Winner Creek Trail is probably one of the most popular trails in Alaska. Or at least, it was on the day that I visited. This trail is easy to hike, and begins at the popular Alyeska Resort, so there’s a constant supply of hikers nearby. And, it offers a great reward: a hand-tram across a deep gorge, allowing you to pull yourself across, while suspended in mid-air.
A hike on Winner Creek Trail can begin in two locations. Most people will likely begin at the trailhead behind the lower tram station at the Alyeska Resort (follow the Alyeska Highway to the end, then park in the visitor parking area). Alternatively, turn off of Alyeska Highway onto Crow Creek Road. There’s a parking area at mile 2.9. If you’re looking for the shortest route to the trail’s manually-operated tram, you should choose the Crow Creek Road trailhead.
I read about this trail before traveling to Alaska, and I was really excited about it (especially the part with the hand tram), so I decided to make it one of the first hikes of my trip. And while I didn’t get the experience I was hoping for, there’s a good chance you’ll have better luck.
The first challenge was finding the trailhead. Alyeska Resort has ample parking, but you might face a long hike, just to get to the start of your hike. Drive to the end of the road, and follow signs for visitor parking — this means taking a left at the dead-end. If you take another left, you’ll end up in the parking lot nearest to the trailhead (aside from handicapped spaces and those reserved for hotel guests).
Hike up the trail to the hotel entrance. If you pop inside for a moment…
… you’ll get to see the hotel’s beautiful lobby…
… and a menacing-looking bear, ready to break through the huge glass windows on the backside of the hotel.
Behind the bear, you’ll notice the tram station. You’ll want to walk out to it (either exit the building or go down the hallway and exit).
When you get to the tram station, pass through it and circle around to the back.
On the back side of the station, the trail becomes more obvious.
Pass underneath the overhead tram cables to reach the official start of the trail.
The first part of this trail is mostly on a boardwalk. It’s an easy walk with very little elevation gain or loss. The only problem with this part of the trail (and everything that follows) is all the traffic. There were a lot of people on the trail — most with several kids. And no one seemed to observe any trail etiquette. For crying out loud, people, if someone is right behind you, and obviously wants to walk faster than you do, let them pass!
There’s not a whole lot to see for the entire length of the trail. That’s not necessarily a criticism — it’s a perfectly nice path through a beautiful forest. Just don’t expect numerous breathtaking viewpoints. Besides, the real attraction on this trail is the hand tram, so stay focused on that.
This tree has some junk in its trunk.
The first section of trail reaches a T, at which point you will turn left. Turning right would put you on the Upper Winner Creek Trail — a nine-mile Forest Service trail up to Berry Pass and beyond.
Roughly 2.2 miles from the trailhead, you’ll reach a very rickety-looking (but remarkably solidly-built) bridge. This is an alternative to the hand tram, which is another 2/10 of a mile ahead.
Sure, some of the boards are broken — and I wouldn’t recommend walking right along the edge. But, below those boards are some very big beams that run the entire length of the bridge. Stay on top of those, and you’ll be perfectly safe.
After the bridge, Winner Creek Gorge gets much deeper, very quickly. The trail heads downhill towards the hand tram. As I approached, I saw something I had never seen on a hiking trail, deep in the forest.
Yes, a very long line. About 50 people were waiting for their turn on the hand tram.
I slipped ahead of the crowd, just to take some pictures. Yes, this tram does seem like a whole lot of fun.
Passengers step into a metal cage. A cable loops through the middle of the cabin — and you have to pull on the cable to make the cage go across the gorge.
The next person in line was jumping in, to pull on the cable, and help speed up the crossing, making for a fairly efficient process. Some passengers didn’t even bother doing their part, relying instead on the muscle at either end of the ride.
As I shot this video of the crossing, I was also doing some math. A one-way trip took about a minute, so a round-trip was two minutes (but you couldn’t make a round-trip, because another line of hikers had formed on the other side). Two people every two minutes, and at least 50 people in line, meant I would be waiting for almost an hour to ride the tram. And I wasn’t about to stand in line for an hour in the forest.
Not to mention, even if I had waited, my ride on the tram would have been rushed. I would have only gotten to ride it one-way, and I wouldn’t have been able to take my time, take pictures, maybe stop in the middle and swing for a moment. This wasn’t what I had imagined when I read about the hike, weeks earlier.
So, I decided to turn around and head back. I was somewhat disappointed, but I resolved to return on another day and re-visit the tram. I figured I would start at the other trailhead — the one on Crow Creek Road. Coming from that direction, it’s only about a mile (one way) to the hand tram. All I would have to do is pick a less-busy time.
Of course, I never had a chance to return. So, my ride over Winner Creek Gorge will have to wait until my next trip to Alaska.
Winner Creek Trail is a perfect hike for families. While it might be a little long for some kids, it’s mostly flat and easy. The hand tram is a great reward — but be aware that crowds could cause a back-up on the trail, and you might have to wait a significant amount of time for your turn on the tram. Try to hike early or late in the day to avoid the crowds.
Here’s a time-lapse look at the drive from Portage to Girdwood, ending at the parking area for the Alyeska Resort (you’ll want to turn left into the parking area at 5:06).