A bicycle adventure in the snow and a world class museum in one day? It’s easy in Anchorage, Alaska. Here’s how to plan your visit, in winter or any time of year.
Why Winter in Anchorage?
Visiting Anchorage in the colder months allows you to experience this city of 300,000 people like a local. Tourism officials say more than two million visitors pass through here from March through September each year, mostly connecting with cruise ships or other adventures in the Alaska wilderness. In warmer months, hotel rooms and rental cars can be freakishly expensive. Winter prices are lower, but the hospitality is just as warm.
Log Cabin Visitors Center
Fortified by a hearty breakfast at the Middle Way Cafe in midtown, I got my bearings at the Anchorage Log Cabin Visitor Information Center. It’s at the corner of 4th Avenue and F Street in the heart of downtown. The Moose Warning on the log cabin made perfect sense to me, because I had seen two rather large ones grazing in a roadside wooded area on the ride from my hotel. Armed with free maps, brochures and some enthusiastic recommendations, I set off for an indoor adventure a few blocks away.
Anchorage Museum Morning
A few hours spent in Alaska’s largest museum will give context to your outdoor experiences. Because of the history and culture, climbing a mountain here is different from doing it anywhere else.
Put your belongings in a free locker and then take the elevator to the 4th floor for an expansive view of the Chugach mountains — what Anchorage locals call their “big backyard.”
Wandering down one floor at a time allows you to walk in the footsteps of artists who came here in the 1800s and managed to create masterpieces — despite their paint freezing in the below zero weather. From romantic to impressionists to modern art and native symbolism, you will begin to understand why just about every Alaskan you meet is so passionate about this state, its culture and its wildlife. Here’s a gallery of bears:
There’s something for everyone here, including interactive exhibits for the kids. Temporary exhibits like the Art of Fandom appeal to those more interested in pop culture. But even more fascinating than the comic book and sci fi heroes are the real-life adventurers who settled this land, from the First Nations through the Gold Rush and Pipeline Boom to the present day.
Photography is encouraged, without flash. Allow two hours, but you might want to stay longer, especially on a super cold day. Helpful info for planning your visit — including a discount for advance tickets — is on the museum’s website. There’s also a restaurant.
Snow Bike the Coastal Trail
I was a bit intimidated by the idea of riding a bicycle more than 11 miles in the snow. Fortunately, Pete at Downtown Bicycle Rentals made it easy. As a video on the shop’s website explains, it’s “the least expensive and most fun thing you can do” in Anchorage. Definitely reserve your bike in advance because they sell out. The location on 4th Avenue is about a block from the monument to mushers, which marks the official starting spot of the famed Iditarod sled dog race.
This is probably where I should point out that nearly all the tourist brochures show people having fun in the summer. In February you will need to gear up as if spending the day on the ski slopes. Think warm parka, long underwear, neck warmer, serious gloves and shoes that can get real traction on snow and ice. I wore Salomon hiking shoes, warm and water resistant but more flexible than ski boots.
The Coastal Trail is accessible from two different locations in downtown Anchorage. Many people on a time schedule start downtown, do half of the trail, and double back. A better option is to get a ride out to Kincaid Park and take the entire trail back into town. I started out with high hopes.
I won’t lie. I’m a certified indoor spin instructor and this was harder than the hardest spin class I’ve ever taught! I was on a “plus” bike, with studded tires that gripped into the snow. Not as difficult to pedal as a “fat tire” bike, but still challenging even on the short bursts of flat road. You’ll want to take plenty of rest stops for photos and videos.
My companions on this ride were two women from Russia and Ukraine. We met an eagle and a couple of moose along the way. There’s also the eerie moment when the planes taking off and landing at Anchorage airport seem to zoom right over your head. Click here to see a GPS of our ride, with photos.
We kept an eye out for the high-rise Hilton Hotel, which let us know we were back downtown and only a few short blocks from the bike shop.
One More Alaska Moment
Even if you’re here on business, don’t be surprised if your work day includes an Alaska moment. Another up close and personal encounter with a moose! An estimated 1,500 of them reside within the city limits. Unlike most of the people you meet, they are not all friendly. Only pet the stuffed moose at the airport on your way home.
Terry’s Travel Tips
I was a guest of Visit Anchorage at Middle Way Cafe, the Anchorage Museum and Downtown Bike Rentals. Post reflects the typical experience any traveler can expect. Helpful information for planning your trip is on their website.
You’ll work up an appetite. So check out my post on the lively food scene in Anchorage. Stay up to date on special events like the Irondog, Iditarod and Fur Rendezvous by tuning in to Alaska’s #1 newscast on KTUU-TV. This is not your cookie cutter local news. They take pride in telling Alaska’s story as no one else does.
Short Days and Northern Lights: I’m usually an early riser, but it doesn’t really get light here until 9 am in February. The good news about the early sunset is that you have a shot at seeing the Northern Lights if it’s not cloudy at night like it was during my visit.
Disclosure: Thank you in advance for clicking on the Trip Advisor links, and while you’re there please browse the hotels. Any bookings made by clicking through my links may result in a small commission to me, but no extra cost to you for supporting my travel journalism. I stayed at My Place, a budget midtown hotel that is pet friendly. You can also call them in advance to arrange a free shuttle from the airport. Throughout your stay, you can get around by taxi or ride-sharing, but many visitors rent a car to use Anchorage as a jumping off point for further adventures in what city residents call their “big backyard.”
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