As a lifelong resident of Homer, when I hear the word “Girdwood,” I only think of two things: a gas station with a much beloved warm bathroom and lugging my awkward alpine ski equipment through a hotel lobby with a stiff-soled gait and clunky boots to a chairlift. Yet, just below the alpine resort, tucked into a mystical forest and skirting the edge of the muskeg meadows, I recently discovered 15 kilometers of world-class Nordic ski trails.
This spring, much to my fourth-grade son’s initial dismay, we shelved our downhill resort plans for the day, driving past Alyeska Resort, until the road ended at the trailhead of the “5K Loop.” We clipped into our familiar, lightweight gear and stepped onto a pristine, snowcat-groomed, wide, level trail. Our path wound through an enormous fairy-tale temperate coastal rainforest. Feeling like tiny woodland sprites, we cruised and flitted beneath the canopy of arrow-straight hemlocks shooting over 100 feet straight into the sky.
Designed in 2005 by Jim Galanes, the 5K Loop complies with international racecourse standards. The trail went up and up, treating us to occasional glimpses of snowy ridges in the Chugach Mountains through the trees, before descending into the valley. My son’s elation on the downhill showed. He tucked into the banked slopes, jumping and whooping, yelling that he couldn’t wait to get to the next hill. His jacket whipped in the wind as he carved the corners. We skied beside each other, laughing and feeling the air rush past our ears.
While the 5K Loop offers skiers a challenging run, the majority of Girdwood trails are easier. For example, closer to the center of town is the trailhead for Moose Meadows: flat and perfect for families and beginners to go for a relaxing and fun glide. Moose Meadows winds up into the Upper Meadows Loop, where dogs are welcome to run alongside their skiers on the multi-use paths. For ski lessons, Moose Meadows is where the instructors will take you.
Building Nordic ski trails in Girdwood
Access to good Nordic skiing in Girdwood grew over decades, from humble beginnings. Larry Martin, a Homer skier who made the Olympic team twice in the 1970s, remembers skiing Girdwood in 1969 at Junior Nationals. “The Girdwood trails were pretty great,” he says of the original 10K loop that was built just for those championships. However, dense forest quickly overtook those first trails. By 1977 when Lin Hinderman moved to Girdwood and started coaching a middle school Nordic racing team, his skiers would train on snowmachine tracks on Crow Creek Road because it didn’t get plowed in the winter, and there were no other reliable groomed trails.
To meet the growing interest of locals seeking improved ski trails, Deb Essex, in a whirlwind of energy and organization, established the Girdwood Nordic Ski Club in 2006. Through her herculean efforts in fundraising and generous local support, GNSC was able to cut the ribbon on the new trail system in 2012. Volunteers groom the runs and provide trail maintenance, all coordinated by a pair of wise, smiling, cornerstones, Peter Zug and Jim Braham, nicknamed the “Mustache Brothers.”
Alpine or Nordic? Both.
In many ski circles beyond Girdwood, there tends to be a divide: either you are a spandex-clad athlete with a tight wool beanie who carries a water bottle belt and spends hours spinning laps on groomed trails, or you wear a flat-brimmed hat, sport a goggle tan, and make walking in those clunky boots look as easy and stylish as your arcing downhill turns. In Girdwood, however, you’re likely to see sweaty, frosty Nordic skiers still in their boots standing in line to buy a ticket for a day of downhill skiing, and downhill skiers dropping their alpine gear off to get tuned while they cruise a quick 5K lap on skinny skis.
Melanee and Ari Stiassny’s family exemplifies this versatile crowd: one weekend their three kids will be skiing black diamonds at Alyeska Resort, the next they are doing backcountry traverses in Turnagain Pass or flying around Moose Meadows. For the Stiassnys and many in the Girdwood community, snow is snow, and they’ll glide over and explore it on any kind of gear they are given. Knowing this, the GNSC hosts the Alyeska SkiMeister, a race combining the broad skill sets of alpine skiing, Nordic skiing, and biking.
For those wanting to learn to cross country ski in Girdwood: GNSC and Four Valleys Community Schools offer adult lessons several days a week. Additionally, Alyeska Resort has begun to offer Nordic ski lessons.
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