Stories from Alaska

An insider's journey through Alaska's best kept secrets

Anchorage’s Coastal Trail: A walk (jog, bike ride, or ski) to remember

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When people dream of visiting Alaska, thoughts often drift to the unique and untamed wilds of the state. Eagles, moose, salmon and even a rare bear or beluga whale sighting. The grandeur of massive, snowcapped peaks. Denali towering on the distant horizon. Lush green forests. Tranquil blue waterways.

For travelers, imagination becomes reality as those amazing aspects of Alaska’s environment combine in an unexpected, incredibly special place: Anchorage, the state’s largest and most visited city. Yes, accessing Alaska’s natural wonders from this urban location is possible and spectacular. It is called the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, the popular paved path which begins in the heart of downtown Anchorage and travels 11 miles to the wooded Kincaid Park.

In a town that is renowned for its world-class trail system, the Coastal Trail is Anchorage’s crown jewel. It mainly travels along the fault line of the historic 1964 earthquake, meaning a drop-off to the beach below creates incredible visibility of its sensational surroundings. It is framed to the east by Anchorage’s greenbelt with the Chugach Mountains looming above; to the north are Fire Island, Mt. Susitna/Sleeping Lady and, on a clear day, the distant form of Denali; to the southwest, enjoy views of Cook Inlet, Turnagain Arm, and Alaska’s infamous volcanoes, Mt. Redoubt and Mt. Spurr.

Another special feature: the majority of the trail is flat, making it easy to traverse at any age and fitness level. Hundreds of locals use the trail daily for walking, running, biking and roller-skiing in the summer, and in the winter they ski and fat-tire bike. Many use it to commute to the office. Yet because of the fresh air, setting, scenery and spread of the trail, the experience still feels peaceful. You don’t even have to travel with gear: you can rent bikes and skis in a handful of Anchorage businesses, including some near the start of the trail.

When you travel the Coastal Trail, keep an eye out for fellow recreationalists, as well as moose and an infrequent bear. If your timing is right and your luck is good, you could spot a pod of beluga whales breaching in the nearby water. In the air, you’ll see an occasional eagle and the area’s most frequent flyers – impressively giant cargo aircraft that are landing and taking off from Ted Stevens International Airport. The airborne reminders of your urban locale and the fact that Anchorage is an air travel crossroads for the world. Helpful, frequently appearing signs with maps and mileposts let you know exactly where you are and how far you’ve traveled.

Want to soak up a view? Have a snack? Relax and catch your breath? The Coastal Trail has plenty of places to take a break, most with great views. There are benches spaced sporadically along the trail and the trail passes through a handful of parks. Barely a mile from the Elderberry Park starting point downtown is Westchester Lagoon, a beautiful wetland area with lush shoreline and photo-friendly birds, and a popular gathering place for picnickers, families and dog walkers. Here, you can see the Alaska Railroad cars pass by up close, too. In the winter, the lagoon is loaded with ice skaters and fires crackle in burn barrels.

A little under 6 miles from downtown is Point Woronzof, on the edge of Kincaid Park. There, you’ll see an iconic perspective of Anchorage: the stories-high urban buildings of downtown are seemingly miniature when back-dropped by the looming Chugach Mountains. This is also a perfect place to watch a classic Alaska sunset.

Shortly from here, the trail enters Kincaid Park, where the last 5 miles travel through a densely forested, animal-populated area. The route ends at the park’s chalet, a perfect place to drop off a car or arrange for a ride, or enjoy a snack before you turn around and head back downtown.

Fun fact: the Coastal Trail is named after noted politician and outdoor enthusiast Tony Knowles, who served as Anchorage’s mayor and Alaska’s governor and still calls the state home.

If you go, wear comfortable shoes and socks and take a day-pack loaded with some clothing layers, hats and gloves, because in Anchorage, as in all of Alaska, the weather can change swiftly. Also pack a snack and water, and a charged camera/phone.