Exploring Anchorage in Winter: Something For Everyone

Exploring Anchorage in Winter: Something For Everyone
Courtesy: Scott Laird | News Source: travelpulse.com

I grew up in Anchorage, Alaska and have recently made a habit of returning each year for the New Year’s holiday. Over the past several years, in talking about my trip, I’ve noticed incredulity that my visiting Alaska in the winter has turned into curiosity, commensurate with the state’s growing winter tourism business.

What is there to do in Anchorage in the middle of winter,” is the invariable question that comes next.

“Plenty,” I tell them.

I tend to wile away my time visiting favorite old haunts, seeing friends and taking in the city that has perfected the art of the cabin fever remedy. The city seems to glow from within, thanks to a decades-old program that encouraged residents to keep holiday lights throughout the winter to illuminate the city.

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In spite of short days, residents can be found skiing downhill or cross country, ice skating on various frozen lakes, skijoring, fat tire biking, enjoying performances at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, dining in the city’s restaurants, taking in exhibits at topflight art museums, trying inventive mixology or attending a world famous drag show at a local gay bar.

That’s when eyes tend to glaze over.

“Yes,” they press, “But what is there to do?”

For those bent on traditional forms of tourism, the growth of the winter visitor industry means visitors wanting to take tours and excursions in the coldest months won’t come away disappointed.

While the giant cruise line tour buses and rail cars go to the storage yards for the winter, local operator Salmon Berry Travel & Tours continues tours year round. I recently rode along on the popular Turnagain Turn, a full-day excursion from Anchorage that takes visitors along the scenic Seward Highway through 40 miles of ocean-hugging byway.

In the winter, the low angle of the sun on the horizon gives a peculiarly ethereal light to the mountains and oceans, making them appear otherworldly. There are plenty of stops for photo opportunities and guides share stories about the ghostly petrified forests created by the 1964 earthquake.

The comfortable sprinter vans are limited to a handful of guests, and snacks and water in eco-friendly washable glass bottles are provided. There’s also a soup-and-fresh-bread luncheon included at Girdwood’s Bake Shop, where we also enjoyed the famous sweet rolls alongside a delightful African Ground Nut Stew.

After that, it’s up the tramway to the top of Mount Alyeska. Alyeska Resort is one of the only ski resorts in North America where the base of the lifts is virtually at sea level, allowing skiers and snowboarders to ski without the effects of elevation. Visitors can take in the views of Girdwood Valley and Turnagain Arm, plus a wealth of alpine glaciers, while they learn local history in the warmth of the Round House at Alyeska Museum.

By mid-afternoon it’s on to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center for guaranteed wildlife sightings.

The center houses animals that are otherwise unable to survive in the wild, with viewing platforms set up to view them in sprawling pens that are designed to emulate their wild environments. Muskox, reindeer, wolves, fox, moose, brown and black bears, and even a lone porcupine are all housed in this way, while a resident bald eagle, horned owl and lynx have cozy pens near the gift shop and visitor’s center.

Other hardy winter travelers can take the recently-increased-in-frequency Alaska Railroad trains to Fairbanks, where they’ll enjoy slightly increased possibility of viewing the Northern Lights—a prime draw for many winter visitors. Salmon Berry also offers glacier hikes and visits to Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey’s homestead for a dog mushing adventure.

Aside from that, there’s plenty to see and do in Anchorage—a uniquely cosmopolitan city in the midst of some of the continent’s greatest vistas. Clear days afford views of Denali, the Alaska Range, and the Chugach Mountains, all brilliantly illuminated in virtually day-long midwinter alpenglow.

In the city, visitors will enjoy the constantly expanding Anchorage Museum, which boasts a fine collection of Alaska native artifacts. Downtown Anchorage also brims with art galleries, for the extraordinary surroundings seem almost to demand capture by a strong contingent of local artists working in a wide variety of mediums.

Anchorage also has a vibrant culinary scene. Fresh Alaska seafood figures heavily, of course, but the city’s multicultural population makes virtually any world cuisine readily available.

In Downtown Anchorage, perennial favorites include microbreweries like Glacier Brewhouse and 49th State Brewing, and newcomers include Pangea Restaurant and Lounge, where chefs take inspiration from the flavors of each continent. Other favorite haunts for those seeking fresh Alaska seafood and cozy cold-weather comfort include Simon & Seafort's, a local institution with inlet views, and Orso, the upscale sister to Glacier Brewhouse.

Breakfast and brunch fans will love Snow City Cafe, where President Obama famously bought out the entire stock of cinnamon rolls during his 2015 visit to Anchorage.

Popular breakfast eats there include the Heart Attack on a Plate (well-smothered hash browns) and the meatless Veggie Bypass; both are well enjoyed on a cold winter morning with a bowl of creamy tomato soup. A hearty midtown alternative is Spenard Roadhouse for loaded tots or a humble bowl of Lucky Charms.

The Takeaway

Even with fewer crowds in the winter, there are plenty of tourism facilities still open, including many of the popular shops in Downtown Anchorage. In the off-season, however, visitors have a far better opportunity to experience the city's everyday thrum for a more organic Alaskan experience.

Getting There

In addition to the state's namesake Alaska Airlines, United and Delta also offer year-round service to Anchorage.

Where to Stay

There are several major chain hotels in Downtown Anchorage. The Hotel Captain Cook is an independent property that is steeped in local history.

Good To Know

Car rental is one of the best ways to explore the city and the region. Cars rented locally during the winter typically come equipped with an oil pan heater, ice scraper, and snow tires.

Visitor Information Centers at the airport and in Downtown Anchorage remain open throughout the winter season.