If you're looking for epic views of Alaska's mountains and unique wildlife but don't want to go too far into the wilderness, then Anchorage is the adventure for you. The city has one of the highest concentrations of coffee shops and craft breweries, along with world-class museums and attractions. On the other hand, you're never far from a park where you might encounter a moose or spy a beluga whale surfacing. Whether you're looking to fill a relaxing down day, or your idea of an Alaska adventure involves exploring local culture, the Land of the Midnight Sun is the perfect destination.
Just off the scenic Seward Highway is the Potter Marsh section of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge. A wooden boardwalk winds through the wetlands, which stretch out before a dramatic backdrop of mountains on the stunning Turnagain Arm waterway. The 564-acre freshwater marsh is best known for wildlife-spotting opportunities. Eagles and swans are two of the 130 species of migratory and nesting birds that can be seen, and if you're lucky, moose, beavers, spawning salmon, muskrats, and the very occasional bear can be spotted throughout the summer.
Anchorage has one of the highest rates of coffee shops per capita of any city in the country, so the hardest part of getting your caffeine fix is probably going to be choosing which place to go. If you can't decide, consider Midnight Sun Cafe. From basic drip and iced coffee offerings to Cubanos, Doppio, and a whole roundup of espresso drinks (including the Shot in the Dark, which is what Midnight Sun calls a coffee with a double shot of espresso added), along with teas and hot cocoa, there's a drink for everyone. The cafe uses organic beans that have been roasted in Homer, Alaska for the coffee. And, like any good cafe, it serves a variety of sandwiches, salads, and soups for breakfast and lunch. It's a great place to warm up and treat yourself to a mid-afternoon boost.
Another unexpectedly stellar view of Anchorage and its particular Alaska beauty can be seen from Ship Creek. Bird-watching is popular here, but this is also known as a great place to spot king and coho salmon in the spring through early fall. If you want to try your hand at actually fishing, there are gear rentals available. Pro tip: Cast in the hour before and after high tide for your best chance to land a fish. Be prepared, though, as these salmon can weigh up to 30 pounds. If you'd rather just watch the experts do their thing, there are viewing platforms directly over the creek for spectators. For more incredible salmon-spotting, two miles upstream is the William Jack Hernandez Sport Fish Hatchery.
You can't visit Anchorage without stopping to say hi to its most famous resident, Star the Reindeer. Star is actually the seventh in a long line of reindeer named Star who have lived downtown. Reindeer aren't actually native to Alaska (they were brought here in the 19th century from Siberia), but the quiet and domestic creatures took to the Alaska climate quite well.
There has been a Star the Reindeer in town since 1960, when Ivan and Oro Stewart, owners of a local photo shop, decided they wanted a unique pet. The Oros handed down the duty of caring for Star to a friend, Albert Whitehead, and he's been caring for Star ever since. The newest Star arrived in town in June of 2018, and is particularly social (and cute, if we're being honest).
Star's pen has been in the same place for years, at the corner of 10th Avenue and I Street, if you want to visit. If you're lucky, you may catch Star on one of his walks; he goes on several a day. It's impossible not to be charmed; more than reminding us of the magic of Christmas, Star reminds us of the magic of Alaska.
Anchorage comes with some pretty interesting and unusual history. From the culture of the Alaska Native peoples to the gold rush that brought scores of pioneers north in search of fortune, there's a lot to learn. The Alaska Heritage Museum (inside a Wells Fargo bank) is one of the largest private collections of artifacts related to this history. From ivory carvings, hand-woven baskets, clothing, and even a sealskin-covered sea kayak--to work by local artists and a replica of a Wells Fargo stagecoach—there are plenty of stories to get lost in here. There's also a well-stocked library to go along with the small but well-curated museum.
One of the lesser-known bits of Anchorage history (at least to visitors) is the 1964 earthquake that devastated the city. The 9.2 magnitude quake, which lasted four minutes, was the strongest in North American history, and the second strongest in world history. It set off a series of tsunamis and landslides that further ravaged the buildings, ground, and infrastructure of south-central Alaska. The tragedy is commemorated at Earthquake Park, which stands at the site where one neighborhood slid completely into the ocean. The 134-acre reserve is quite scenic (especially the views of the city) but interpretive signs highlight the history and some of the lasting effects of the earthquake.
Another option for some of that dramatic Alaska scenery is the Campbell Creek Estuary Natural Area. This old homestead is now protected land, since the delicate wetland ecosystem is important to birds and other wildlife. It was recently built out with trail systems and viewing platforms that highlight some of the most scenic spots. You won't find better views along the Turnagain Arm. Enjoy the fresh air, and keep your eyes peeled for elusive moose and sandhill cranes as you walk the paths.
You don't even need to leave the city to see animals of all kinds. The Alaska Zoo is home to native wildlife such as foxes, owls, wolves, caribou, and eagles, as well as black, brown, and polar bear. You can also see tigers, camels, otters, and even Tibetan yaks. The zoo offers behind-the-scenes tours and wolf or big cat encounters for anyone brave enough to get up close and personal with the animals. Definitely spend some time in the Discovery Center, and if you need to warm up, there's a coffee shop with a greenhouse here, too.
If there's one thing Anchorage does better than coffee shops, wildlife, and scenery, it's craft beer. Cynosure is one of the handful of great breweries in town. It specializes in traditional and Belgian styles (think lagers, goses, wits, and saisons). Don't be afraid to try something you normally wouldn't order here; the staff aims to make their brews "sociable." The bartenders are friendly, the space is brand new, and there's usually a food truck outside, so plan to spend a bit of time here working your way through the tap list.
Kincaid Park is yet another place to soak in the boundless beauty of Anchorage. The massive, 1,500-acre preserve is on the site of what was once a Cold War missile base, and has tons of amenities. Fields and courses for sports like soccer, disc golf, motocross, and archery are just a few of the features you'll find in the park. Kincaid is most popular for its crisscrossing network of trails, though. Bike, hike, or ski the pathways (some are even lit at night) as you explore, and keep your eyes peeled for eagles, moose, and beluga whales. Can't-miss sights here include the region's largest active sand dune, and a goat path that winds along the edge of a 300-foot cliff. No matter what you're doing in the park, the views of Denali and Cook Inlet only serve to enhance the experience.
There's an air of enchantment in Anchorage. Around any corner, you might spy a moose or friendly reindeer. Each park's view is totally different and more breathtaking than the last. Any sunset might bring out the mesmerizing northern lights. It's a truly a destination unlike any other.
At the heart of air, road and rail travel in Alaska, Anchorage has phenomenal access to national parks and outdoor adventures. Find glaciers, 1,500 resident moose, views of Denali and 300 miles of wilderness trails in one place. The city blends the best of these natural wonders with urban amenities.