This is the second in an occasional series of posts showcasing the “gotta-do” activities in Alaska, divided up by region. The first area I explored was Southeast Alaska and the communities of Juneau, Ketchikan, Sitka, and such. Now, I move north. ~Erin K
Alaska visitors almost always make a stop in the state’s most populated area known as ‘Southcentral‘. Whether arriving, departing, or gathering their bearings, Southcentral Alaska is where the majority of commerce, politics, and general busyness occur, despite the capital being several hundred miles to the south. A hub for travelers thanks to air, rail, and sea connections close to Anchorage, also the state’s largest city, Southcentral is often the conduit to other Alaska adventures, and a good place to begin or end a family vacation.
Naysayers will sputter “It’s not real Alaska!” and do their best to convince visitors to explore elsewhere, but I beg to differ. Nowhere will your family be able to find such diversity (80+ different languages are spoken in Anchorage alone), activity, and access. For parents looking to have a concrete base of operations, Southcentral is the place. Have only a week? Southcentral is often my recommendation. Unsure but enthusiastic about Alaska, and want to start simple? Southcentral can help boost 49th state confidence. Below are a few important experiences to share with your children in this wonderfully rich part of Alaska.
In Anchorage, Start your Alaska vacation with a dash of culture at the Alaska Native Heritage Center (open daily May-September) and the Anchorage Museum (open year round). With a culture pass that allows admission at both for one price (plus transportation if you need it), this creates a full day of immersion into the many Native cultures that have lived in Alaska for more than 10,000 years. Don’t miss special exhibits for younger children, and opportunities for breaks and snacks at both.
Getting outdoors is easy in Alaska’s largest city. For an easy stroll try the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, accessible right downtown and great for strollers. Those in search of a more challenging hike may enjoy exploring Chugach State Park and the “Hillside Trails”, where places with names like Flattop and Bear Valley will encourage strong young hikers to reach the top. Do make sure your family is in good physical condition, has appropriate footwear and clothing, and is prepared with water, food, and a trip plan. Find resources for other hikes at the downtown Public Lands Information Center on 4th Avenue.
If road trips are your preferred method of seeing the area, rent an RV from Great Alaskan Holidays and unpack only once. Many campgrounds lie within Southcentral Alaska, and the folks at Great Alaskan can help you arrange your itinerary with little fuss. Good destinations for camping with kids include Turnagain Pass, Seward, Homer, and the Parks Highway. The Public Lands Info Center has a great list of campgrounds in this area, and statewide.
Kids like critters? Southcentral Alaska is home to great opportunities for up-close wildlife viewing and educational activities that appeal to the whole family. The Alaska Zoo is located in Anchorage, and features northern-climate-specific animals and birds in a beautiful forest setting. Open daily all year, and transportation can be arranged from downtown Anchorage during the summer months. Hint: Ask when the animals are fed or provided enrichment activities, or take a behind-the-scenes tour; it’s worth the extra money and is excellent for older children.
The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage (south of Anchorage along the Seward Highway) is acres and acres of roaming bison, elk, moose, musk ox, bears, and a prickly porcupine named “Snickers”. A perennial family favorite, AWCC is open every day during the summer months, and offers a property shuttle for those who find walking difficult. Please consider trekking the grounds, however, kids love the wide expanse of land and the animals are more engaged and interested when you don’t show up in a vehicle. Hint: I also know AWCC is working hard on some kid-centric projects for 2015/16, so stay tuned.
The Williams Reindeer Farm and the Musk Ox Farm, both in the Palmer area of the Matanuska-Susitna Valley north of Anchorage are very popular with families during their summer-only hours (Reindeer Farm does offer holiday open houses, however during the Christmas season). Guided tours and opportunities to learn about these four-legged northern creatures is both interesting and fun.
The Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward is the state’s only marine mammal research and rehabilitation facility, and is also home to a number of shorebirds in the aviary. Hands on activities, lots of mammal and bird viewing, and the opportunity to explore behind-the-scenes makes for a great day learning about the creatures who swim and fly around Alaska’s marine landscape.
Take to the water along the Kenai Peninsula area of Southcentral Alaska, too, with day cruises ranging from three to nine hours. Trips depart from Whittier or Seward, both south of Anchorage, taking visitors around either Prince William Sound (Whittier), or Resurrection Bay (Seward). Look for humpback whales, orca whales, porpoise, eagles, puffins, sea lions, seals, otters, and maybe even a mountain goat perched high above your boat on a rocky ledge. Oh, and the glacial ice you’ll see? Stunning. Of all the Southcentral activities to do, this is numero uno on our “amazing for kids” list. We do have tips for making the experience even more fun, however, so read up before you make a decision.
——>Companies offering tours are Major Marine (Whittier and Seward), Phillips Cruises and Tours (Whittier), and Kenai Fjords Tours (Seward). Any choice will be a solid choice, it all comes down to your family’s preferences.
There’s still so much to see, isn’t there? But this is a start, and where I often take my own visiting friends and relatives. That’s part of the magic of Alaska family travel, the good stuff is all around. Stay tuned.