by Hank Leukart
August 4, 2010
Cycling the Arm
Bicycling Anchorage’s Coastal Trail, Lost Lake, and the Turnagain Arm.
An RV passes a bicycle sitting on the Seward Highway near Alaska's Cook Inlet and Kenai Mountains. (view all Turnagain Arm Cycle, Alaska photos)
NCHORAGE, Alaska — Can I whine for a moment? Here is a list of things I hate to do: clean my apartment, wash laundry, select clothes to wear, repair my car, and pack luggage. The worst part is that I have to do all of these things before I can travel anywhere! I know — whining about this stuff makes me sound a little like a pampered teenager, but, believe me, I can deal with discomfort. Last year, I spent 45 nights sleeping in a 29-square-foot backcountry tent, and I didn’t complain about it once. (Well, a bear decided to wake me up in the middle of the night a few times, and I may have quietly complained about that — but barely.) The universal truth here is not that I can’t deal with annoyances; it’s simply that I hate owning stuff. Owning stuff means rearranging stuff, cleaning stuff, fixing stuff, and moving stuff, all of which stresses me out. So, even though I love traveling and the outdoors, I don’t own much gear. Apart from basic camping gear, I usually rent gear like skis, kayaks, and bicycles so I don’t have to own anything. After all, that’s what Without Baggage is all about.
But upon arriving in Anchorage this summer, I realize that without a decent method of transportation, I’ll be eating only turkey subs, fish tacos, and French fries for three months because only Quizno’s, Taco del Mar, and McDonald’s are in walking distance of my hotel. So, I decide to try Craiglist, where I find lots of transportation options, including a $4,500, 17-foot motorboat with a fish finder and a $1,200 Honda Scooter which “easily does power wheelies.” Knowing I’m neither much of a fisherman nor an extreme motocross competitor, I keep looking and eventually find someone selling a cheap mountain bike. I get a ride to an obscure, seedy address in Anchorage, where I discover a bike with broken handle bars and a barely-functioning rear derailleur. It occurs to me that it might be time in my life to learn what a derailleur is, but I start to feel annoyed by the maintenance work required by my future status as a bike owner. I decide not to buy the bike. But on the way back to my hotel, I see some higher quality used bicycles outside a bicycle shop. I decide to test-drive (test-cycle?) a shiny blue mountain bike which, while a bit too small for me, is huge improvement over the derailleur-challenged bike. After paying the store owner $85 for the bike and $12 for a cheap bike lock — he doesn’t manage to convince me to buy the fancy $40 lock for the $85 bike — I start pedaling excitedly around Anchorage.
With my new wheels, I visit Snow City Cafe, the best breakfast spot in Anchorage (the crab cake Kodiak benedict and hash browns make me drool just thinking about them!), and Middle Way Cafe, an earthy breakfast and lunch spot that serves tasty mango-ginger smoothies. I’m relieved to have new culinary possibilities beyond McDonald’s breakfast sandwiches. During my travels, I run into another biker named Alison, and soon, we’re excitedly discussing possible Alaskan bicycling adventures. We agree to meet one evening on Anchorage’s 11-mile Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, a paved bike path running from downtown to Kincaid Park along the coast of Cook Inlet’s Knik Arm, one of two offshoots of the Gulf of Alaska clasping Anchorage.
On the night of our rendezvous, I throw a bottle of wine and two paper cups into my backpack and pedal to the trail. I meet Alison on a bench at 10 PM, and we see the sun shining over Anchorage’s city skyline, a swath of mud flats, and the sparkling water of the Cook Inlet. I tell her that I’m living in Alaska for the summer to work on a television show, and she tells me that she’s spending the summer waiting tables on a train for cruise ship tourists. She tells me that after escaping a healthcare job in Chicago that she didn’t like, she went on two miserable trips to Central America and China with her then-boyfriend, and then escaped again to Alaska. I tell Alison that one of my co-workers has a theory that everyone living in Alaska has ended up there after running away from something. She smiles furtively.
