Accessible wilderness in Alaska’s largest city
The Beluga Point Wayside is where you might spot beluga whales chasing herring along the shore. (Mike Dunham)
Anchorage, the most populous and urban city in Alaska, is mostly made up of wilderness, with plenty of easy ways to reach nature in the raw and opportunities to test the survival skills of its visitors.
The Anchorage “bowl”, where most people live, is a peninsula flanked on the north and south by the upper part of the Cook Inlet and on the east by the mile-high Chugach Mountains and Chugach State Park. All 495,204 acres of the park are technically within the city limits and major trailheads are less than an hour’s drive from downtown.
Within the urban bowl several natural areas are connected by a system of walking, cycling and ski trails stretching hundreds of miles. They range from light strolls to strenuous treks. At any point you may meet some of the town’s hundreds of moose, bear (both black and brown), porcupine, fox and other non-human residents. Many of these critters have become accustomed to people, but they are still wild animals so do not approach them. People have been killed by moose and bear, and attacks by wolves and even beavers have been reported recently. Take precautions and mind your wilderness manners.
The paved, level Tony Knowles Coastal Trail starts downtown and skirts the mudflats of Cook Inlet’s Knik Arm for 10 miles. Migrating wildfowl – ducks, geese, swan, grebes – flock to nearby Westchester Lagoon, as do bald eagles looking for lunch.
The Knowles Trail also goes to Kinkaid Park. This 1,516 acre recreational hub, laced with trails and used for soccer, biking, fishing and more, is a former Nike missile site. Bunkers that once held nuclear bombs now store equipment for the local Nordic ski club and archery groups. “The Chalet”, the most lavishly refurbished bunker, hosts community picnics and celebrations. The vistas and lawns make it a popular place for weddings.
From Kinkaid Park, a wealthy enclave blocks the trail system from continuing to the next wild destination, Potter Marsh, so you need to drive south on the Seward Highway about 10 miles from downtown to reach it. A long boardwalk extends into the waters and grasses where you can view salmon entering from the ocean to spawn, but the swamp is largely a magnet for birdwatchers.
Following the Seward Highway south you can spot wildlife from the road. Dall sheep sun themselves on cliffs above the highway and beluga whales are known to chase herring near the shore of Turnagain Arm. A line of stopped vehicles often indicates that people have seen one or the other.
Whales are less commonly seen than sheep, but the most promising reconnoitering is at Beluga Point and, farther down the highway, Bird Point. Both waysides have spotting scopes.
A note of caution: under no circumstances venture onto the tidal mudflats. There are a few signs, but these treacherous shoals wrap around the entire coastline of Anchorageand look like inviting beaches, but are laced with quicksand. People have been stuck in the goo and then drowned by Anchorage’s 20ft tides that can rise faster that a sprinter can run.
Chugach State Park information is available in an old railroad house near Potter Marsh. You can get maps here and a parking pass if you plan to leave a vehicle at park trailheads. On the uphill side of the Seward Highway are a number of walks that require a little exertion, like the Turnagain Arm Trail, which loops for 9.4 miles in and out of spruce and birch stands with lovely views of the Inlet.
Along the way, McHugh Creek has day use facilities and there is a campground at Bird Creek. A coast-hugging paved trail goes all the way to Girdwood. This tiny community marks the southern boundary of the Municipality of Anchorage and is the home of Alyeska Ski Resort, an extreme skier’s paradise in winter. The resort’s gondola to a luxury restaurant operates in summer as well -- a good, and safe, place to look for black bears.