AOL PICK from our Editors
The recreational and cultural opportunities in Anchorage far outclass any other city its size. Basically, this is a metro area just past a quarter-million people—yet it has a world-class history and cultural museum, some of the best recreation trails in the country, its own in-city ski resort, a fine zoo and more than 200 parks. The only requirement for enjoying Anchorage is to go outdoors.
Animals native to Alaska and the Arctic are the focus of this serene facility laid out amid copses of birch on the southeast side of the city proper. While some of the exhibits and facilities seem a little run-down and cramped—polar bears share a pen not much bigger than a good-sized house—the zoo does an admirable job of introducing visitors to musk oxen, wolves, otters, seals, caribou, wolverines, moose and other sub-arctic denizens. Our favorite is the musk-oxen pen; these bulky Arctic animals are available for viewing in very few places, and it’s impressive to watch them and realize the harsh conditions of their native habitat up north.
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Perched atop a knoll with great views of Cook Inlet and the mountains that surround Anchorage—including, on clear days, Mount McKinley (“Denali” in Athabaskan), North America’s highest peak—this 1,400-acre park (bigger than New York’s Central Park) marks the terminus of the city’s quirky “Planet Walk.” Starting downtown at the corner of Fifth Avenue and G Street, then continuing out the Tony Knowles Trail, distances are marked in proportion to the solar system: The sun is at the trail’s beginning, Mercury a block on, earth three blocks, and so on. And here, 11 miles out, is Pluto. Yep, still here, despite the former planet’s demotion by astronomers to “dwarf planet” in 2006. Often considered the best sunset view in Anchorage, the park is a fine place to ponder the scale of the universe.
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What other major city boasts a world-class alpine resort inside its city limits? Alyeska’s record-breaking annual snowfall, quick tram to the top, relative lack of crowds and long season make it a great ski destination. The views are a bonus. There is serious bowl and double-black skiing here, as well as an old double chair that is one of the longest and slowest chairlift rides (12 minutes) in North America. (That’s Alaska for you.) Much of the skiable terrain is above timberline. Despite the coastal location, the snow is manageably light, and there’s plenty of wide open space for intermediates.
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At almost a half-million acres—most of that wilderness—the third-largest state park in the United States is a unique urban amenity for Anchorage residents and visitors. With lakes and mountains, rivers and woods, bears, moose, wolves, mountain goats, eagles and more, the park offers almost all the wild attractions that draw visitors to Alaska—and all in the city limits. A small interpretive facility, the Eagle River Nature Center (www.ernc.org), describes the park. Hundreds of miles of trail thread it; one popular hike, to Flattop Mountain, is a daunting 1.5-mile 1,300-foot climb that yields panoramic views of south-central Alaska. This trek is the best way for visitors to experience the park by themselves.
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The 1964 earthquake that struck south-central Alaska, devastating Anchorage, was the strongest over recorded in North America—9.2 on the Richter scale. This park along the Cook Inlet shoreline just north of the airport exhibits the physical effects, in the form of large, undulating folds in the ground. Displays explain what was here: an upscale residential area whose homes were demolished as the earth opened up into 30-foot crevasses. The Tony Knowles trail passes through the park.
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This independent non-profit facility rehabilitates injured wild creatures, and houses those that cannot return to the wild. And what creatures they are—moose, musk oxen, bears, wolves. Visitors see the animals, learn about their lives and help support the center’s work with their admission fees. Especially popular are the young, orphaned animals that turn up here, such as Baby Billie the moose from summer 2010. The setting, on a flat between the Chugach Mountains, Kenai Mountains and Turnagain Arm, is spectacular. AWCC is about 15 minutes south of Girdwood on the Seward Highway, and a stop here is a great break on a drive to Seward, or a good destination to be followed by lunch in Girdwood.
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Devoted to the lifestyles of Alaska’s native peoples, this center’s building is a relatively compact facility in which brief exhibits and regular performances depict the Athabascan, Yupik, Inupiaq and coastal nations that have lived here for millennia. The centerpiece of the facility is a lovely path around a small pond, through birch and cottonwood forest, that leads to a half-dozen authentic dwellings—most of them heavily earth-insulated against the harsh climate. Free shuttles bring visitors from downtown in the summer.
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Tucked into the end of a greenbelt valley, one of Anchorage’s favorite municipal parks is a man-made freshwater lagoon at the edge of Midtown, running from the shoreline upstream along Chester Creek. Two major trails meet here, the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail and the Chester Creek Trail. In summer, rent kayaks for a pleasant paddle or watch waterfowl, the occasional moose and cyclists and runners on the trails. In winter, the city clears a large space on the ice for skating, and skaters can admire the Chugach Mountains eastward, skiers and cyclists on the trails—and the occasional moose. We’ve never skated in a finer locale anywhere, and wouldn’t visit Anchorage in winter without hitting the ice at Westchester.
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Newly doubled in size inside a gleaming metal-and-glass cubist building, this is Alaska’s best overall museum for learning about the state’s natural, artistic, economic and cultural history, from woolly mammoths to world war. A highlight is the new Smithsonian Arctic Studies gallery housing art of Alaska’s indigenous people—the masks, button robes, baskets and other artifacts literally glow in the subtly lit glass displays. Another highlight in the Art of the North Gallery is the extensive collection of paintings by Sydney Laurence, the Thomas Moran of Alaska. The Alaska Gallery has a slightly glossed-over section on the history of oil development and the Alaska pipeline, but does include a panel on the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. A planetarium and interactive science center, the Imaginarium, round out the attractions.
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Though it’s far from the longest, highest or steepest, the tram that hauls skiers and sightseers from the Alyeska Hotel to the resort’s upper tram terminal offers a unique virtue available nowhere else in North America—a view of Turnagain Arm and the snow-clad Kenai Mountains across the salt water. The spectacular vista that unfolds as you climb is best seen, at the top, from a small observation platform perched on the ridgeline, just south of the complex’s restaurants—one of which, Seven Glaciers, is among the best in Alaska. In summer, adventurous visitors paraglide from the top.
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Few cities have anything like the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, an 11-mile paved recreation path that starts in downtown Anchorage and winds along the shore, past wetlands and ponds (and the occasional moose or bear), with full-on views of snow-capped mountain ranges over breezy seas, through birch, cottonwood and spruce forest to a hilltop viewpoint at Kincaid Park. Whether you walk it, bike it, ski it or roller-blade it, the trail—named after a former Alaska governor—is among Anchorage’s very best attractions, and it’s free.
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