Alaska vastness often beckons us to venture far afield, but we can find a host of great hiking and climbing destinations almost at our back door, right here in the Eagle River-Chugiak area.
One of the first places that comes to mind is Mount Baldy, at the top of Skyline Drive. Recent Chugach State Park (CSP) improvements on the trail have helped make this two-mile hike a great outing.
Getting there: Skyline Drive is accessed from the top of Eagle River Loop Road. Just follow the switchbacks and drive to the top of the road. Be sure to park alongside of the road in the areas outside of the Fire Lane signs.
The route takes you up 1,000 feet to an elevation of 3,038 feet, where you’ll have a fantastic view overlooking Eagle River, Knik Arm, Mt. Susitna and on a very clear day, the Alaska Range giants, including Denali.
From Baldy you can also proceed east along a relatively flat ridge to Blacktail Rocks. I’ve often hiked up to that long ridge in mid-winter just to get a few rays of sunshine from the sun hanging low on the southern horizon.
After about half a mile you’ll reach the base of Blacktail Rocks, named many years ago by the late mountaineer Vin Hoeman after the dark lichen seen on the mountain’s southern cliffs. A trail will take you another 1,100 feet up to Blacktail’s rocky pinnacles at 4,446 feet. The furthest rock pinnacle (north) is the highest of the three.
South Fork: One of the most popular hiking areas in our area begins in South Fork-Eagle River. From the trailhead, accessed by following Hiland Road; it’s a five-mile hike on relatively flat terrain to Eagle and Symphony Lakes. The lakes sit side by side, divided by a narrow isthmus—with Symphony Lake about 200 feet higher than Eagle Lake and stocked with Grayling trout. This location offers one of the most spectacular views in Southcentral Alaska.
A very worthwhile side trip in South Fork Valley is to Hanging Valley Lake, or tarn. The trail departs from the main South Fork trail about ¼ mile after the bridge, at Mile 2. The trail turns left, or east, off the main trail and takes you up into
Hanging Valley. Hiking through the valley in alpine terrain, stay on the trail that parallels the south side of the stream. After about two miles you’ll see a trail angling up to your right, or south. After a few hundred feet of elevation gain, you’ll arrive at this beautiful, mountain encircled tarn. I’ve spent many hours at this peaceful location – so close to our community’s “back door.” Round trip: 10 miles.
For a longer hike, if daylight allows, cross Hanging Valley due east toward a small pass, where you’ll find a primitive trail. The trail will take you up onto a broad expanse that ramps upward in a southerly direction to Overlook, with a high point of 5,130 feet. From this point you’ll have a sweeping view of upper Eagle River Valley, including Eagle Glacier. Round trip on this hike would be about 12 miles.
Eagle River Nature Center: This center at Mile 12 of Eagle River Road offers tremendous hiking opportunities, from short excursions such Rodak and Albert Loop trails, to somewhat longer hikes, such as Echo Bend, at six miles round trip. The main trail is part of the 24-mile Crow Pass Trail to Girdwood, which is part of the historic Iditarod Trail beginning in Seward.
Several yurts along the first few miles of the trail from the Nature Center can be rented from the state. A daily parking fee or season pass for parking is required for the Nature Center, which offers many interesting natural history and interpretive programs and presentations throughout the year.
Another close hiking destination is the Mile High Pass,
which is accessed from Mile 2-1/2 on Eagle River Road. Enter Hylen Crest subdivision (on the other side of the road from P&M Gardens) on Stewart Drive. Stay on Stewart–which becomes a switchback road–all the way up to a gate, on the right-hand side, where there is a small parking area. Beyond the gate hike on a small road to the communications tower/buildings and you’ll see a sign marking the beginning of the trail. Once up in the pass, or saddle, you can venture left (east) or right (west) to higher terrain for terrific views of Meadow Creek and Eagle River Valleys.
Heading north: Not far from the Chugiak area are some very appealing recreational areas, including Peters Creek Valley, Ptarmigan Valley (which branches off Peters Creek drainage) and most certainly, the Eklutna Lake area. Aside from the Eklutna Lakeside trail, which circuits the east side of the lake and is terrific for mountain biking, the Twin Peaks Trail offers a gradual ascent above the lake for a great view.
For all hikers, young and old, novices or veterans, I highly recommend hiking books, such as Shane Shephard and Owen Woznick’s 50 Hikes in Alaska’s Chugach State Park, or 55 Ways to the Wilderness in Southcentral Alaska, by Helen Nienhueser and John Wolfe Jr.
The key to enjoying all outdoor adventures is safety and preparation, which we’ll address continually in ongoing columns. During days of rapidly decreasing daylight like we have now, judging the duration of one’s outings is critical. At this time of the year to avoid getting stuck in the dark, I begin putting a headlamp into my pack as standard equipment.
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As a final note, I’d like to make this more of an interactive column. I’d like to hear about your outdoor adventures, some of which I might be able to include in my column from time to time. To reach me: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Eagle Peak is reflected in Eagle Lake in South Fork Valley.
- Hikers descend into Hanging Valley from Overlook Point.
- Approaching Blacktail Rocks to the east of Mt. Baldy
- Eklutna Lake in autumn from Twin Peaks Trail.
‘…we can find a host of great hiking and climbing destinations almost at our back door…’