September 25, 2021: Matanuska
After a day and a half in the Copper River Valley, I was heading back towards Anchorage. Yesterday, the road was icebound, and I slugged through two hours of driving on snow.
Luckily today was a beautiful and the snow had mostly been plowed.
About halfway back to Anchorage, I caught a glimpse the mighty Matanuska Glacier. This enormous seemingly endless field of ice extended more than 20 miles back into the mountains. I noticed a hand-painted sign advertising “Glacier Tours”. Since I had time, I decided to investigate. It turns out that a company offers 90-minute walking tours on the glacier for $100. $100 seems like a lot of money, but it turns out to be the cheapest deal for this type of thing in all of Alaska.
The Matanuska Glacier is the only one which can be reasonably accessed by the public without needing a helicopter flight or a boat. Also interestingly enough, the first two miles of the glacier is privately owned. The land is owned by the local Native tribe but is on a 30-year lease to a non-Native individual. That man owns the company who gives the glacier tours. The cheapest way to see the glacier is with his company, but external guides are allowed to tour the glacier too.
Group tours were offered every hour and I managed to get on one leaving at 14:00. After paying the money, I drove 2 miles to the visitor center that used to be at the foot of the glacier in 2010. There, I donned microspikes (a much easier-to-use version of crampons) and met up with the group of about 25 people. The glacier tour was led by a college student from University of Alaska Anchorage who does these to make extra money on the weekends.
After a 5 minute walk (the glacier has receded a lot in the past 20 years), we were walking on 800 feet of ice! The trail was well-trodden, so it was obvious where to step. Every now and then, we would have to step across a crevasse which probably was hundreds of feet deep.
We wandered amongst the many beautiful ice formations stopping often to take pictures. The tour was not so educational but was still very nice. By the end of the 2 hours, I was pleased with the experience but ready to head back.
Back in my car, hurried back to Anchorage and checked into my hostel. Hostels are not very common or popular in the United States, but this place was busy. The hostel had a funny mix of people – mostly Americans but there were a few Israelis. Many of my fellow guests held seasonal jobs that had wrapped up and wanted to travel a bit. Then there were the people who wanted a random vacation. One guy from Chicago worked for an airline and took a spontaneous 3-day trip since flight loads were low and he could travel for free. Others were gearing up for hunting trips.
I really enjoyed chatting with everyone and learning their story. The hostel weirdly enough had a sensory deprivation tank that could be rented out for $35/hour. Most people seemed surprised that I had just arrived in Alaska since this is the time of year when everyone leaves. In fact, I think the hostel closes in October.
From the hostel, I walked 5 minutes to dinner. There, I met my college friend Lili. Lili moved to Alaska after college and has worked a dizzying array of seasonal adventure jobs including guide, maid, and snowmobile driver. Now she is a marketing manager for a northern lights luxury camp in the far north of Alaska. In the winters, she works at a luxury camp in Antarctica. She is one of the people that I respect the most from my college for following her passion. At dinner, I got to meet her boyfriend and and her bush pilot friend. While eating pizza, numerous groups of people stopped by our table to say hello. It seems like the scene is very small- especially if you’ve survived a winter.
After dinner, I got to check out Lili´s world-famous van, Vangelina, before going to bed.
September 26, Anchorage:
Today I wanted to explore Anchorage itself. While not known to be the most interesting part of Alaska, Anchorage is the largest city and therefore must have some things to see.
I snagged a sticky bun at Snow City Café before driving out to Flattop. Flattop is a mountain that looms over the city. The hike to the top is considered the classic Anchorage hike. As I drove up towards the parking lot, the road began to be covered in snow. Soon enough, I was in a white winter wonderland just 15 minutes from Downtown.
While I did not have crampons or microspikes, I did have solid mountaineering boots. I donned my boots and started hiking up the snowy mountain. I made it up about 45 minutes before reaching a point that was too steep for me without better equipment. The views of the city and the ocean were incredible. It felt surreal to be in knee-deep snow so close to the city which is in the middle of autumn.
Back in the city, I got an early lunch at the Moose´s Tooth Pizzeria. Alaska has a lot of famous pizza shops (perhaps because pizza does not need the freshest ingredients). Moose´s Tooth is actually the highest grossing pizzeria in the United States and was once ranked as the 3rd best pizzeria in the country.
I heard that the place gets busy but at 11:30 on a Sunday, there was no wait. The pizza menu was very extensive and had some strange choices. I ordered a pizza with reindeer sausage and macaroni and cheese. Because they also have a brewery on-site, I ordered a flight of beers.
I then drove into downtown Anchorage. The downtown is small but there are some tall buildings. Like in other very cold places, there are some skywalks connecting the various buildings downtown so you can walk around while staying inside.
Downtown Anchorage has plenty of office buildings but also retail. I walked into a mall and it looked no different from any medium-sized mall you would see elsewhere in the US with identical stores.
The highlight of downtown Anchorage for me was the Anchorage Museum. The museum is run by the city, but really covers the culture and history of the entire state.
The museum costs a hefty $20 entry fee but is extensive. My favorite sections were the Native Alaskan exhibit which had clothing displays from all the ethnic groups of Alaska from the Arctic to the Southeast – which has a similar culture to the Pacific Northwest.
I also really enjoyed the Alaskan art section which had a range of pieces from beautiful landscapes to highlighter pink polar bears.
Because it was such a nice day, I decided to walk down the famed Coastal Trail. The coastal trail is basically a glorified bike path along the water. It is pretty, but the views are very average by Alaska standards. You could easily drive 15 minutes south and get far prettier views.
I then headed to another brewery, the Anchorage Brewery, which is supposed to be the best in town. The space is beautiful. The beer itself it very fancy and high-quality but expensive. I understand why the locals consider it to be the best brewery in town.
For dinner, I headed to yet another brewery: 49th State, in downtown. The restaurant is bustling! I sat at the bar and met a FedEx employee here on business (Anchorage is a huge airplane cargo hub) and a big game hunter who is weirdly enough going to Tajikistan next year.
I then headed to the hostel and went to bed for my big day in Kenai Fjords.
Anchorage is…an okay city as a tourist. There are enough things to do for a day and there are good food options, but it really should be used as a launching pad for bigger adventures elsewhere in the state.
The highlights of Anchorage were the top rate Anchorage Museum and the proximity to nature. There are few cities where you can go from a snowy mountain to the ocean in 10 minutes.
My favorite part about Anchorage was the people. The most interesting people in the US are in Alaska and Anchorage is the largest conglomerate of them.
Alaska is a very seasonal destination, but my guess is that Anchorage is slightly less so. While it is true that 99% of the tourists come during the summer, there are also local Alaskans that work seasonal jobs elsewhere in the state. During the winter, many of these people probably come to Anchorage. For this reason, I think you could reasonably visit Anchorage in the So, most the businesses are probably open here year-round. If you do come in the winter, the ski resort of Girdwood is just 30 minutes away.
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