In a land where urban intrigue and iconic wilderness are linked by a network of trails, why watch from a window? Hop on a bike and become a part of scene.
By Ken Marsh
I was mountain biking Southcentral Alaska’s Russian Lakes Trail after a day of fishing when I nearly crashed into the bear.
I knew they were around, drawn by area salmon runs that provide summer-long bruin buffets. And hours earlier, while casting for trout near the inlet of Lower Russian Lake, I’d spotted what appeared to be a large black bear lumbering along a mountainside a half-mile away.
So now, headed back to civilization at day’s end, I pedaled along the rocky trail with bears in mind, shouting and singing loudly to prevent surprise encounters. Apparently, the bear was hard of hearing.
With the wind whipping my face on a swift downhill, I turned a corner to find myself seconds from impact with a dark-colored brown bear.
Synapses popped as I crushed the brakes, sending the tail of my bike into a quartering, gravel-spraying skid. For a flash the world became a spinning blur of alders, trail and a big four-legged creature bounding onto the path ahead. A collision seemed imminent.
Fortunately, the bear was equally surprised. As I skidded to a halt in a cloud of dust, the animal turned and, glancing over its shoulder, bolted down the trail away from me. After 30 yards or so it slowed to what I considered a disrespectful walk. So I hollered and clapped, which encouraged the bear to speed up and veer off the trail, allowing me — pepper spray handy — to remount my bike and pedal safely on.
Bicycle adventures in Southcentral Alaska don’t always include hair-raising wildlife encounters. But there are few ways better to experience this popular region — to breathe it, feel it, seeit from all angles — than by bike.
Comprising about 52,800 square miles, a landmass roughly the size of Alabama, Southcentral includes the Anchorage area (Alaska’s metropolitan hub inhabited by some 300,000), Matanuska and Susitna Valleys, and the Kenai Peninsula. Cut into the country are a galaxy of trails ranging from paved paths to rough singletracks, all lending passage to wild lands and city sights alike.
Of course, bicycling in Alaska is hardly new. People have toured the Last Frontier on two-wheelers for more than 100 years. In an article featured on the Alaska Historical Society’s webpage, author Terrence Cole writes, “In Alaska during the (1898) gold rush, the people who sold a special model called the ‘Klondike Bicycle’ claimed it was the answer to every miner’s prayer.”
The story sketches the account of Ed Jesson, a miner who purchased a bike in Dawson City, Yukon, in the winter of 1900. His plan was to pedal west across Alaska over dogsled trails on the frozen Yukon River and up the Bering Sea coast to Nome. The distance was more than 1,000 miles and Jesson endured temperatures of -48 degrees F to complete the trip in about a month.
“All the way down the Yukon people thought Ed was crazy for riding a wheel, especially since he owned a good dog team, but he said he didn’t have to cook dog food for the bicycle at night, and on good days he could cover 100 miles.”
Jesson was tough, and obviously determined. But cyclists needn’t be Gold Rush miners or marathon fit to ride in Southcentral Alaska. In fact, few who visit will find they are too young, too old, or too out of shape to delight in touring the region for a day, a week, or longer aboard a bike.
SEEING THE CITY
Verdant in summer, golden in the fall, Alaska’s biggest city is marbled with greenbelts and parks, many tied together by more than 120 miles of paved bike trails. A local favorite is the 11-mile-long Tony Knowles Coastal Trail that begins downtown and traces Cook Inlet’s coastline past Westchester Lagoon (a popular venue for birders), Earthquake Park (commemorating the site of a neighborhood lost in Alaska’s great 1964 earthquake), and on to the 1,500-acre forests and singletracks of Kincaid Park near Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.
Named for Tony Knowles, a former Alaska governor and Anchorage mayor, the trail was built in the 1980s and quickly became popular among cyclists for its easy access to scenic views and local wildlife. The trailhead is located downtown near the end of Second Avenue, close to hotels and several bike rental businesses. Within a few minutes of easy riding, starting around Elderberry Park, cyclists have many opportunities to detour from the main trail to visit various parts of the city.
Back on the Coastal Trail, occasional stops are well worthwhile to glance back and enjoy picturesque views of downtown Anchorage huddled over Cook Inlet and backed by the Chugach Range. On clear days, Mount Susitna and, farther north, Denali, North America’s tallest peak, can be seen rising over the inlet’s far side. Benches and viewing areas are spaced at convenient intervals for those who wish to relax, see the sights, or stop for a picnic. Bring along a water bottle to stay hydrated and definitely don’t forget your camera.
In summer, snow-white beluga whales appear in pods, traveling up the silty inlet waters which at high tide lap a stone’s throw from the trail. Moose are commonly encountered, particularly around heavily wooded Point Woronzof and Kincaid Park. Watched from a distance, these 500- to 900-pound deer are generally docile, though they can become agitated if approached too closely; cows with young calves particularly tend to be protective and can lash out if they feel threatened. Keep your distance (no closer than 50 yards to be safe), and enjoy the show.
