Anchorage, the most populous and urban city in Alaska, is mostly made up of wilderness, with plenty of easy ways to reach nature in the raw and opportunities to test the survival skills of its visitors.
The Anchorage “bowl”,
where most people live, is a peninsula flanked on the north and south by the
upper part of the Cook Inlet and on the east by the mile-high Chugach Mountains
and Chugach State Park.
All 495,204 acres of the park are technically within the city limits and major
trailheads are less than an hour’s drive from downtown.
Within the urban bowl
several natural areas are connected by a system of walking, cycling and ski
trails stretching hundreds of miles. They range from light strolls to strenuous
treks. At any point you may meet some of the town’s hundreds of moose, bear
(both black and brown), porcupine, fox and other non-human residents. Many of these critters have become accustomed
to people, but they are still wild animals so do not approach them. People have
been killed by moose and bear, and attacks by wolves and even beavers have been
reported recently. Take precautions and mind your wilderness manners.
The paved, level Tony Knowles Coastal
Trail starts downtown and skirts the mudflats of Cook Inlet’s Knik Arm for
10 miles. Migrating wildfowl – ducks, geese, swan, grebes – flock to nearby
Westchester Lagoon, as do bald eagles looking for lunch.
The Knowles Trail also
goes to Kinkaid
Park. This 1,516 acre recreational hub, laced with trails and used for
soccer, biking, fishing and more, is a former Nike missile site. Bunkers that
once held nuclear bombs now store equipment for the local Nordic ski club and
archery groups. “The Chalet”, the most lavishly refurbished bunker, hosts
community picnics and celebrations. The vistas and lawns make it a popular
place for weddings.
From Kinkaid Park, a
wealthy enclave blocks the trail system from continuing to the next wild
Marsh, so you need to drive south on the Seward Highway about 10 miles from
downtown to reach it. A long boardwalk
extends into the waters and grasses where you can view salmon entering from the
ocean to spawn, but the swamp is largely a magnet for birdwatchers.
Following the Seward
Highway south you can spot wildlife from the road. Dall sheep sun themselves on
cliffs above the highway and beluga whales are known to chase herring near the
shore of Turnagain Arm. A line of stopped vehicles often indicates that people
have seen one or the other.
Whales are less
commonly seen than sheep, but the most promising reconnoitering is at Beluga
Point and, farther down the highway, Bird Point. Both waysides have spotting
A note of caution:
under no circumstances venture onto the tidal mudflats. There are a few signs,
but these treacherous shoals wrap around the entire coastline of Anchorageand
look like inviting beaches, but are laced with quicksand. People have been
stuck in the goo and then drowned by Anchorage’s 20ft tides that can rise
faster that a sprinter can run.
Chugach State Park
information is available in an old railroad house near Potter Marsh. You can
get maps here and a parking pass if you plan to leave a vehicle at park
trailheads. On the uphill side of the Seward Highway are a number of walks that
require a little exertion, like the Turnagain Arm Trail, which loops for 9.4
miles in and out of spruce and birch stands with lovely views of the Inlet.
Along the way, McHugh
Creek has day use facilities and there is a campground at Bird Creek. A
coast-hugging paved trail goes all the way to Girdwood. This tiny community
marks the southern boundary of the Municipality of Anchorage and is the home of
Alyeska Ski Resort, an extreme skier’s paradise in winter. The resort’s gondola
to a luxury restaurant operates in summer as well -- a good, and safe, place to look for black
The most popular
access point into Chugach State Park is the Glenn Alps trailhead. It is a short walk on
a wheelchair friendly paved path to a knoll overlook. Stairs lead to trails
around and up Flattop, 3,510ft, said to be the most-climbed mountain in Alaska.
There is a scramble over rocks to reach the top, which really is flat, but the
easy walking is around the base.
Glenn Alps connects to
Powerline Pass with a trail through a spectacular alpine valley, beloved by
hikers and mountain bikers. There is a leisurely route downhill to the next
trailhead, Prospect Heights, with views of Mount McKinley. Foot bridges cross
Campbell Creek at several spots in the valley.
Getting back onto the
road system, drive north from Anchorage on the Glenn Highway, to the Eagle River Nature Center. Located on the
historic Iditarod Trail, it has a short looping stroll to salmon spawning
waters. If you proceed upriver on a more
extended trek, you will find camping sites every mile or two.
Keep driving north on
the Glenn Highway to reach Eklutna Lake. A broad, flat 10-mile path follows its
north shore. Public use cabins are available there and adventurers with a whole
day or two -- or access to mountain bikes -- may reach Eklutna Glacier.
It can be dangerous
for casual hikers to go onto the glacier or attempt many of the towering
mountains in this part of the Chugach. The 7,522ft high Bold Peak, for example,
is known for avalanches.
Tough but possible
Glenn Alps is the
easiest way to get into the high tundra of the Chugach, where the trails end
and the real adventure begins. Head east from Powerline Pass to enter country
where you could be the only human for days at a time. Alternatively, climb west
off 24-mile-long Crow Pass Trail, which connects Eagle River and Girdwood.
There are more big mountains in the Chugach than any mountaineer will ever
climb. Those with parking at or near the base include Bird Ridge,
3,400ft, near Bird Creek; Wolverine Peak, 4,550ft, from Prospect Heights; and
Pioneer Peak, 6,398ft. Reaching the
summit of any of these can be exhausting, but technical gear and training are
The trailhead for
Pioneer Peak is reached on the Old Glenn Highway and starts near sea level by
the Knik River. The glacial river marks the northern boundary of Anchorage and
can sometimes be another place to watch for belugas.
Always bring a good
map, available through the USGS Map Store, REI, the Chugach State Park information
centre and elsewhere. And also have a compass.
Anchorage’s wilderness makes it a terrible city to get lost in.