One of the best ways to understand Anchorage’s unique relationship and coexistence with nature is to tackle the city’s enviable and award-winning network of trails.
Anchorage boasts more than 120 miles of paved bike and multi-use trails, not to mention 130 miles of plowed winter walkways, 105 miles of maintained ski trails, 36 miles of dog mushing trails, and 87 miles of non-paved hiking trails — and that’s just within the municipality! Many trails take you beyond city boundaries, connecting adventurers to the mountainous Chugach State Park, where you can wander high into the alpine tundra to access some 495,000 acres of jaw-dropping scenery.
Within town limits, Anchorage’s impressive trail system meanders along the stunning city coast, travels along trickling creeks and threads through thick forests. Sturdy tunnels barrel beneath busy roadways, and wood-planked bridges span meandering waters. This comprehensive system effectively delivers active commuters to work, and offers up an infrastructure entrée for visitors venturing for variety in a city known for its natural surroundings.
The crown jewel of the system is the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, a recreational conduit that teems with walkers, bicyclists, runners, roller bladers, and more in its popular summer months. The trail stretches nearly 11 miles from one of downtown’s most historic sectors on Second Ave. to the multi-use chalet at Kincaid Park. Its mostly level terrain affords an incredibly accessible and easily traversable footpath for all ages, abilities and families. Because there are multiple locations throughout where you can park and access this picturesque route, it’s a customizable experience — from a short stroll to a multi-hour outing.
Westchester Lagoon is a perfect place to start your Coastal Trail jaunt. Just 1.6 miles from the trail’s downtown start, the lagoon features plenty of parking and an expansive park, with stunning views of the Chugach Mountains, glittering stretches of serene water, picnic tables and benches for contemplative breaks and a lively playground for kids. Birders will appreciate flocks of waterfowl, migrating shorebirds, mallards, grebes, swallows and more. In the summer, the pond makes for a pretty paddle, and there are typically flotation devices on hand if you’re without one. In the winter, the iced-over lagoon is transformed into a popular skating spot.
From Westchester, you can travel 9 miles on the Coastal Trail to Kincaid Park, or access the eastbound 4-mile-long Chester Creek Trail. The Chester Creek Trail follows its namesake waterway, and passes by Valley of the Moon Park, another spot worth a visit. It features an impressive playground, picnic areas and sprawling grass fields, all abutting the creek.
Chester Creek Trail ends at Goose Lake Park, in central Anchorage near the University District. If you’re not ready for your walk to end, follow the 3-mile paved trail surrounding this scenic lake. On a sunny day, this popular swimming spot makes for a respite from the high Alaska sunshine. Visitors can enjoy opportunities for fun and exercise, and closer viewing of loons, Canada Geese, mew and herring gulls, and a few songbirds. There is an on-site snack café, a playground area, and municipal life guards on duty during sunny summer days.
Another popular entry point or rest stop along the Coastal Trail en route to its Kincaid terminus is Earthquake Park. Famous for the long-gone houses that slid into the sea with the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake, the park today is a modest lot and viewpoint adjacent to the Coastal Trail, with interpretive signs and photo-ops of downtown Anchorage. On clear days, you may see North America’s tallest peak, Denali, and its companion mountains on the northern horizon.
For those eager to bike the trail system, multiple downtown vendors rent bikes all year round. Rates and lengths of rentals vary from hourly to by the day or even the week. Downtown Bicycle Rental, Sales and Repair (333 W. Fourth Ave.; 907-279-5293) offers all kinds options and accessories, including complimentary bear spray. Alaska Pablo’s Bicycle Rentals (415 L St.; 277-2453) is also open for the 2021 season and taking reservations for its equipment online.
Don’t forget: When using Anchorage’s trail system, it’s important to remember some basic rules around safety and courtesy.
The municipality reminds users that trails are usually multi-use and not intended for racing, so people should be aware of their surroundings, travel at safe speeds and never take up more than half the trail, leaving space for other users.
Keep right, except to pass. Listen for others upon approach; it’s common for bicyclists and others to have bells on, or to verbally warn those ahead of their approach by saying things like, “On your left!”
Pets must be leashed and the law requires any animal or human litter be picked up and disposed of. Even so, keep an eye out for meandering dogs as you navigate turns and narrow spaces.
Also, be aware of wildlife. Moose, bears, coyotes and other animals share city trails, and that’s especially true the farther one travels from downtown. Be alert and give wildlife plenty of room. Applying bug spray and carrying bear spray are smart moves. When traveling in bear country, be mindful of making noise, traveling with one or more people whenever possible, and staying observant.
Also of note: A perennial issue in Anchorage are homeless camps along some of the city greenbelts, particularly in more urban areas. Daytime is the best time to access the trails, and as always, be aware of your environment and exercise caution when traveling, especially if you’re on your own.