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Hidden gems and wonderful things to do in Alaska

posted April 18, 2018


Hidden gems and wonderful things to do in Alaska

Alaska’s natural beauty, unique history and fascinating culture make it a renowned destination. But, besides the big attractions, the US state is home to a number of hidden gems and other wonderful activities.

For all those out there going on Alaska cruises, you can expect to see giant glaciers, wildlife and – if you’re lucky – the Northern Lights. The types of adventures open to you are as vast as the geography. Here we take you through some of the lesser known attractions we recommend visiting as well as activities you can try.

Jump on the Alaska Railroad and enjoy some local brews

Jump on the Alaska Railroad and enjoy some local brews

For those who consider themselves travellers, not tourists, you can get behind the scenes and see the real Alaska, starting with their beer!

Big Swig Tours offer two different Alaska railroad experiences: the ‘Alaska Crafted Tour and Train’, and ‘Adventure and Hops on the Rail’.

Both tours are full-day round trip tours out of Anchorage and you can get a behind-the-scenes look at the local craft beer industry while aboard the Alaska Railroad.

Big Swig Tours

The unique tours will help you learn about how Alaska’s favourite tipples are brewed and see the process first-hand. You will be treated to a very “local” experience and will be able to taste the grains, smell the hops and see the passion behind the art of crafting beer in Alaska.

The tours include one-way rail travel to either Talkeetna or Girdwood where you’ll meet your Hoperator. Once you’ve got onto the railroad you’ll see wonderful scenic views and hopefully some wildlife too.

A spokesperson for Big Swig Tours says, “These tours offer visitors and locals a safe and fun way to experience our local craft beverage industry. Travel like a local and explore the Last Frontier, one craft brewery at a time.”

Beer in Alaska

One popular brewing company in Alaska is Haines Brewing Company, located in Haines Alaska. Here you can taste their fresh seasonal and flagship brews on tap.

The Haines Brewing Company have been in business since 1999 and if you visit you will be able to see most of the brewing process from the tasting rooms. Watch the below video to find out more.

Some of their popular beers include Bigger Hammer, Black Fang, Captain Cook’s Spruce Tip Ale and Eldred Rock Red.

Take a look at the Burial Spirit Houses

Burial Spirit Houses

The Eklutna Historical Park is a great place for you to visit if you want to learn more about the history, culture and customs of the Dena’ina Athabascans, who are the native inhabitants of the south-central Alaska region and are believed to have arrived in the region some 1,000 to 1,500 years ago. Today it is believed around 1,500-2,000 people with Dena’ina ancestry live in Southcentral Alaska.

One of the must-see attractions in the park is the Burial Spirit Houses. These colourful spirit houses are a unique Athabaskan tradition and were built by the family after a relative’s death.

The graves of the Athabascan people are marked not only with their traditional spirit houses but also with an Orthodox Christian Cross.

As well as the spirit houses you can explore the old St. Nicholas church, which dates back to around 1870, and the new Saint Nicholas Church that was built in 1962 by the people of Eklutna.

Speaking about why people should visit the park, Mikel Bock from the Eklutna Historic Park, says, “Not just the great example of Alaska’s history, but also of the melding of the Orthodox Christian faith with the Athabascan people’s culture.”

Hike to the top of Flattop Mountain

Hike to the top of Flattop Mountain

If you are a keen hiker or just want to see some spectacular views, then Flattop Mountain is arguably one of the most popular hikes in Anchorage.

Located just east of Anchorage, the mountain can be seen from virtually every part of the city and it has a distinctive flat top, hence the name. For those that want to hike to the top, it will take 1-2 hours and the trail to the summit is rocky and steep in parts. The loop trails below are perfect for those of you that would prefer a more leisurely stroll.

If you don’t feel energetic enough to hike to the top, Visit Anchorage says there are lots of other options.

“If hikers don’t want to make it to the top, the trail system offers several other options for visitors of all abilities. This area is one of the many access points to the Chugach State Park, which surrounds Anchorage on the east side of town and is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2020.”

If you do make it to the top you will be greeted with spectacular views of the surrounding area.

