On a recent weekend, I was in the position of needing to do a long run, but because of some things my wife had going on, I needed to be relatively close by in case she called and needed me home. Not having the liberty to spend several hours in the mountains, instead I headed for a system of “urban” trails that are close to home. By “urban” trails, I mean honest-to-goodness dirt trails, with plenty of rocks and roots and mud, found right in the middle of Anchorage.
My first stop was University Lake, near the UAA campus, and just a little over a mile from my house. The lake has a nice dirt trail going all the way around it, a little over a mile in total. The area is designated as an off-leash dog park, so there are usually plenty of dogs around, chasing balls and splashing around in the water. I’ve thought about someday doing a long run consisting only of loops around this lake, as good mental training for a 100 miler. But today was not that day, so after about 1 1/2 loops, I hopped onto the APU cross-country ski trails.
The cross-country ski trails on the APU campus are a large network of trails, right in the middle of Anchorage. During the winter they are reserved for skiing, and running on them is frowned upon, but in the summer they’re wide open. There’s pretty much one main trail that winds through the area, with tons of smaller trails spurring off into the woods to explore. This is where I got in most of my miles that day, and I had a great time running all around these trails, picking random trails to take and see where they led me. Sometimes I’d end up on a trail that was too swampy and wet, so I’d turn around. Other times I’d come across something odd like this, that sort of reminded me of something out of the Blair Witch Project:
There were plenty of ups and downs to have me working hard and keep things interesting. Some of the trails were wide and smooth enough you could have driven a car on them, while others were narrow and barely-defined, covered in roots and rocks that kept you on your toes.
After I’d had my fill of the APU ski trails, I moved onto Russian Jack Park. This is a popular park in Anchorage, complete with baseball and soccer fields, a greenhouse, even a small 9-hole golf course. There are miles of paved paths running through the park. There are also plenty of dirt trails that will take you to many areas of the park that the paved paths will not. Again, I tackled these trails by taking whatever random trail I found and seeing where it took me. I discovered things I had no idea were there, sometimes within 50 feet of a main road. I found where there had been an old campground, now long-forgotten, with marked campsites, a boarded up outhouse, and the remnants of a covered picnic area.
Once my romp through Russian Jack Park was complete, I headed back the way I had come – through the APU ski trails (taking a more direct route this time), another 1/2 lap around University Lake, and then home. By the end of my run, I had covered about 18 miles in 3 hours, all within 3-4 miles from my house, and without just looping around the same couple miles of trail. Except for the first and last mile – getting to and from my house – I was almost entirely on dirt trails. While I would certainly choose to go play in the mountains first, that’s not always possible, but I discovered that you don’t always have to go far to find adventure on the trails.