A Tour Too Far? Take a Bus
If 22-mile round-trip bike tour sounds too far, Downtown Bike Rental, Inc., located in Anchorage on 4thAvenue between C and D streets, suggests a solution to cut it in half: The city’s PeopleMover bus system.
“Put your bike on the front of the number 7 or 7a PeopleMover bus from the Downtown Transit Center (6th and G) to Raspberry and Jewel Lake Road,” DBR offers on its webpage at http://www.alaska-bike-rentals.com
The front of each bus features a bicycle rack that carries three standard bicycles. Cyclists can exit the bus at Raspberry and Jewel Lake Road, and take the paved bike trail west up Raspberry about four miles to link with the Coastal Trail in Kincaid Park. From there it’s smooth riding all the way back to downtown.
Other City Trail Options
No matter where in Anchorage you may be, a paved bike path isn’t far away. Choices beyond the Coastal Trail include the five-mile-long Chester Creek Trailrunning east from Weschester Lagoon near downtown to the University of Alaska campus in midtown. From there, cyclists can link onto the Campbell Creek Trail to south Anchorage on a course that generaly traverses greenbelts along the creek to C Street and beyond. The bike path along C Street offers a straight shot back to downtown — but use caution, as this trail includes many busy street crossings.
For more information on these and many other city bike paths and multi-use trails, visit the city’s Parks and Recreation webpage at http://www.muni.org/departments/parks/pages/trails.aspx
ROUGH RIDING: CITY SINGLETRACKS
On the paved trails when the going is best, the weather dry and temperatures pleasant, it’s possible to pedal along a flat or downhill stretch, wind in your ears, sun on your face, and feel as if you’re soaring. Flying past flower gardens, forests, streams and neighborhoods, encountering others happily biking or walking, is a wonderful way to see the city and its outskirts.
But not everyone is born to ride on the pavement.
Mountain bikers seeking a side of Southcentral Alaska available only off the beaten path will find adventure in Kincaid Park’s singletracks. Forty-five miles of trails engineered for cyclists of all levels are available in the park’s maze of hill-climbs, hairpin turns, and roller-coaster runs.
Excerpts from mountain biking reviews website www.trails.mtbr.combeam high praise for Kincaid: “This is one of the best trail systems in any urban area in America …”writes one reviewer who ranks Kincaid with Cameron Park in Waco, Texas.
Another cyclist writes, “I am from California and had a week to ride in the park in mid-July. … This was some of the finest riding I have ever done. The park is huge. We rode different trails every day.”
Set among forests of mixed spruce, birch and cottonwood, challenges on these winding, well-packed, hilly trails are more likely to include roots than rocks, or getting turned around in the labyrinth of tracks. Signs with “you-are-here” maps are posted at many intersections and help cyclists new to the park keep their bearings. Maps of Kincaid’s singletrack network are also available online and can be printed out and kept in a pocket, just in case.
As on the Coastal Trail, wildlife is frequently encountered along Kincaid’s singletracks. Stay alert for moose, porcupines, and the occasional black bear — and be ready to hit the brakes if necessary.
City Wilderness: Far North Bicentennial Park
Kincaid Park’s singletracks aren’t the only game in town. Anchorage’s east side delivers fantastic riding in 4,000-acre Far North Bicentennial Park. Popular for its more than 100 miles of singletracks and multi-use trails, the park’s forests and mountain streams abut the Chugach Mountains and Chugach State Park creating a wilderness setting only minutes from downtown.
Trails here include brisk climbs, root-riddled runs, and well-maintained stretches that satisfy any cyclist’s need for speed. Of interest to many is the park’s wildlife. Besides moose, black bears and even the occasional wolverine, Bicentennial’s upper Campbell Creek each summer hosts spawning salmon, which in turn attract hungry brown bears. For safety’s sake singletracks that parallel the creek are best avoided and left to the bears from July through September.
For a map of Far North Bicentennial Park trails, visit http://www.trailsofanchorage.com/Maps&Links/FNBPark.pdf
I’d climbed 1,000 feet over 6 ½ miles, a gradual ascent by the standards of tougher, more experienced mountain bikers. Yet my trek over Crescent Creek Trail on the Kenai Peninsula 100 highway miles south of Anchorage had seemed longer, more grueling under a hot July sun.
I recalled the many places the trail had shot straight up, and the tight switchbacks dangerously broken by tire-jolting stones. All of that ceased to matter, though, when Crescent Lake appeared suddenly over my handlebars through a screen of stunted, subalpine cottonwoods. Set among the 5,000-foot-tall Kenai Mountains and reflecting green hillsides, rocky peaks and vast bolts of sky, the lake that windless afternoon resembled an enormous ice-blue gem. I’d found a pristine wilderness nirvana and had my bike and one of Southcentral Alaska’s many backcountry trails to thank.
