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Nestled deep in a valley of the Chugach Mountains, the small community of Girdwood has that quintessential arts-and-skiing town: cute galleries, cozy chalets, and towering slopes all around. Girdwood – like many ski towns – has been growing a lot lately, both from Alaskans who want to call the area home and visitors who hear about it and want to plan a visit there.
I’ve been to Girdwood many times, both while growing up in Alaska and during my many travels since. It’s a great pit stop on the Seward Highway between Anchorage, Whittier, Seward, and Homer (as well as other communities) but also a destination in its own right, as you’ll see. There are lots of things to do in Girdwood all year long, thanks to the Alyeska Resort and its world-class skiing opportunities – which convert to hiking and other summer recreation activities when the snow is gone.
As you plan your Alaska itinerary, you should certainly dedicate at least some time in Girdwood – whether that’s a lunch/dinner stop or an overnight to enjoy more of what the valley has to offer. Below I’ve detailed all the best things to do in Girdwood, in summer, in winter, and at special events that happen during those times too. Don’t be surprised if you end up choosing to dedicate more time during your trip to Girdwood after reading this list!
In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Dena’ina Ełnena peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
1. Ride the Alyeska Resort Aerial Tram
The Alyeska Aerial Tram is one of the must things to do in Girdwood. If you just read their website, it seems like an ordinary tram ride. But it’s not. The tram takes you on a smooth ride to the tippy top of Mount Alyeska; along the way, you’ll be treated to incredible views of the valley below, and out across Turnagain Arm.
Once you get off the tram at the top, there is a hiking trail that will take you further up the mountain for even more breathtaking views. Don’t be lazy, it’s well worth the climb! There is also a gift shop, a restaurant (pick-up & find a seat no servers), and a bar. So If you prefer a less active option, you can take your brew outside and enjoy the views while sipping on a cold beer or cocktail.
2. Visit the Nordic Spa Alyeska Resort
Note: The photo on the right is not actually of the spa; no photos are allowed in the spa and the Alyeska Resort doesn’t have any public photos available.
If you’re looking for total relaxation and rejuvenation, you’ll love The Nordic Spa. Also located in Alyeska Resort, this place has designed the ultimate spa concept. It’s not just a massage or a sauna; it’s a relaxing experience. I had the chance to visit the Nordic Spa in summer 2022 and even though it wasn’t fully open yet, it was an awesome experience.
The true magic of this place is that, once you enter, you’re meant to stay for the day without leaving and coming back. You can’t have your cell phones either, creating a genuine feel like you’re far away from life’s stresses. It also has a lovely cafe on site, with great food options and alcoholic beverages, teas, and coffee.
3. Go Hiking throughout the Valley
Girdwood lies in a valley in the southern portion of the Chugach Mountains. It’s no wonder it’s filled with gorgeous trails that meander through the area’s lush forests and spectacular mountains.
There are trails for all fitness levels. Winner Creek Trail is great for beginners, though it can get crowded quickly. Crow Pass Trail is a fantastic option for intrepid hikers. Lastly, Upper Winner Creek Trail is right in the middle, great for beginners who want a challenge and a good alternative for experts who need to slow down.
4. Follow the Original Iditarod Trail
The Iditarod Trail held the utmost importance for Alaska’s commerce during the Gold Rush Era; it later became famous for its role in the diphtheria serum run of 1925. While the settlements, posts, and mining camps are long gone, you can still feel the magic and history walking down the path.
The Original Iditarod Trail started in Seward and runs north through the Girdwood Valley. This portion of the trail today is used as a recreation and sports corridor. The best way to enjoy the gorgeous views of creeks, lush forests, and picturesque old bridges of the area is to go on a hike. It’s only 1.5 miles long and you will only change about 50 feet of elevation – perfect for less experienced hikers!
5. Try Your Hand Gold Panning
Gold panning takes up an important part of Alaskan history. And, while you can learn about it in books or museums, I think we can all agree that there’s nothing like actually experiencing it in the flesh. Girdwood is home to Crow Creek Gold Mine, one of the prettiest little places to pan for gold. This small gold mine offers visits down to the Crow Creek, where you can try your luck panning for gold for as long as you’d like. Who knows? Maybe you’re a natural and find some gold dust to line your pockets right away!
6. Dine & Drink Locally
Girdwood has a lot to offer to those with a restless palate. You can find for every taste and budget, from high-end restaurants to Asian cuisine to Alaskan seafood.
Head to Seven Glaciers Restaurant on Mount Alyeska for fine dining with mouthwatering views, or to the Double Musky Inn for the best steak of your life (or fantastic Creole food, pictured above). I also really love Jack Sprat, though they have changed chefs recently. The Bake Shop is an essential stop for breakfast, and they have some of the best sweet rolls in Alaska. Craving a cold beer? Girdwood Brewing Company is an essential stop, even if its ski-bum vibe doesn’t match your own.
All this to say: for a small town, Girdwood has a lot of flavors to offer (literally!).