After chatting, the two of us jump on our bikes and head west through woody Earthquake Park. The Park was named after the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in North America (9.2), which caused an entire nearby neighborhood of 75 homes to slide into the water, killing 131 people in 1964. It’s so tranquil that I find it difficult to visualize the chaos that occurred there almost fifty years before. After tackling some rolling hills, we arrive at Point Woronzof, a beach popular as a night hangout spot for local teenagers. As we walk down the beach near the surf, the setting sun casts our long shadows across the sand. We watch teens socialize near a mysterious 50-foot-tall concrete structure covered in graffiti. We see a couple holding hands, strolling near cliffs above the beach, in front of a beautiful backdrop of Anchorage and the snow-capped Chugach Mountains. A concrete pylon bizarrely thrust into the side of one of the beach cliffs catches Alison’s eye, and she climbs up to it. When I join her on the concrete mass, an airplane flies less than 500 feet above our heads, heading toward nearby Anchorage airport. I open the bottle of wine in my backpack, fill our glasses, and we toast to “escape.” We’re hypnotized by the rhythm of planes flying overhead, one every ten minutes. We sit together on the concrete slab until 1 AM, sipping wine, watching beachgoers, and gazing at the sun setting slowly over the water. In Alaska, with Alison, relaxing on the beach in the middle of the night feels somehow natural. I realize that, even though I hate owning stuff, I’m very happy that I own a bike in Anchorage.
With newfound confidence in my mountain biking skills, I convince Alison the next week to join me on another escape via mountain bike to Lost Lake, a 14-mile, round-trip cycle through a forest to a remote alpine lake. We drive two hours south of Anchorage on the awe-inspiring, mountain-flanked Seward Highway to Primrose Campground, adjacent to picturesque Kenai Lake. When we arrive, we’re excited to finally be out of the car and cycling, but as we make our way up a root-covered, rough, and mountainous trail, we realize that we’ve started at the wrong end of the trail, making our route exceptionally rigorous for us and our cheap bikes. After biking about halfway to the Lake, we lock our bikes to trees and decide to walk the remaining distance. We find ourselves hiking through clouds and alpine meadows until we eventually stumble upon a mass of water that fades into an infinite fog. We’re enveloped by an eerie silence. We sit in the middle of a cloud on the shore, eating sandwiches and drinking wine. The food, wine, and company are all excellent, but I begin to feel embarrassed and annoyed that we couldn’t muster the strength and willpower to get our bikes across the knobby tree-root systems covering the trail. I worry that someone might steal our bikes or they’ll be broken when we find them again. They’re stressing me out. I start to wonder whether my enchantment with bike ownership is coming to an end.
A couple days later, I find myself feeling suffocated by a demanding day at work. When I return to my hotel room, my shiny blue bike, sitting sadly in the corner, catches my eye. I take it outside and start pedaling as fast and as far as I can. I bike south through Anchorage on C Street through traffic, past big roadside factories with mysterious bright yellow silos and big black smoke stacks, until the street dead-ends. I continue south on the Old Seward Highway, past kids playing at a skate park, through suburban neighborhoods, until the road starts winding through the tall grasses of lush Potter Marsh and dead-ends into the New Seward Highway. With Anchorage far behind me, I continue cycling down one of the most scenic highways in the world, which follows the so-called Turnagain Arm: the other Gulf of Alaska offshoot that reaches across the land around Anchorage like an appendage. I saw these spectacular views of the Cook Inlet’s mudflats and the rugged, emerald Kenai Mountains before, from a car, when Alison and I drove to the trailhead for Lost Lake. But, on a bike, I have much more travel time to savor the experience of the Highway. I feel both terrified and exhilarated as pickup trucks and RVs whiz by me while I cycle on the Highway’s shoulder. Before I know it, I’ve cycled about 25 miles through Chugach State Park, past whale-watching overlook Beluga Point, and past mountain climbers making their way up McHugh Peak. Hungry, I stop to eat a pulled pork sandwich and hush puppies at the Turnagain Arm Pit, a southern barbecue joint on the Arm. While I’m eating, I talk to a father and son and tell them that I’m exhausted from biking from Anchorage on the highway on my fat-tire mountain bike. They encourage me, and tell me that if I keep going, I’ll soon find the well-known “Bird to Gird” bike path that takes cyclists from Bird Point to Girdwood, the only town before the end of the Turnagain Arm. The prospect of finishing the Arm renews my energy.
I thank them, jump back on my bike, and start biking toward Girdwood. The path is a pleasure to ride as it zigzags through forests, across meadows, and over mountain ridges. Smelling the sweet scent of flowers blooming in the Alaskan summer with a balmy wind rushing past my face, I realize that owning a bike isn’t stressing me out. I feel like I’ve escaped, and I feel free. I realize that this is why Alison moved to Alaska.
A bicycle sits on Anchorage's Coastal Trail as the sun sets over the Cook Inlet. (view all Coastal Trail, Anchorage, Alaska photos)
Teenagers congregate at night on the beach at Point Woronzof near the Coastal Trail in Anchorage, Alaska.
