $5 or an Alaska State Park Pass to park. 

The Hatcher Pass Road is paved to Independence Mine and from Mile 17.5 to Mile 32.5 is a rough, gravel, narrow, and steep road that is not maintained. Even a 2-wheel drive vehicle should be fine in summer, but because of the hairpin turns, you probably don’t want to take something large like an RV or a vehicle pulling a trailer. 

Get the best deals on rental cars in Anchorage here. 

TOUR: Salmon Berry Travel and Tours offers historical tours of Independence gold mine and Hatcher Pass, Alaska. They even stop at a musk ox farm. They can pick you up at your hotel or meet at their downtown Anchorage office.

Day Trip to Whittier and Portage Glacier 

We had remarkable weather on our September trip to Alaska, but there were a couple of days when it was raining so heavily that we modified our plans to limit our time outside. One of those days was when we visited Whittier.

Whittier is known as the “weirdest place in Alaska” and one of the rainiest towns in Alaska. We definitely experienced the rain.

I have more details about what to do in Whittier, but here are some of the highlights on an Anchorage to Whittier trip, starting with things to do and see on the Turnagain Arm side of the tunnel

Byron Glacier hike near Whittier Alaska
  • Hike to Byron Glacier. It’s an easy, flat 2.8-mile round trip walk to view this glacier.
  • Begich Boggs Visitor Center has information on the local flora and fauna of the Chugach National Forest – the most northern National Forest in the U.S. You’ll also get great views of Byron and Portage Glaciers and the Portage Valley.
  • Portage Glacier Cruise on Portage Lake gets up close to Portage Glacier where you can watch the ice fracture and crash into the lake. It operates daily mid-May through mid-September.

The Whittier Tunnel is a one-way tunnel with traffic going toward Whittier passing on the half-hour and traffic coming from Whittier on the hour. Unless a train is using it, then you just have to wait. 

These are some of the things you can do on the Whittier side of the tunnel.

  • Portage Glacier Trail is a 2-mile round trip, moderate hike to an overlook of the lake and Portage Glacier as well as western Prince William Sound and Whittier. You’ll get a different view on the Portage Glacier hike than from the Portage Glacier boat tour.
  • Fishing charters leave from the Whittier Marina and do glacier and wildlife cruises mentioned above.
  • The Lazy Otter Café offers coffees, beers, and food (I had their “world famous salmon spread” on a bagel and it was delicious). They also offer boat tours, water taxis, and kayak rentals.
  • Horsetail Falls can be seen from the marina and the trail begins just south of Whittier. The 2-mile round trip trail gains 700 feet in elevation and winds through alders and meadows to a view of the stunning falls before the viewing platform. Once you get to the viewing platform the view of the falls isn’t as great, but the view over the Portage Valley and Whittier is.

All of these hikes near Whittier can be found in Day Hiking Southcentral Alaska by Lisa Maloney

Getting to Whittier, Alaska from Anchorage

DRIVE: To make all the stops and get to all the trailheads, you’ll need a car. Get the best deals on rental cars in Anchorage here. 

TRAIN: The Alaska Discovery Train is a fun way to get from Anchorage to Whittier.

Don’t Miss- Alaska Conservation Centers

grizzly bear at Alaska wildlife conservation center

Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

One of the day tours Anchorage is well situated for is to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. It can be its own outing or as part of a day trip to Whittier. 

“The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center is a sanctuary dedicated to preserving Alaska’s wildlife through conservation, education, research and quality animal care.”

Bike, walk, or drive the 1.5-mile loop through AWCC Alaska to visit the animals in the sanctuary, including wolves, woods bison, eagles, bears, moose, and more. They also offer educational and naturalist programs. Most of the animals cannot survive in the wild, which is why they are at this Alaska wildlife center.

Getting to Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center from Anchorage

DRIVE: It’s about one hour and 47-miles from Anchorage to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center on the Seward Highway. Get the best deals on rental cars in Anchorage here.

Eagle River Nature Center

The Eagle River Nature Center for Chugach State Park offers an interpretive visitor center, educational programs, and hiking trails. This is a nice place to visit the nature center and then walk some of the nature trails or take a longer hike.

Getting to Eagle River Nature Center from Anchorage

DRIVE: It’s a 35-minute drive and 26 miles from Anchorage to the Eagle River Nature Center. 

These are my favorite day trips from Anchorage, Alaska, but I know there are many more. Let me know what not to miss next time I am in Alaska.

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