Destination Run: Winner Creek Trail, Alaska
Surrounded by seven glistening glaciers and towering, snowy mountains, it’s easy to see why the original name of Girdwood, Alaska, was ‘Glacier City’. The tiny, quaint town was first founded in the late 1800s as a supply camp for the local miners (and it’s still frequented by modern miners today). Girdwood is positioned in the most northern slice of rainforest in the world, and it is a beautiful, chilly wonderland of mossy trees, briskly flowing rivers and sky-high conifer trees. Walking, running or biking through this magical area will make you feel like you’re lost in time (or at the very least, on the set of a Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones scene).
Girdwood is about a 40 mile / 45-minute drive from Anchorage, Alaska’s largest and busiest city. The drive will take you away from the hustle and bustle of the concrete jungle and quickly immerse you in absolute Alaskan beauty, leaving you wondering if the city was just a dream. As the Seward highway winds its way along the icy cold Pacific coast, the magnificent Chugach mountains loom sharply on your left. The wildlife here is just as rugged and untamed as the vistas – keep your eyes open for eagles, black bears, Dall sheep and hoary marmots. To your right and just across the mudflats and waters of the Turnagain Arm waterway, you’ll see in the distance another range of wildly lovely mountains with peaks steeped in mystery and names like South Suicide Peak. The list of outdoor wonders here almost never ceases – in winter, skiing, heli-skiing, snowmobiling, snowboarding, cross-country skiing and snowshoe hiking reign supreme. In the summer the activities are endless with music, food and craft festivals, running, rafting, hiking, biking, surfing and much more.
Surf the Turnagain Arm Bore Tide
The Turnagain Arm waterway is host to one of the world’s most extreme tides, the Turnagain Arm Bore Tide. A bore tide, also known as a tidal bore, occurs when a body of tidal water rushes from the ocean into a shallow, narrowing river, inlet or lake from a broad bay. This creates a funnel-like shape where the incoming ocean tide forms a wave that can last for miles as it heads inland. With a 30 foot tidal differential (the difference from high tide to low tide) and its shallow mudflats, Turnagain Arm is the perfect place for a bore tide. This long, consistent wave can reach up to heights of 6 – 10 feet tall. You won’t see too many surfers in Alaska, but this unique surf spot is beloved by the local surfing community and a special sight to see. If you’re interested in viewing a special phenomenon, be sure to check the local tide charts at least a month in advance to get the best chance of its occurrence.
Run the Winner Creek Trail
The original trail, called the Lower Winner Creek Trail, is a breathtaking 6 mile out-and-back run through the dense rainforest, or an easy 3 miler if you choose to catch the free Glacier Valley Transit bus on your way back (it passes by each end of the trail every half hour or so). The trail starts behind the Hotel Alyeska in Girdwood. (You can’t miss the hotel. It’s by far the biggest structure in Girdwood, at the base of the mountains in the back of town.) For about a mile, the trail will lead you down a boardwalk winding through the trees and over bubbling brooks. From here the boardwalk turns into a firm dirt trail, leading to your first reward for choosing this track – the Winner Creek Gorge. The river thunders below, as it’s forced under a solid wooden bridge spanning over a section of the river that is just fifteen feet wide. You can leave the trail here and carefully climb down the rocks on a side trail to get a closer look at the furiously churning waters and steep, moss-covered banks of the river. This is as perfect a place as any to take a quick break to enjoy the beauty and a snack.
The second pleasant surprise on the Winner Creek Trail is ‘The Hand Tram’ – a metal cage you have to step into, secure the door, and then hand propel yourself across the river! It’s one of those fun things where you are completely safe, yet your heart rate might feel like it’s about to pound out of your chest in adrenaline and excitement as you swing in the open air as the river rages below you. Definitely another opportunity to take some one-of-a-kind photos to document your adventure. There is a hook on the outside of the cage where you can hang and secure your bike for the ride across the river if you are cycling.
Run the Upper Winner Creek Trail
The newer Upper Winner Creek Trail will lead you about 9 miles high up into the backcountry of the mountains (also an out-and-back trail). To reach this trail, take the Lower Winner Creek Trail from Hotel Aleyska, but make a right turn when you reach the Gorge. This version of the trail includes more river crossings and passes by avalanche risk areas, so be sure you are well prepared before attempting.
Important Safety Tips
Weather – The climate of Alaska is notoriously fickle. Even in the summer, you may be basking in the warm sunshine one minute and hastily running through an icy downpour in the next. It pays to be prepared; definitely bring appropriate footwear (preferably waterproof), warm clothing, a waterproof jacket, extra food and an extra pair of socks.
Wildlife – You’re in bear country now. Just like there are sharks in the ocean you swim in, there are bears in the forest and there are certain precautions you need to take. Invest in a can of bear spray, a bear flare, and be sure to make plenty of noise if you can. (Despite popular belief, ‘bear bells’ are not recommended. Try playing music on a portable speaker or singing out loud instead.)