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Beachcombing at Anchorage's Point Woronzof a summer must-do

Austin Baird
Silty waves hit the rocks after tide rises at Point Woronzof Park, while dozens of sea birds fly overhead.
Austin Baird photo
Beer bottles and the remains of campfires are spread around the lean-tos at the end of Point Woronzof Park.
Austin Baird photo
As soon as the rocky shoreline of Point Woronzof ends, dangerous mud flats take over the coast.
Austin Baird photo
Lean-tos made out of driftwood and trees from the hills next to Point Woronzof crop up every time it gets warm.
Austin Baird photo
A heavily graffitied water tower is directly below the runway of Anchorage International Airport at Point Woronzof park.
Austin Baird photo

Postcards from Alaska usually feature a picture of the towering Mount McKinley taken from Denali National Park, or a full-grown polar bear with a pair of cubs lumbering across a sheet of Arctic ice, or a family of Eskimos ice-fishing at a lake on the North Slope. All of those things are uniquely Alaska, but America's Last Frontier has plenty to offer that few from Outside take time to notice when they get off planes and cruise ships in Anchorage: the state has the longest coastline of any in the Union.

There's no mistaking that Alaska is lacking of quintessential "beachy" things scattered along California's Pacific coast: no flip-flops or surf shops. No crowds. No hot, glinting, golden sands. Here, smoothed stones a beach makes. For a few months every summer, though, sandy hangouts do wash up along Anchorage's coastline. One of the best such spots? The beach running the length of the popular Point Woronzof Park.

The beach at Woronzof "feels" more like Pacific beaches that tourists have been conditioned to expect. And even though the waves are tinged gray by glacial silt and the sand is still covered in most places with stones smoothed by the ocean, it has enough open wilderness and easy access to trails for anyone to enjoy.

Getting to Point Woronzof

In a car: head west on Northern Lights Boulevard and keep driving until you see green signs for Point Woronzof -- you'll pass Minnesota Boulevard, Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport and Earthquake Park. Keep going around the curve about a quarter-mile or so. On your right, the Woronzof parking lot and the cliff overlooking the shore should be obvious.

Biking or walking: Your best bet is to head southwest on the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail from anywhere downtown. It's about four and a half miles or so down the trail from Westchester Lagoon. You'll see the same green signs and the parking lot from the trail. From the parking lot, follow the small crowd of people working their way up or down the gravel-and-dirt hill that leads to the shore.

What you'll find

'Lean-tos.' Head south (opposite the direction of the graffiti-covered silo) and you'll see a few (for lack of a better word) lean-tos that were built out of driftwood and trees cut from the hillside. They're about a mile down the beach in the perfect place, because they're wind protected by a mound of small boulders. That, and the fact that whoever put them there gave enough thought to keep them far enough back to avoid high tide, makes it a perfect place to camp, picnic or relax for a few hours. A warning: when the tide comes in at night -- if you stay that long -- you'll need to climb the rocks to get a grass and dirt trail that leads back to the parking lot.

'Real' sand. The beach is covered with small stones that are a pain to walk on, but if you go far enough south along the coast, and look to the hillside, you can find pockets of what feels like "real" sand. It is, in fact, a combination of dirt from the hillside, glacial silt that's slapped onto the shore by waves and the iota of rocks that are chipped off by the ebb and flow. That's where the lean-tos are built.

Mud flats. Some half mile after the lean-tos, you run into the fabled mud flats. Even if reports of people being sucked into the quicksand-like mud are often embellished, it's true that some people lost life and limb by wandering into a dangerous pocket, so don't wander out any farther than where your feet start to sink into the ground. 

Airplanes. The park is located just beyond Anchorage's international airport, so you can see a steady stream of airplanes taking off overhead. The noise isn't as overwhelming as you might expect.

What to bring

Picnic gear. You'll have to find a spot on the hillside or lumber down the beach a good ways, but it can be worth the walk and the planning to set up a picnic and to hang out for a few hours.

Trail shoes or river sandals. Heels, flip flops or running shoes won't work if you're going a good distance along the coast -- you'll want somthing heavier than that.

A jacket. Even if the temperature is warm enough for short sleeves, a jacket to break the wind is a must if you plan on staying for more than a few minutes.

Contact Austin Baird at austin(at)alaskadispatch.com