Larger-than-life nature murals, interactive maps, audio clips of calving glaciers and model whale flukes rising from the floor will soon greet guests at the Alaska Public Lands Information Center in Anchorage, which reopens next month after major exhibit updates.
A ribbon cutting and open house are scheduled for Nov. 13.
Free to the public and packed with details on Alaska's natural, cultural and historical features, the Anchorage facility is one of four across the state. Additional centers are located in Fairbanks, Ketchikan and Tok.
"The unique thing about the Alaska Public Lands Information Centers is that we provide one-stop shopping for people looking to learn about their public lands, from safety information, to details about wildlife and plants, to recommendations on outdoor activities, to parks pass purchases," said Clarence Wadkins, a National Park Service ranger and chief of interpretation for the Anchorage facility.
Alaska's public lands include 10 national parks and preserves, two national monuments, nine national wildlife refuges, two national conservation areas and 25 rivers designated as official Wild and Scenic Rivers. The National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and Alaska Department of Natural Resources are among nine state and federal agencies that partner on the state's conservation-minded centers, which Wadkins calls "the ports of entry to Alaska."
"Alaska is so large, and we help visitors view it in smaller, manageable pieces," he said. "We have a very knowledgeable staff, and together with our new exhibits, visitors will get a good idea of not only what's out there, but also exactly how to get to these places around the state."
As they view landscape murals, dynamic maps, wildlife displays and video clips, guests will learn about Alaska Native communities, the Alaska pipeline and major events in the state's history. Exhibits explain facts about salmon, highlight habitats around the state and showcase seasonal marvels and unique Alaska facts. Other displays break down travel highlights by region, sharing information on where to camp, fish, hike and engage in other recreational adventures.
"When you walk in, you learn about Alaska and see images of all the great things available here," Wadkins said. "Maybe you've already visited some of these places, but you'll also see all that you have yet to experience. It's a good way to find out just how exciting this state is."
The center's National Park Service rangers also lead free daily walking tours during the summer season, guiding visitors through downtown Anchorage while discussing local history, culture, wildlife and waterways. The 45-minute tours start outside the information center and follow a flat route toward the overlook at Resolution Park. Here, views extend across the Cook Inlet to Mount Susitna and, on clear days, to Denali.
Rangers share personal stories about life in Alaska and thoughtfully answer the questions of curious guests. When I took a tour over the summer, our group learned about Alaska's varied terrain, heard tips on distinguishing black bears from brown, and compared cost-of-living differences between the 49th state and the Lower 48.
The Anchorage center also offers a full slate of summer programs with different daily themes. Popular offerings include a talk titled "No One Eats Like We Do," which explores how Alaska Native communities and non-Native residents live off the land and sea. "Women in the Wilderness" talks showcase the scientific and historical contributions made by women in Alaska. Experts discuss glaciers, volcanoes, wildland fire science, climate change and other topics during "Coffee with a Scientist." Handlers from the Alaska Zoo and local bird sanctuaries stop by with live animals throughout the summer, as well.
A short film series screened in the center also introduces travelers to Alaska's animals, along with the state's railroad history, the Klondike Gold Rush, the 1964 Anchorage earthquake, the ecosystems of Denali and more.
"Our theater is open year-round. We maintain a daily film schedule in the summer, but it's more flexible in the winter," Wadkins said. "If we're not too busy, visitors can often select the film that interests them."
Once it reopens in November, the Alaska Public Lands Information Center in Anchorage will welcome guests from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Friday, through early May. The facility closes for all federal holidays during the winter.
From May to mid-September, the center opens daily (including federal holidays) from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
A schedule of summer programs, films and tours is available on the Alaska Public Lands Information Center website.
Because the Alaska Public Lands Information Center is located in Anchorage's historic Federal Building, guests must pass through security screening to enter the free facility.