Alaska autumns are lingering, longer. While Alaskans wait for the first snowfall and an entirely new set of family-fun activities, September and October have become fantastic months for road-tripping the 49th state’s major highways. Like the Seward Highway between Anchorage and Seward, a 2.5-hour drive.
All of a sudden, Alaska has fall. Not just one or two trees are yellow; they all are. Everywhere. The hillsides surrounding our home in east Anchorage are a burnt umber of browns and reds and brushed gold. I have a fire in the woodstove as a damp fog creeps around the neighborhood. It’s time, isn’t it, to get our leaf-peeping fix.
Fall is fun at 60 degrees North, and road trips are a hands-on way to get out of the house for a day or weekend, and explore the shifting season.
The Seward Highway, stretching almost 200 miles between Anchorage and the city of Seward, is the perfect place to start, especially if you only have a day to take in the fall foliage and abundant recreation the area affords. My family did just that, hoping decent weather would keep us dry but not really caring if it didn’t as we drove south toward the Hope Highway Junction.
Particularly for children, fall day trips can capture both the imagination and spirit of adventure, as once-familiar scenery takes a turn and animals ready themselves for another long Alaska winter. It’s a chance to see, taste, and touch all that makes Alaska wondrous, and here are our favorite places along the way:
Beginning near the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge, known to locals as Potter Marsh, Turngain Arm is a fascination demonstration of tidal shift, rugged mountain peaks, and tight valleys that simply glimmer during the autumn months. Stop by Potter Marsh and walk the accessible boardwalks, keeping an eye out for Tundra Swans, ducks, and eagles swooping around the tall trees and swimming in the brackish water. Look out over the water and see if beluga whales are bobbing among the cold waves in search of small fish as the tide changes. And speaking of tides, check a tide table to see if there’s a large swing between low and high; this means a bore tide may come roaring up the Arm with a cadre of paddleboarders or surfers riding the wave.
Stop at McHugh Creek for a short hike, and Beluga Point for a photo op and chance to see Dall sheep on top of the rocky mountains above.<—Do stay off the railroad tracks for your safety and the safety of those aboard the train.
Don’t just drive through the small community of Indian as you continue down the Seward Highway. Visit Indian Valley Meats for a look into the mechanics behind hunting and fishing season. We always come away with a new appreciation for the efforts of those seeking meat to provide for their families. And always end up purchasing sausage, bacon, and a few scoops of ice cream from their delicious choices in the store.
The community of Girdwood is located about 45 minutes from Anchorage, and is home to Alyeska Resort, Alaska’s largest ski area and a great place to take advantage of the ski trails for a bit of autumn hiking. Stay at the Hotel Alyeska now through October 10 and receive a free tram ride up for your whole family. Don’t forget to walk down to The Bake Shop via the paved trail, either. The soups, baked goods, and coffee are just the ticket for a cool autumn afternoon. ProTip: Take cash, The Bake Shop is a no-credit card zone.
Once you’ve filled up the kids, continue south along the Seward Highway for a few hours of animal discovery at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, located just before the junction to Whittier. Fall means mating season for elk, moose, and other animals living at the center, and there is a good chance you’ll hear the daddy elk bugle as you walk the property. Dress for the weather and walk – don’t drive. You’ll get much more from your visit, especially if the bears are noshing on pumpkins. ProTip: If you expect to visit the center multiple times in the next year, consider a family pass for a better investment. We did, and it’s very handy, plus some events are open to passholders during the year.
Leave the wildlife center and hang a left toward Whittier, stopping a few miles up for a stroll along the Trail of Blue Ice, a Chugach National Forest gem. Listen to the yellow leaves flutter in the breeze, and see the last of spawning salmon splash their way upstream. There are many access points to the Trail of Blue Ice, and bikes are a great way to explore this beautiful area. We like to bike in and picnic at Williwaw Campground. Even though it’s closed for the season, the area is open to those who can ride or walk in. Just be sure to pack out your trash.
Along Milepost 70 of the Seward Highway is the road’s highest point – Turnagain Pass. Stop here and hike at 900 feet of elevation among the meadows that support legions of snow machine and Nordic ski enthusiasts when snow falls. Now, though, it’s a great place to let the kids and dogs run amok while the grownups enjoy the termination dust on higher peaks and the changing colors that mark another season’s approach. Pick a side; either the west or east rest stops provide nice trails and ample space for stretching legs and taking family photos with the backdrop of the Chugach National Forest.
Either stop here and return home, or continue toward the Hope Junction (cutoff), located near another rest area with a view of Six Mile and Canyon Creeks. The yellow leaves of birch and aspen here were simply stunning during our visit, especially with slivers of sunshine sliding through the clouds. Wow.
Take a walk around the pathway, which, by the way, leads seven miles back toward the trailhead for Johnson Pass. No one really knows the name of this bike/walk trial, but some call it No-Name, so I’ll call it that, too. I never see anyone on it but always wonder why.
Hope is 17 miles from the junction at Seward Highway. We went there, too, but that’s another story.