Anchorage: Urban Heart of Alaska

Anchorage: Urban Heart of Alaska

» Featured Columnists | By Steve Winston | January 22, 2013 9:15 AM ET

Imagine a modern city with the midnight sun high overhead. A sky-scraping mountain range on the horizon. And the ice-blue waters of an Arctic inlet out the door.
Anchorage is a city of 300,000 souls, and 1,900 square-miles (the size of the state of Delaware!), with America's most spectacular wilderness surrounding it. When the long days of summer come, flowers bloom downtown, monster salmon surge up nearby streams (and appear on a lot of restaurant menus!), and festivals fill the calendar.
Wherever you are in Anchorage, you're never far from wildlife. From moose to eagles, Dall sheep to bears, the city boasts a wealth of furry, feathered, and finned residents - many of which you can see on the 135 miles of trails within city limits. In fact, Anchorage has a resident-moose population of nearly 1,500. You can get up-close-and-personal with the local wildlife at the Alaska Zoo and the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.
Six mountain ranges - the Chugach, Kenai, Talkeetna, Tordrillo, Aleutian and Alaska ranges - are visible from Anchorage. On clear days, you can view magnificent Mount McKinley, called "Denali" ("The High One") in the Athabaskan language; at 20,320 feet, it's the tallest mountain in North America. For a different perspective, hop on a float plane for a top-down look.
Or, you can experience the slower pleasures of a scenic train ride to Denali National Park, during which you'll be glued to your window. You can also head south, to the port towns of Seward and Whittier, where day-cruise boats will get you close to glaciers. In summer, huge chunks of the glaciers "calve" - crash into the water because of ice-melt. When that happens, the earth will roar and the seas will shake with perhaps the most awesome natural phenomena on Earth. And you'll also see whales leaping from the water with unexpected grace.
Back in town, at the Alaska Native Heritage Center, you can explore the heritage of the state's 11 major Native cultures, through stories, ceremonies, implements of traditional life, and crafts. At the Anchorage Museum, there's a treasure-trove of Alaska art, history, and science. The museum opened new exhibit space a few years ago, with 600 Alaska Native artifacts at the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center, a planetarium, and the Imaginarium interactive science exhibit.
Anchorage doesn't close up shop in the winter. The Fur Rendezvous, which features a moose race and perhaps the world's largest snowball fight, is rated the best winter carnival in the world by National Geographic Traveler. And March 2 is the ceremonial start of the legendary Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, in which world-class mushers and their dog teams race toward the Bering Sea, through 1,049 miles of rugged mountains and forests. (The actual start is the next day in nearby Willow.)
When spring finally comes to Anchorage, it's reason to party! At the Alyeska Spring Carnival and Slush Cup, there's costumed insanity, great spring skiing and snowboarding, and live music....along with an occasional Elvis schussing down the slopes. 
On June 20 - Summer Solstice - Anchorage receives nearly 20 hours of daylight. And the locals make good use of those hours. Festivities kick off with the Mayor's Midnight Sun Marathon, the Solstice Festival, and the Hero Games.
Anchorage is a city of culture. A city of festivals. A city of natural wonders.
And in late-winter and early spring, a city that really comes alive.

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