Alaska for spring break? Some Minnesotans love winter, but even the hardiest among us wishes for beaches and snorkeling when the calendar flips to March.
Still, my 13-year-old son, Jameson, and I didn’t pause when his neighborhood buddy, Austin Humphrey, asked if we wanted to join him, his dad and his uncle for a whirlwind, three-night ski trip to south-central Alaska during the school break. Jameson had never skied, and raising children had kept me from the slopes since the 1990s. Neither fact swayed us from this adventure.
My family enjoys hiking and paddling in the backcountry during the summer because it allows us to avoid crowds. So what better way to lose people than to fly north when most travelers are headed south? By heading to a ski resort in southern Alaska, we also avoided the kinds of crowds that show up at well-known ski resorts.
There are reasons beyond spacious slopes to click into skis in Alaska. By early April, temperatures were surprisingly balmy. In fact, temps reached the low 40s and we nearly hit 50 on two days there. We’d mentally prepared for dead-of-winter darkness. But nearly two weeks past the spring equinox, light extended an hour deeper into the evening than back home in Minnesota. From 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., we had enough light to play all day, and enough darkness to sleep well at night. Plus, every American should experience the breathtaking descent of flying into Anchorage over the snow-capped Chugach Range. Nothing in the Lower 48 compares.
Then, just 27 miles east of Anchorage sits the state’s largest ski resort, Alyeska, above the small community of Girdwood.
That’s where we headed. Our Alaska spring break trip allowed us to enjoy two days of challenging yet satisfying skiing in breathtaking country, and we carved out a third for exploring the region.
Alaska’s largest ski area
Few ski hills on the planet offer a 2,600-foot vertical drop with a view of saltwater, but Alyeska provides those kinds of extremes. The resort overlooks Turnagain Arm, one of two narrow branches of the north end of Cook Inlet of the Gulf of Alaska.
Given its position next to water, the resort receives an impressive amount of snowfall — an average of more than 660 inches annually. It claims 1,610 skiable acres and has 76 named trails, six chairlifts, one high-speed tram and two magic carpets.
The mountain has a reputation for being steep and deep, more challenging than other North American resorts. Indeed, there is a disproportionate percentage of advanced and expert runs. Its North Face features one of the continent’s longest continuous double black diamond ski runs, with more than 2,000 vertical feet. But the mountain also offers wide open bowls and long top-to-bottom runs for intermediate and advanced skiers, and tree-lined groomed runs that are ideal for newbies.
Jameson and I worked the beginner runs our first morning, then tackled the intermediate slopes. We found plenty of ground to keep us entertained — and my quads howling — from open until close for two days.
My youngest son had never stepped into skis before, but I knew he’d learn quickly given his background in sports and dance. Thanks in part to some excellent instruction from brothers Ben and Chris Humphrey, Jameson was skiing circles around me by the end of Day 2.
The base of the mountain had relatively little snow, thanks to a warm spring that would become a record-breaking warm summer (complete with a big fire season on the Kenai Peninsula). As morning progressed into afternoon, the increasingly powerful sun produced wetter, slushier, slower snow, which suited me just fine. More skiers and snowboarders joined us on the slopes later in the day as locals from Anchorage arrived, but we seldom waited for a chairlift. My son demanded that we be the last people on the slopes each day, and we had the chairlifts to ourselves at closing time.
Our so-called rest day
In a quest to travel around the Kenai Peninsula and view a portion of Alaska we’d never seen, we piled into our rental minivan and cruised 90 miles down Hwys. 1 and 9 through the Chugach National Forest to the coastal community of Seward.
We eyed empty parking lots and marinas crowded with boats, but no crews to operate them. We found a couple of deckhands and tried talking them into a day of whale watching or fishing, but we’d actually hit one of the few slow times for Alaska fishing. A pair of playful sea otters, surprisingly large compared with our inland river otters, taunted us with chirping and barking from the cold albeit open waters of Resurrection Bay.
Frustrated and hungry, we tried an empty restaurant for some eggs and hash browns, but we’d missed breakfast service by 10 minutes.
“You’re really going to turn away five big guys with empty stomachs and full billfolds?” I asked the hostess while scanning the empty tables.
“Sorry,” she replied.
Instead, we grabbed an unmemorable lunch in another cafe overlooking the mountainous coastline of Resurrection Bay.
But the Humphrey brothers hadn’t given up on finding an activity. As soon we placed our order, their thumbs were a blur as they searched via their phones. We developed a plan: Rent bikes and check out Exit Glacier within Kenai Fjords National Park.
Ben located the nearby Seward Bike Shop, whose owner agreed to rent us some off-road bicycles. Though closed for the day, the owner (a congenial gent originally from Alexandria, Minn.) helped us since we hailed from North Country. Given our Minnesota pedigree, he trusted us to survive a day in the backcountry.
We loaded the bikes into our rental minivan, then the shop owner left a locking cable for us to secure them at day’s end. We had space for a pair of bikes, which meant two van shuttles 6 miles round trip for our driver, while I pedaled the fifth bike 3 miles toward the trailhead, a gate at the entrance road. Though closed to motor vehicle traffic for the winter, recent snowmelt made it (mostly) navigable via bicycle.
About halfway into the ride, we realized we’d bit off quite a challenge. Twenty miles of round-trip biking didn’t strike us as intimidating until we realized the entrance ride was uphill, plus we’d spend about 4 miles walking the fat-tire bikes over snow too deep for pedaling. Add another 3 miles of hiking through knee-deep snow, and we were in for a serious calorie burn.
But the perfect temperatures and cruising past tens of thousands of majestic wilderness acres by ourselves kept our minds clear and legs pumping. Every corner provided a postcard view of snow-covered mountains and a vast, rocky glacial outwash plain.
Within an hour we caught our first view of Exit Glacier, one of 38 named glaciers branching off the 700-square-mile Harding Icefield inside 670,000-acre Kenai Fjords National Park. It’s sad that so much of the glacier has disappeared just in the past few years, and I was probably wrong when I told my son, “That glacier likely will be gone in your lifetime.”
Because it’ll probably be gone before the lad finishes high school.
It took us another 90 minutes of walking before we reached the foot of the glacier. We passed a parade of signs marking its retreat during the past 120 years — and the signs appeared more frequently since the 1970s as the melting has accelerated.
We made one crucial mistake that, given my backpacking and hiking experience, I’m embarrassed to admit: We didn’t bring enough water. Our group probably carried about a quart apiece, clearly not enough for a day of hiking and biking, even in cool mid-40-degree temperatures.
No one, luckily, suffered from sun overexposure or dehydration, but back in Seward, we each downed a couple of quarts of Gatorade and bottled water at a convenience store before returning the bikes.
Driving back to Alyeska, we calculated we’d ridden 21 miles and hiked 4, not bad for a day of rest.
A red-eye flight carried us home from our whirlwind, 80-hour trip to America’s last frontier. En route, we congratulated ourselves on skipping the traffic and crowds of more southerly climes and instead building tremendous memories in America’s 49th state.
Rob Drieslein, of Eden Prairie, is the managing editor of outdoornews.com.