Visit the Kennicott Ghost Town

Kennicott Ghost Town

At the turn of the last century, there were a lot of prospectors coming through Alaska and the Yukon looking for the next big gold strike, or just about any precious metal, they could stake a claim on. According to legend in the year 1900, “Tarantula” Jack Smith and Clarence Warner were exploring along the edge of the Kennicott Glacier when they saw a green meadow on the hillside. After further inspection, it turned out to be an enormous outcrop of copper.

The two prospectors sold their claim to Stephen Birch, a 28-year-old mining engineer from New York City. He eventually got the backing of men such as the Guggenheim brothers and J.P. Morgan. Together, they started what was to become the Kennecott Copper Corporation, one of the largest mining operations in the world, which still exists to this day.

From around 1905 through to 1938, the operation is believed to have produced over 590,000 tons of copper and 9 million ounces of silver. However, the site was abandoned in 1938, and because of the high cost of transportation, virtually all the equipment used in the operation was just left behind. The town has survived the last 80 years with minimal pilfering or damage and is one of the most intact examples of remote early 1900s copper mining to this day.

Sarah Ebright, the manager and guide for St. Elias Alpine Guides, talks about the different tours they offer to the town.

“We run 2-2.5 hour long tours through the old mining town, where you can enter the old buildings and see the machinery that processed the copper before sending it out to the smelter. This tour is great for both mining enthusiasts and the general tourist alike because it combines the technical information of copper processing with stories and tales of life in Kennecott. Visitors may also decide to embark on the strenuous 9-mile (round trip) hike up to the mining locations in the surrounding mountains to explore the bunkhouse ruins and be rewarded with amazing views of the glaciers below.”

Explore the Mendenhall Ice Caves

Mendenhall Ice Caves

If you’ve thought about visiting Alaska we are sure you will have stumbled across spectacular photos of people standing and walking in the Mendenhall Ice Caves on the Mendenhall Glacier.

Just 12 miles from Alaska’s capital city of Juneau, the ice caves are an absolute wonder to explore and are ever-changing due to the glacier’s constant movement and flow.

The best way to explore the Mendenhall Ice Caves is to go on an escorted trek or tour to explore them safely. With Alaska Shore Tours you can go on tours that combine treks to the caves as well as kayak trips.

The ice caves have been formed by the melting glacial ice and flow of water and this melted water runs under and through the glacier. This carves out new caves and the bright blue caves look spectacular from the inside.

A spokesperson for Alaska Shore Tours explains just some of the reasons why you should visit the ice caves.

“Visitors should visit the Mendenhall Glacier and the Mendenhall Glacier Ice Caves because these beautiful features are changing every day and from season to season. Guests can expect an experience they will remember for a lifetime, and a new profile picture to go with it!

“Once guests step foot on the ice, it’s an experience like no other. In just a few steps, you leave the mountain landscapes and snow for something entirely new. With meters of blue ice above your head, everything around you seems to glow with ethereal beauty. I have yet to find anything else like it.

“Our focus remains on safe, stunning experiences and the guides will determine how to deliver that for each group on the day of the tour.”

You should allow a full day to visit the caves and make sure you take waterproof clothes. Especially during the summer, you can expect dripping water and fast-moving streams.

Go mountain biking in Alaska

mountain biking in Alaska

Alaska is one of the best destinations in the world to go mountain biking. Strap on your helmet and you’ll have the chance to experience the state in a way no other method of transport offers. On two wheels you’ll get invigorating views and a more tactile experience within the pristine, aromatic air of the untamed Chugach National Forest in south-central Alaska.

Adventure Guru’s Alaska Mountain Bike tours explain why Alaska and Cooper Landing, a town on the Kenai Peninsula, is so renowned amongst mountain bikers.

“This area is a mountain bikers’ paradise with more than a dozen quality, well-maintained trails of every level of difficulty and length. Bikers will traverse more terrain and faster – and a foot-plus higher than a mere hiker would. They will encounter a multitude of gorgeous vistas and animals in their native habitat.

