We spent a total of 4D, 5N in Anchorage/Girdwood – the first two days on our way in and the last three at the end of our trip.
First Leg (Girdwood)
We originally had an Airbnb just 10 min outside Anchorage airport and so had an evening flight out which was originally going to arrive in Anchorage around 10:30PM which would give us plenty of time to drive to our vacation rental and get some rest before embarking on our adventure. A week before our trip, I got a text from Airbnb that our host had cancelled our reservation. This was a first for us with all our accommodations booked well over 3 months before our trip. Apparently the rental had some water damage due to the negligence of previous renters which would take a couple of months to fix. So there I was, less than a week before our trip, scrambling to find a 3B, 3Ba rental for 2 nights which wasn’t going to cost us an arm and leg. I finally found a gorgeous place in Girdwood surrounded by forest, which is 45 min away from the Anchorage airport. Although the rental turned out to be a 3B, 2.5Ba, we managed to survive for the two nights.
J had the first flight into Anchorage around 3PM, so he was kind enough to pick up some breakfast and lunch essentials for the next day. Our connecting flight in Seattle was delayed by 30 min so when we finally got to Anchorage and picked up our bags, it was close to 11:30PM. J was nice enough to pick us up from the Airport and drive us to Girdwood. By the time we showered and hit the sack, it was close to 1AM, jeez!
S and I have a cursed circadian rhythm, which means, no matter what time we go to sleep, we’re up next morning latest by 7AM! So there we were up at 7 the next morning, dressed and fed, while the rest of the group were still sleeping, 4 hrs later, we finally got everyone to leave the house, and hike the Winner Creek trail in Iditarod National Historic Trail (Alaska’s only National Historic Trail), 10 min drive from the rental. Unfortunately, the hand tram wasn’t still operational.
Although I’m not sure I’d have wanted to go on it after seeing some questionable signs. We hiked down to the Glacier Creek instead (which btw looked more like a river than a meager creek) and had a quick lunch and tried (very) hard to not get eaten alive by the wasp-size mosquitoes (can’t imagine going in summer). After trying out some rope crossing, S & J tell me its not as easy as it looks and I believe them), we hiked back to the parking lot and drove to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. If you’re in the area, this is a must visit. Entrance fee is $16/person and can be purchased in-person at the gate or online and goes towards a good cause -to rehabilitate the sick and injured animals and release them back into the wild (except in cases when they were brought in young). This was the only place in Alaska where we saw bears (and 6 to be exact, 3 black and 3 brown). A couple bears were rescued from the streets of towns around Alaska when they were babies so although they were big now, they wouldn’t be released into the wild as this was the only home they know of and lack wildlife survival skills. There were also Wolves, Deer, Elks, Musk Ox, Caribou, Bald Eagle, and Lynx to name a few. It gets really windy out there as its out in the open so be prepared with warm clothing even if the weather app says 70F. There’s also a pretty big gift shop selling clothes, slippers, jewelry, soaps, and knick-knacks. It was close to 5PM and our stomachs were rumbling so headed back to Girdwood to pick up some supplies at the Crow Creek Mercantile (which looks like a hole in the wall store for something owned by Safeway), and headed back home to eat up and rest. Since it was early May, we had twilight up until 11PM but we’d brought our sleep masks so that came in handy. Next morning was checkout and on our way to Denali.
Second Leg (Anchorage)
The Airbnb we stayed at in Anchorage for our last three days was ~5 miles from the airport while still far enough to not hear any plane noises and came well equipped for our stay. The house even had an outdoor hose and water hookup which came in handy to clean the exterior of our rental car before return. We’d planned to keep the last two days we had left light so the agenda for this day was to drive out to Byron Glacier. We took the same Old Seward Hwy, past Girdwood, and onto Portage Glacier road and turned off at Portage Lake loop/Byron Glacier Road. We did not go on to Whittier as the Prince William Sound cruise wasn’t open until later in the month. But if you do decide to go, you keep continuing on the Portage Glacier Road past the Portage Lake Loop turn off, towards Whittier,and pay a toll and pass thru the 2.5 mile long Whittier Tunnel which is open only certain times of the day to allow vehicle access to Whittier. I called the Chugach State Park hotline to confirm that the road/trail head to Byron Glacier was open before we left home to make sure there were no surprises as it had been raining/snowing at higher elevations that day. The operator said the trail should be open but to watch out for avalanches (thank you kind sir!). We decided an avalanche would be a cool adventure if we encountered one and set off on the drive to Portage Glacier Road. The weather turned misty as we approached Girdwood with tiny snow flurries as we reached the Byron Glacier trail head.
