INTO THE GREAT WIDE OPEN
Alaska is like nowhere else, so get out and experience your state with these kid-friendly adventures
Story by Michelle Theriault
Alaska is a great place to raise a child, and summer offers some especially glorious day trip options. Within an easy drive of population centers like Anchorage, Mat-Su Valley or Fairbanks, kids can pet reindeer, inspect starfish, pick berries and pan for gold. We’ve selected some of our favorite day trip destinations for families.
The Eagle River Nature Center is just a stone’s throw from Anchorage (about 15 miles from downtown) but offers a mini-wilderness experience in a stunning valley. There are some easy hiking trails, a beaver pond (a kid favorite) and a gift shop near the nature center, which offers maps, friendly rangers and information. Kneehigh Naturalist programs for preschoolers, held in multi-week sessions, and Junior Naturalist programs for K-6 kids are ongoing. Free guided daily summer hikes (parking is $5) are held every weekday with a minimum of three people – a good option for those uncomfortable hiking on their own in bear country. Visit ernc.org for more information.
For an absolutely free outing, head to Thunderbird Falls by taking the Mile 25/Thunderbird Falls exit on the Glenn Highway north of Anchorage. Signs lead to parking and a trailhead. The flat, one-mile trail is suited for small children (and even strollers) and leads to a roaring waterfall. There’s a viewing platform and boardwalks.
In late summer, berries are bountiful and berry picking with enthusiastic young helpers can be a fun and very Alaskan outing. You just have to know where to go. (And be able to identify berries – if you aren’t an experienced berry picker, go with someone who is or get a book with pictures of berries that include leaves. We recommend the pocket-sized “Alaska’s Wild Plants” by Janice J. Schofield.) In the Anchorage area, the Flattop Mountain Trail area is an easy-to-access hotspot. Take the Seward Highway south to Huffman exit and turn left. Follow signs from Upper Huffman Road to Glen Alps Road. “Blueberry Hill” is just above the parking lot. For more blueberries follow Powerline Pass Trail into the South Fork of Campbell Creek.
On May 22, the Anchorage Museum opens the eagerly awaited revamped and relocated Imaginarium Discovery Center, a 9,000-sq. foot hands-on science center designed for kids and adults alike. The center will include an “inquiry-based gallery” for infants and kids under the age of 5, featuring an art wall, book nook and puppet stage for toddlers to explore. The new Imaginarium includes bubble tanks where kids can press a button and watch a perfectly formed bubble slowly rise to the top of a tank (of corn syrup!) and check out an Aurora Borealis demonstrator. A “shake table” that simulates an earthquake, a tank of moon jellyfish and a marine touch tank are among interactive exhibits. Visit anchoragemuseum.org for more information.
At the Reindeer Farm in Palmer, kids and adults can pet, photograph and even hand-feed reindeer. The reindeer are tame, gentle, surprisingly small and a bit goofy looking. The farm is open from 10 am – 6 pm daily from May to September. Admission costs $6 for adults and $4 for children ages 4-11. Toddlers and babies are free. An added bonus: quality time with Cathy the moose, Eddy the elk and other resident animals. Visit reindeerfarm.com for more information.
Musk ox are ancient, furry, horned beasts that look a bit like they stepped off a page of “Where The Wild Things Are.” The Musk Ox Farm, about 45 minutes from Anchorage, was conceived in the 1950s as a “gentle agriculture” project to benefit Alaska Natives living in villages in Western Alaska. Today, you can take a group tour of the farm, observing the Arctic ungulates up close and buy materials made from Qiviut, the musk ox’s downy underwool. Added bonus: the chance to see a baby musk ox! The farm is open from 10 am – 6 pm from mid-May to the end of September. Summer rates are $8 for adults, $6 for children 5-12 and free for children 4 and under. Visit muskoxfarm.org for more information.
Hop onboard the Alaska Live Steamers miniature train. This volunteer-run miniature train, located near the Museum of Alaska Transportation & Industry in Wasilla, is big enough for kids and adults alike and takes passengers on a 20-minute ride through the woods. The train typically runs the first and third Saturdays of the month from the middle of May through the middle of September. It costs $5 for adults, children 2 and under are free. Bring a car seat for kids under 3. For more information, directions and to check for this season’s opening dates and times, visit alaskalivesteam.org.
Fairbanksian parents swear by Pioneer Park. Attractions include the Crooked Creek and Whiskey Island Railroad, a train that meanders through the park’s grounds, a carousel, food vendors and a playground. Admission is free; some of the park’s attractions and museums include entry fees. For more information, call 459-1087 or visit co.fairbanks.ak.us/pioneerpark.
In the Fairbanks area, the Ester-based Calypso Farm & Ecology Center offers summertime farm “field trips” for groups of eight or more. Past field trips have included activities like helping to make and eat pizza (made with farm produce and baked with the farm’s onside wood-fired outdoor oven) and meeting resident goats and sheep. Field trips cost between $4-$6 per child and must be arranged in advance. Call 451-0691 or visit calypsofarm.org for information. Families are welcome to drop by the working farm, which is also an educational center that offers workshops for adults and kids.
Denali National Park:
Denali National Park offers families a handful of accessible activities, though some of the park’s more famous offerings are better suited to older kids. National Park Service spokeswoman Kris Fister says that kids love the sled dog demonstrations, held three times a day during the peak summer season. Kids can see the dogs and hear a half-hour program about how they are used in the winter. A parent-supervised tour of the kennel is also possible. While a four or six-hour journey to the heart of the park via shuttle bus may be too much for little ones, a handful of shorter trails (like the 3-mile roundtrip Horseshoe Lake trail) are suited to small feet. For more information, visit nps.gov/dena.