Exploring the lesser known branches of Anchorage’s trail system
Nobody anticipates summer quite like Alaskans. Months of darkness, mountains of snow, and freezing temperatures yield, seemingly overnight, to long, sunlit days and, with the kids out of school, time to travel to the Lower 48 and beyond for vacation.
Summer 2020, however, is shaping up to be more than just a little bit different.
As this article is being written, Alaskans are hunkered down at home. Every resident or visitor who enters the state—whether by land, sea, or air—is subject to a mandatory 14-day home quarantine, causing many to cancel travel plans. The cruise ship industry, which brings more than 1 million visitors to the state each summer, has canceled excursions through at least June 30; airlines have reduced flights in and out of the state; and all but the most essential services are closed.
Which means the majority of Alaskans will be staying put this summer, and their only form of escape will be to venture out into our collective backyard—provided they remain the socially acceptable 6 feet apart from everyone they meet, of course.
And with the number of tourists drastically reduced (if they come at all), locals will have the run of Anchorage—which makes it the perfect time for the city’s residents to become acquainted with all the municipality’s outdoor options.
“I don’t like the word ‘staycation,’ but I think this is a great opportunity for Alaskans to just regroup and remember just how spectacular our state is,” says Erin Kirkland, who runs the Alaska travel website AKontheGO. “I tell my kids all the time, ‘People save up their money for a lifetime to come here.’”
Whether we’re hunkered down well into summer or eventually able to travel freely, make it a point to skip Anchorage’s usual outdoor hotspots and explore the city’s equally spectacular but less traveled gems instead.
Before Heading Out, Head Online
Before heading out on summer adventures Outside, most people scour the internet and crowdsource suggestions on social media to discover the best activities their destination of choice has to offer. Channel that same energy and enthusiasm into planning your local jaunts.
“I would encourage people to do their own research because there are so many different options,” says Wendy Sailors, development specialist at the Division of Outdoor Recreation at the Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “The research part is the fun part.”
The DNR website has downloadable maps and brochures for Chugach State Park and the Hillside and Turnagain Arm Trail systems, as well as the trails around Eklutna Lake and the Eagle River Nature Center, she says. The site also lists accessible trails for people who have mobility issues. On Facebook the department posts “Find Your Trail” every Wednesday, which highlights different trails across the state to explore, she adds.
The Anchorage Park Foundation website has an interactive map that pinpoints every one of the municipality’s 85 playgrounds and 226 parks, along with a map of its 250-mile trail system.
Downloadable trail maps are also available from the Visit Anchorage and municipality websites, all of which can help those looking for something off the beaten path.
“I would just encourage people to get on the websites and start exploring,” Kirkland says. “Stop going to your default locations and pick somewhere different. Make a commitment in the family to go somewhere different every week.”
Anchorage on Foot (or Wheels)
Anchorage has more than 250 miles of multi-use trails—135 of which are paved—and greenbelts that link almost every neighborhood to open space, with the Ship Creek, Campbell Creek, Chester Creek, and Tony Knowles Coastal Trails serving as the backbone of the interconnected system. Yet many people don’t automatically think of the city’s trail system when heading out for a hike.
“It’s so easy to make the jump into the mountains because that’s what you think of as trails,” says Jack Bonney, community engagement director at Visit Anchorage. That reaction, he says, is a mistake. “There’s a lot of variety and a lot of options all over, not just out in the mountains but right here in town, that people may not realize are available.”
In town, Bonney recommends the newly rehabilitated Fish Creek Trail in Spenard. With an elevated platform that offers wetland and wildlife views, the trail runs east on Spenard Road along the northern edge of Northwood Park to Northwood Drive. The goal is to eventually connect the trail to the larger system.
The Ship Creek trail is the most underutilized of Anchorage’s four major trails, something that Diana Rhoades, director of community engagement at the Anchorage Park Foundation, says consistently surprises her.
“From downtown, it’s about five miles round trip,” she says. “You can go to the [William Jack Hernandez Sport] Fish Hatchery, which is really interesting and beautiful. It’s a free public facility that you can go in to learn more about salmon.”
Kincaid Park offers several options, including a new single-track trail for cyclists and walkers that cuts through the park and “feels wild and jungly,” Rhoades says. Her favorite Kincaid hike is a 4.5-mile loop that begins at the Jodhpur Trailhead, goes down along the beach and up onto a ridge that leads back to the trailhead. “You’re on the water, you’re up on the trail, and there are spectacular views,” she says.
Government Hill also has an “off-the-beaten-track new walking trail” that the Youth Employment in Parks Program helped build last summer, Rhoades says. Accessible from Suzan Nightingale McKay Memorial Park overlooking Knik Arm, on clear days the trail offers unobstructed views of Denali, Mt. Foraker, and Mt. Hunter.
Although the playground equipment, athletic fields, and picnic facilities at Anchorage’s parks are off-limits (as of late April), many of them are more than just the swings and slides. Abbott Loop Community Park, for example, provides access to a network of trails that merge into Far North Bicentennial Park and the Bureau of Land Management’s Campbell Tract, Kirkland says.
“We wandered around the forest,” she says of a recent visit she made with her children. “Kids love that kind of stuff.”