“There are many in-town, suburban city or county park trails that most avid Alaskan mountain bike riders go on at home either after work or on weekends. Our tours, however, are definitely not these. They are an out-of-town feeling, with a very surreal remote sensation, within a variety of forest canopies: spruce, birch, cottonwood, aspen and mountain hemlock. The vistas are incomparable: majestic Kenai and Chugach mountain tapestries, with cascading waterfalls and hanging glaciers in the distance, with sounds of nearby creeks, rivers, and ponds, and the big-sky aviary.”

Cooper Landing isn’t the only place where you can mountain bike; there are trails near Moose Pass, Portage, and Seward, which cumulate more than 150 miles of terrain. The different trails that you can follow range from easy to advanced and they are all well-kept and maintained.

All guided mountain bike tours include a well-maintained mountain bike, helmet, bike pump, water bottle and a selection of light snacks such as fresh fruit, dried fruit, granola bars and Gatorade.

If you’re unsure of what to wear or bring, Adventure-Guru says, “Rain pants may be desirable, but not necessary as the leg muscles are quite warm during the short duration journey.

“Please NO jeans – they do not breathe well, are not water repellent, and do not wick water well (i.e., they soak!)

“(You should bring) camera and preferred speciality drinks or snacks, if desired. We will also take photos of you and send them to you, as well.”

Tours are on offer from 15 May to 30 October every year.

Dine at the Rookery Café

The Rookery Café is certainly a hidden gem in Alaska and those of you visiting Juneau need to visit the café.

Most of the food in this downtown coffee shop and restaurant is made from scratch, whether it’s baking their own bread or slow cooking their turkey breasts. Some of its favourite meals include a five-piece Korean fried chicken with sweet soy sauce, Korean hot sauce, house kimichi and rice as well as its house noodles in miso broth with mushrooms, marinated spinach, spicy daikon and scallion.

The café is also the only place in Alaska that serves Stumptown Coffee, which the café is renowned for with the quality fresh roasted coffee a popular choice amongst locals.  The café was voted the number one restaurant in 2014 and 2015 in the Juneau Empires Readers’ Choice Poll.

Check out the Aurora Ice Museum

Not surprisingly, Alaska has a lot of things frozen in ice.

A post shared by Mike Remington (@clumpdiesel) on

Chena Hot Springs in Fairbanks is home to the Aurora Ice Museum, the largest year-round ice environment in the world. The museum opened back in January 2005 and is home to a number of ice sculptures which have been created with more than 1,000 tons of ice and snow.

It is -7°C inside, but there are parkas available to use that are free of charge. Inside you’ll be able to see incredible ice sculptures that have been created by 16-time world champion ice carver Steve Brice and his wife Heather, who herself is a 7-time world champion.

Some popular carvings include life-size jousters, a polar bear bedroom, a Christmas tree bedroom, a Northern Lights room and an ice outhouse.

Tours of the museum are just $15 CAD for adults and $10 CAD for children aged 6-17-years-old.

The Upside Forest of Mendenhall Gardens

Upside Forest of Mendenhall Gardens

The Upside Forest of Mendenhall Gardens is a uniquely designed botanical garden nestled in the midst of the mighty Tongass National Forest.

You can go on personal tours of Alaska’s premier garden attraction and see some of the incredible features that include the Upside-Down Flower Towers and the reclaimed stream cascading close by. Your guides will describe points of interest along the 2-mile long path while allowing for numerous photo opportunities and a chance to view the region’s wildlife as you weave your way through the towering forests of Southeast Alaska.

If you want to rest your legs a bit you can board one of the six-passenger covered rainforest shuttles or an 18 passenger power tram vehicle and continue your tour through Alaska’s natural wonderland.

In 2004, an adult pair of Alaskan Bald Eagles nested on the property and at the Visitor’s Center, you can watch a live stream of these majestic birds and their eaglets.

The gardens are open from 7 May to 30 September from 9am-6pm.

Image Credit: Big Swig Tours, olekinderhook (Wikimedia), Adventure Guru, Dan Terzian (flickr.com), Henry (Wikimedia).

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