The trail head was well marked with scraps of what once was a book by the sign post asking people to sign-in their name with the number of people in their group as well as the approximate time of start of their hike which was a sign that avalanches were a great possibility and with no rangers around, they’d probably send out a search party if your loved ones (who did not accompany you on the trip) hadn’t heard from you within a considerable amount of time. It looked like no one had signed it in over 6 months plus the book had run out of pages so we decided that the authorities were probably not going to consult the said book and walked on. It’s always good practice to bring crampons with you on your hike (if you have them in the car) if the destination involves a Glacier (yes, I’m looking at you A & B). The trail was well maintained with a stream running to the left of it. Within a mile or so, the was a huge section of ice on the trail (from an avalanche perhaps) but we could see the trail pick up on the other side. So those of us who had crampons wore them (and the rest made it with S’s trusty stick). About half a mile after, we came to the mouth of the glacier. People who did not have crampons sat this one out and the rest of us decided to stay on the dirty looking ice (old ice is harder and less chance of caving in vs. the fresh snow) and made it to as far to the top as the dirty looking ice ended. We saw crevasses, tiny ice caves, gorgeous rocks along the way and the view from up top was nothing short of spectacular! On our way out, we stopped by the Begich Boggs Visitor Center (which was closed until end of May) but got to see an iceberg floating in the Portage Lake behind it.
After the hike, we went stopped by The Ulu Factory to get the famous Ulu knives and some salad grabbers. The knives and grabbers were reasonable priced with the ones in the seconds-bin (those with slight imperfections) at $10 to the good quality ones ~$20 a pop. They also claim to be made right there (instead of ones we saw at other places which were overseas). So if you plan on getting one, you should definitely go here.
Next morning, being our last full day in Alaska, J, S and I decided to go on a short hike before the rest of the people woke up and got dressed. S was tasked with finding the said short hike. He picked Flattop Mountain which sits at an elevation of 3245′. We left home around 8:45AM and arrived at the “trail head” where Google Maps brought us to around 9:20AM. We thought we’d be done by 11AM and home by 11:30AM. Boy were we wrong. Do NOT go to the location Google Maps sends you to! First off, there was no trail head marker or anything at this location. The trail seemed narrow at the beginning with no people ahead or behind us. It was pretty windy wehn we started and about 1/4 of the way up, an older couple (~50yr) passed us. While passing, they said that the trail got harder further along and us “City folks” shouldn’t be there. I was offended when they called us that (we ride over 100 miles and hike at least 8 miles every week) but later realized what they meant. We’d seen people on what seemed like a paved trailed to our far right so when S pointed that out to them and asked if the trail we were on connected, they said it eventually did at the top but didn’t give us specifics. They said the trail we were on was used by locals for training (not sure for what) and that the wind speed was going to pick up around 12PM to 85-100mph and went on their way. Not knowing the condition of the trail, we kept going. At about halfway, the trail kinda disappeared and started getting rocky and steep. We decided to keep going in hopes of finding the other trail for our return as we didn’t think we could go back the way we came. The wind speed started getting worse and worse. We had to hunker down several times, holding on to vegetation, hiding behind massive rocks in hopes of not being blown away. At some point, I honestly didn’t think we’d make it. And everyone else thought the same – but we didn’t share our fears instead we kept encouraging ourselves and each other to keep going, and hollering to hunker down at the first sign of the winds picking up. The sad thing was, no one knew where we were – the other two at home were still sleeping, and we hadn’t told family that were were going on what seemed like a harmless hike. So J started recording a video (so we could say our last words) in case something were to happen to us. As we kept going up, it became increasing rocky and we were rock-climbing at this point. The snow flurries had started too. At some point, my favorite alpaca beanie that I’d gotten in Peru flew off, never to be found – we sacrificed my beanie to the mountain and she spared our lives in return. As we got closer to the top, we crossed patches of hard ice (no, we didn’t have crampons but we did have sturdy hiking boots) hoping we wouldn’t slip and fall.
When we got to the top, we couldn’t find the other paved trail. The view at the top is spectacular with mountains on one side and water and Anchorage on the other. S suggested we keep going to the other side to see if it’d would connect. J and I voted to go with the “known devil” instead of the “unknown angel” and decided to go back the way we came. Coming back down was no cake walk. As there was no trail, we didn’t know if we were going the right way, except, we could see our car from the top. So we used that as a marker and made our way down. There was no way we could stand up right so we had to literally slide down on our butts. We finally made it down in one piece around 12PM, expect for scrapes and bruises on J’s palms (S and I had gloves which saved our hands), and a few holes in S’s pants. All our pants were caked with mud so we got home and hand washed our pants in the sink to get off as much mud as we could and then put it in the laundry – even after 3 more washes, there’s still a slight mark reminding us of our near-death adventure. I just now found out where the correct trail head is and we were way off by ~4.5 miles from where Google sent us. So, if you ever decide to go to Flattop mountain, use this address instead. After resting a bit, we all went out to check out downtown on our last night in Alaska.