Pedaling to Girdwood on the Bird to Gird Trail
[by Janice Tower]
Biking on the Girdwood to Indian Trail is a uniquely Alaska experience, with stunning scenery, the possibility of wildlife encounters and fickle weather. Better known as the Bird to Gird Trail, the 13-mile, non-motorized, multi-use path parallels the Seward Highway southeast of Anchorage and hugs the rocky edge of Turnagain Arm, a tidal body between the big city and Girdwood. Bird and Indian are neighboring hamlets along the way.
In the old days, the section of highway from Bird Flats to Girdwood ran close to the mountain through an area prone to avalanches, which often closed the road and eventually prompted Alaska officials to rebuild the highway a safer distance from slides. They repurposed the old road into the trail we enjoy today.
Most days, particularly in clear and sunny weather, it’s hard to know which way to look—there’s something wild to view in every direction. Fast-moving glacial runoff plummets from craggy peaks draped with hanging glaciers. Ravens play on the wind as bald eagles skim the cathedral cliffs. A moose or black bear might surprise you on this scenic byway. And if you’re really lucky you will see the tsunamilike bore tide that floods the fjord with the world’s fourth-highest tidal range, which is defined as the difference between high tide and the succeeding low tide. Turnagain’s average tidal range is 30 feet.
Drive to the trailhead on the Seward Highway to the community of Indian. At Milepost 103, park at the trailhead parking lot on the right, then bike eastward toward Girdwood’s Alyeska Ski Resort, home to some of the steepest lift access in North America. Keep your eyes peeled, because you’re likely see Dall sheep perched high on the cliff at Windy Corner. Look toward the silty water of Turnagain Arm, and you might glimpse the white backs of beluga whales prowling for hooligan and salmon.
The paved trail winds through birch and cottonwood forest before crossing under the Seward Highway. Maintain a moderate speed and ride single file—the trail is popular among bikers, walkers, roller skiers and other folks enjoying the Bird Creek campground.
If the 26-mile round trip from Indian to Girdwood and back seems too ambitious, consider taking a shorter ride eastward from the Bird Point Scenic Overlook at the end of Bird Flats toward Girdwood. Park at the public lot at Milepost 96.5. This Chugach State Park trailhead carries a fee of $5 per vehicle. Interpretative signs about the area’s history and local wildlife make it a fun stop.
At Bird Point, the Bird to Gird Trail turns northeastward and pitches to a moderate uphill grade for about a half mile. Stop part way to check out the decommissioned gun mount that in days past launched heavy ordnance onto the mountain face for avalanche control.
Throughout the section between Bird Point and Girdwood, there are viewpoints that have clean outhouses, interpretative signs and photo-worthy vistas of Turnagain Arm a few hundred feet below. In late summer stop to graze wild raspberries, blueberries and salmonberries.
At the junction of the Alyeska and Seward highways is a small retail mall. Enjoy a refreshing ice cream cone at The Ice Cream Shop or partake in a monstersize cookie and espresso from the bakery next door. Fuel up for your ride back to Bird Point or Indian.
If you’re hankering for a sit-down meal, pedal another three miles from the highway junction through the community of Girdwood to Alyeska Ski Resort. Stop at The Bake Shop for a gooey-sweet cinnamon roll or a bottomless bowl of homemade soup served with a sourdough roll. If formal dining is more to your liking, Jack Sprat serves a fine lunch or dinner with local beers. Don’t worry about your attire—in Alaska most anything goes, particularly if you’re dressed in active gear. Before you hit the trail, though, check the weather for wind and rain. Turnagain Arm can be a wind tunnel as marine air collides with that of the warm Alaska interior. The Department of Transportation website has a series of weather stations that give real-time readings of average and peak wind speed, wind direction, precipitation and temperature. Live cameras give a visual of current highway conditions.
Carry a wind shell or a rain jacket and perhaps some warm gloves. The weather in Alaska can change quickly.
Regardless of what you wear and where you visit, you can feel comfortable lingering a while. Summer days are long and you needn’t worry too much about running out of light for your scenic ride back to where you started.
IF YOU GO
➜ Downtown Bicycle Rental has road bikes, mountain bikes, hybrids and tandems as well as trailers for the kiddos. Full-day rental starts at $32. alaska-bike-rentals.com
➜ Lifetime Adventures offers comfort bikes, kids’ bikes and cruisers in addition to road and mountain bikes. Full-day rental starts at $40. lifetimeadventure.net
➜ Also, be alert for wildlife on the trail, especially moose and bears, and if you encounter a wild critter, give it plenty of space.