Alaska is a land of extremes — extreme topography, weather, and wildlife. And it’s huge. Two factors that make a voyage to the Last Frontier an intimidating proposition for adult travelers, let alone parents traveling with young children. But a family trip to Alaska is worth the extra planning time and effort. There are few other places where you can experience first-hand the immense power and raw beauty of the natural world. You’ll see scenery and wildlife that are usually reserved for coffee-table books and National Geographic documentaries.
Last summer our family rented a 25-foot Winnebago RV in Anchorage and spent two weeks traveling around the southern part of the state, from Homer at the southernmost tip of the Kenai Peninsula to the town of Healy, just north of Denali National Park. Our goal was to keep daily mileage to a minimum, and to find places and activities that would be of interest to all four of us — ages 8 to 40.
If you’re thinking of making a similar trip, here are my recommendations for things to do and places to visit from the pages of our family’s great Alaskan adventure:
Hike to the top of Alyeska ski resort.
We spent the first night of our trip “camping” in the parking lot at the base of Alyeska Resort in Girdwood. That’s the great thing about RVing in Alaska; you can basically camp anywhere. (See related post: Planning a family vacation in Alaska.) The next day we hiked the Alyeska North Face Trail to the top of the aerial tram and then took the lift down.
Keep in mind: Alaska has the highest density of grizzlies in the world. Whenever and wherever you’re hiking in Alaska, bear bells are a must; we also carried a can of bear spray. Although the Alyeska trail is fairly wide open, you’ll pass through a few low-brush areas, where bear like to hang out. There was a bear sighting on the trail just after we reached the top. Whew. To celebrate the end of your hike, you might consider grabbing a bite to eat at Jack Sprat, located at the base of the mountain. Delicious!
“Hunt” for salmon.
We didn’t actually fish for salmon; you need a license to do so. But we stopped at every roadside stream and river on the Kenai Peninsula to watch the giant red and pink fish courageously fight the current on the way to their birthplace. It’s an amazing sight to see. Our favorite salmon viewing area was on the Portage River; you’ll see the signs on your way to Portage Glacier. Here’s a great article with a listing of all the salmon viewing spots on the Kenai Peninsula.
Have a beer at Seaview Café and Bar in Hope.
Okay, so this destination on the Kenai Peninsula is all about mom and dad. But the kids will enjoy exploring the coastline of Turnagain Arm, and playing in the rocks and sand. You can even park here for the night. There all kinds of great places to grab a beer in Alaska, but this 117-year-old bar was definitely my favorite. Keep in mind: Whenever you’re near the coastline of Turnagain Arm, the mud flats, although fun to watch as the tide rises and falls, are extremely dangerous. Never walk out onto these coastal wetlands. They’re like quicksand and have led to many untimely deaths.
Sleep on Homer Spit.
The town of Homer, at the western tip of the Kenai Peninsula, is on everyone’s Alaska itinerary. But not everyone has the opportunity to sleep on Homer Spit, the narrow spit of land that juts into Kachemak Bay. But if you’re traveling in an RV, you’ll have your pick of several RV parks located on the Spit. The ocean and mountain views are spectacular, and kids will love watching the fishing boats come and go from the harbor.
Pan for gold.
If you’re traveling with kids, you have to try panning for gold. There are several places to pan for gold on the Kenai Peninsula. It takes a couple of hours, but kids love walking away with a vial of gold flakes, and maybe even a gem or two.
Stop at every museum and visitor center along the way.
They’re all fantastic. The interactive, hands-on exhibits are extremely kid-friendly. We’d often plan our museum visits around the weather; a perfect activity for a rainy morning or afternoon. Some of our favorites were: the SeaLife Center in Seward; the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center in Portage Valley; Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center in Homer; the Pratt Museum in Homer, and the Denali Visitor Center at Denali National Park and Preserve.
Take a cruise through Kenai Fjords National Park.
This was, hands down, my favorite part of our trip. There are a number of companies that offer tours of the park. They all operate out of Seward harbor, and during the high season you’ll probably want to book at least a day or two in advance. You’ll see an incredible array of wildlife, including puffins, seals, sea lions, bald eagles, and whales. Definitely worth every penny.
