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May 2003

Alaska Made Easy

Just minutes from Anchorage lie dozens of world-class hiking and paddling trips. This guide gives you the best, plus gear and travel tips to smooth the way.

Kenai Peninsula

Where the wild things are

I stash my pack and splash into the soothing waters of Juneau Lake, swimming out toward reflections of the alpine country that overlooks Resurrection Pass Trail. It’s my fourth day on this Klondike-era track, which samples every bit of classic Kenai scenery–clear-running streams, trout-filled lakes, and old-growth forest filled with bears and moose. Oops, bears. The cool water is a welcome relief from the unprecendented 85°F weather, but I wonder how long I should leave my pack unattended. I’ve seen plenty of scat, a reminder that this lush landscape hosts one of the world’s densest ursine populations.

That’s not all that thrives in this part of south-central Alaska. Low elevations and high rainfall produce thick forests and support flourishing populations of just about every animal that lives in Alaska. The Kenai also boasts Alaska’s best-maintained trail system, allowing backpackers easy access to otherwise formidable country. And the peninsula’s flatter, western side is a canoeist’s (and angler’s) mecca, with broad lakes, meandering rivers, and vast marshes. Larger than Yellowstone, the plains of the western Kenai are home to the 1,350,592-acre Kenai Wilderness and its parent, a 2-million-acre national wildlife refuge. In the central peninsula, the Kenai Mountains offer long trails through pine-filled valleys to tundra passes. To the south and east, the southern Chugach are as mountainous and glacier-clad as any corner of this Last Frontier. It’s an embarrassment of riches.

Classic Kenai

Resurrection Pass Trail

Formerly a prospector route to the goldfields, this 40-mile trail is now a gateway to virtually boundless wilderness, including lush spruce/birch forests, stony creeks roiling with salmon, and grand vistas of high peaks rearing above the timber. From the trail’s start in Hope, on the Kenai’s north coast, you climb gradually to the 3,400-foot pass before descending quickly to the Sterling Highway. Nine Forest Service cabins offer shelter along the way. Reserve early, or use the many scenic and convenient tent sites. For a side trip, try Devil’s Pass or one of the many rarely visited side valleys. Even the trail’s southern end is another gateway; just step across the road to start the 30-mile trek over Russian Pass to Exit Glacier.

Drive time: 2 hours

Hike time: 3 to 6 days

Wildflowers And Wildlife

Lost Lake Traverse

Beginning at the Primrose Campground just north of Seward (109 miles south of Anchorage), this 15-mile point-to-point hike climbs above treeline on the broad, peak-rimmed Lost Lake Plateau. The trail winds up through lush hemlock and spruce forests along Primrose Creek to reach a high tundra valley. You’ll find plentiful scenic campsites alongside Lost Lake and in timberline groves scattered for miles across the broad landscape. Spend a day hiking up 5,710-foot Mt. Ascension, or take a side trip deeper west into the Kenai Mountains. Wildflowers are abundant in July and August, and you’ll likely see marmots, eagles, possibly even bears or wolves, particularly in autumn. Continue south to hike out to the Seward Highway.

Drive time: 2 hours

Hike time: 2 days

Best Basecamping

Mystery Hills Traverse

This 12-mile route through the Mystery Creek Wilderness takes you up and over a succession of tundra summits, with nearly 6,000 feet of elevation gain and loss. In return, you get panoramic views of the Kenai Mountains, crystal lakes, plenty of wildflower and berry action, and a bewildering choice of four-star campsites. The side trip possibilities warrant at least 2 nights out. Hiking east-to-west, from Fuller Lake Trail at mile 57.2 on the Sterling Highway (108 miles south of Anchorage) to the Skyline trailhead at mile 61.3, makes route finding a bit easier. Still, you’ll need good orienteering skills on this cross-tundra hike, particularly if fog rolls in.

Drive time: 2 1/2 hours

Hike time: 3 to 4 days

Glacier Views

Harding Icefield

The National Park Service maintains a 4-mile trail to the enormous Harding Icefield, accessed via a 9-mile road just north of Seward. It’s a stiff climb alongside Exit Glacier to reach the overlook, but worth every foot on a clear day. An emergency shelter sits at the end of the trail. Only those with glacier experience should venture out onto the ice cap. The Park Service allows glacier travel and camping via the Overlook Trail, but requires glacier trekkers to access the ice where they’re not visible from the toe, so as not to tempt casual tourists. If you’re ready, Exit Glacier is a gateway to 1,100 square miles of ice-cap adventure reminiscent of Greenland or Patagonia–with weather to match. On clear days, the overlook is perfect for scouting routes through the gaping crevasses and rocky islands called nunataks.

Drive time: 2 1/2 hours

hike time: 2 plus days

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