Dec. 5—Recent cold and snowy conditions around Southcentral Alaska have brought an abundance of winter recreation opportunities, from ice skating downtown to skiing and snowmachining in the backcountry.
Colder weather is expected to give way to snow this weekend. In Anchorage, Saturday will be partly sunny with highs in the single digits and teens along with light winds, according to the National Weather Service.
Snow is likely fall in Anchorage on Sunday afternoon, with highs in the teens to low 20s. From Girdwood to Seward, a winter storm watch will be in effect from Sunday evening through late Monday night. While the storm track is slightly uncertain at this point, according to the weather service, 12 to 25 inches of snow could accumulate with the potential for winds to gust as high as 35 mph.
Here's a rundown of what to expect if you're recreating outside this weekend.
Ice skating and cross country skiing
All of the Anchorage city ice rinks are up and running, including at Chanshtnu Muldoon Park, Cuddy Family Midtown Park, Delaney Park, Tikishla Park and the Bonnie Cusack rinks, said Steve Rafuse, the municipality's parks superintendent.
"It's just perfect right now, everything is set up," Rafuse said.
Plus, when it comes to lakes and ponds that the city maintains for skating, Anchorage is "just on the cusp of being ready," he said.
Early cold weather allowed lakes to set up, but snow slowed down the buildup of ice, he said.
Staff measured ice at Cheney Lake and Westchester Lagoon and predicted they should be ready for plowing and hot mopping by next week, Rafuse said.
"We're real close," Rafuse said. "And I think by next week, we could be skating on lakes."
The city is also grooming the Coastal, Chester Creek and Campbell Creek trails this weekend, he said.
"This is a great, great time to be out there recreating," Rafuse said.
For additional trail conditions, the Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage regularly updates a grooming report and map for cross country ski trails at Kincaid Park, on the Hillside and at other spots around town.
In the Valley, the Mat-Su Ski Club regularly updates grooming and riding reports for the Government Peak Recreation Area, Independence Mine and Archangel Road.
Arctic Valley Ski Area will be open Saturday and Sunday for its second weekend of operations this season. Conditions are "really good," and temperatures are 5 to 10 degrees higher at the ski area, which got 6 inches of new snow this week, general manager John Robinson-Wilson said Friday.
"We usually don't see this kind of snow coverage until like March in a decent year," he said. "There's things people are skiing that usually don't get touched until way, way, way later in the season."
The organization's tubing operation is running Thursday through Sunday, and Robinson-Wilson said people should purchase tickets online since they usually sell out.
Hilltop Ski Area opened this week with fresh snowfall drumming up excitement for the ski season. The nonprofit ski area is open afternoons and evenings on weekdays and all day on weekends and holidays.
At Alyeska Resort in Girdwood, lifts won't open until next weekend, starting Friday, Dec. 10. And Skeetawk Ski Area near Hatcher Pass still needs 12 to 16 more inches of snow before opening, general manager Scott Patridge said.
"We're still just kind of a in a holding pattern, just waiting on the weather to change," he said.
Backcountry skiers, snowboarders and splitboarders have been enjoying a deeper-than-usual early season snowpack, but in recent days, avalanche forecasters have cautioned users about avalanche danger at Hatcher Pass and Turnagain Pass.
As of Saturday, avalanche danger at Turnagain Pass was considerable above 1,000 feet in elevation. More than 10 human-triggered avalanches were reported Thursday and Friday, including avalanches that were hundreds of feet wide and 2 to 3 feet deep, and some that were triggered remotely.
"We need to travel in the mountains with a conservative mindset and approach all slopes over 30 degrees with the potential to trigger a large slab capable of burying, injuring or killing a person," the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center said in its forecast.
Forecasters noted that recent avalanches failed on a weak layer of snow buried 2 to 3 feet deep, and that some avalanches failed after multiple riders had safely skied a slope. They recommended that riders heading into the backcountry manage terrain wisely and stick to lower-angle slopes.
"There is no doubt the mountains are dangerous right now, despite the sunny skies," the avalanche center said Saturday. "Our best bet is let the slopes rest, get hit by this next storm coming in tomorrow, and hopefully they can begin to heal moving forward."
At Hatcher Pass, avalanche danger was moderate at mid- to upper elevations as of Saturday. Avalanche forecasters cautioned about the potential for riders to trigger dry, loose avalanches in specific terrain of 40 degrees or steeper.
"Getting caught in any small avalanche has serious consequences at this point in the season," the Hatcher Pass Avalanche Center said in its Saturday forecast. "In many cases loose dry avalanches are failing at the ground level, exposing rock hazards."
Forecasters also noted that Saturday would be a safer day for riding, given increasing winds expected Sunday that "will quickly build sensitive wind slabs and increase the avalanche danger." Monday may bring up to a foot of snow to Hatcher Pass, according to the avalanche center.
Forecasters at both the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center and the Hatcher Pass Avalanche Center cautioned backcountry users to watch for signs of instability in the snow, such as recent avalanches, shooting cracks or "whumphing."
All snowmachining areas in Chugach National Forest had opened as of earlier this week, said spokesman Alan Brown. The Turnagain Pass motorized opener occurred last week.
The Chugach National Forest now has a map that lays out recreation opportunities in different areas.
It's a good idea to check in with the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center to get a better sense of the avalanche forecast and conditions before heading out, Brown said.
He also recommended that people call the specific ranger office if they're headed to a new spot, since those rangers will have the best, most up-to-date information.
Hatcher Pass motorized areas remained closed to snowmachines as of Thursday because of insufficient snow, according to a conditions report from Alaska State Parks.