Winner Creek Trail hand tram in Girdwood unlikely to be reopened, officials say

The hand tram on the Winner Creek Trail in Girdwood is closed for the foreseeable future and is unlikely to be reopened, officials say. The community is now contemplating replacement options, including a bridge.

The tram closed in 2019 after two people fell from the tram’s platform in separate incidents, leaving one person dead and the other with serious injuries. The tram has been locked and secured since.

Several changes would have to happen to reopen the tram, and one is acquiring insurance, said Mike Edgington of the Girdwood Board of Supervisors. At the moment, it appears that finding a willing insurance agency in the U.S. “may be impossible,” Edgington said.

Safety enhancements around the platform would need to be in place for officials to consider reopening it.

The tram opened in 2001 and operated seasonally, usually closing in winter. Riders — many of whom were drawn to the novelty of the hand tram — would climb into a metal cart and pull themselves across a nearly 200-foot gorge using a pulley system. The hand tram is suspended more than 100 feet above Glacier Creek.

Earlier this year, Edgington said, someone cut through the tram’s locks with a cordless grinder. The vandalism was a moment of realization for many Girdwood residents as to just how difficult it would be to effectively manage the hand tram, according to Edgington.

“There’s the risk of malicious damage, so of course, the question is, ‘Well, instead of just going through a lock, what if it had been partly through the cable? What if it had been on some structural elements?’ “ Edgington said.

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The U.S. Forest Service manages the Winner Creek Trail while Heritage Land Bank, under the Municipality of Anchorage, owns the land surrounding the trail. The Girdwood Valley Service Area owns the tram.

The service area paid for a feasibility study to assess all options. The most practical proposal was a suspension-type bridge that would replace the hand tram, manager Kyle Kelley said.

“Some sort of replacement is probably going to come in for the tram, most likely a bridge,” Kelley said.

However, that’s not yet certain. No official actions have been taken to take it down.

There have been no lawsuits related to the tram, according to Kelley. Maintenance costs vary year to year, he said, but the cost can be anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000 to pay for services like inspections and rope replacements.

The Winner Creek Trail could become part of the Alaska Long Trail project — a potential 500-mile hiking trail from Fairbanks to Seward. Kelley called the trail a “viable link” for the project. The Legislature has set aside $13.2 million to take initial steps in the project.

A bridge in the same location as the tram could also be paid for by federal funding through the Great American Outdoors Act — which provides money for maintenance and infrastructure needs — although those funds wouldn’t be available until 2023, Edgington said.

The tram wasn’t built for the amount of use it was receiving during its last few years in operation, Kelley said.

“It was a destination,” he said. “People were coming to Girdwood just to do the tram. ... I think it became more of a — for lack of a better word — amusement ride, instead of a utility crossing for enjoying the trail.”