Alaska Excursions

Alaska Excursions

A wide range of trips throughout Southcentral Alaska.

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Girdwood area is chockablock with fun activities and art

Rainbow Creek tumbles down the hillside along the Seward Highway on its way to Turnagain Arm. Rainbow Creek is one trail head on the nine-mile Turnagain Arm Trail.

BOB HALLINEN / Daily News archive

Rainbow Creek tumbles down the hillside along the Seward Highway on its way to Turnagain Arm. Rainbow Creek is one trail head on the nine-mile Turnagain Arm Trail.

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2012 Alaska Visitors Guide - Activities

It's hard to decide what's the best thing about Girdwood -- the destination itself or the trip to get there.

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Editor's Picks
• Get behind the wheel: Particularly on a sunny day, a drive on the Seward Highway from Potter Marsh to Portage can't be beat. Take your time, stop, enjoy. And, yes, drive with your headlights on -- it's the law.

• Turnagain Arm Trail: It is one of my favorite all-season trails. Sadly, you can hear the traffic on the highway at times, but the views of Turnagain Arm and the mountains are outstanding. The stretch from near Potter Marsh to McHugh Creek is about three miles. I love the smell of the trail in spring.

• Tasty bits: For a somewhat rugged skiing town, Girdwood has some great eating. If you want a snack, stop by Coast pizza along the highway or the Bake Shop near Alyeska Resort. If you want a great sit-down meal, get to Jack Sprat Restaurant, which features some of the most inspiring dishes around. And if you want super-fancy, head to the Double Musky Inn, an award-winning Cajun place.

• A bit of art: After all the outdoor adventures, visit the Girdwood Center for the Visual Arts for a taste of finer things. You're likely to meet one of the co-op artists working the counter.

About 35 miles south of Anchorage, the small community tucked in a green valley just off Turnagain Arm is a beautiful taste of Alaska. Whether it's hiking, paragliding, arts, ATV riding or fine dining, Girdwood has something for everyone. It's an ideal day trip for visitors making Anchorage their home base.

But first you've got to get to there. It's an easy drive along the Seward Highway, but there are more than a few distractions along the way. The Seward Highway was designated a National Scenic Byway in 1998 and is considered by many the most beautiful drive in Alaska.

Before you've left Anchorage's southern limits, you'll come upon the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge; Potter Marsh will be on your left. During summer months, it's a great place to look for arctic terns, Canada geese, gulls, ducks, grebes and other birds. Nearby is one of several trail heads for the nine-mile Turnagain Arm Trail.

Farther down the highway is McHugh Creek, a lovely place for a picnic or a hike. There are spotting scopes available to help visitors locate Dall sheep on the mountain terrain.

Just a few miles farther down the road is Beluga Point, the best place to look for white beluga whales, which spend much of the summer searching for food in Turnagain Arm. Next stop along the highway is Windy Corner, where Dall sheep will often come right to the edge of the highway to browse.

At Indian, there is an opportunity for gold panning and the start of a biking-hiking path that parallels the highway all the way to Girdwood. Bird Creek is popular with anglers. Next up is the Bird Point Scenic Overlook, which juts into Turnagain Arm and has outstanding views east toward the head of the bay and west toward Cook Inlet. It is an ideal place to watch for a bore tide. A bore tide is a breaking wave of water up to 6 feet high moving at about 15 mph with an incoming tide.

If you need more things to do on the drive to Girdwood, consider all the waterfalls that cascade near the Seward Highway and the stunning view of the Kenai Mountains across Turnagain Arm. If you manage to overcome all the distractions, Girdwood and the surrounding area will keep you busy.

Alyeska Resort (alyeskaresort.com) is the center of fun in the Girdwood area. Put these activities on your to-do list: tandem paragliding, aerial tram ride to an elevation of 2,300 feet, glacier hiking, dog sled rides on a glacier, cycling and hiking in a temperate rain forest.

While the ride up the 60-person tram costs $18, a ride down is free, so adventurous hikers can work their way up the mountain, enjoy the view and then take a comfortable ride down.

