The world’s best backyard
He’s lived in Alaska since 1979, but Ali’s accent is as thick as Turkish espresso. “When friend told me to come,” says the Cyprus-born cab driver as we speed south from Anchorage, “I had to look on map to find where is this Alaska.” As the city turns to forest, Ali grows quiet. Emerald ridges soar into the mist, and beluga whales roll in the currents of Turnagain Arm. “Is strange,” Ali muses. “So many people come all way here just to travel farther and farther. Always they are taking more bus, and train, and planes. But is beautiful right here, eh?”
“Right here” is the Chugach Front, its summits rising as a backdrop above Anchorage. I’ve always been one of those people who travel farther and farther, seeking “the real Alaska.” But a half hour’s steep hike up the thready McHugh Creek Trail, the dripping, fog-bound Chugach feels as wild as any Brooks Range valley I’ve ever explored. For a week, I trek through the broken peaks, hopping boulder fields, strolling vast tundra valleys, and crossing knife-edge ridges, marveling at how these west-facing cirques catch the gold light of evening. Eastward, the possibilities stretch forever, with lofty, glaciated peaks the equal of any in the Wrangell or Alaska ranges. Eventually, low supplies force me down to the suburbs at Prospect Creek. As I dial my cell phone for a cab, I think to myself “You’re right, Ali. Is beautiful right here.”
Williwaw Lakes Loop
The Prospect Heights trailhead, easily accessible by taxi or bus, is your gateway to this spectacular 16-mile loop among towering mountains, alpine lakes, abundant Dall sheep, and brilliant sunsets. Start by climbing the Middle Fork of Campbell Creek, quickly breaking through timberline to tundra dotted with wildflowers. In 8 miles, you’ll crest the Williwaw Lakes plateau, set beneath the craggy Mt. Williwaw. Campsites abound, but look for a sheltered location, because “williwaw” is another word for small tornado (okay, fierce winds). From camp, you’ll cross a low pass northward, descend to Long Lake, and continue down the trail-less North Fork of Campbell Creek. You’ll need good orienteering skills to find the cross-country route up and over Near Point on your return to Prospect Heights. If time permits, scramble up 5,229-foot Tikishla Peak for a stunning overview of the Chugach Range.
Drive time: 15 minutes
Hike time: 2 days
Along The Iditarod
Crow Pass-Eagle River Traverse
This 26-mile traverse follows the historic Iditarod Trail dogsled resupply route from Crow Creek Road, near Girdwood, to Eagle River Nature Center, northwest of Anchorage. It’s well visited on weekends, for good reason. This trail has it all: forest, tundra, glaciers, route finding, stream crossings, Dall sheep, mountain goats, and more black bears than you might care to encounter. Hang or canister food, and don’t leave camps unattended. The trail skirts the western edge of the Chugach icefields. Experienced mountaineers can scramble up class 3 Mt. Jewell. Shuttle services are available to and from Anchorage.
Drive time: 40 minutes
Hike time: 3 to 4 days
South Fork of the Eagle River
You could easily spend a week in the Kodak-worthy mountain valley that’s your goal for this hike. Roughly 10 miles north of Anchorage on the Glenn Highway, take the Eagle River Loop exit through the northern suburbs to Hiland Road, South Creek Road, West River Drive, and the trailhead parking lot. From there, a well-defined track arrows across open tundra toward massive, 6,599-foot Eagle Peak. In 5 miles, you’ll reach the milky blue expanses of glacier-fed Eagle and Symphony Lakes. Beyond the lakes, you’re presented with a menu of adventures. Try scrambling south-southwest to cliff-rimmed tarns, or continue upstream from Eagle Lake, passing a 400-foot waterfall, to a hanging valley campsite between Eagle and Cantata Peaks. From there, you can reach the Flute Glacier, and Flute and Ewe Peaks, or wrap around south to the west ridge of 6,391-foot Cantata.
Drive time: 30 minutes
Hike time: 2 to 6 days
Matanuska Glacier to Finland Peak
How big is Alaska? Consider Finland Peak (elevation: 9,405 feet), near the head of Matanuska Glacier. This technically moderate summit didn’t see a recorded ascent until 1990. To climb it yourself, you’ll pay $15 to use the private bridge across the Matanuska River and the small parking area at the glacier’s toe. From there, you wind up an immense highway of glacial rubble that gradually turns to ice and crevasses (hint: stick to the medial moraines). Two tiny huts, maintained by the Mountaineering Club of Alaska (see page 50), let you save some weight, but go prepared for delays, gnarly weather, and unexpected bivouacs. Finland is a scenic, feasible objective for the well prepared; you’ll need glacier travel, route-finding, and avalanche prediction skills, along with USGS quads Anchorage C-2 and D-2 (888-ASK-USGS; www.backpacker.com/mapstore; $10).
Drive time: 3 hours
Hike time: 6 to 8 days
ALTERNATIVE ADVENTURES IN THE CHUGACH
Running and Biking
The 18-mile Power Line Trail crosses the Chugach divide, providing an epic day for mountain bikers and trail runners. The climb is relatively easy, and tundra campsites abound near the pass. Begin from the Prospect Creek trailhead in suburban Anchorage. From the pass, you’ll get excellent views of the vast, forested Indian Valley and an even better view down the craggy slopes of your proposed descent. A long traverse eventually rolls you into the hamlet of Indian.
Where else can you canoe downstream, then wait until the current switches directions for a ride back? The Twentymile River offers a unique trip on the currents of Cook Inlet, which has some of the highest tidal fluxes on Earth and is home to some amazing wildlife. Launch as the tide rolls in. Make camp on a riverside gravel bar above tideline, or hike to Twentymile Lake to watch ice calve from the snout of its namesake glacier. Carry a tide table for the ebb-tide-ride back.