Alaska seems to be a top Bucket List item. Since going to our northernmost state, I’ve had a constant stream of people saying it’s one of their must-travel spots. And with good reason! I can echo the sentiment that Alaska is a sight to behold.
What’s great is, despite its impressive size, you can see a lot in one week. We hiked glaciers, kayaked past icebergs, and hiked 11 miles to visit a frozen lake. Oh – and did I mention the sun never set? Not even once?
Alaska is one of those places where every day provides the opportunity for a once-in-a-lifetime adventure and I’d love to share the moments!
Planning and Choosing Alaska
Marjorie and I chose to go to Alaska over the summer solstice – which I highly, highly recommend. To be honest, it wasn’t a conscious decision. Marjorie’s goal of running a race in every U.S. state meant we had to plan around one of their races and we chose the Mayor’s Marathon Race (we did the 5k, we’re not that crazy). It ended up being a great time to visit. The lack of sunset meant planning the long drives of the road trip was easy – no worrying about driving in the dark and watching for moose. It also provides a daily reminder of just how different life up there can be.
Because of our race and the timing we had, we ended up bracketing our race day with travel. This made some of our options limited since we knew we would fly into Anchorage, be tourists, drive back to Anchorage for the race, then have a couple more tourist days, before going back to Anchorage to fly out. Most people won’t want to do this trajectory since it’s a lot of out and back, but it worked splendid for us.
In doing this, we had to make an important decision – to Denali or not to Denali? You’ll find when you research Alaska it’s almost always the first item mentioned outside of Anchorage. But we struggled with the logistics. The main activity is a very long bus tour in the hope of seeing some wildlife and maybe Denali peak (apparently that’s a slim chance). We just couldn’t stomach that kind of tour so we actually chose to skip Denali. It was a bold move but one we are confident was the right choice for us. So – what did we do instead?
Day One: Travel!
Depending on where you are coming from, it’s almost certainly a long flight to Alaska. We landed in Anchorage at the eye-watering time of 11pm after a 6 hour direct flight from Chicago. It’s an easy flight, but a long one, and given the three hour difference we were dead on our feet. And yet – it was still light outside! The lack of sunset does wonders for that second wind and we managed to get our car and head to our hotel (nothing special, we opted for the familiar and stayed at the Four Points Sheraton. No complaints and a great option if you are looking for a chain hotel in Anchorage).
Day Two: Glacier Hiking
We wasted no time on our Alaskan Adventure dawdling. The next morning we were up and out early, stopping only at the Fred Meyer’s to stock up on snacks and Starbucks for a caffeine hit. Unsurprisingly, given Anchorage has fewer than 300,000 people, there were not a lot of options especially before 8am so we went with the familiar and hit the road.
About 2-2.5 hours east of Anchorage you’ll find the Matanuska Glacier – it’s a ridiculously easy drive with a very well maintained road that doesn’t even have fearsome switchbacks. We signed up to do the Ice Fall Trek with Mica Guides and it was perfect for us. Our guide Kendall was kind and authentically passionate about the glacier.
The tour completely exceeded our expectations – every time I thought we were turning to go back we were instead heading down another crevasse or exploring another section of the glacier. You spend a ton of time in your crampons and are truly hiking on ice for over half of your tour. It was a great workout but not exhausting or treacherous.
The views are out of this world – maybe other people know this but my own glacier knowledge being slim to none I had no idea I would see the vibrant blue of the truly cold and dense ice – or the deceptively black ice just an inch blow the silty sludge. It was cold and a bit rainy and four hours of a truly glorious adventure.
Blessedly, at the Mica Guides stop there is an adorable little hut that serves decent coffee and ice cream (that sounds sooo good but sadly we didn’t get to partake in). Even if you aren’t doing a tour (though you absolutely should) if you are headed to Valdez it’s a great stopping point.
After we changed into dry clothes and caffeinated, we hopped back in the car for the remaining 4 hours of our drive to Valdez. While long, the drive truly didn’t feel cumbersome. The whole way you’re gazing out at miles of untouched forest or watching the approaching picturesque mountains. The last hour-ish in particular is amazing as you wind through the valley between mountains with huge and amazing waterfalls cascading right next to you.
Truthfully, Valdez is tiny and not the largest tourist hub so there are not a lot of accommodation options. We did stay with an Airbnb which served the purpose. It was clean, convenient, and had a hot shower but wasn’t otherwise a spot that would call for glowing reviews.
Day 3: Glacier Kayaking
Marjorie and I figured – when in Alaska, do all the glaciers. So, not even a day after we got off the Matanuska Glacier, we found ourselves decked out in very attractive rain gear and on a boat headed to another one of Alaska’s famous Glaciers – Columbia. We did this trip with Pangaea Adventures and definitely recommend them. Great crew.
This was the only day on our week long journey where it didn’t rain and we were so glad for it. We couldn’t have asked for better weather – mid 60s and clear sunny skies greeted us for the entire boat right out to the glacier and ice fields. It’s not a short ride – 2/2.5 hours – but it’s epic. I stood almost the entire way at the back of the boat, watching and enjoying the scenery.
