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Bird Creek is considered instant outdoors

The Bird Creek Campground is located near the Seward Highway, but there can be times when there is no traffic noise and campers can imagine themselves in the wilderness.

Anchorage Daily News

The Bird Creek Campground is located near the Seward Highway, but there can be times when there is no traffic noise and campers can imagine themselves in the wilderness.

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Bird Creek

The Bird Creek Campground is located near the Seward Highway, but there can be times when there is no traffic noise and campers can imagine themselves in the wilderness.

Located just 20 miles from Anchorage, this long-established campground offers recreation for all.

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Northern Alaska has two national parks, all or part of five national wildlife refuges, a national preserve and a national monument. In all of those, camping is virtually unrestricted.

Longtime campground offers recreation for all

BIRD CREEK -- All in all, 13-year-old cousins Rhandy Hauck and Hailee Gillespie say camping at Bird Creek campground was one of the best ways to spend their summer vacation. With car support from their parents, the two took the better part of a day last week riding their bicycles from their Eagle River homes to this campground just off the Seward Highway.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Then, after getting off their bikes and setting up camp, they headed down to the creek to cast for salmon. In a few hours, they had a string of pinks -- and even a few silvers. As they settled into camp after returning from more fishing the next day, the two teens considered their options:

• Hike Bird Ridge?

• Hop on their bikes again for a ride to Girdwood?

• Take a long nap in front of a campfire?

That's the thing about Bird Creek Campground. Just minutes from Anchorage, it offers an instant outdoors experience -- a mini-getaway that rivals vacations that out-of-towners would pay thousands to enjoy.

What's here?

Salmon fishing (and hooligan earlier in the season), challenging hikes, four-wheeler trails and, thanks to the recent completion of the paved path from Indian Creek to Girdwood, a world-class bike path with outstanding views of Turnagain Arm.

"You travel minimal miles and you get great fun," said Hailee's father, Todd Gillespie, of Bird Creek campground, a place he decided to take the family because son Camden's football practice conflicted with vacation time.

By staying at Bird Creek, they could still camp and fish while shuttling Camden to and from practice.

On a windy day at Bird Creek campground, you can pitch your tent with a view overlooking Turnagain Arm and feel like you're the only person for miles around.

TRICKING YOUR MIND

It's an illusion, of course. Hundreds of people are, in fact, very close.

Seward Highway traffic whizzes by at all hours. Campers at surrounding tent spots are just a shout away. Cyclists regularly pedal by on the bike path overlooking the Arm, and anglers frequent the dirt one-way road of the campground, carrying strings of pinks or silvers from fishing trips at the creek just a few hundred yards away.

But there are moments when things slow down, when 10 minutes may pass before you hear the sound of a vehicle or the shriek of a child at another camp site. It's a welcome respite, in which you can escape for a few minutes into comfortable solitude.

At those times, you can almost trick your mind into thinking you really are on the Koyukuk River or you really have set your tent up on Kodiak Island amid giant Sitka spruce.

This is the mildest version of "roughing it" in Alaska, but it's outside, and that counts for something.

Mike Goodwin, chief ranger for Chugach State Park, said Bird Creek is one of the most heavily used campgrounds in the park -- and also one of the smallest and oldest.

The trees, some original old-growth Sitka spruce, are as old as 120 years. There are 28 camp spots as well as a handful of walk-in tent spaces. There are pit toilets, fire rings and picnic tables, and camping is allowed for up to seven days at a time.

This year, for the first time, the campground is being managed by Lifetime Adventures, the same company that oversees the park's Eagle River and Eklutna Lake campgrounds.

"It was an old BLM campground, probably from back in the '70s. When the park became established, it became one of the first (Chugach State Park) campgrounds south of Anchorage," Goodwin said of Bird Creek.

"Since then it really hasn't received much improvement," he said. "It's kind of in its original character. It's old, it's worn and it's heavily used. We put a little bit into it the last few decades, a few minor road improvements, but not much."

SO MUCH TO DO

Steve Pasternak Jr., from Park Ridge, Ill., sat in a lawn chair drinking Miller beer from a can and poking a stick into his small campfire.

Smoke billowed and drifted away with the breeze. Inside his recreational vehicle, Pasternak's wife was preparing lunch: silver salmon Pasternak had just reeled in from Bird Creek.

He admitted that the fishing is what prompted him to stop at Bird Creek. The silvers are here now and are expected to peak today or Monday and stay heavy for about a week, according to Fish and Game sportfish biologist Matt Miller. But then Pasternak pointed to his bike, leaning against the RV.

"The fish drew me, but I've been riding all the trails too," he said. "This is the nicest trail I've been at anywhere. It has waterfalls and birding, and Turnagain Arm is beautiful, especially when the tide is out. ...

"There's a lot of nice trails in Anchorage, but it would be hard to surpass this trail."

Indeed the newly completed paved bike path from Indian Creek to Girdwood is a hit among those who stumble upon it.

The 13-mile path begins nearly two miles north of the Bird Creek campground, at the Indian Creek parking area, and follows the edge of the campground along Turnagain Arm.

