February 12, 2015
This is the best time of year to ride a bicycle in Anchorage, Alaska. The breadth of winter riding opportunities near the city make it a travel destination to rival fall mountain biking in Moab or skiing in the high country of Colorado. Direct your attention to fatbikes, off-season Alaska Airlines flights, local Anchorage microbrews, and the community of riders who ensure local trails stay in top condition through the winter, simply because they enjoy riding them. There is an unrealized touristic potential in the variety of rides which make Anchorage unique. And like a ski trip to Colorado you don't have to bivy out in a snowdrift at night, choosing instead to be a part of the city for a few days, months after most tourists have left the state. Be one of the first to come discover Alaska by bike in winter.
Living or staying within the city of Anchorage immediately connects you to the largest network of urban winter bike trails in the world, including wide groomed multi-use trails, well-packed singletrack, and more adventurous terrain from the mountains to the sea, all within riding distance. Multi-use trails such as the Chester Creek Trail and the Coastal Trail act as main arteries in winter — as in summer — and on the nicest winter afternoons they may be busy with dog walkers, skiiers, and fatbike riders, although most of the winter only a dedicated fraction of the Anchorage population uses these wooded trails. The number of fatbikes commuters and recreational rider has grown in the last decade as equipment improves. All of this, thankfully, makes riding in the winter more fun.
Several official singletrack resources can be found in the city, each uniquely funded and maintained. At Kincaid Park you will find groomed singletrack, maintained by human power, such as by towing a tire or other weighted device. The BLM Campbell Tract trail system and Hillside STA trails feature narrower singletrack, naturally maintained by riders with the pass of each low-pressure fatbike tire. There is also more remote singletrack above the Campbell Tract in Chugach State Park, where riders share trails with skiiers and walkers, as well as moose, lynx, and ptarmigan. Best of all, any of these trails can be arranged to form a big loop around the city, trading ride time between fast multi-use trails and more technical singletrack. Be sure to eat a big breakfast for such an all-day epic.
The first traces of wild Alaska can actually be found in the urban frontcountry, within city limits. There are a variety of beach rides which may be accessible through the winter, especially in low-snow conditions or near the end of the season. In spring, the daily freeze-thaw cycle creates a hardened snow surface called crust and riders can finally strike out into the white expanse, like walking on water. The longest winter beach rides in Anchorage trace the urban coastline along Turnagain Arm from South Anchorage, rounding the peninsula at Kincaid Park towards downtown along the Knik Arm of Cook Inlet. You finish by riding into the Anchorage skyline, a modest urban concentration where you find several favorite downtown breweries and eateries. Alternatively, an easy pedal along the Chester Creek Trail transports you to popular Midtown hangouts, or home. Don't mistake winter fatbiking as an endurance sport for the hardcore, group rides and après festivites are as much part of the fun as learning to adjust tire pressure and descend snowy singletrack. Think of it more like a ski vacation without lift tickets and lines.
While in town, visit the home of Fatback Bikes at Speedway Cycles in Midtown Anchorage, and check in on the latest fast-paced group rides at Chain Reaction Cycles in South Anchorage, home to the 9zero7 fatbike brand and host to many local fatbike races through the season, including the Frosty Bottom and the Abominable Snowman Singletrack series. Paramount Cycles is also a great place to keep track of local rides, including night rides or out of town all-day epics to the Kenai. Be sure to bring lights and layers on longer rides. The winter sun is minimal through January and February, although the days quickly lengthen towards March and April. By the first week in April, afternoons are increasingly sunny and warm, and conditions deteriorate quickly into a brief season called “break up” in Alaska, a precursor to summer marked by a mess of meltwater. March is the best month to ride. Bring your sunglasses.
There are also many out of town riding opportunities, from nearby day rides and overnights to multi-day expeditions in the backcountry, with the option to stay in USFS cabins or private accomodations. The ride to the Knik Glacier is readily accessible from Anchorage (about a 50-mile drive), and requires as little as ten miles of pedaling to reach the frozen lake at the base of the glacier. Popular summer mountain bike rides on the Kenai Peninsula are increasingly ridable each winter as rims and tires grow wider, studs become more common, and riders learn how to pack the right equipment onto their bikes. A series of winters with very little snow have saddened skiiers, while the winter riding is arguably improved as a result (studs may be the decider). At any time a heavy blanket of snow has the capacity to change riding conditions. Never fear, let some pressure out and discover what fatbikes are really meant to do. Current trail conditions are shared openly between riders through local shops and social media.
For the most experienced and adventurous there are snowmachine and dogsled trails across the state, with an especially high concentration of routes across frozen rivers and glacial lakes in the region north of Anchorage, beyond Wasilla. The legendary human-powered versions of the Iditarod races begin here, as does the Susitna 100. In the right year, with some preparation and experience, a self-guided tour to McGrath along the Iditarod Trail is possible. A few riders have even ridden all the way to Nome, outside of the annual Iditarod race. If you're like Bjorn and Kim — Homer, AK residents who charted a route from Southcentral Alaska to the Arctic last winter — the state looks even more like a winter adventure playground. But if melting snow and sleeping out under the aurora isn't your thing, consider an Anchorage based cycling holiday. Fatbikes and winter riding will surely change your perspective about what is possible on a bicycle.
Arctic Cycles is operated by winter biking pioneer and racing legend Billy Koitzsch. He rents bikes for day rides as well as multi-day races and expeditions, including luggage and pogies. Winter skills seminars, training camps, and guided activities are also offered.
Late February and March is often the best time to ride as you can expect an abundant snowpack, well-traveled trails, and longer days with warmer temperatures. A variety of urban-based rides are possible almost every day of the winter due to a high volume of riders on local trails. Even after a big snowfall, most trails are rideable within a day or two, thanks to the dedicated riders who don't mind the extra work. Late March and the first days of April can be stunning, although conditions rapidly deteriorate in April. The best part of riding in winter? No mud, mosquitoes, or bears.
A fatbike, lights and layers; or, get what you need at Anchorage area bike shops and outdoor stores. A ski or snowboard helmet is a good idea in the colder months.
Check out singletrack at Kincaid, the Campbell Tract and Hillside trails, Chugach State Park, and the small local system near APU. Wide groomed trails such as the Coastal Trail and the greenway trails along Chester Creek and Campbell Creek are nice connectors, or great for beginners. Some urban commuting routes can be treacherous, due to traffic and challenging conditions, so be sure to pick up the Anchorage Bike Map at any bike shop.
The local riding community is very inclusive. Ask around for ride suggestions and make friends at bike shops and on the trail. There are group rides almost every night of the week, organized by all the shops in town, as well as local race teams and groups of friends who meet to ride. Friend local bike shops on Facebook to keep up with rides and events during your stay.
Check AirBnB for unique accomodations in the city. The Spenard Hostel is centrally located close to the Chester Creek Trail in Midtown. For the cycletourist. Warmshowers.org may also result in a knowledgeable host for a few nights, or at least a guide for your first ride in town. If planning to stay in a hotel, Midtown Anchorage is the functional town center for most people with the highest concentration of eateries, coffee shops, and bicycle shops. Downtown is close to the Coastal Trail and only about 10 miles from Kincaid Park by groomed trail, but the Hillside trails will be an hour or more away by bike. Midtown leaves you equidistant from most riding in town, and near to both the Coastal Trail and the Chester Creek Trail, which are de facto winter fatbike highways for many people.
Share your own winter commuting stories and photos with us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter by tagging #fatbikefeb.