The mountains were amazing and we always stayed close so the water was calm. Getting closer and closer to the glacier was so much fun as we started to go through the ice fields – huge chunks of iceberg just chilling next to your boat was something to behold.
And that was before our excursion even started! We pulled up on a remote little beach, got a few kayaking instructions, and then were off.
We were able to paddle around the ice, occasionally picking up pieces and chew them. It was trippy how you could eat fresh untouched glacier water, even though it had been floating in salt water. Every ten minutes or so you’d hear the glacier calve, sometimes seeing the billowing aftermath of snow as it avalanched down.
After an hour or so we stopped to eat our packed lunch and then back into the boats for more kayaking. It was a challenging but not strenuous adventure – it’s a lot of time kayaking but the water was calm and beautiful so it made for easy rowing.
The whole ride home to Valdez I gazed out at the water, the glacier, and the mountains. All I could think about was how amazing and unique it was to be there.
Day 4: Road Trip back to Anchorage
Having hit everything we wanted to (and really everything there is in that petite little town) we left early and made our way back to Anchorage. A six hour road trip, that you previously drove, is typically daunting but I’m not joking when I say it really didn’t feel long at all.
Despite driving in quite a bit of rain, it was still an easy and beautiful drive. A minor moose sighting and a lot of time to chat, sure, but we still pulled over at a few different areas to get amazing pictures.
If you are taking this trek, it’s well worth pulling off in Palmer. We got lucky because of our timing to find an adorable little outdoor market/fair near the train station. We were able to wander and found a truly delightful little bookstore, Fireside Books. It was the only bookstore of note on our entire trip (and we went to literally all the ones we could find in ALL our locations!). It had a great selection and an author signing out front too (I’ll add the book once I read it and can recommend it!) .
We got into Anchorage early enough to check in and then lay around, waiting for a break in the weather. It eventually did lighten enough for us to have dinner at 49th State Brewing and their rooftop. It’s a highly rated spot and well worth it – the place is huge with plenty of outdoor seating. The menu is perhaps too big and therefore all the food is good but not great. Still, the beer options were solid and it was a great spot to sit.
Anchorage itself, though, doesn’t have a lot to offer. Marjorie phrased it well – it’s a city with an identity crisis. There’s a block that feels hipster/up-and-coming, next to a block of random and halfhearted businesses, next to a block that has a significant homeless population. Any downtown/walking area is approximately 2 or 3 block square and that’s being generous. Still, there are some key establishments that we did enjoy, but otherwise it’s not a city worth spending significant time in.
Day 5: 5k and Drive to Seward
Our 5k started, to our irritation being morning people, at 11am. We spent the morning dozing and watching TV in our hotel room, desperately hoping the driving rain would peter out in time for our race. It did not.
Still, the 5k was well designed and took us on a lovely little path. Mostly flat too! But by the end our feet were soaked and I was reminded of how I don’t mind a 20-30 minute jog but something about the 5k is a mild form of torture.
Our late check out (thanks to Marjorie’s Marriott status, holllllla) gave us time to shower before we had to move on. We had a late breakfast/lunch at Snow City Cafe and then got on the road to Seward.
Now that is a delightful little drive. Just over two hours you hug coast the whole way. Easy and beautiful with a bunch of pull overs. Alaska is funny that way – it’s literally always beautiful and so it got to the point where we’d see another “scenic overlook” spot and purposefully pass it up. How many more amazing panoramas did we need, really?
A very keenly placed sign worked vey well and we were able to stop and buy fudge at a little hamlet called, no joke, Moose Pass. If you are going to Seward, do not hesitate to stop there. The owners were hilarious in that small town way and their fudge was legit.
Google maps made it easy for us to find our best accommodations yet – a true yurt run by Sourdough Sue (fun fact, a “sourdough” is someone whose been in Alaska for 30+ years. She does not make bread… much to my disappointment). That was the only thing that lessened our stay, however. The yurt was amazing. It was the definition of glamping and I loved it so much. She even turned on our oil-burning stove for us because we were not going to even try to touch that thing. Indoor plumbing, a cute little porch, and the beds were comfy. Highly, highly recommend a stay here.
Day 6: Hiking to Lost Lake
We woke up to a downpour which, I had to admit, sounded SO COOL on our yurt roof. It did not, however, bode well for our pre-paid trip with Exit Glacier Tours to hike to the Lost Lake. Given all the glacier experiences we already had, we decided to have a more authentic hike while in Seward and we really enjoyed this getaway. It’s clearly one of the lesser booked trips and we almost had a private tour as we were only joined by one other woman from Colorado. Janice, our guide, was more like an Airbnb host just giving us a tour of her favorite running trail. It was fun and we didn’t see anyone until about mile 8 of our 11 mile in-and-out adventure.
This hike was the perfect difficultly level. It’s a great distance – just at that peak of being “oh my god are we done yet?” and it has a good elevation increase but nothing too steep all at once. Trekking poles were super helpful, both as things got challenging (there were a few massive snow piles we had to climb too – even that late in June) and also just as something to hold.
The top of the mountain is legit out of The Sound of Music and for the last half of our hike I was humming Edelweiss.