Then it crosses under the highway and follows part of the old Seward Highway roadbed for another few miles. The official opening of the trail was held in late July, but cyclists discovered it as early as last fall, while it was still being completed.

The trail takes cyclists all the way into Girdwood without having to get on the highway. For Bird Creek campers, it is a way to expand their vacations to include an afternoon or evening in Girdwood.

Bird Creek campground host Tomy Buskirk said campers are discovering the trail doesn't just end a few miles down the road like it used to.

Lifetime Adventures, the company he works for, even offers bike rentals for those who didn't bring their own bikes.

"I haven't had too many bike rentals because people usually bring their own," he said. "But they realize when they get here, there's a lot more going on than just fishing."

Just across the highway about a half mile north from the campground is the trail head to Bird Ridge, a challenging day hike for anyone.

It's a steep hike, but it's well worth the climb. And it's one of the first hiking areas free of snow in the spring.

You can hike about two miles to the first high peak, at about 3,500 feet, or go as far as six miles to get a view of the headwaters of Ship Creek, at about 4,600 feet.

"Use is up in the area as a whole," said Goodwin, of Chugach State Park. "We're seeing more cars in the parking lots, from the spillover lot across from the campground, all the way down to the Indian (Creek) parking station, where the bikers are starting their rides."

Some riders even mountain bike 15 miles up Bird Valley.

"You go into a place like Bird Valley," Goodwin said, "and the riding is quite superior. You can see brown bear on the hillside, Dall sheep up high and moose in the meadows."

Goodwin said all-terrain vehicles also frequent the Bird Valley area, traveling old logging roads.

"More people are coming here all the time," he said.

BIRD CREEK'S FUTURE

With all the recreational opportunities surrounding Bird Creek Campground and all the money put into the new parking, bike paths and access to Bird Creek over the past two years, one wonders: Can this little old campground survive?

The narrow one-way road through the campground is potholed, and the camping areas are compacted like concrete from years of heavy use.

"It's busy here every single day," Buskirk said. "The main grounds have been filling up by early evening every day, and come Thursday and Friday, it fills up by 1 or 2 p.m. Ever since the (silver) fishing started, it's been nonstop."

Goodwin said Chugach State Park's master plan originally called for the Bird Creek campground to become a day-use area only. But that was only to happen if a new campground was built. The department doesn't have enough money for a project of that magnitude, so the Bird Creek campground continues to operate.

"The real problem is that campground has a very small land base and not a lot of room for expansion," Goodwin said.

The Division of Natural Resources will receive $2 million in federal funds this month for more improvements to the area around Bird Creek.

Mike Seidl with the Division of Natural Resources said the money is to be used for improved RV access along the Seward Highway, but it has not been designated to the Bird Creek campground specifically.

If some of the money is used at Bird Creek, Goodwin would like to see not only improved RV access but protection for the Sitka spruce, the towering 100-year-old trees that give the campground its quiet character despite the proximity to the highway.

"A lot of the attraction of that area is the trees," he said. "We're looking at what we can do with the land space that we have, not just for the campground but for the whole Bird Creek area. We're still very much in the early stages of how were going to spend this money.

"Certainly we're going to see some improvements in the campground itself, but it's a very delicate process too to protect those trees."

Daily News reporter Melissa DeVaughn can be reached at mdevaughn@adn.com.


BIRD CREEK CAMPGROUND: Located about 20 miles southeast of Anchorage at Mile 101 Seward Highway. Camp spots are $10 per night, with a seven-night limit, and can accommodate RVs and tents. Lifetime Adventures, which operates the state-owned campground, offers bike rentals -- $10 for two hours, $20 for two to four hours, and $30 for four or more hours. Check with the campground host for availability.


WHAT TO DO AT BIRD CREEK:

• Four-wheeling: Alaska ATV Adventures: (694-4294 www.alaskaatvadventures.com) offers 3-hour, 5-hour or full-day tours starting at $135 per person, with custom tours available, in the Bird Valley area.

• Hiking: Bird Ridge is a spectacular day hike, ranging from two to 12 miles, depending upon how far you want to go. Access the trail head by going to Mile 102 of the Seward Highway, north of the campground and across the highway.

• Cycling: The Indian to Girdwood bike path begins at the Indian Creek ball fields about two miles north of the campground, but you can just hop onto the trail from the Bird Creek Campground. The path is paved and stays off the highway for the entire 11-mile, one-way trip to Girdwood.

• Mountain biking: Bird Valley offers great mountain biking for those up for more rugged riding.

• Fishing: Pinks and silvers can be caught in Bird Creek, as well as hooligan earlier in the season. Silvers are running now and peaking this week. Matt Miller, sportfish biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said about 10,000 silvers are expected this year.

• Birding: More than two dozen species of birds can be found along Turnagain Arm. Look for common redpolls nesting in shrubs and living in small trees; Steller's jays, nesting in coniferous trees; and alder flycatchers, which nest in shrubs and are a summer visitor before flying south for the winter.

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