The tires of my hybrid bicycle kicked up golden leaves as I careened down the asphalt path. The afternoon light filtered through the towering forest of the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail bathing the trees in a gold and red hue as the cold late September chill bit at my exposed face.

I had now gone ten minutes without seeing another person, my partner had ridden far ahead, and I enjoyed the hilly ride, flanked by the forest on one side, and the muddy waters of Cook Inlet on the other. As I came speeding around a curve, I suddenly heard a thundering crunch in the trees. I saw two other bikers, cautiously pulled off to the side, and in the thick brush, I saw unmistakable giant antlers.

The Tony Knowles Coastal Trail is a twelve-mile path that runs just south of Anchorage, Alaska starting in Downtown and ending in Kincaid Park. It is popular with runners, bikers, and skiers in the winter, offering long pleasant stretches broken by challenging uphill climbs and surrounded by spectacular scenery the entire way through. My friend Nicole and I rented our bikes from a local shop in downtown and started the trail near the railroad yard. The trail immediately drops through a residential area, crisscrossing through several scenic parks, where the backdrop of the Chugach Mountains spectacularly reveals themselves on a clear day. For the first mile, the trail runs parallel to the famed Alaska railway, and then drops into a series of tunnels passing under the tracks, where freight and passenger trains frequently cross overhead. As the trail leaves the residential area and drops near the bay, there are a series of precocious drops where bikers are wary to not speed off the cliff that separates the inlet and the pathway.

On a beautiful fall afternoon, the leaves had already fallen, carpeting the trail in a cascade of yellow and red. The trees offered little areas for the afternoon sun to creep through so there was a slight chill passing through the length of the road. About five miles in, the trees cleared and suddenly we had an uninterrupted view of Cook Inlet and Anchorage’s resident peak Mount Sustina. We took a break to watch the fishing vessels crisscrossing the waters of the inlet, and watched the myriad of people who were on the trail each in their own way, running, biking, dog walking, it seemed like all of Anchorage was enjoying the breathtaking scenery.

After a short break we followed the trail farther down entering a downhill portion, followed by a challenging uphill curve. Just before entering Earthquake Park, a commemoration to the devastating 1964 earthquake, Mount Sustina suddenly pulled aside and revealed one of the biggest highlights of the ride. Just behind was an enormous glaciated peak, standing extremely wide and punching above the surrounding clouds. I was staring at the 20,327 ft. Denali in it’s majestic glory. I had not expected for it to be visible from Anchorage, but on a clear fall day, we could see for miles across the inlet.

After a quick break and reflection in Earthquake Park, Nicole took off far ahead of me and I remained to get more pictures of Denali. I sped off from the park now entering a more remote and curvier section of the park. It was well known that wildlife became more prevalent as we went farther from the city, and as I took that last curve, two antlers came into full view.

Parked on the side of the road was a giant moose, a bull evident from his towering antlers. Farther in the bush I could see a smaller calf, obviously being watched by an attentive and cautious father. Moose are temperamental creatures. They can easily anger and charge at any moment and this large specimen, standing just slightly at the edge of the road made it too perilous to cross. If they feel like their space is being crossed, they will charge at anyone who they feel is responsible, regardless if they are the offender or not. They have a powerful kick and also use their antlers for defense. The key to a moose encounter is remaining still and not making any sudden movements. If the moose charges it’s best to hide behind a rock or a tree and if down on the ground, protect the head and play dead.

The moose was clearly agitated, snorting and twisting its head from side to side. A couple stood cautiously on the other side of the road and after a few pictures I silently walked my bicycle past the animal as he hoofed his way back toward the calf. Moose aren’t the only animal prevalent on the trail as bears and wolves have been spotted during the winter months but uncommon in early fall.

Following my encounter with the moose, the trail curved away from the coast and flowed into a series of hills with the apex coming just under the edge of the runway at Anchorage International Airport. Here, on the precipice of a seaside cliff and downtown Anchorage against the Chugach Mountains I watched 747’s taking off and come loudly soaring overhead. It was plane watching like I’d never seen anywhere else and gave way to spectacular photographic opportunities.

After the airport I encountered one more moose, a female this time, resting quietly on the grass, harmlessly munching on leaves. These creatures appear out of nowhere and can startle unsuspecting runners or bikers, so I responsibly warned everyone up ahead. The trail took some final uphill curved sections through wide fields and finally rode a gentle downhill into Kincaid Park where I was reunited with Nicole, who had gone farther ahead and expertly weaved her way past the moose.

The Tony Knowles Coastal Trail is a classic of the Northwest. It’s spectacular views, unique locations, and up close animal encounters makes it one of the most thrilling biking trails in the west. Its accessibility and convenience allow it to be ridden back and forth in a single afternoon, and it offers a series of alternate return routes to Downtown Anchorage. We decided to go back the same way we came, once again stopping for the planes, not running into any more animals, and arriving back in town roughly three hours after we had started. A final view of the Chugach Mountains announced our final stretch as we pulled into the city and after parking our bikes we celebrated having completed the classic trail.

Leave a Reply