aking to the hills for some hiking in Alaska is one of the best ways to discover what makes the north country’s wilderness a great place to explore. You are likely to encounter wildlife, waterfalls, scenic vistas and the sounds of nature. You must remember that hiking in Alaska’s backcountry can be extremely dangerous and can lead to serious injury or death. Hiking in Alaska can be a lot fun but use your head and before you go on an extended trip – tell someone your plans.
Recommended Equipment and Safety Gear for Hiking in Alaska
Whether you are going out for a quick day hike or an extended trip, certain items should ALWAYS be packed for safety.
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Alaska has trails for every level of hiking experience. Check out the National Park Service website for more information.
Chugach Mountains (Near Anchorage):
Chugach National Forest, the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, and the state of Alaska have provided a network of hiking trails in the Chugach and Kenai Mountains for those of the backpacking persuasion who prefer to tread the beaten path. Trails from the fringes of Anchorage ascend steeply into the high country of Chugach State Park, sparing users the effort of bushwhacking through the lower elevations on their way to the alpine tundra.
On the Kenai Peninsula, an extensive network of trails provides access to sub-alpine lakes and moose-filled meadows at the foot of snow-clad mountains. The Resurrection Trail, which runs from the village of Hope to the city of Seward, provides a great route for extended trips, with forest service cabins (nominal charge, advance reservations required) provided along the way. During his early exploration of this area in 1899, Lieutenant John Herron noted that “the mountains are high and their steep sides from timberline down are covered with timber, brush, fallen trees, rocks, and ravines, making travel very annoying.” Not much has changed in 100 years, and thus bushwhacking is not recommended in this area.
Hiking Chena State Recreation Area (Fairbanks):
This is a pleasant spot in the foothills north of Fairbanks. Developed trails are available for day hiking (Angel Rock, the Granite Tors) or extended backpacks (Ester Dome). This forested country is known for its geological oddities, the granite towers or tors that protrude from ridgetops like silent sentinels. Rock climbers like the solid granite that is found in this neck of the woods, while canoeists can find pleasant paddling on the waters of the Chena River. This area is reached by traveling about 40 miles north of Fairbanks on the Chena Hot Springs Road, a paved thoroughfare that departs from the Steese Highway just outside Fairbanks. The privately owned Chena Hot Springs at the end of the road have been developed into a resort.
Hiking Kenai Fjords National Park:
Although Kenai Fjords National Park is most easily accessed by boat, there are some opportunities for those of us who are limited to shoe leather as a means of transportation. The Exit Glacier hiking area features day hikes of varying intensity, most notably the Harding Icefield trail, which runs beside Exit Glacier to the Harding Icefield. The icefield itself is traversable on foot or (preferably) cross-country skis for adventurous souls who take the time to familiarize themselves with the hazards of glacier travel. Major crevasses are well marked on topographic maps and can be avoided if some care is taken. The park has its headquarters just outside of Seward, which is a four hour drive from Anchorage.
Seward has outlets for camping and fishing gear, as well as full-service grocery stores. Near Seward, primitive, unmaintained hiking trails run west up Mount Marathon, a strenuous day hike that rewards the successful with a sweeping view of Resurrection Bay. Another trail runs southward along the bayshore, eventually reaching the old World War II coastal defense installation on Caines Head, a popular destination for backpackers. Much of this route is submerged during high tides; consult local tide tables before setting out.
Hiking Kachemak Bay State Park (Homer):
This wilderness gem is set across Kachemak Bay from Homer on the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula (a four hour drive from Anchorage). All services are offered in Homer; there are none in the park itself, which is accessible only by boat or airplane. At the time of this writing, a round trip to the park by water taxi cost $50 and included a tour of the seabird rookeries at Gull Island. In the park, there is an extensive and well-maintained trail system around Halibut Cove, featuring trails that access spectacular glaciers, climb high onto alpine ridges and mountaintops, and wind along forested coves. Many of the trails along the coast require some hiking below the high-tide line; appropriate precautions should be taken. The eastern corner of the park is a wilderness without trails, and provides a challenge for even the experienced backcountry traveler.
Hiking The Chilkoot Trail (Skagway):
This historic gold rush route crosses one of only three ice-free passages between the shores of the Alaskan panhandle and the old goldfields of the Klondike. The easiest access is via the ferry, but a paved highway also connects Skagway with the Alaska Highway near Whitehorse, Yukon. A railway parallels the route to offer a scenic and unusual way to get back to your starting point. Because this route crosses the border with Canada, all backpackers must first clear customs. Due to the popularity of this route, travelers should expect crowds of fellow hikers. The trek begins in the coastal rainforest near Skagway, climbs through the stark boulder fields and windswept tundra of Chilkoot Pass, and then passes into the boreal forest of the Canadian interior. Along the way, travelers may encounter artifacts cast aside by gold rush prospectors. The trail is 33 miles in length, and takes from three to five days to complete. It is administered by the National Park Service, with permits available at the Skagway visitor center. Travelers planning to traverse this rugged and often muddy route should gather information well in advance. The pass may be snowbound late into summer, so be sure to check the prevailing conditions before you go
Katmai National Park Hiking:
This sprawling expanse of snow-clad volcanoes and coastal brushlands occupies the base of the Alaska Peninsula and is a perfect area for hiking. Katmai National Park can be reached by scheduled airline service from Anchorage to King Salmon, and by charter plane from there. Expect to find limited provisions and high prices in King Salmon, because most items arrive by air freight. This pristine hiking area is noted for its abundance of brown bears and caribou and boasts the largest specimens of moose in the world. Recent volcanism is evident in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, a barren and broken land of fumaroles and volcanic ash. The alpine country of the higher mountains is well suited to backpacking, although the low country is choked with thickets of willow.