Trails in and around Anchorage

Bryon Powell at iRunFar asked readers to prepare descriptions of the trails and running facilities in 32 cities around the US. His goal is to create a resource for new or travelling runners to find out about trail running in their cities. With Vanessa's help I prepared the following description of the trails around Anchorage:

I moved to Anchorage in the winter of 2009 from Johannesburg, a great big concrete city. I was amazed to discover the trail-running paradise that characterises Alaska. Since I’ve been here, I have run more than ever, and I have made some great running buddies who are only too happy to share their favorite routes with me.

The Anchorage City Bowl boasts a myriad of parks and trails, all of which link up to the forests and mountains of the Chugach National Forest and Chugach State Park.  190 parks covering 10,000 acres are connected by 400 miles of trails, which cater to trail runners of all levels [].

Many of these trails are accessible on foot from within the city districts. For new or amateur runners, there is the paved Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, which starts in Kincaid Park, home to over 44 miles of dirt trails. In fall, the local running community hosts the Bonny Sosa Tuesday Night Race Series, now in its 44th year. For nine weeks, three separate race courses are marked out, and runners from babies to pensioners come out to participate in the Munchkin, Farm or Lightning categories. []

Anchorage is also famous for Alaska’s most frequently climbed peak, Flattop Mountain. This trail has a total elevation gain of 1,350 feet in 1.5 miles and the peak provides stupendous views of the city, the valleys, Cook Inlet and Mount McKinley in the northwest. From the same trailhead, there is easy access to Powerline Pass, one of Anchorage’s most beautiful trails and one of my favorites.

Powerline pass as seen from Flattop

These trails are all part of the Chugach State Park trail system. The Chugach Mountains run along the east of the city, and are accessible from various points along the Anchorage trail network. In 2010 Harlow Robinson traversed the twelve peaks with an elevation higher than 5,000 feet, completing the Front Range Link-Up in under 23 hours. (Robinson has won the tortuous Matanuska Peak Challenge six times and the backcountry Cross Pass Crossing marathon twice.) [].

Runners who train on these trails might be preparing for two of south-central Alaska’s biggest trail races. In June, competitive trail runners connect Girdwood (40 miles south of Anchorage) to Eagle River (15 miles north of Anchorage) using trails through the Chugach Range, running as the crow flies, in the Crow Pass Race.

This marathon-length race has fixed start and end points, but the route past the Monarch mine ruins, Crystal Lake, Raven Glacier and Eagle River is up to the racers. Runners have one hour to make it to the top of the first mountain (where they invariably have to run through snow), and a further five hours to complete the race. Roughly-defined paths help out at times, but there are large sections of the trail where the tundra is unflattened and the bush is overgrown. Encounters with bears, moose and Dall sheep are common. Halfway through the race, the runners choose their own place to ford the thigh-deep, 25-foot, glacial-fed Eagle River.

Crow Pass veterans recognize rock piles and distinctive trees, and spend their summers working out short cuts and fine-tuning their routes. It’s a physically demanding race, but it’s great fun! The 2010 Crow Pass was won by Geoff Roes, a Juneau-based trail runner who also won last year’s Western States 100.

Anchorage’s trails are also accessible in winter. Many intrepid trail runners still take to the snowy paths, enjoying the solitude or possibly training for one of the toughest winter trail races, the Susitna 100. This race covers 100 miles through remote forests and frozen rivers and lakes, and can be completed on foot, bike or ski. Look out for my name on the finishers’ list this year!

Powerline pass in early fall

The best running store in Anchorage is Skinny Raven. They stock a good selection of kit and trail shoes and they helped to design the Adidas Raven trail shoe. They also sponsor a lot of local races, including the Tuesday Night Race Series and Crow Pass. They have marathon and half-marathon training groups and hold group runs from their store.

National Trails Day is a big deal here, and many runners and other trail users come out in force to contribute to the maintenance of the in-town trails. The Alaskan landscape provides the most beautiful backdrop for the trails, and it is a privilege to be able to enjoy them. For the trail runner, I think Anchorage is heaven! 

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