Bicyclists looking for a challenge can also “ride the moose,” a 33-mile loop that traverses Anchorage’s four major trails and, when looked at on a map, resembles—surprise!—a moose.
“It’s kind of cool,” Rhoades says. “There are 1,500 moose out on the trails. Locals love the moose, visitors love the moose, people are always figuring out how to see a moose, and we have a moose. You can break them up into different parts of the trail to do it, or you can bike the moose in one swoop.”
Into the Hills
Chugach State Park has approximately 280 miles of trails. But ask any Anchorage resident to name the most frequently visited and the answer will inevitably be Flattop at the Glen Alps Trailhead. Its popularity is not without good reason—the trail offers stunning views of Anchorage, Cook Inlet, and the Alaska Range, whether one’s trek ends at the mountain’s summit or the parking lot’s scenic overlook.
But because this summer is about avoiding the tried and true, make it a priority to explore some of the park’s other trails. The Glen Alps Trailhead connects to more than Flattop, including Powerline Pass, Williwaw, and Wolverine, some of which are accessible from Prospect Heights.
“The Powerline Pass side of Flattop, it’s really eye-opening how many connections there are back there that I don’t think gets as much attention because Flattop is the star of the show,” Bonney says.
Sailors says park rangers routinely suggest the Upper Huffman Trailhead, which takes the left-hand turn at Upper Huffman (as opposed to the right, which leads to Glen Alps), the Basher Trailhead off Campbell Airstrip, or Upper O’Malley Trailhead.
“Those are smaller trailheads with less parking, but they access all the same trail systems,” she says. “If you go to Glen Alps and take the Powerline Pass left, you can access a lot of the same trails that you can access from Prospect Heights, with Williwaw Lakes Trail kind of in the middle. It’s an intricate system in both of those areas, so there are lots of options for all users.”
The 9.5-mile Turnagain Arm Trail, which has multiple access points at the Potter, McHugh Creek, Rainbow, and Windy Corner Trailheads, is another trail with many options, Sailors says.
“Some people park one car at Rainbow and one car at the Potter Trailhead, then go from point A to point B, and then drive back to the other car,” Sailors says. “It is up and down and rolling hills, and it gets up pretty high at one point. Some of the faster people can do it in around an hour, but it’s definitely a difficult trail; it’s fun though.”
Or leave the Glen Alps and Prospect Heights trails entirely to find spots (though it approaches blasphemy to suggest it) that feature views as good as, if not better than, Flattop.
“Arctic Valley, Bird Ridge, the Rabbit Lake trails, all of those guys are as gorgeous, or more gorgeous, than Flattop,” Bonney says. “They just don’t get the attention.”
Rhoades echoes Arctic Valley, which is 10 miles northeast of downtown Anchorage. The ascent is short but steep, but she says the views from the top rival Flattop.
“You get a whole view back into the Eagle River Valley, all these mountains,” she says. “You have really spectacular views and beautiful flowers. That’s one I highly recommend.”
The trail is even popular with four-legged explorers.
“I saw three bears on the drive up one time,” she says. “That’s always a crowd-pleaser.”
Scenery, Wildlife, and Alaska History
A simple walk around any neighborhood in Anchorage offers at least a glimpse of the mountains or water and a chance to catch a moose munching flowers in someone’s front yard. But certain spots are specifically designed to maximize both.
For history buffs (and newly minted homeschooling parents looking to incorporate history lessons into their curriculum), a small footpath—“It’s one of those blink and you’ll miss it kind of things; if you don’t slow down, you’ll blow right by it,” Bonney says—leads off the Coastal Trail into Earthquake Park and the slide zone from the 1964 Good Friday earthquake. Interpretative panels detail what happened that day and how the 9.2 magnitude quake changed the surrounding landscape.
“It really brings in to sharp relief, ‘This is why this tree and the ground it’s on look like this,’” he says. “It’s really eye-opening, even for somebody like me who’s been through this place more times than I can count.”
The Campbell Creek Estuary Natural Area is a secluded spot that gives visitors the opportunity to experience Anchorage from a different perspective and, for bird watchers, serves as a suitable alternative to Potter Marsh. A meadow loop trail has two platforms that overlook Campbell Creek and the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge, two spur trails, and a bird blind; Bonney says the Estuary offers a coastal perspective different from what people are used to seeing from the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail.
“The first time I went down there it opened up the perspective of there’s a whole plane down there that’s part of the Coastal Wildlife Refuge,” he says. “There’s the Kenai Islands, there’s Fire Island. It really reminds you how interconnected all these places are to one another.”
Kirkland agrees and names the Estuary her favorite spot in Anchorage.
“It’s just a lovely loop,” she says. “You can get out there and look out on the bluff and listen to the loons. All the migrating critters are still going to do their thing because they don’t know there’s a pandemic going on. And nobody is ever there. Nobody.”
Whether a downtown walking trail, a trip into the foothills, or somewhere in between, with just a bit of effort even the most dedicated adventurer can find something new to explore in Anchorage.
“That’s the funny thing for me,” Bonney says. “Even as someone who lives and breathes this day to day, it’s just amazing the number of different options and the nuances of those options.”
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