Alaska's must-see fall destinations
September 1, 2017
Last weekend I awoke to the sound of pounding rain and a sharp breeze whipping birch branches against my window. The day was as raw and wet as they come, and provided a stark reminder that fall is indeed on its way. Time for one more Alaska road trip.
Last Frontier residents are lucky -- we have the advantage of quiet roadways and fewer crowds once the Labor Day weekend fades away and most Alaska attractions button up for another year. Yes, popular places may be closed, but the good news is that myriad options exist for autumn adventuring of Alaska's most colorful and active season. Looking for a getaway before the snow flies? Here are a few of my favorite destinations.
Denali National Park. Located five hours north of Anchorage and two hours south of Fairbanks, this popular national park is open all year and welcomes fall travelers with a glorious riot of reds and yellows and an abundance of wildlife busy preparing for the upcoming winter. The main visitor center remains open through mid-September before moving operations for the winter to the Murie Science and Learning Center just across the parking lot. Stop by either place and enjoy interpretive information from helpful rangers, including Denali Park Road tips. Riley Creek Campground is open all year as well for those interested in camping. Tip: Visit the Denali National Park Sled Dog Kennel to meet the only National Park Service canine ranger force.
Sheep Mountain Lodge. This historic log roadhouse and series of cabins is the perfect place to relax for a long weekend or even a day trip from Anchorage. Take hikes around the lodge's wide trail system or venture farther out into the Talkeetna mountains before returning for hearty meals with fresh, local ingredients, and leave room for rhubarb pie or the famous "Glacier Cookie." The lodge features four "premier" individual log cabins with showers, full kitchens, and accommodations for six; seven "classic" cabins with room for two plus a kitchenette; three private rooms in the guesthouse, and RV space with electric and water hookups. Tip: Spend a day exploring nearby Matanuska Glacier then overnight at Sheep Mountain Lodge, taking a leisurely breakfast before hiking the property's beautiful trail system.
Hatcher Pass Lodge. Another local gem, Hatcher Pass Lodge sits just below Independence Mine State Historical Site at 3,000 feet, above the scenic Matanuska-Susitna Valley near Palmer. A no-frills lodge due to the location and by design, the lodge is the perfect place to enjoy the reddish tinge of fireweed while hiking the high-alpine trails of Hatcher Pass. The Alaska State Park-managed Independence Mine State Historical Park is not to be missed, either, with a rich history of gold mining between 1906 and 1953.
Portage Valley. Just an hour south of Anchorage sits the wild and wonderful Portage Valley, gateway to the funky town of Whittier and home to one of the most scenic, accessible trails in Southcentral Alaska. Managed by the Chugach National Forest, Portage Valley's Trail of Blue Ice winds its way from Moose Flats Day Use Area for five miles to its terminus at Portage Lake and the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center. A great place to walk or bike, the trail passes by Black Bear and Williwaw campgrounds and the Williwaw fish-viewing platform, where the last of Alaska's salmon fight their way upstream. A stop at Begich, Boggs Visitor Center provides additional punch to this all-day trip, with an interesting film in the theater and ranger-led talks throughout the day. Tip: Use your Interagency Pass (Golden Age, Golden Access, Military) and skip the $5/adults admission fee.
Erin Kirkland is an Anchorage-based freelance writer and author of the Alaska On the Go guidebook series.