Using Anchorage as your home base, the "real Alaska" can be found just right outside the city limits. Here's your guide to easy day trips in southcentral Alaska
Unless you're coasting by it in an insulated cruise ship, nearly every tourist to Alaska spends time in Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska (which isn't saying much, with just under 300,000 inhabitants). Many first-timers to the 49th state think they need to fly all around the humungous state (twice the size of Texas), an idea as impractical as it is expensive. Much of what visitors are looking for in Alaska--untamed wilderness, stunning mountains, scores of wildlife--can all be had within a day's drive of Anchorage. (Locals have a saying: "Anchorage is only 20 minutes from Alaska.") Not only does this section of the state have the best weather (generally dry and warm compared to rainy Juneau), Anchorage's surprisingly complete infrastructure makes for a plethora of low-cost lodging and traveling options. So even though summertime means high season and high prices, you don't need to trap yourself aboard a crowded cruise to enjoy Alaska affordably. You can see a lot more for even less with a road map and sense of adventure.
You'd think with Alaska's size, there would be a criss-cross network of highways linking the far-flung corners of the state. But this is the sub-Arctic--meaning permafrost, snow, and wild weather makes year-round road travel a pain in the neck. In fact, Alaska really only has a handful of highways, concentrated in the southeastern section of the state. (That's why everyone seems to own a float plane instead!) Luckily, some excellent scenery is found south of Anchorage on the Kenai Peninsula--making for the ideal summer road trip.
The Seward Highway leading south out of Anchorage is the golden path to Alaska's scenery. The minute you get out of town, the road winds along the Chugach mountain range and the long inlet known as the Turnagain Arm (so named because Captain Cook had to make a tricky U-turn at its dead end after realizing he hadn't found the fabled Northwest Passage). Immediately you feel the grand majesty of Alaska, with towering masses of earth and rock thrusting up from the sea, hundreds of stories high. It looks like a Maxfield Parrish landscape, or a mythological drawing from a children's book. If you time it right, you may even catch glimpse of the bore tide--a strange phenomena where the tidal current forms a perfect 6-foot wave that crosses the otherwise peaceful water. Be sure to stop in the Chugach State Park Headquarters along the highway to get info on the area (907/336-3300, kenaipeninsula.info/).
Thrity-seven miles south of Anchorage is a must-stop: the town of Girdwood (girdwoodalaska.com/). This cozy village tucked away in a valley is home to the best ski facilities in Alaska, the fancy and gorgeous Alyeska Resort (800/880-3880, alyeskaresort.com/). Mandatory is a ride up the resort's gondola to halfway up the mountain--the views are out of this world. It's a little pricey, $16 for a roundtrip--but for another $4 they will throw in a full sandwich lunch. You can picnic while taking in the enormous panorama, at a popular spot where paragliders leap off the mountain before your eyes (contact Chugach Paragliding if you're feeling brave--907/754-2400, alyeskaadventure.com/). The hotel is pricey in summer--$199 a room--but come back in fall or winter when rates can dip to a low $95 a room (and winter air/ski/hotel packages through Alaska Airlines can be steal here).
About another hour's drive south from Girdwood, you'll find one of the most unique towns in America: Whittier. After the Japanese began invading the Aleutian Islands in World War II, the town of Whittier was dreamt up by military specialists. They were looking to build a top-secret installation that would be covered by clouds and hidden by huge mountains. They blasted a tunnel through solid granite as an entryway to the tiny town, and tourists now have to time their passage through this one-way tunnel, open on an hourly basis.
Why even bother visiting odd little Whittier (population 300)? It's the entrance point to the remarkable Prince William Sound--yes, the same sound made famous by the Valdez Exxon oil spill of 1989. Oil still lurks here and there from this environmental catastrophe, but the sound is a naturalist's delight, full of sea otters, seals, whales, and glaciers breaking off apartment building-sized chunks of blue ice. For a close-up tour of the sound, Lazy Otter Charters (907/472-6887,lazyotter.com/) offers trips starting at $62.50 (minimum six people), or you can see the sound from sea level by renting kayaks through the Prince William Sound Kayak Center (877/472-2452, pwskayakcenter.com/) for $45 a day. But even the view out of your car window is breathtaking.
If you'd like to spend the night in Whittier to soak up the oh-so authentically Alaskan town, do so at the Anchor Inn, smack in the center of town (877-870-8787). It ain't the Ritz, but it's clean and you're sure to meet some local characters at the bar. The price for a double is highest ($82.40) in August, and becomes five dollars cheaper each month thereafter.
The last leg of your road trip is to one spot the tourists never miss: the town of Seward (seward.org/), about three or four hour's south of Anchorage. Seward is the entryway to the stunning Kenai Fjords National Park (nps.gov/kefj), filled with not only impossibly steep canyons and crevices, but teeming with some of the best wildlife viewing in the state. The locals are well-aware of their natural treasures, and charge an arm and a leg to the busloads of tourists who pile on to the day cruises to take it all in. Luckily, there are a number of operators to choose from, the cheapest being Major Marine Tours (800/764-7300, majormarine.com/), with sightseeing cruises and a full all-you-can-eat buffet (salmon, prime rib) all for $49 when booked online (kids are half price).