Shangri-La for wilderness wandering
It’s 10 pm as Alaska hiking expert Joe Gladstone and I finally settle into our cramped, dripping bivy beneath the dubious shelter of a slanting boulder. This is our third night in the Talkeetnas, and the accommodations are a harsh step down from our previous two evenings, when we’d lounged in snug huts, ripping off blueberry-scented belches while gazing through picture windows at gold autumn tundra. I’d missed a turn in the fog, leading to a strenuous day’s exploration and this late throw-down.
Once we dry out, I’ll be grateful for this more intimate encounter with the surprising Talkeetnas. I’d expected rounded talus peaks, but these summits are awesomely steep, and the tundra travel is as rugged as anywhere I’ve seen. Separated from the Chugach by the Matanuska Valley and Glenn Highway, the Talkeetnas have their own distinct flavor, a blend of sawtoothed pinnacles, milky creeks, and rock-hard glaciers, spiced with strong overtones of remoteness and solitude. We’ll hike out in the morning, but a glance at my map shows another hundred miles of higher, snowier mountains to the north. By the time Joe hands me a steaming mug, I’ve already resolved to return with a tent and full food bag.
Spires And Ice
The Bomber Traverse
This 32-mile trip begins on the historic Goldmint Trail, across from the Motherlode Lodge on Hatcher Pass Road, north of Palmer. Eight miles of steep trail lead to a hut perched among the graceful, pointed Mint Spires. From there, Backdoor Pass leads to the Mint Glacier, which you can skirt to the right. You’ll need good orienteering skills to find the Bomber Hut, your next stop, in the headwaters of Bartholf Creek. Ditto for the privately owned Snowbird Hut, perched on the ridgetop overlooking the broad icefield of Snowbird Glacier and its surrounding phalanx of dark pinnacles. A descent down boulder fields and trail leads you to Reed Lakes trailhead, off Arcangel Road, a short shuttle from your car. The first two huts require inexpensive membership in the Mountaineering Club of Alaska. The Snowbird Hut ($5/person/night) is owned by Alpine Guides Alaska.
Drive time: 2 hours
Hike time: 3 to 5 days
Alpine Fast Track
This 42-mile trek begins and ends on all-terrain-vehicle trails leading off the Glenn Highway. The lower “troads” can make for mucky going in wet weather, but they’ll take you quickly to alpine high country and a wealth of unstructured mountain wandering. Scramble up unnamed peaks, loiter beside a placid tundra pond, or scan with binocs for caribou, moose, bear, Dall sheep, and wolves. You’ll need solid route-finding skills to thread your way over unmaintained trails, and through thickets and pocket forests between Boulder and Hicks Creeks. Begin at Purinton Creek (mile 89) or Pinochle Lane (mile 100) on the Glenn Highway. Close the loop with a short bike shuttle, or hitch a ride.
Drive time: 2 hours
Hike time: 4 to 6 days
Pockmarked with crystal clear alpine lakes, this tundra playground is the perfect place for a few days. From Palmer, north of Anchorage, head up Hatcher Pass Road. One eternal mile past the Independence Mine turnoff, take the left fork when the road divides. Continue another 3 miles to a side road on the right, marked “Craigie Creek Trail.” The road is rough; park where you can still turn around. Deteriorating off-road-vehicle track becomes good trail up Craigie Creek to Dogsled Pass, where the track disappears. Continue boulder hopping northward, skirting around the headwater bowl of Purches Creek. On the north side, take the steep notch out of Purches Creek, crossing to tundra shelves and rocky lakelets perched on emerald green benchlands high above Peters Creek. If the weather’s clear, you’ll have killer views of Denali and the Alaska Range to the northwest.
Drive time: 2 hours
Hike time: 2 to 6 days
The Nancy Lakes
Think Boundary Waters, but with wilder wildlife, bigger fish, and far fewer people. Well-marked portage trails connect more than a dozen forested lakes in this state recreation area located just off the Parks Highway. Most of the carries are short, on good path. Excellent camping can be found in stands of birch, but there are also public-use cabins available on a reservation basis. Experienced paddlers seeking swift water and world-class salmon fishing can launch on the Little Susitna River, at mile 57 along the Parks Highway. After an 8-mile paddle, hump the long, marked portage trail to Skeetna Lake, at the southeast corner of the Nancy Lakes.
Drive time: 1 1/2 hours
Trip time: 3 to 7 days
One Big Trip
Up for a real challenge? Try climbing Sovereign Mountain (elevation: 8,849 feet), the highest peak in the Talkeetnas. It’s a beautiful, technically straightforward climb, with fine glacier travel and stunning views of Denali. Just one hitch: It’s so remote it wasn’t climbed until 1967. Approach via the Chickaloon River Trail and eastern glaciers, beginning in the town of Chickaloon at mile 78 on the Glenn Highway. From trailhead to summit is roughly 50 miles one-way, a third of it bushwhacking and glacier travel. It’s a quintessential wilderness expedition for the fit and experienced. For everyone else, hire a guide and a bush pilot.
Drive time: 3 hours
Hike time: 10 to 16 days
In a state with a lot of great views, it takes a whopper to make the short list. But the vista from Denali State Park’s Kesugi Ridge is one of the best; it puts you eye-to-glacier with Mt. McKinley and all of the Alaska Range. Hike the Little Coal Creek Trail, and you’ll have unobstructed views for days. Other upsides: easy access (via the Parks Highway, 130 miles north of Anchorage); a no-hassle trail system; and mouthwatering end-of-summer blueberries.
Drive time: 3 hours
Hike time: 3 to 6 days