Alaska is big, but even if your adventures are small, they can still have a big impact! Don’t feel you have to give into the idea that because you’re in a big place, you have to go big—there’s plenty of room to go small, and to look closely. Instead of merely scratching the surface, you’ll get a chance to see and appreciate the details, wherever you might be! Here are a few ways to do just that.
Take a Nature Walk
Taking the shortest loop and the one that stays closest to the visitor center can seem like the opposite of adventure, but if you really pay attention, you’ll learn quite a few things about Alaska’s ecosystem when you take the interpretive nature trail. Keep an eye out for willows with shorn tips—evidence of moose eating the stems over the winter. Or identify the various types of scat you come across—you’ll know what animal it is, and what it just ate! Pay attention to the interpretive signs you often find on the nature loop, or join a guided ranger- or naturalist-led hike, and learn even more. You’ll find plenty of options at national parks, national forests and nature reserves. In Homer, check in at the Wynn Nature Center and see what’s on offer for both kids and adults, or find a junior ranger program in Denali or Kenai Fjords National Parks. Stop off at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge visitor center in Soldotna for plenty of kid-friendly activities and hikes, and in Portage, check out what’s going on at the Begich-Boggs visitor center.
Many of the coastal towns you’re likely to find yourself in have long beaches great for beachcombing. In Seward, try Lowell Point or Tonsina Point (requires a 2.5-mile hike), and in Homer try wandering a section of the Homer Spit. In Whittier, try the beach at the head of Passage Canal (where the campground is), and in Valdez, try south of town near Shoup Bay. In all of these places, you’re likely to find many types of shells including clams, mussels and even crabs, kelp and sea lettuce, the empty egg sacs of skates, washed-up jelly fish, and probably even a starfish or two! And don’t forget to look out to sea: you’re likely to see otters, seals, sea lions, and even seabirds like puffins, kittiwakes and oystercatchers. Make sure it’s low tide, and pay attention to the water line—the tide comes in more quickly than you realize!
Or just learn about plant identification! Foraging is a rewarding way to take in the details of the flora that you’re looking at. What is it? Is it edible? What nutritional value does it offer? Does it need to be cooked before it’s eaten? Of course, for something with stakes this high, we recommend you take a guide—Go Hike Alaska offers daily guided foraging hikes during the summer, at a reasonable price. But just learning about the plants you’re passing as you hike is rewarding in itself. Learn to identify the wildflowers that pop out in the early season, or figure out which plants turn orange and red on the tundra during fall. Plenty of books and visitors guides contain this information—and there’s probably an app for that! (Although, be aware that if it requires cell service, it probably won’t work while you’re out hiking. Shoot a photo and identify it later!)
From small forest birds like black-capped chickadees, to majestic birds of prey like bald eagles, to comical seabirds like puffins, there are no shortage of birds to watch in Alaska. Take a guided tour—a boat tour from Seward, Homer or Whittier will give you ample opportunity to see various seabirds—or head out on your own—try the Wynn Nature Center in Homer, Creamer’s Field in Fairbanks or Potter Marsh near Anchorage—but keep your eyes open and your ears tuned! You can also join in on the lectures, guided tours and activities offered during the various festivals throughout the summer, like the Kachemak Bay and Copper River Delta Shorebird Festivals (in Homer and Cordova) in spring, or the Seward Seabird Festival in early summer.
Visit a Museum or Historic Site
They’re not just for rainy days! And in fact, many of them are still outdoor experiences in themselves. The Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage is largely an open air museum with examples of traditional dwellings, artwork and tools used by indigenous Alaskans throughout history and even into modern times. In Hatcher Pass, Independence Mine was once a working gold mine, and its remains are still intact and open to the public. In Fairbanks, take in the Museum of the North at UAF, which presents details on Alaska’s cultural history as well as its natural history—including dinosaurs! The various towns located along Prince William Sound from Seward to Valdez all were affected by the 1964 earthquake and its subsequent tsunami, and all have their own take on what it meant to their towns, including markers denoting the original townsites (many towns were moved after they became inundated with seawater), documentary video footage of the destruction, and places where cracks in the earth can still be seen.
Wander through a Wildlife Center
For animal lovers, or those who want to catch a glimpse of Alaska’s major land mammals without having to interact with them, there are a few options! Visit the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center near Girdwood, a wildlife sanctuary dedicated to conservation and animal rescue, or the Alaska Sealife Center, which rescues and facilitates research of marine mammals and birds. Take a behind-the-scenes tour, where you can see the animals be fed, or groomed, or get a chance to talk to researchers and veterinarians on their work with both the animals and the conservation of Alaska’s fauna in general.
There are so many ways you can go deep in Alaska’s backcountry—or front country—but there are also many ways to miss the details. Don’t miss out because you’re rushing through to get to the next thing, and don’t forget that it’s the small things that make up the big picture. Alaska is big because it has so many small things!
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