The tram also makes it easy for paragliders to reach a good takeoff point. Alaska Paragliders (alaskaparagliding.com) offers tandem paragliding from Mount Alyeska. A tandem paragliding ride is $195.

Another tram-based Girdwood experience is a glacier hike with The Ascending Path (theascendingpath.com). Guides take trekkers on a hike to the edge of Alyeska Glacier, where they pull on over-boots, crampons and harnesses and rope up for a glacier excursion. While on the ice, guides explain various geological features of glaciers.

The three-hour excursion offers excellent views of the seven glaciers in the Girdwood bowl. The trips leave at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. daily from mid-June through September. From mid-June to mid-July, midnight sun glacier hikes are offered at 8 p.m. The trip is $139.

Hikers who want to stay closer to sea level can enjoy the Winner Creek Trail, which begins beneath the tramway at Alyeska Resort. The 512-mile round-trip trail follows boardwalks that cross sections of muskeg dotting the spruce and hemlock forest. After about a mile, the boardwalk gives way to a more traditional trail.

Eventually, the trail leads to a hand-pull tram that crosses Glacier Creek. From the tram, the creek is more than 100 feet below. For a longer hike, connect with a section of the original Iditarod Trail. As an alternative, a primitive trail branches off the main Winner Creek Trail to form the Upper Winner Creek Trail that climbs for several miles to Winner Pass.

Those looking for guaranteed wildlife sightings should stop at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, a few miles down the road from Girdwood at Mile 79 Seward Highway.

The center (awcc.org) is home to a variety of animals including brown and black bears, moose, elk, wood bison, caribou, Sitka black-tailed deer and a variety of birds. Many of the animals come to the center injured or orphaned and can't be returned to their natural environment.

Staff naturalists provide interpretive programs daily.

Visitors can walk or drive through the park. There are interpretive signs at each animal habitat that describe the species, its Alaska habitat and some details about the specific animals at the center. One of the park's highlights is its wood bison program. The center is working to reintroduce the animals to the Alaska wilderness.

Back in Girdwood, those looking for a bit of an indoor experience can enjoy a wonderful art display at the Girdwood Center for Visual Arts. The arts center is a cooperative of about 35 artists with displays including fabric, oil painting, glass, watercolors, pottery, photography and wood turning. The center represents artists from across Alaska, and the artists are often working behind the checkout counter.

Whether its mountain biking, glacier trekking, animal viewing or art shopping, those activities will probably leave the visitor plenty hungry. Girdwood won't disappoint when it comes time to satisfy the appetite.

HEADING NORTH

While a trip to Girdwood and points south is hard to beat, don't forget about fun the other direction. Eagle River and Eklutna Lake are a pair of nearby northern destinations.

The Eagle River Nature Center (ernc.org) at the end of end of Eagle River Road offers wonderful hiking and wildlife-viewing opportunities. There is plenty of information about the 500,000-acre Chugach State Park and local geology, mammals, birds and plant life. The center offers several programs including guided hikes and walks to watch beavers and learn about wildflowers.

Eklutna Lake is another popular entrance to the state park. The seven-mile-long lake is fed by a glacier and surrounded by beautiful mountain peaks that rise more than 7,000 feet. The lake is a fishing, kayaking and canoeing destination.

The 13-mile-long Lakeside Trail runs alongside the lake. The trail is easy for most bicycle riders and can be hiked in about six hours one way. ATVs are allowed on the trail Sundays through Wednesdays. The 212-mile Twin Peaks Trail is popular with hikers because of its views of the entire Eklutna Valley.

Alaska ATV Adventures (alaskaatvadventures) offers guided tours along the Lakeside Trail. A four-hour tour is $185 for drivers and $130 for passengers. The Lakeside Trail is open for ATV use Sundays to Wednesdays, so the tours are limited to those days.

Lifetime Adventures (lifetime adventures.net) rents kayaks, bicycles and camping gear

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