The Great Land. It's the very definition of backpacking paradise, a big, brawling, pristine wilderness full of challenge and adventure. But claiming your piece of wild Alaska doesn't require a month's vacation, a floatplane, or a trust fund. Just outside Anchorage, salmon-choked rivers roar past unnamed, unclimbed peaks. Grizzlies prowl the tundra, Dall sheep peer from the crags, and whales leap in the bays. Minutes from the airport lie world-class hiking and paddling opportunities without a soul in sight. So start planning: Paradise is closer, cheaper, and easier than you ever dreamed.
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.
Prince Willam Sound
Prime-time paddling among the glaciers
We glide into the morning stillness, our sea kayaks pointing toward the turquoise facade of Barry Glacier. Every few minutes, another chunk topples from its splintered wall into the cold waters of Harriman Fjord, the swells rolling outward to lift our boats. Nine thousand feet above, Chugach summits, shining with fresh snow, clash against an ink-blue sky. I've come to Prince William on a whim, and as I sit watching the struggle between sea, ice, and sky, I am awed that anyplace this magnificent could be so easy to reach.
Wrinkled into endless bays and fjords, Prince William encompasses 4,400 miles of shoreline. Its waters teem with seals and sea otters, hundreds of resident orcas and migrating humpback whales, and more than 20 tidewater glaciers. In July and August, five species of salmon return to the Sound's 1,000-plus spawning streams, providing meals for eagles, otters, seals, and bears. Yet Prince William is only an hour drive or 2-hour train ride from Anchorage. Think about it: You could be on the water tomorrow.
This trip could be your best introduction to the water, ice, and wildlife of Prince William Sound. From Whittier, paddle 9 miles to a beach camp at Decision Point (boat shuttles available). From there, steer southward into the Bay. Paddle to the trio of glaciers at its head, or dry your butt on a hike to the toe of Tabenkoff Glacier, where the receding ice offers a chance to see the succession of returning vegetation. Midbay, Willard Island offers fine camping and a summit hike. If tides allow, paddle back to the mouth of Johnstone, then head southeast on the 3-mile crossing to Blackstone Point. From there, you can hug the shore around Point Cochrane into the inlet of Surprise Cove State Marine Park and the fjord of Cochrane Bay.
Drive time: 1 hour
Trip time: 4 days
Paddle And Hike
John Muir and the Harriman Expedition discovered these waters in 1911, when they sailed through a treacherous gap between the Barry Glacier tongue and Point Doran. Retreating ice has long since widened the gauntlet, opening one of the most staggeringly impressive spots in Prince William. Only 30 miles from Whittier, Harriman's waters harbor five tidewater glaciers. You can take boat shuttles to Packenham Point or paddle from town (adding 4 days to your round-trip). Most paddlers stick to the eastern fjord near Barry and Surprise Glaciers, but the western arm offers more solitude and hiking.
Drive time: 1 hour
Trip time: 4 to 8 days
Columbia Glacier from Valdez
Thirty miles west of the pipeline town of Valdez, the largest of Prince William's tidewater glaciers dumps nearly 100 feet of itself into the ocean every day, forming a wonderland of icebergs for kayakers to navigate. Campsites are few but fine on the 35-mile paddle from town to sheltered, tranquil Emerald Cove, just beyond Elf Point. Try those at mile 12 and 17, and consider staying awhile. You'll find, besides the glacier, spectacular hiking and camping through the forests of Heather Island and near the mouth of Number One River. Valdez is easiest to reach driving from Anchorage, or take the Alaska Marine Highway ferry from Whittier.
Drive time: 6 hours
Trip time: 4 plus days
Nellie Juan Fjord
The granite domes surrounding Nellie Juan have earned it the local nickname "Little Yosemite." The fjord's mouth is a solid 2- to 3-day paddle from Whittier. Or you can shuttle to the northern end of Culross Passage for a more sheltered approach. Inside Nellie Juan, Deep Water Bay offers white sand beaches, while Kings Bay has amazing wildlife. For some of the Sound's best hiking, try the short trek from Blue Fjord to Ultramarine Glacier, or from Derickson Spit to the face of Nellie Juan Glacier. In the late 1800s, the Derickson Glacier reached the spit; now you can see where vegetation has returned to the scoured landscape.
Drive time: 1 hour
Trip time: 2 to 6 days
ONE WEIRD TOWN
Alaskans are well acquainted with hardship--harsh winters, long months of darkness. But even the toughest want nothing to do with Whittier, a decrepit burg on the edge of Prince William Sound.
The town barely existed before World War II, when the Army decided the imposing mountains and truly atrocious weather (the town's motto: "It's always shittier in Whittier") made the site immune to enemy bombing. So the Army built two huge barracks with tunnels that could withstand 20-foot snows and 60 mph gales. Today, 80 percent of Whittier's 300 residents live in Begich Towers, which also houses a Baptist church, video store, post office, and tanning salon. The larger Buckner Building sits in tatters, occupied by only a few black bears on the ground floor.
