120-mile biking tour combines terrific workout with unstoppable views
I’ve ridden in the Lower 48 and in several European countries. The ride that stands out among all the places I’ve been can be found right here in Anchorage’s back yard – Anchorage to Seward, with an Alaska Railroad shuttle back to Anchorage.
This 120-mile tour, with its 3,500 feet of climbing, is a gem for a moderately fit cyclist. The distance is challenging but not too much of a reach if you’ve been following the training plan outlined in the April edition of Coast.
The Seward Highway takes you through the most dazzling scenery of the Kenai Peninsula. It is also a National Scenic Byway, the beauty of which bursts forward when experienced from the seat of a bicycle.
The journey begins in the early morning at the Anchorage Railroad Depot in downtown Anchorage. You can drop your car here, then head south via C Street for a 125-mile ride, or the Coastal Trail if you want to make it a tough 130. If you’d rather skip riding in the city you can start at Potter Marsh, which reduces the trip mileage to about 113.
I recommend starting no later than 7 a.m. to allow plenty of time for rest stops, fixing mechanical issues and taking photos. Plan to arrive in Seward by a comfortable margin before the 6 p.m. departure.
The Seward Highway parallels 35 miles of Turnagain Arm from Potter to the Portage turnoff. On a lucky day, one can spot Dall sheep perched on craggy cliffs, beluga whales hunting in the murky waters of the shallow fjord and bald eagles soaring high on air currents swirling the edges of the Chugach Mountains.
Turnagain Arm can be a wind tunnel. Check the weather forecast and the Alaska Department of Transportation’s Road Weather Information System website to get current wind and precipitation readings. Choose a day when there are light to variable winds forecast with wind speeds below 10 mph. It’s best to have strong riders in your pace line when winds are predicted to be strong and coming from the southeast, which means bucking a headwind down The Arm and slow progress to Seward.
The shoulder can be narrow and rough with loose sand, rocks and assorted debris. Bring at least two extra tubes, a patch kit and a reliable pump.
Eleven miles past Potter Marsh, join the Indian to Girdwood bike path for a respite from traffic. Your first stop for food, water and facilities is at the Girdwood turnoff approximately 14 miles past Indian.
The shoulder widens between Girdwood and the base of Turnagain Pass. The glacier views up the Twentymile, Portage and Placer River drainages are impressive, so try to keep one eye on the road while taking in this remarkable display of nature. Prepare to shift into your granny gear for a bit of climbing up Turnagain Pass.
Turnagain Pass might seem insurmountable, but the 7-mile climb isn’t so bad when you consider the occasional flat sections where your burning legs can recover. The high alpine summit with its lingering snowfields and abundant wildflowers provides a pleasant backdrop for a fuel and hydration break. Your climbing is richly rewarded from this point as you can look forward to about 12 miles of gentle to rolling descent before the next climb up to Summit Lake Lodge.
As you pass the Hope Road turnoff, shift down again and prepare for a 10-mile climb to your lunch stop at Summit Lake. There are some flat spots for recovery between a few short but steep hills. Don’t lose hope, as you will be rewarded with lunch by the high mountain lake. Summit Lake Lodge offers full facilities in a sit-down restaurant. The ice cream shop next door serves espresso and pizza by the slice.
Don’t get sucked into this comfortable vortex for too long – there is still 45 miles of road to travel, and the train won’t wait.
From Summit Lake, the next 10 miles consists of gentle downhill to Tern Lake at the junction of the Seward and Sterling highways. Headwinds are common here, as cool marine air pushes northward out of Resurrection Bay.
The road and shoulders narrow as you pedal through Moose Pass, an eclectic hamlet with much character. This is the last opportunity to stop to refuel before your final push into Seward. There are short undulations in terrain as you ride by the aquamarine Kenai Lake. With only 27 miles to go until you reach Seward, these rolling hills can feel like mountains.
Just past the bridge at the tip of Kenai Lake, the highway widens and broad shoulders reappear. Three hills greet you on this section to make you feel your worth. Grab more calories and tuck down a final long descent, followed by flat roads to the Seward train depot.
Once at the depot, check your bike in for the trip back to Anchorage and head to your favorite watering hole for a cold beer.
The train ride back to Anchorage takes a leisurely four hours, during which time knowledgeable staff will point out wildlife and tell you a bit about the history of the Kenai Mountains-Turnagain Arm corridor. This transportation route is rich with history, from pre-European exploration through mining and natural resource development, the creation of the Iditarod Trail and the Alaska Railroad.
One of my favorite experiences is enjoying dinner in the dining car. There are several tasty entrees from which to choose at reasonable prices, and there is a full bar. Why rush back to Anchorage all tired and crammed into a car when you can savor your accomplishment from the comfort of the Alaska Railroad?
The Grandview area between Seward and Portage displays wild Alaska at its scenic best. Jagged mountains stretch skyward out of a steeply sloped valley. Trail, Bartlett and Spencer glaciers squeeze their way toward the Placer River. I have seen moose and black bear on every bike-to-train adventure through this valley.
The railroad itself is an engineering marvel. At one point the track circles back on itself to reduce the seemingly impossible grade. You get the sense that the train’s engineer and the conductor in the caboose will high-five each other as the train winds the bend.
Even Turnagain Arm and Anchorage look different from the perspective of the train. Once back in town, collect your bike and your car at the end of a full day of exploring the Kenai Peninsula, then dream of the day when you can do it all again.
If You Go
Check the weather before you go and choose your day wisely. Here are two of my favorite websites: http://pafc.arh.noaa.gov/, www.dot.state.ak.us/iways/roadweather/forms/AreaForm.html?areaId=2
Leave Anchorage no later than 7 a.m. to allow plenty of time to ride to Seward.
Alaska Railroad reservations are encouraged, especially in the busy tourism season. Purchase tickets online at
www.alaskarailroad.com. Be sure to bring your ID.
Carry a credit card and also a bit of cash for locations that don’t accept credit cards.
Bring undergarments, a T-shirt, sandals and rain gear to change out of your bike clothes for the train trip back. Bike shops sell clever bags for packing extra gear or you could use a small backpack for such items.
Pack plenty of ride food and two water bottles to maintain good energy for a ride that could last seven to 10 hours.
Have a backup plan in case you don’t arrive in time to make the 6 p.m. train.