Spencer Glacier mountain biking and packrafting

As it turns out, mountain biking the Spencer Bench Trail at Spencer Glacier is a pretty cool way to spend a day!  Access is by the Alaska Railroad whistle stop, and we exited by packrafting the Placer River.  While the trail is certainly not bike-specific and there’s a lot of pushing up and walking switchbacks on the way down, the views are stunning and the adventure worthy.

I do love when an adventure comes together and actually works!  I recently chatted with a friend who went and stayed at Spencer Glacier, and he told me that some of their group were brave enough to hike up to the cabin.  As he was talking, all I could think was “that sounds like a bike trail to me!”  So, I hatched the plan to whistle stop the train, ride the trail, camp overnight, and packraft out the Placer River.  I’ve done some bike packrafting before so I know it can work, and it seemed just random and fun enough to be worth trying.

Within a few days, Lizzie was in touch to scheme weekend ideas and I pitched the idea to her.  As an avid boater and biker, she was immediately in (as long as the weather seemed decent – the forecast was horrible although it had been horrible daily and not bad in reality!).  

So, we took the train on Saturday – I got the times confused in my mind so we actually showed up at 1:15 for the 1:25 train . . . thankfully they let us on!  A quick 20 minutes and we were there!  It’s cool to see our snowmachine areas from the train and to gaze at beautiful mountains from a seat!  

putting bikes on the train was no issue, and no extra cost . . .

Our packs were a bit unwieldy especially because we weren’t doing some big expedition so we just kinda made it work!  The 3 miles along the Spencer Glacier Trail to the glacier view area weren’t too bad, although riding with a huge pack is hardly rewarding!  

Lizzy making balancing with these huge packs look easy . . . this trail is super nice and essentially flat.


First views of the Spencer Glacier along the Spencer Glacier Trail – so beautiful!

We dropped bikes, hiked a bit out to find a camp spot, and then went back to the bikes to begin our ride!  

Walking up-lake with heavy packs in search of a great camp spot . . . not travelling light!

The Spencer Bench trail is a 3 mile switchback trail that climbs 1800 vertical feet to the cabin.  While there are sections that are pedal-able, much of the trail is hike-a-bike (though it can all be pushed – no need to shoulder the bike!).  It took us about 2 hours to make the climb, though we stopped A LOT for pictures and chatting.  So, I bet the climb could be easily done in 90 minutes or so.  But why hurry through views like that?!!?  

The view from the cabin is STUNNING. Book early as I think it rents out quick!

It starts out rocky with some cool features that are perfect for a trail, and some bouldery sections that weren’t really possible for me to pedal.  It then transitions to brushy areas and hemlock sections which is a nice and varied combo.  It’s really cool how the trail has hemlock portions with forest dirt to change things up from rain forest greenery – really cool contrast!  There are some boardwalk sections with turns and lots of steps, and lots of tight switchbacks!  A friend of mine said he counted 83 switchbacks on the trail!

Lots of hike a bike, with amazing views the whole time . . . this section was SUPER FUN to ride!

The boardwalk section was cool – just behind Lizzy it makes a pretty spicy turn with step-downs . . . also fun to ride!

Near the hut, the trail ends at a small lake, so we left the bikes there and took off on foot up to the Turtle Flats above to check out the lakes and views, and the classic snowmachine terrain in its summer outfit 🙂  While some bushwhacking did occur, it was mostly nice travel especially as we got near the lakes and it transitioned to alpine walking.  It is SO COOL up there and our minds immediately went to camping, exploring, and making a trip out of this area.  We had some clouds, so couldn’t scope too much.  Plus, we had a bike ride ahead of us, so walked around for an hour or so and then called it good.  It is so cool up there.  And the hut!  Wow, what a place.  The view is incredible, hiking access unreal, and facilities really nice.  There were 5 ladies staying there doing it right with caviar, cocktails, art, books, and a really good vibe.  They were super welcoming and let me check it all out!

The lakes in Squirrel Flats are super cool . . . one could easily spend a day alpine walking in this area . . . so cool.

Really cool alpine environment!