Many trails offer bike passage to unspoiled wilderness on the Kenai Peninsula, in Chugach State Park backing Anchorage, and in the Matanuska and Susitna Valleys to the north. Options range from tough singletrack treks to paved semi-wilderness paths, and all promise stunning scenery. Here’s a sampler of my personal favorites:
Trails in the Chugach National Forest south of Anchorage are mostly singletracks best tackled aboard a mountain bike. Cyclists planning to travel any distance here should be wilderness savvy and come prepared for fickle weather, wildlife encounters, and carry first-aid kits and at least some food.
Crescent Creek Trail.Trailhead off Quartz Creek Road at Mile 45 Sterling Highway near Cooper Landing. Difficulty: moderate. Going in, this 6.5-mile-long well-maintained wilderness trail gains elevation gently. The downhill trip out goes fast.
Devil’s Creek Trail. Trailhead Mile 39, Seward Highway. Difficulty: moderate to easy. This 10-mile-long trail into Kenai Mountains high country gets muddy and slick fast when wet, so watch the weather. Fantastic views. For more Kenai Mountains bike trails info, visit: http://www.fs.usda.gov/activity/chugach/recreation/bicycling/?recid=4832&actid=24
Chugach State Park:
Bird-to-Gird Trail.Trailheads are located roughly a 20-minute drive south of Anchorage on Seward Highway at Bird Creek Campground or parking area. Difficulty: easy. Touring bikes or mountains bikes are fine. Paved trail skirts the Chugach Mountains and scenic Turnagain Arm for 13 miles to the ski resort town of Girdwood. Pedal up an appetite and enjoy lunch or dinner at a local restaurant before turning around and pedaling back to your car. Or, drive to Girdwood, rent a bike at Alyeska Resort’s Daylodge Mountain Bike Hub, and bike the trail roundtrip from Gird to Bird.
Eklutna Lakeside Trail. Trailhead located off Eklutna Exit at Mile 26.5 Glenn Highway, about a 20-minute drive north of Anchorage. Difficulty: easy. Mountain bikes work best here. This 12.7-mile unpaved trail borders Eklutna Lake for seven miles, eventually ending near Eklutna Glacier. The country: Drop-dead gorgeous. For more Chugach State Park biking trails, visit: http://dnr.alaska.gov/parks/units/chugach/bikingchugach.htm
Matanuska Lakes State Recreation Area.Trailheads at Matanuska and Long lakes are located off the Glenn Highway at Mile 36.5, just west of Palmer. Difficulty: moderate to easy. Cyclists will need mountain bikes. More than 30 miles of singletracks alternate between forests and fields. Breathtaking views of the Chugach and Talkeetna Mountains. For map and more, see http://dnr.alaska.gov/parks/aspunits/matsu/matlakesrabike.htm
Talkeetna– From Mile 98.7 Parks Highway north of Anchorage, take Talkeetna Spur to town. Bike rentals are available in Talkeetna. Largely overlooked, the trails around this rustic community south of Denali include easy touring and challenging mountain bike options. Tour the 14-mile-long (one way) paved trail that parallels Talkeenta Spur from the Parks Highway to Talkeenta. Mountain bike trails loop through the forests outside of town; for a map of the trails, see http://www.alaskavisit.com/includes/media/docs/TalkeetnaTrails.pdf
At the end of the day, relax at Denali Princess Lodge Hotel, or drop by Denali Brewing Co. & Twister Creek restaurant for a burger and locally brewed beer.
Winter Riding, Too!
Thanks to the development of “fatbikes,” mountain bikes specially engineered for snowy single-tracks and cross-country treks, nearly any trail worth riding in summer can be traversed in winter. Fatbikes are defined by wheel widths ranging from 3 to 5 inches (normal mountain bike rims are about 1.5 inches wide). These widths combined with low tire pressure create a snowshoe effect, allowing cyclists to essentially “float” over loosely compacted snow in situations where narrow-rimmed tires would dig in and sink.
Between snowfalls, standard mountain bikes fitted with studded tires work well in icy or hard-packed snow conditions. Several Anchorage bike shops rent winterized mountain bikes and fatbikes, and some even offer winter bike tours. Winter-bike rental rates range from $60 to $100 per day for adult bikes, with at least one shop offering “kiddie fatbikes” for $55 per day.
As with all cold-weather sports, quality equipment, proper outdoor clothing, and an intimate knowledge of the sport and conditions is critical to safe riding.
To learn more about winter biking, winter bike rentals and guided winter bike tours in Anchorage, visit the Arctic Cycles webpage at http://www.arcticcycles.com, and Chain Reaction Cycles webpage at http://www.chainreactioncycles.us/bike-rentals.html
For some great winter biking FAQs, visit Paramount Cycles webpage at http://paramountcyclesak.com/pages/winter_faq.html