Yet for all this, Whittier is a place worth visiting, because it lies in the middle of Earth's finest country. Glacier-clad peaks rear just overhead. Orcas roll through the Passage Canal in front of town. A beat-up car, an old boat, and a good rainsuit would put a lifetime of adventure at your fingertips. If only black bears made better neighbors.
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
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.
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
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
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
Expedition Planner: An Insider's Guide to Anchorage
Bus and van lines Anchorage Public Transit, (907) 343-6543; www.peoplemover.org
o Parks Highway Express, (888) 600-6001; www.alaskashuttle.com (for Parks, Glenn, and Richardson Highways)
o Seward Bus Lines, (907) 563-0800 (Seward, Homer, Anchorage, and more).
Ferry Alaska Marine Highway, (800) 642-0066; www.state.ak.us/ferry
Train Alaska Railroad, (907) 265-2494; www.alaskarailroad.com
o Super 8, (907) 276-8884; www.super8.com; $130 to $150, summer rates. Convenient location, large rooms, continental breakfast, one block from car rentals, airport shuttle.
o Microtel Inn, (907) 245-5002; www.microtelinn.com; $140 to $150. Near the airport, large rooms, continental breakfast, airport shuttle.
o Arctic Bed and Breakfast, (907) 272-1853; www.arcticbb.com; $45 to $65. Near bus and train, refrigerators, laundry.
o Jewel Lake Bed and Breakfast, (907) 245-7321; www.jewellakebandb.com; $99 to $125, summer rates. Tranquil surroundings, close to the airport, knowledgeable hosts, kitchen, freezers, laundry.
o Kaladi Bros Coffee Co. & Internet Cafe: Between REI and a used bookstore in the Northern Lights Mall.
o Bear Tooth Theatrepub & Cafe, (907) 276-4200. Cheap, healthy, food (try the halibut tacos) and microbrews, plus $3 feature films at 5:30 and 10 pm.
o Chilkoot Charlie's, (907) 272-1010. Cranks up late. Not for amateurs. Bring earplugs and cab fare.
o REI, 1200 W. Northern Lights Blvd., (907) 272-4565
o Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking, 2633 Spenard Rd., (two blocks north of REI), (907) 972-1811; www.alaskamountaineering.com
o Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking (see Last-Minute Supplies, above).
o Alaska Public Lands Info Center, (907) 271-2737; www.nps.gov/aplic
o USGS Earth Science Info Center, (907) 786-7011; http://mapping.usgs.gov/
o Chugach State Park, (907) 345-5014; firstname.lastname@example.org
o Eagle River Nature Center, (907) 694-2108; www.ernc.org
o BLM Alaska State Office, (907) 271-5076; www.ak.blm.gov
o Chugach National Forest, Seward District, (907) 224-3374;
o Alpine Guides Alaska, (907) 373-3051; www.alaska.net/~alpineak/
o Nancy Lake Ranger Station, (907) 495-6273;
o Parks Highway Express, (888) 600-6001; www.alaskashuttle.com
o Alaska Division of Mining, Land, and Water, (907) 345-5014
o Denali State Park, (907) 745-3975; www.dnr.state.ak.us/parks/units/denali1.htm
Prince William Sound
o Alaska Sea Kayakers, (877) 472-2534; www.alaskaseakayakers.com
o Honey Charters, (907) 472-2493; www.honeycharters.com
o Alaska Marine Highway, (800) 642-0066; www.state.ak.us/ferry
o Anadyr Adventures, (800) 865-2925; www.anadyradventures.com
o Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, (907) 262-7021; http://kenai.fws.gov
o Kachemak Bay State Park, Homer Ranger Station, (907) 235-7024; www.dnr.state.ak.us/parks/units/kba/kbay.htm
o Kenai Fjords National Park, (907) 224-3175;
o Chugach National Forest, Seward District, (907) 224-3374; www.fs.fed.us/r10/chugach/seward
Most public cabins sleep 4 to 10 people and are outfitted with stoves, bunks, first-aid kits, and fire extinguishers. Reserve 3 to 6 months in advance; $25 to $50 a night. The Mountaineering Club of Alaska also maintains several huts (join for a small fee).
o State land cabin rentals: Alaska Department of Natural Resources Public Information Center, (907) 269-8400; www.alaskastateparks.org
o Forest Service cabin reservations: Reserve USA,
(877) 444-6777; www.reserveusa.com
o Mountaineering Club of Alaska; < a href="http;//www.mcak.org" target="new">www.mcak.org
o 55 Ways to the Wilderness in Southcentral Alaska, by Helen D. Nienhueser and John Wolfe Jr. ($17)
o How to Rent a Cabin in Southcentral Alaska, by Andromeda Romano-Lax ($16)