A Summer in Alaska
How to make the most of the summer season in America’s ‘last frontier’.
It was an uncharacteristically hot day in London when I realized, with only two weeks left of my study abroad program, that I wasn’t finished traveling. I had an entire three months of summer ahead of me that remained unplanned, and after a semester of exploring the UK and Europe, the idea of returning to Virginia Beach, where my family home is, felt too commonplace.
I was fortunate enough to have multiple motivations for my trip, the first being the family I would be able to spend the summer with. My brother and sister-in-law live and work in Anchorage, Alaska with their three kids. This gave me a place to stay while allowing me the freedom to explore, largely along with them, a state I likely wouldn’t have considered otherwise in my early 20s.
Among the places I was able to travel to were Lake Eklutna, Girdwood, Homer, Seward, Whittier, Ninilchik, and Talkeetna. Each destination is rich with Alaskan culture and history while showcasing the indigenous beauty of the state in its own way.
After renting kayaks in Anchorage, a friend took me out on Lake Eklutna for what became a three-hour trip. As a novice (at best) kayaker, I enjoyed venturing out at a slow pace, and got an intense arm work-out paddling back at high-speed to return to my sister at our designated time.
To this day, I’ll never forget the relaxing (and, I’ll admit, slightly terrifying) feeling of being completely isolated out on the lake. It’s a feeling I haven’t had since, but relished in and believe is truly unique to the outdoor experiences you can create and partake in in Alaska.
Only a 45 minute drive from Anchorage, Girdwood was one of my favorite stops in Alaska. Luckily, I was able to visit on multiple occasions. In the summer, Girdwood holds it’s annual Forest Fair which features some of Alaska’s best food and arts vendors, local musicians, and a beer garden. Girdwood is also home to Jack Sprat, a restaurant who’s yam fries and vegan tacos I would buy a ticket to Alaska just to eat again. Girdwood is home to the Winner Creek trail, where after a short two miles you come across the hand tram. If you look down, you can see Glacier Creek thrashing hundreds of feet below you.
At the southernmost point of the Sterling Highway is the Homer spit, which held the most shockingly beautiful beach I’ve ever seen. Camping in the RV out in Homer was my first weekend trip in Alaska. The trip featured the best Halibut and chips I’ve ever eaten and a stop at the Salty Dog Saloon. Set in an 1897 log cabin, customers from all over the world can leave signed dollar bills to cover the walls.
I first travelled to Seward over the July 4th weekend and was able to witness hundreds of runners completing the famous Mount Marathon Race. These athletes scour the 3,022 foot mountain, many within 45 minutes to an hour. Amidst celebrating the runners, viewers can visit food, beverage and craft trucks as well as walk among the shops of Seward. We ended the weekend by camping overnight at Exit Glacier, celebrating surrounded by the mountains.
Our family weekend in Whittier was unique from the other trips I’d taken.. The weather was the worst I’d had in Alaska thus far, but it was also the most memorable weekend of my time there. We drove the RV to the harbor of the five-hour glacier cruise. The cruise sights included 6 different massive glaciers along with various wildlife including harbor seals and otters. It was the perfect family adventure to entertain our entire group.
We traveled to Ninilchik for Salmonfest, a well-known Alaskan music, food and art festival. Secluded in the Kenai Peninsula Fairground for three days, we spent our time listening to over 50 live acts (including headliners Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell) and strolling through local vendors’ pop-up stores. My favorite, Octopus Ink, was introduced to me by my sister-in-law.
For one of our day-long trips, my brother piled our group into his Winnebago RV and drove 2.5 hours north of Anchorage to Talkeetna, a small town recognized as a National Historic Site. Talkeetna is home to buildings dating from the early 1900s such as Nagley’s General Store, as well as spinach bread (Words are failing me to describe how great this bread is). It’s also the base for expeditions to Denali, which is commonly known as its former name, Mt. McKinley, the highest mountain peak in North America.
I spent the majority of my summer living in Alaska’s largest city, Anchorage. During my time in Anchorage I was fortunate to have met welcoming and adventurous people of all ages who were eager to introduce me to “their” Alaska, each one distinct. I took a midnight hike on the summer solstice and ate at the Moose’s Tooth, recognized as the nation’s third-best pizza place. I hiked, biked, babysat my niece and nephews, joined the gym (then quit the gym), worked in a coffee shop, and read more books in a month than I had in my first two years of college combined. I took time to learn about and from people who I knew I may never see again, and realized that the ability to do so is a significant aspect of traveling for me. Most importantly, I was able to spend two months with family, exploring and learning about the state they call home.