The whole time our guide warned us we might have to turn back sooner if the snow was going to get too deep. But we pushed on and finally made it to the Lost Lake lookout. We watched as her face fell, a look of realization and horror crossing it.
“It’s frozen! I’m so sorry!”
Because, of course, if it had been such a chilly spring so far that the snow was still an obstacle, it wasn’t surprising the lake would still be covered in snow – and not the bright, shining blue that usually drew people in. She looked so worried that we would be disappointed but I was personally ecstatic. I love the idea that we got to see something that most people didn’t. It felt pretty badass to say we hiked as much as we did in the snow to see the Lost Lake still frozen over.
By the time we made it by the rain had started again (we managed to avoid the worst of the weather while hiking, thank goodness) so we enjoyed the sound of the rain in our yurt until we headed into Seward for some takeout and spent the rest of the night chilling.
Day 7: Driving back to Anchorage and heading home
The fun, or not fun, thing about Alaska, depending on your perspective, is that it seems they arrange the majority of their flights to leave and arrive very late in the day. Is this just a seasonal thing due to the lack of sunset? I don’t know. But, for good or evil, our flight out of Anchorage wasn’t until 11pm on Monday night. So we had plenty of time for more tourism before heading home.
The day finally opened up clear and we were able to explore Seward properly on Monday morning. Unfortunately most of the cute shops of the downtown area were closed (although this one, aptly named Alaska Shop, was open and was actually exceptional for souvenirs – and I don’t usually buy souvenirs). But we took a walk down by the harbor. It’s an amazing walk and well worth it for the views.
We timed our departure so we could arrive at Whittier and experience North America’s longest tunnel. It was $13 and worth it if only because the whole experience was trippy and thoroughly quirky. It takes approximately 7 minutes to drive through the single-lane tunnel and it’s simultaneously a total normal experience and one where you can’t help contemplating how much oxygen you need to live and what would happen if an earthquake happened, like, rightthissecond.
We made it through to the admittedly halfhearted little alcove of Whittier. It’s a bizarre place where everyone lives in one dorm-like building and there is one half-street with seafood restaurants. That being said, the one where we ate was quite tasty (Swiftwater Seafood Cafe – no website, but you can’t miss it) and the view was gorgeous. It was a fun little stop on our way back to Anchorage.
When we made it back to the city we went to a use bookstore that was so disappointing I won’t even name it and then waited for a very long time for a table at a ridiculously busy pizza place, Moose’s Tooth. Given that we had literally hours to kill before our flight we didn’t mind the wait and I’m so glad we weren’t scared off. We had a cauliflower crush pizza that literally blew my mind. I forced Marjorie to stop eating it because I was convinced it was gluten, called the waitress back, and watched her (very-well deserved) smug expression as she assured us that it was, in fact, cauliflower and that we weren’t the only people to be tricked. It was the best pizza I think I’ve ever had and ultimately a solid send off for Alaska.
Our trip to Alaska was a quick one with a lot of driving but we really enjoyed the entire endeavor. Valdez and Seward are amazing towns that gave a great perspective of small town life in Alaska. They were both charming and well worth the time to visit. The tours were all phenomenal and ones we would highly recommend. Anchorage, of course, was an easy jumping off point but not one to spend any more time in than necessary. Even though less than a week isn’t usually worth it for a 6 hour flight we felt like we were able to see and do so much in that time.
Food and Ice Cream
- 49th State Brewing – great option for dinner with good beer and plenty of outdoor seating (rooftop with a view, yes please!) Located in the only part of Anchorage we found that might be called cute and/or walkable.
- Snow City Cafe – this place definitely gets busy but we were able to get takeout and eat at one of their outdoor seats as the skies cleared. Good food and super adorable interior (so maybe rainbows!). Great lattes too.
- Moose’s Tooth Pub & Pizzeria – this pizza 100% blew my mind. It was exceptionally good. Go there FOR SURE while you are in Anchorage.
- WooHoo! Ice Cream – Cute little spot with some unique flavors. In a strip mall with other very literally named businesses. It gave me a chuckle.
- The Potato – we went were both nights because the food was excellent and they have cute outdoor seating. Highly recommend. If you are gluten free they’ll just replace your wrap or bun with a bed or fries. YES PLEASE.
- Northern Treats – even though this is soft serve, it’s quite good. It’s also, literally, the only ice cream in Valdez so, you know, can’t be too picky. But still, it’s worth it and it’s adorable.
- Latte Dah Espresso – seriously, what is not to love about this place? The name (I mean come ON), the artwork, the cute seating décor …and the drinks! Great specialty latte options. I was sold.
- 13 Ravens Coffee & Books – coffee was decent and the location adorable, but don’t expect to actually get a book…
- The Lone Chicharron Taqueria – surprisingly excellent tacos, we really considered eating there twice.
- Red’s Burgers – really great reviews and a very long wait for what ended up being pretty normal burgers. Not disappointing necessarily, just not quite as the level I expected given all the rave reviews. Super cute establishment though in the bus!
- Sweet Darlings – truly excellent gelato!
- Moose Drop-In Trading Post (just outside of Seward) – for fudge!