Kristen Oato

Looking up from the mudflats, all I could see were wet, moss-covered boulders. I knew the view from the top was worth the trek. Salty air flushed my 10-year-old cheeks as I began to climb up the black mountain-like structure. Hoisting myself over the last hurdle, I looked out into the water. Out of breath, I watched in awe as a pod of beluga whales flung themselves out of the sea, breeching high into the air.

Beluga Point remains one of my favorite spots to experience the beauty of Alaska during trips down the Seward Highway. Growing up in Anchorage, I quickly learned to appreciate the unique characteristics of the state. Maybe it’s witnessing the brilliant midnight dance of the Northern Lights on a crisp night, or enduring the endless winters that are often too cold to snow – whatever the reason, most native Alaskans develop a fierce sense of pride for their beloved 49th state.

Thrill seekers, sightseers and outdoor enthusiasts travel from all over the world to experience the beauty and wonder of the country’s largest state. However, the key to taking in the “real” Alaska is to travel like a native, and take time to enjoy the trip.

A favorite activity for my family is taking day-trips South to our cabin in Girdwood. While some prefer to keep their eyes on the road, we usually take the time to pull off to the side and experience nature.

Mile 0

Most visitors begin their journey by flying to the largest city, Anchorage. With roughly 300,000 residents, Anchorage makes up 42 percent of the population. From airplane windows, views of green peaks and valleys from the six surrounding mountain ranges can be seen from the sky on clear summer days. Upon landing, one of the first sights to take in is the tip of Mount McKinley jutting up in the horizon. Measuring a massive 20,320 feet, the summit of the mountain is the tallest in all of North America.

Sightseers quickly learn the first place to visit is Anchorage’s historic downtown. Many of the older buildings withstood the 1964 earthquake, which registered a 9.2 on the Richter scale and was the strongest quake ever measured in North America.

If hunger strikes while meandering downtown, residents bypass the Starbucks and head to Snow City Cafe. The restaurant is an insider’s gem and a hometown favorite. Hippie-granola decor keeps with the feel of rugged, outdoor Alaska. Handmade crafts, flyers for local bands and skiing brands abound. Just make sure to wear jeans while munching on the stuffed French toast or salmon cakes with eggs.

Mile 15

Although the expansive views of Cook Inlet are worth noticing on the right when heading out of Anchorage, birdwatchers should take note of the grassy wetlands to the left of the highway. In the daytime fog lifts from Potter’s Marsh, revealing a boardwalk where views can point out waterfowl. Migrant grebes, geese, gull, blackbirds and more inhabit the area.

Those who have their fill of birds enjoy another local animal-watching location, Beluga Point. Five miles down the highway from Potter’s Marsh, Beluga Point is a rock formation jutting out into the Turnagain Arm. Visitors can take turns spotting killer whales hunting belugas, or belugas chasing red salmon from the expansive, panoramic view.

To the left of the point is McHugh Creek. While most visitors stop to marvel at the 70-foot waterfall enshrouded by lush spruce trees, few park to hike the backwoods trail. The path twists upward, and the view from cliffs 3,000 feet above the highway frequently showcases a passing train from the Alaska Railroad or windsurfers across the way.

Mile 40

Continuing on, the highway stretches in smooth curves, following the edge of the Turnagain Arm. Rounding the corner is Windy Point, a popular location to park and sightsee. Jagged cliffs to the left tower over the road and craning necks can spot a few Dall sheep that stand precariously on the rocks above. The white specks of sheep blend in easily with dollops of snow that remain on the cliffs year-round.

During the winter months, this stretch of road is actually known for its dangerous avalanches. Pouring shoots of snow and ice slide down the cliffs, often bringing down trees and rocks. In the summer, the only evidence left behind are a few trickling waterfalls.

At mile 45, the turnoff for Girdwood appears on the right in the form of a rough dirt road. The wise will stop at the gas station here, because next doesn’t appear for another 90 miles. Before Alaska became a state years ago, Girdwood was known as a small gold-panning community. Nowadays skiers and snowboarders come to conquer Mount Alyeska at the town’s ski resort. The small backcountry is dotted with log cabins, and wandering moose can be seen out the living room windows.

For the best lunch, forgo the upscale restaurant at the Alyeska Prince Hotel, and head to the Bake Shop. Another local favorite, the Bake Shop serves breakfast and lunch, along with rich homemade hot chocolate. If skipping dessert is not an option, walk over to the Ice Cream Shop and try one of the many flavors offered.

Mile 55

After leaving Girdwood, the highway takes a turn away from the cliffs to Portage Glacier. Careful observers can see a weathered, grey horse stable and cabin sunken into the ground that remain from the 1964 earthquake. Surrounding hidden campsites are located throughout the area. The grounds are usually not crowded and the sites are bordered by mountains.

Driving inland, Portage Glacier is in danger of receding into the lake it created. Although only a fraction can be seen above the water, the glacier extends down into the water 100 feet. The Begich, Boggs Visitor Center offers a boat tour of the glaciers and allows guests to actually climb onto some of the ice formations.

Wildlife, day cruises, sea kayaking and fishing hot spots all draw visitors to the small town of Whittier. In order to reach the community, travelers must pass through a 2.5 mile tunnel, the longest vehicle-railroad tunnel in North America. In a unique operation, the tunnel operates in 15 min. intervals. Cars and trains must wait in a staging area and are then allowed 5 minutes to pass through to the other side.

From here, you can choose to turn around or the adventurous may desire to continue down along the highway to Seward and Kenai Fjords National Park. In the summer the sun rarely sets before midnight, creating endless summer days to enjoy the outdoors even longer. Just make sure to stop and take in the little sights wherever your journey takes you.

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