Passing Through: Girdwood

Kinda hippie, kinda ski-bummy, Girdwood is Alaska's best ski town

PHOTO: Simon Evans

You know those “Quaint little drinking village with a fishing problem” bumper stickers? You could make one like that for Girdwood that goes, “Girdwood, Alaska: a quaint little skiing village with a hippie problem.” Or maybe vice versa. It’s not a perfect translation. But anyway, that’s Girdwood—kinda hippie, kinda ski-bummy, artsy and quirky and actually pretty into fishing and drinking, too. The trees are mossy, the cabins A-shaped, and life in town is wrapped around the mountain like a tie-die T-shirt.

Because you’re a skier, let’s assume that you’re visiting in the winter, when the constant summer drizzle has turned to snow. There is a very good chance it will be snowing—Girdwood, 35 miles southeast of Anchorage, sits at the edge of North America’s northernmost rainforest, and it precipitates something like four days out of the week. The base of Alyeska, not much above sea-level, averages 200 inches of snow annually, while the top gets more than three times that.

With roughly 3,200 vertical feet and 1,600 acres, Alyeska isn’t a huge mountain, but if you know where to go and you’re willing to do a little hiking, you can do some damn fine skiing. When it’s open, North Face is the easiest to get to—just hop off the tram and enjoy. Get some good tight turns in down Christmas and New Years Chutes, then head across High Traverse to Max’s Face. If the premier spots aren’t open, or if it’s too socked in with fog or snow (which it often is), run some fast laps down Trapline to Chair 6. During the winter in Alaska it gets dark early, but there’s still some good skiing to be had when the lights come on—the crowds clear out, and the lights make it possible to see in what would otherwise be whiteout conditions.

You can always skip the mountain all together—just make friends with a local and have them take you up to some world-class backcountry in Turnagain Pass. Make sure to check the avalanche forecast at CNFAIC.org. The workers at the locally owned Powder Hound ski shop are knowledgeable if you want to know more.

Whether you’re staying at the enormous, stuffed-polar-bear-equipped Hotel Alyeska or just renting out somebody’s cabin, your first stop in the morning should probably be at the Bake Shop, where local favorites include the Farmer’s Breakfast and the Sourdough BLT. The cookies are also very fine. Silvertip is a good spot for a hangover-curing omelet, and on weekends, Jack Sprat does a mean brunch.

Before the last run of the day, go to the Seven Glaciers bar and restaurant in the tram building. If you’re feeling flush, get dinner; otherwise, just ask the bartender for a Fizz. It’s not on the menu, but they’ll know what you’re talking about. Later, the New Orleans-themed Double Musky is the favored local restaurant. There’s often a wait, but it’s worth it for the world-class gumbo and also-world-class tchotchke collection on the walls. Chair 5 is a good bet if you’re looking for pizza and beer.

At night, the Sitzmark is really about the only bar option in town, which is no worries because it’s a good one. It’s dark and loud and its high ceilings are covered with neon-black-light paintings, which are a good conversation starter if you’re trying to find things to talk about with ski babes. Bands play on Saturday night, and there’s often a ski movie on the TVs behind the bar. Step out onto the big deck if you need a little fresh air.

Having by now spent a good amount of time in Girdwood, you will probably have noticed that everyone is wearing the same brown-and-yellow rubber boots. People will wear Xtratufs—the favored, really the only brand—year-round, to dates, weddings, and funerals. They’re practical, because it’s goddamn wet all the time, as previously noted, but they’re also seen as fashionable, sexy even, which makes sense if you think about it—practical is sexy. Put on your boots and your tie-die T-shirt, and you’ll be sexy, too.