Knik Glacier’s biking boom is drawing hundreds into backcountry once tough to reach

After years of steady growth, Knik Glacier has exploded as a destination this winter, especially for fat-tire cyclists.

NOTE: Conditions are changing quickly on the trail to Knik Glacier and on the lake itself. It’s best to check for updated information before you go.

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KNIK GLACIER — It’s quiet in the middle of frozen Knik Glacier lake, except for wind, ravens and the occasional sound of ancient ice shifting.

It’s not exactly lonely: In the distance, bicyclists weave through a world of powder-blue icebergs, some as tall as a two-story house.

More people than ever are visiting the glacier, driven by a boom in winter biking and an embrace of outdoor activities during the pandemic.

During sunny weekends this spring, 100 cars or more have packed the private trailhead parking lot. On social media platforms, photos abound of fat-tire bikes propped against telltale blue ice and selfies among glacial spires.

A river of ice more than 28 miles long and 5 miles wide, Knik Glacier is one of the largest glaciers in Southcentral Alaska. An hour’s drive north of Anchorage, it’s also one of the closest.

Knik Glacier doesn’t just draw bikers: In one afternoon, a visit to the lake yields the company of off-road Jeeps, snowmachiners, four-wheelers, bush planes and helicopter tours. The mountains nearby are also a magnet for heli-skiers.

On Saturday, a heli-skiing tour carrying five passengers and a pilot crashed on an unnamed ridgetop north of the glacier, returning from a day of riding in the Chugach Mountains. Five people, including Czech billionaire Petr Kellner, were killed. Czech snowboarder David Horváth remains hospitalized.

It’s not hard to understand why Knik Glacier is an irresistible draw, said Tom Faussett, a longtime tour guide whose property off Knik River Road has become the primary access for bikers and other non-motorized users heading to the glacier.

He’s long been an evangelist for the magic of the glacier, leading jet boat tours in the summertime through his business Knik Glacier Tours. When he opened his parking lot to bikers a few winters ago, he didn’t realize how many would come.

“It has just kind of snowballed,” Faussett said.

Faussett accepts donations for parking and even offers an outhouse facility. He said he’s delighted that more people are experiencing Knik Glacier and in the future, he’s thinking about bringing in food trucks and shifting parking farther from his neighbors, in an effort to keep the peace. Faussett loves seeing seeing people arriving back at his property after the 20-mile-plus round-trip ride.

“They usually have these big smiles on their faces,” Faussett said.

But with new popularity has come tension: Neighbors say the fat-bikers have generally been well mannered, but some have complaints about vehicle traffic and speeding on Buckshot Lane, the residential road that leads to Faussett’s property. Earlier this winter, roofing nails were reportedly found strewn across the trail. Others worry a stream of less-experienced users aren’t taking the trek into frozen, dynamic glacial wilderness seriously.

Patrick Shiflea of Palmer has been biking to the glacier since 2011. It was part of the reason he bought a fat-tire bike: He saw photos — he thinks this was pre-Facebook — and wanted to experience an accessible glacier wilderness for himself. He estimates he’s made more than 40 trips.

“It’s just awesome out there,” he said.

This year, he’s watched more newcomers than ever discover his playground. He says he expects the popularity to grow, and also for the access to become “a little more systematic” if Faussett follows through with his ideas to make parking and concessions formal.

For decades, people have used Jeeps and other off-road vehicles to reach the rocky moonscape of the glacial moraine via the Jim Creek area, on the north side of the valley, according to a history of the area. As far back as 2005, some proto-fat-tire bike users also made the trek, holding gatherings at the edge of the glacial lake on New Year’s Eve, according to Daily News archives.

But the ride from Jim Creek is long — about 20 miles each direction. That kept all but only the most prepared riders from making the trek. Meanwhile, motorized access by Jeeps, snowmachines and four-wheelers from Jim Creek has always been an option.

As snow-capable fat-tire bikes were mass produced, the sport boomed in popularity in Alaska. Knik Glacier became an even more tantalizing destination.

Around 2015, bikers began parking along Knik River Road in an attempt to access the frozen riverbed trail to the glacier via Hunter Creek, said Paul Houser, president of the South Knik Community Council, which represents the neighborhoods along Knik River Road.

That was a problem. Land on both sides of Hunter Creek is private, and bikers were trespassing to access the state-owned land of the riverbed, Houser said.

Around 2017 Faussett offered his property off Buckshot Lane for bicyclists to park and find a short, unmarked trail to the riverbed. From Faussett’s property, the trail can be as short as 8-10 miles to the glacial lake — turning an epic ride into a day trip.

Word got out, mostly via those otherworldly glacier photos posted to social media, along with thousand-biker-strong Facebook groups devoted to fat-tire biking. Each winter, bike traffic to the glacier built steadily, Shiflea said.

“A lot of the boom is related to fat-tire bikes, which have kind of exploded a bit,” he said. “And then there’s Facebook posts of awesome pictures on the glacier.”

The easier access has also attracted more novice bikers, as well as people renting fat-tire bikes for the day to visit the area. Some don’t seem altogether prepared for what they might encounter, said Mark Johnson, a retired paramedic who has lived along Knik River Road since 1982.

Johnson takes his snowmachine to the glacier lake almost every day and reports weather conditions on Facebook. He even posted his cellphone number for anyone who gets in trouble along the trail — though reception cuts out about 3 miles from the glacial lake.

He said he’s happy more people are experiencing the glacier. He just wants people to be careful and aware of the risks.

“There’s been underwater calving that lifted that ice — 20 feet above the lake ice. If you’d been there it’d killed you dead. The freshly fractured faces of the ice, there’s actually pools of open water, people going across these areas to get to the toe of the glacier — it’s absolutely nuts,” he said.

“It’s a very good likelihood someone is gonna die up there,” he said.

The Alaska State Troopers have conducted seven rescues in the Knik Glacier area since July 2020, said spokesman Austin McDaniel. The majority involved ATVs and none involved someone falling through ice, he said.

Heavy vehicles can and have broken through the ice, said Travis Jensen, land manager for the Knik Public Use Area.

“We have had several reported break-throughs from vehicles near the glacier and on the ice pack in recent weeks,” he wrote. “I would advise anyone traveling over ice to understand the impacts to their safety by doing so.”

The end of biking to the glacier season is coming, probably weeks away. For now, the parking lot is still filling up. Out on the lake, there’s still some solitude to be found on the ice.

Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a reporter who covers news and features about life in Alaska, and has been focusing on corrections and psychiatric care issues in the state. Contact her at mtheriault@adn.com.