Southcentral Alaska Getaways For Fall

This story originally appeared in my Outdoors With Kids column in the Alaska Dispatch News on August 15, 2017. 

Ah, summer. Parting is such sweet sorrow. Unless it’s the parting of my kid from his bed each morning in time to make the 8:15 a.m. bell. The calendar says it’s time to ready the troops for another school year, and in my household, that means one final push of family fun, preferably before noon.

Jumpstarting your kids to the grind of school, activities, homework, and bed is a tough one if they’ve enjoyed respite from all four over the summer, so I like to ease back into the idea of schedules under the guise of playing tourist in my own town.

As Southcentral Alaska’s summer visitors begin to beat a retreat from popular destinations back to their own busy lives, residents can take advantage of things that brought us here in the first place, often at a lower cost than mid-season. Here are a few places you may want to visit before things like reading logs and swimming lessons fill your schedule.

Ready, set, breach! What a photo from Major Marine Tours.

Day cruise

Late August and early September can be a beautiful time to be on Resurrection Bay, says Lindsey Middendorf of Major Marine Tours.

“It’s a great time to be in Seward,” she said. “The whales and wildlife are still very active, and our fall specials give locals a chance to experience Kenai Fjords National Park without the peak-season crowds.”

Those specials include a Wildlife Overnight Package that features a three-and-a-half-hour cruise and stay at the company’s Harbor 360 Hotel located on the small boat harbor for just $119/per person. There’s also the Seward Adventure Overnight Package, which includes a six-hour cruise, buffet meal, overnight at the hotel, and free tickets to the Alaska Sea Life Center.


The Klondike Express pauses to inspect local wildlife in Prince William Sound. Image courtesy Phillips Cruises and Tours.

If you’d like to venture to Whittier, Phillips Cruises and Tours is offering day cruises through Oct. 7 this year, which means lots of fall colors that contrast nicely with the deep blue of glacial ice, says Lisa Kruse, the company’s director of sales and marketing.

“It’s a great way to make one more adventure with the family,” she said. Choose the three-and-a-half-hour Glacier Quest cruise through Sept. 10, or the five-hour 26 Glacier Cruise, operating through Oct. 7. Tickets begin at $69/kids 2-11, or $109/adults.

Portage Valley’s grasses and trees turn a rich umber during the early fall season. Take a hike and see for yourself. Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

Portage Glacier and more

Begich, Boggs Visitor Center is located on the shores of Portage Lake, with Portage Glacier in the distance. During the summer, the visitor center is flooded with out-of-town visitors, but by late August the scene is definitely more placid, perfect for a family visit.

“The great thing about the center is the variety of activities,” said Alicia King, public affairs officer for the Chugach National Forest. “Anything from chatting with a ranger, listening to a campfire story, or watching for salmon at the Williwaw fish-viewing platform.”

Take time to watch the movies in the theater and understand the interesting natural and cultural history of Portage Valley, culminating with a hike or bike ride along the five-mile Trail of Blue Ice. We like to double up this adventure with a trip to Williwaw or Black Bear campgrounds (where the fish-viewing platform is located) and a stop at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (below).

Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center is an active place during the fall weather switchover. Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

Critters up close

Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center animals are readying themselves for the upcoming cold season, and as a result, there’s lots of activity as they stuff their faces, grow winter coats, and become more active. It’s a great time to take a behind-the-scenes tour at the center and learn the habits of animals like bears, moose, wolves, and all the other creatures living on the approximately 700 acres of tidal flats. Tours range from $10-$100/per person and require advance registration.


Manitoba Cabin stands ready to welcome your family this autumn. Image courtesy Alaska Dispatch News.

Relax in the forest

The Manitoba Cabin and Yurts, owned by the Alaska Huts Association, has cozy yurts that sleep up to eight people. The property is a short walk from Milepost 48 along the Seward Highway and is the perfect place to escape, sans electronics, for a night or two with your kids. The yurts are for sleeping, the cabin is for cooking, eating, and hanging out in this historic section of Alaska wilderness. Rentals range from $90/$450 on weekends depending upon your preference, with lower rates for midweek stays. The new Spencer Cabin offered by the U.S. Forest Service affords a magnificent view of the glacier for those wanting to stay overnight.

AK Kid and AK Mom get ready to adventure at Spencer Whistlestop. Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

Ride the rails

The only way to reach my favorite fall destination of Spencer Glacier is on board an Alaska Railroad train, and the only train that goes there is the Glacier Discovery, departing for day trips through Sept. 18. Board the train in Anchorage for a longer ride along Turnagain Arm, or drive south and hop on in Girdwood or Portage. Once at the glacier, spend time wandering the kid-friendly trails or take a float trip down the Placer River. Whatever you choose, remember to stop and admire the brilliant reds and yellows of the landscape as fall creeps ever closer. . Want to stay overnight? The U.S. Forest Service allows camping at one of the dispersed individual campsites near Spencer Lake. Be aware that you’ll be on your own until the train returns the next day. The new Spencer Cabin offered by the U.S. Forest Service affords a magnificent view of the glacier for those wanting to stay overnight. ( )

Gorgeous scenery and interesting trails await at Hatcher Pass and the Independence Mine State Historical Park. Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

Aim high

Hatcher Pass and Independence Mine State Historical Park sit at about 3,500 feet in elevation, which means if you’ve followed recent weather reports, you’ll know to get up there before the unmistakable signs of winter show up. Fall at Hatcher Pass is a glorious riot of red, brown, and yellow, and coupled with a walking tour of the mine area and a few miles of hiking is the perfect way to spend an August day. Reminder: Bring your Alaska State Parks Pass or be prepared for the $5 daily parking fee. Hatcher Pass Lodge is also open for lunch or dinner, and has small cabins for rent if you’d like to spend the night.
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