The ride itself was pretty fun and totally worthy, although I was off my bike a decent amount to navigate switchbacks!  It’s definitely a hiking trail and later I was thinking about how it would probably be pretty ‘easy’ to ‘fix’ some of those switchbacks to make it so much more rideable!  There was also a real challenge to focus on the trail when the glacier views were so cool!  A real trade-off between riding and gawking!  We rode it July 12 and some sections were somewhat overgrown – no handlebar grabbers, but sometimes hard to see where the trail would actually go!  The step-down curvy boardwalk section was a challenge and I fell off it at one point, but the landing was soft so all was well!  The hemlock sections were so fun to ride and a really nice change in the ride conditions to keep it interesting.  

I honestly think biking does not get more scenic than this trail!


Hemlock sections to balance out brushy and rocky sections were really nice!


. . . and exiting the trees back to the views is awesome!

My favorite part was probably the rocky section near the bottom.  Other than the sharp step-down switchbacks, it was all really rideable for me and of the technical nature I’ve come to love.  If you don’t enjoy this style of riding, it’s probably a decent amount of walking the bike . . . but it’s not that long of a section.  The following bit is boulders that look rideable but really beat me up a bit and I didn’t love it!  A little flatland and it’s back to the main trail along the lake!!!

Tech riding in flowers . . . does it get better?!?!

It gets a little spicier just below me, and still super fun!

The whole ‘adventure’ was about 4 hours for us and could easily be done in more like 2.5 if all you want to do is ride the trail . . . though I would never advocate hurrying through a place as stunning as this one! 

We camped along the lake and had a lovely freeze dried meal with canned wine as we watched icebergs and thanked the foreboding clouds for staying up-glacier.  It rained around us, but never on us!

The next morning after a lovely coffee, we undertook the hilarious challenge of putting bikes on boats.  Lizzy has the new packraft so her camping gear could go in the tube, but I had to put my pack on top of my bike which meant I could hardly see over it!  It mostly seemed to work though, and while I was not thrilled with how bow-heavy my boat was, it floated!!!  

We paddled up toward the toe of the glacier and around the big bergs and then across the lake to the beginning of the river – that took just over an hour and was super cool.  I’ll admit that I felt a bit uncomfortable in my raft so loaded down in the middle of the lake . . . if something had gone wrong, it was hard to imagine a recovery that saved my bike!  I was glad for a drysuit and pfd so I wasn’t too worried about my own safety.

The hole in the iceburg was rad! Lizzy’s boat packed much better than mine 🙂

The river itself was faster than I remember.  The biggest rapids are at the beginning as the river goes under the new and old railroad bridges.   That’s when I realized some of the limitations in how I’d tied my pack down, but all’s well that ends well and Lizzy helped me fix it!  From there, the river stays moving pretty well and one still has to pay attention due to the sheer number of trees in the middle that create braids, sweepers, and lots of boils that grab the boat.  I did not love the boils, especially with such a heavy boat with precious cargo!  After the Leubner Lake commercial rafting take-out, the river gets a bit lazier but still moves decently and the sweepers reduce.  There’s a bit more space to stare at the greenery and day dream.  

And then the road noise starts and eventually a bridge appears!  The parking is on the river left and there’s a small little road to the river that’s not initially visible but is there!  Overall, it took us about 1.5 hours from the lake to the road.  We unpacked boats and stashed them in the woods, put bikes back together and rode to the train station to grab cars – about 3 miles.  It felt good to move our legs after being seated for so long in the rafts!  For this reason alone, it’s better than a car shuttle!  

The best part is that I made it home to unpack, eat some quick food, grab a shower, and make it to Alyeska for 3 hours of DH laps!  It’s pretty rad to wake up at a glacier, float a river, and then finish the day DH biking.  Alaska is so cool that way 🙂  

For more mountain biking trail reports, check out the whole guide to Alaska biking!!!  Ride on and enjoy 🙂

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  1. Hi! Thank you for your post! There’s 4 of us staying at spencer glacier bench cabin in sept. I was wondering though what you think about us bringing our packrafts so that we can paddle the lake the next day before the train comes to pick us up. I don’t really want to lug the packrafts up the trail to the cabin, so do you think we could safely stash them overnight at the bottom of the trail? Without ever having been there, it’s hard to have a clear picture of how close the trail is to the whistle stop and if any humans might bother the packrafts while we are up at the cabin? Thanks in advance for your advice!

    • kokonek@gmail.com says:

      The trail to the Spencer bench cabin is a significant ways of way from the train stop. So you could easily carry your rafts along the wide trail that goes along the edge of the lake. You could then stash them someplace in the woods, quite easily, and go up the singletrack trail to the cabin. I personally wouldn’t have much concern doing that.

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