About 30 minutes into a recent Anchorage Trolley city tour, our guide, Bracken Quinton, steered into the lot next to the city's Earthquake Park. After describing how the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake, a magnitude 9.2 event, buckled buildings, generated landslides, triggered major tsunami waves and devastated neighborhoods in and around Anchorage, he pointed to a dirt trail that crossed through the adjacent forest.
Here, the earthquake caused segments of land to shift 100 to 500 feet sideways and drop as much as 40 feet.
"See how that trail runs up and down those hills? Before the earthquake, that ground was basically flat. But, look at it now," Quinton said.
He then hopped out of the driver's seat and jogged down the trail, nearly disappearing as he descended the steep slopes and growing seemingly taller as he topped each rippled hill. Tour guests giggled when Quinton stopped to give us an animated wave, and then returned to the trolley.
This engaging combination of show and tell defines Anchorage Trolley, a tour outfitter preparing to celebrate its 25th anniversary.
Caleb and Barbara Aldeman established the company in 1995, building their business around the whimsical trolleys that fascinated their then 4-year-old-son, Cyrus. Today, Cyrus runs Anchorage Trolley and welcomes guests at the company's downtown boarding point. He directs traffic, hands out the coupon books included with each reservation, and answers visitors' questions about everything from local shops to can't-miss museums to favorite cafes and coffee shops.
Other Anchorage Trolley staffers share a genuine enthusiasm for their city. During my hosted July tour, Quinton pointed out his go-to ice cream shop and the best place to grab a breakfast burrito -- in addition to discussing local history, culture, nature and neighborhood highlights.
"The No. 1 thing that makes us different from other companies is that we hire local talent. Our guides know what it's like to live here," said Jody Best, a 15-year Anchorage Trolley employee. "When I guide, for example, I tell stories about my dad's 1964 earthquake experience and what it was like when my grandparents came up here in the 1930s. It's not just a bunch of facts. We talk about real life in Anchorage."
Best, who started as a guide and is now the company's director of operations, says that Earthquake Park and the Lake Hood Seaplane Base are two of the tour's most popular stops. As one of the largest and busiest such facilities in the world, the base sees an average of 12,000 takeoffs and landings a month during the summer season. More than 800 floatplane slips and tie-down spots for small, wheeled planes surround the complex that stretches across Lake Hood and neighboring Lake Spenard.
"Most people aren't used to seeing the sheer number of planes that we have out there, and our guests get to watch as floatplanes take off and land on the water," Best said. "Small airplanes are what make Alaska so unique. Many places here are only accessible by air, so it's such a normal part of life."
The one-hour Anchorage Trolley outings also spotlight Westchester Lagoon, wildlife-watching opportunities, the Alaska Railroad depot and several Anchorage parks and neighborhoods.
Tours run seven days a week from early May through late September. Outings are $20 per person for adults, $10 for children under the age of 12, and free for ages 3 and under.
Anchorage Trolley outings depart from the log cabin visitor information center at Fourth Avenue and F Street in downtown Anchorage.