Alyeska Resort is open year-round and offers plush accommodation, a swimming pool, restaurants, shopping, and entertainment. Photo courtesy Serine Reeves, The MILEPOST
There aren’t many highways in Alaska, but of the few that do exist, the Seward Highway leads to something special: Alyeska Resort and the town of Girdwood. Originally called “Glacier City,” the town was founded as a supply camp for placer gold miners who staked claims on the creeks that flow into Turnagain Arm. It took its current name from James Girdwood, an entrepreneur and linen merchant who staked the first four gold claims along Crow Creek in 1896. By the first decade of the 1900s, a rail line from Seward had reached almost as far as Girdwood, and further development to the town was spurred a few years later when the federal government took over construction of what would become the Alaska Railroad. After World War II, Girdwood was again put on the map with the building of the Seward Highway. When the original townsite sunk below sea level during the 1964 earthquake, Girdwood was relocated 2.5 miles up the valley to where it is today.
The crown jewel of Girdwood (full-time population approximately 2,500) is Alyeska Resort, a year-round vacation retreat located just 40 miles from downtown Anchorage. Established in 1954, the resort took its current shape during a $100 million expansion in 1994. New chair lifts were installed in 2012 and 2013. The resort is perhaps most noteworthy for its aerial tram. In the course of just a few minutes’ time, 60-person gondolas rise 2,300 feet up the side of Mount Alyeska, where spectacular vistas stretch for miles in all directions. (By comparison, the Mount Roberts Tramway in Juneau rises 1,800 feet.) Surrounding all this is the pristine forested landscape of Chugach State Park. At 495,000 acres, it’s one of the largest state parks in the United States and the second largest in Alaska.
The gondola ride up the side of the mountain leads to the upscale, AAA Four Diamond-rated Seven Glaciers Restaurant, which is just the beginning of an extraordinary dining experience: Window seats with white linen table settings offer views of the ski runs and hanging glaciers that give the restaurant its name. Exceptionally prepared “decadent” (to quote the Food Network) Alaskan entrees emphasize locally sourced produce, seafood, and game. The wine list has earned “best of” accolades from Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator magazines. And everybody recommends saving room for dessert.
A daytrip from Anchorage is worth it just to have dinner. But if you’re planning a longer sojourn to enjoy the resort’s other amenities, the chalet-style hotel offers 304 rooms on eight floors. New for 2021 will be an indoor/outdoor Nordic spa with an impressive array of saunas and pools, plus a wellness bistro and more. Dining at the resort features at least eight places to eat, including the Seven Glaciers, plus room service. The independently owned Bake Shop, located at the bottom of chair 3, has been an Alyeska institution since 1973, when the original owner leased space at the Alyeska Hotel and Condominiums. The shop was expanded and changed hands a number of times, until it was purchased by the current owners in 2017.
Winter activities naturally focus on skiing. The only North American ski resort with both mountain and ocean views, Alyeska averages 650 inches of annual snowfall at the Mount Alyeska summit. In addition to alpine-style skiing, the valley floor has trails for Nordic skiing, snowshoeing, and dogsledding. Local operator Chugach Powder Guides operates both heli-skiing and snowcat-skiing from the base camp area. Summer brings its own variety of activities, among them hiking, bicycling, and yoga. Day tours bookable through the hotel website or concierge provide an opportunity to explore further afield on the Kenai.
Special events highlight both seasons. Summer events include the Fiddlehead Festival (early June), Forest Fair (July 4th weekend), Blueberry Festival (mid-August), Fungus Fair (Labor Day weekend), Alyeska Climbathon (mid-September), and Oktoberfest (late September). Winter brings the Torchlight Parade & Fireworks (New Year’s Eve), North Face Vertical Challenge (mid-February), Iditarod celebrations (early March), and Alyeska Chugach Open Big Mountain Competition (mid-March), followed by the annual Spring Carnival (mid-April)—one of the resort’s biggest events of the year.
Girdwood offers plenty of opportunities for exploration. Getting around is easy using Glacier Valley Transit (GVT), which operates free public transportation ($1 donation suggested). The bus follows a route from the Alyeska Resort to the Seward Highway with designated stops year-round. In the summer, a second route follows Crow Creek Road to the historic gold mine, and Winner Creek Trail is an easy-to-navigate, three-mile path through the verdant forest from the resort.
The dining scene is replete with locally owned eateries to satisfy every palate: Chair 5 is the place for deep-dish pizzas and burgers. Jack Sprat offers an eclectic mix of globally inspired cuisine, while the Spoonline gets creative with keto, vegan, and gluten-free dishes. For dessert, the Ice Cream Shop serves 30-plus flavors and non-dairy treats. Baked goods, simple and fancy, are the province of the Alpine Café and Bakery. If you have a hankering for suds, there’s a craft brewery as well, the aptly named Girdwood Brewing Company, located within walking distance of the Alyeska Resort. You can take in the views from the tap room or order 25-ounce cans to go.
Anyone interested in the area’s mining history should visit the Crow Creek Mine, where you can become a prospector for a day. Bring your own equipment if you’re an experienced miner or rent it if you’re a newbie. Don’t know how to pan for gold? No worries, the staff will show you the ropes. Either way, there’s a good chance you’ll find a few flecks of the gold stuff. Tours of the site include a look at the oldest buildings in the Anchorage municipality.