7. Take a Helicopter Tour
It’s no secret that Alaska has astounding landscapes wherever you set your eyes. Some of these landscapes are at eye level, but others require you to take it to the skies. Helicopter tours are one of top things to do in Girdwood, and you’ll find numerous operators, offering tours to enjoy Alaska from a different perspective.
8. Go Flightseeing
Flightseeing is the most basic helicopter tour, so to speak. These tours take you on an aerial adventure where you soar over glacier-formed valleys and picturesque mountain peaks. Some even include a glacier landing (dependent on weather and glacier conditions).
9. Try Glacier Dog Sledding
If you want to dial it up a little, you can go on a glacier dog sledding tour. These tours combine one of the newest ways to enjoy Alaska, a helicopter tour with one of the Alaska classics, dog sledding. Start your adventure with a spectacular helicopter ride to the peak of a glacier, where a team of sled dogs will be waiting to take you on an adrenaline-filled expedition across the glacier.
10. Explore the Greater Girdwood Area
There’s no shortage of things in Girdwood to keep you entertained; however, there are tons of cool things to do near Girdwood, too. Below, I’ve compiled a list of my favorite things to do in the Greater Girdwood Area.
11. See Wildlife at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center
The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center is an absolutely amazing spot to see a lot of Alaskan species. Wood Bison, Moose, Elk, Caribou, Lynx, Porcupine, Grizzly Beat, Wolves, and Black Bears are all here – and are treated well.
You can drive yourself and even walk through the property. If you drive through, there are plenty of turnouts to pull over into and park so you can walk around to see the animals in that area. The conservation center also helps rehabilitate and release wildlife. So it’s a true gem for Alaska!
12. Take a Glacier Cruise at Portage or Whittier
Seeing glaciers up close is amazing. Portage or Whittier are two towns where glacier cruises are popular activities. There’s also a good variety in terms of duration – not a minor consideration if you have kids or other activities planned.
Overall, glacier tours are a must-do because you not only get to see a massive glacier and exquisite landscape but also learn about their geology and current retreating. Whittier operates the famous 26 Glacier Cruise, a long but rewarding alternative to see Alaska’s glaciers in all their glory.
13. Go Hiking in the Portage Valley
Portage Valley is a 14-mile isthmus that connects the Kenai Peninsula to mainland Alaska. While Portage Glacier’s remnants are the star of the show, the area has stunning hiking and biking trails where you can explore Alaska’s wonderful scenery and wildlife.
A popular one is an interpretive hike along Moose Flats at the beginning of the park. You can also take The Trail of Blue Ice, a 5-mile trail with endless spectacular views of glaciers, side waterfalls, wildflowers, and lakes.
14. Kayak or Raft at Spencer Glacier
As you may have noticed, there are multiple ways to get up close and personal with glaciers. For the ones with an adventurous side, there are kayaking and rafting tours at Spencer Glacier. The experience is breathtaking. You get to kayak through the icebergs and meander along a lake. If you choose rafting, you’ll experience a true float close to these huge masses of ice in the water and raft down the river, with some small rapids.
15. Hop on the Alaska Railroad
The Alaska Railroad is an adventure everyone must have when traveling to Alaska. The views of the Alaskan wilderness, mountains, rivers, waterfalls, and wildlife are beyond anything words or photos could convey. I mean, how many times do we get to see beluga whales playing in the ocean during a train ride? There are several different routes and it’s definitely worth taking one of the trips to get away from the cities. As a heads up, you must plan way ahead to reserve the seats you want.
16. In Summer: Attend a Girdwood Festival
When the sunny days arrive in Girdwood, the little town hosts numerous festivals to manic the most of the lovely temperatures. The art and culture vulture can join locals at the Girdwood Forest Fair to enjoy music and admire the craft and art of Alaskans.
For another option, the Alyeska Resort Blueberry Festival is great fun for those who want to try local flavors; over 4,000 people flock to Girdwood to celebrate the blueberry season with no-hands-allowed pie-eating contests, cooking lessons, and dessert contests.
17. In Winter: Ski Your Heart Out
A classic of the winter season, skiing is one of the top things to do in Girdwood, mainly because Girdwood is consolidated as Alaska’s number one destination for skiing and snowboarding. This winter playground has no shortage of groomed trails with great views for all levels of skiers and riders.
18. Go Downhill Skiing At Alyeska Resort
The gateway to the Chugach Mountains, Alyeska Resort is famous for its downhill skiing and snowboarding – it has some of the snowiest slopes in North America. While Alyeska is one of the most popular places to go downhill skiing in Alaska, the trails are mainly suitable for experienced or intermediate skiers given the steep slopes.
19. Try Nordic Skiing
If the idea of throwing yourself down the side of a mountain with 1-2 pieces of plastic strapped somewhere on your body is not your jam – you’re not alone; I much prefer the flat skiing options. Nordic/cross-country skiers can also have fun in Girdwood, too.
During the winter months, the snowy meadows are turned into sleek ski tracks that cross-country skiers can glide over while soaking in views of the breathtaking landscape. Moose Meadows and Stumpy Trails are one of the most popular cross-country trails in Girdwood.
Have any questions about these top things to do in Girdwood, or what to do during your trip? Let me know in the comments below so I can help you make the most of your time in Alaska!