A hiker stands at the edge of Lost Lake near Seward, Alaska. (view all Lost Lake, Seward, Alaska photos)
How to Bike Anchorage’s Tony Knowles Coastal Trail
- OVERVIEW: The Tony Knowles Coastal Trail is an 11-mile, hour-long, one-way bike ride from downtown Anchorage to Kincaid Park. The trail is paved but has some steep climbs and downhill sections, so be prepared for a workout. Wildlife abounds on the trail, so keep a look out for bears and moose while biking.
- BIKE RENTAL: In downtown Anchorage, you can rent a bike from Pablo’s Bicycle Rentals, at the corner of 5th Avenue and L Street ($12/3 hours or $30 per day, 8 AM - 7 PM, 907-250-2871), or Downtown Bicycle Rental on 4th Avenue between C and D Street ($16/3 hours or $32/day, 8 AM - 8 PM in summer, 907-279-5293).
- DIRECTIONS: The Coastal Trail begins in downtown Anchorage at the corner of 2nd Avenue and H Street and ends at Raspberry Road in Kincaid Park.
- ROUTE: It’s possible to bike the Trail starting at either end, but you’ll probably want to start downtow since the bike rental companies are located there. If you finish your ride in Kincaid Park, you can add more on to your route by biking east on Raspberry Road, turning right on Jewel Lake Road, and then left on West 88th Ave. You’ll meet the Chester Creek Trail, which then connects to the Campbell Creek Trail, and back to the Coastal Trail. For more information, see the Trails of Anchorage Map. For a shorter loop, you can loop back to the Coastal Trail from Kincaid Park by biking on Raspberry Road, turning left on Jewel Lake Road, and then turning left on Lake Shore Drive from Spenard Road. View my route and download the Without Baggage Tony Knowles Coastal Trail GPS track in GPX or KML format.
How to Bike to Lost Lake in the Chugach National Forest
- OVERVIEW: The Lost Lake Traverse is a 15-mile traverse. One end is at the Primrose Landing Campground on Kenai Lake and the other is in a housing subdivision near Seward.
- DIRECTIONS: To reach the Primrose Trailhead, turn off Seward Highway at mile 17.1 near a campground sign. Park in the boat ramp area, and then follow the road to the marked trailhead. To reach the southern trailhead near Seward, drive to mile 5.3 of the Seward Highway (5 miles north of Seward). Turn west on Scott Way and follow the road uphill 0.2 miles to a T intersection. Turn left on Heather Lee Land. In 0.2 miles, turn right on Hayden Berlin Road. At the end of the road, you’ll see the trailhead.
- ROUTE: Starting from the Primrose Trail end, the terrain is too technical and strenuous for all but expert mountain bikers, but some bikers say that starting at the Seward end makes for much easier going for cyclists. Starting at the Primrose Trailhead, Alison and I only made it on bicycle for four miles before we decided to hike the rest of the way to the Lake. You can easily start hiking the trail from either end. View our route and download the Without Baggage Primrose Trail/Lost Lake GPS track in GPX or KML format.
How to Bike Anchorage’s Turnagain Arm
- OVERVIEW: Depending on where you start your ride in Anchorage, the distance from Anchorage to the town of Girdwood on the Turnagain Arm by bike is about 40 miles. For the most part, Anchorage has great, paved bike paths, but there is a 15-mile stretch on the Seward Highway where bikers have to cycle on the Highway’s shoulder. Due to high winds on the Turnagain Arm and wide vehicles on the Highway, cyclists should wear a helmet and use extreme caution. Some stretches of the highway have a narrow shoulder and many riders may not feel comfortable cycling this section.
- DIRECTIONS: From downtown Anchorage, ride south on A Street which eventually connects to C Street. (For an even more intense cycle, start by biking either the Coastal Trail to Raspberry Road to C Street or the Chester Creek Trail loop through the University of Alaska-Anchorage through Campbell Park to C Street.) When you reach C Street, bike south, and then turn left on Klatt Road and then right on Old Seward Highway.
- ROUTE: When Old Seward Highway connects to the New Seward Highway, turn left and continue about 13 miles until you reach Indian Creek. Here’s where you’ll be riding on the shoulder of the Highway for 15 miles. Then, a “Chugach State Park: Indian Creek” sign on the right near a small softball field marks the start of the “Bird to Gird” bike path. It’s easy to ride the rest of the way on this path to Girdwood. View my route and download the Without Baggage Turnagain Arm Cycle GPS track in GPX or KML format.