Hike to the base (or top) of a glacier.
Alaska has more active glaciers than anywhere else in the world. And if you want to see one up close, there are a number of family-friendly hikes that will take you there.
The beauty of these hikes, along with the views at the end, is that they are well traveled, so you have less of a chance of encountering an unsuspecting bear. Our favorite hikes to glaciers were Exit Glacier in Seward and Portage Glacier in Portage Valley.
Hike to the top of Flattop Mountain in Chugach State Park.
This nearly 500,000-acre park, right outside of Anchorage, offers endless camping and hiking opportunities. The Flattop hike, three miles round-trip, is easily accessible from the highway and offers panoramic views of the mountains and ocean. Hit it on a clear day, and you’ll be able to see from Mount McKinley to the Aleutian Islands. Even on this popular trail, you’re likely to encounter some wildlife. We saw a few moose enjoying a buffet of blueberries on the shrubs that lined the path.
Take the Historic Downtown Anchorage Walking Tour.
You’ll get a lot more out of your Alaskan vacation if you have an understanding of the state’s unique history. The tour is a free service of the Anchorage Convention and Visitors Bureau, and well worth an hour of your time.
Visit the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage.
I’m not a big fan of zoos, but the Alaska Zoo isn’t like your zoo back home. Most of the animals in the zoo are native to Alaska, including brown and black bears, moose, wolves, coyotes, owls, and swans. Chances are you’ll also see these animals in the wild during your travels, but a visit to the zoo is a great way to get an up-close view and learn a little about their habits and habitats.
Bike or walk the Anchorage Coastal Trail.
The 11-mile paved coastal trail, which follows the coastline and offers spectacular views and wildlife sightings, can be picked up at various spots in Anchorage, or from Kincaid Park, a short drive from downtown. We parked at Kincaid and walked several miles toward the city, spotting several moose along the way. This portion of the path passes Anchorage International Airport, and our kids got a kick out of standing under the planes as they came and went. Bike rental information: http://www.alaska-bike-rentals.com/default.aspx.
Visit Denali National Park.
The 92-mile Denali Park Road is only accessible to private vehicles up to mile 30. If you want to go further, you’ll have to jump on a bus. Although everyone tells us the bus tours are well worth it, mainly due to the array of wildlife you’ll see along the way, we thought the five-hour journey into the park might be a little much for our kids. Instead, we woke up early to avoid the crowds — like all national parks, Denali is packed with visitors during the high season, drove into the park as far as possible, and then enjoyed a short hike where we were lucky enough to see early-morning views of Mt. McKinley. They say that only 30 percent of visitors actually see Mt. McKinley, since the 20,000-foot peak is often enshrouded in clouds.
Visit Nancy Lake State Recreation Area.
There was something about South Rolly Lake, located in the Nancy Lake State Recreation Area just off the Parks Highway between Anchorage and Denali, that I just loved.
Warming our fingers and toes by the campfire after a cool swim in the lake, I suddenly realized why people love Alaska: You don’t have to go far to be in the middle of nowhere — South Rolly Lake is just over an hour’s drive from Anchorage. And even on a Friday night, you won’t have to fight the crowds for a spot in the campground; we were one of about five campers in the entire place. It was heaven. Keep in mind: Wherever you are in Alaska, the mosquitoes are out to get you. I remember the bugs being a particular nuisance near the lake.
Take a sled-dog (or dog cart) ride.
The kids got a kick out of the sled-dog demonstration at Denali National Park. On our drive back to Anchorage, we stopped at the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Headquarters in Wasilla, where we all got a chance to experience being pulled by these amazing animals, albeit in a dog cart instead of a dog sled. The man who drove our team was the son of Joe Redington, the founder of the Iditarod, which was an experience unto itself. The kids also enjoyed watching the video inside the museum that tells the story of the Iditarod Race.
Other resources and recommendations:
For more information about trip planning, check out our related post: Planning a family vacation in Alaska. I also would highly recommend purchasing a copy of “Milepost: Alaska Travel Guide and Trip Planner.” This was our on-the-road travel resource for where to go, where to stay, and what to do along the way. Alaska.org and travelalaska.com are also great resources for trip planning.