If friends and family are planning to visit, Chugiak-Eagle River has plenty of sights for them to see.
A Sunday drive could be filled just to reach from one end of the community to the other, even without any stops to enjoy the many opportunities afforded. After all, the local road district maintains more than 350 lane miles. They stretch into Eagle River Valley on both sides of the river, around the large Birchwood Loop area, along more than 30 miles of the old and new Glenn highways, and the grueling Eklutna Lake Road.
And every yard of those miles provides 180 or more degrees of beautiful vistas.
Going forth on foot is a great way to see things up close and personal. Chugiak-Eagle River is a haven for trails, many of them in the nation’s third-largest state park. Chugach State Park has nearly a half million scenic acres that includes two rivers and several streams, glaciers and mountain peaks that reach up to 8,005 feet in altitude. More than 200 miles of trail are contained within the park.
Local outdoor enthusiast Frank Baker, whose weekly column appears in the ECHO News, is an expert mountaineer and far more knowledgeable on the subject than is this couch potato. Rely on him for detailed information, but brief mention of the trails is included here.
Even though much of it is considered wilderness, Eagle River Valley is lined with marked trails. The Nature Center at the end of Eagle River Road has a visitor center and ample parking area. Two popular trails are maintained: three-mile Albert Loop and three-quarter-mile Rodak. The Rodak Trail leads to a viewing platform where visitors may see spawning salmon in a river’s edge pool.
Following a route dating from the 1800s is the Crow Pass Trail, part of the original Iditarod Trail. That was a major transportation corridor linking mining settlements as far away as the Seward Peninsula with the open-water seaport at Seward. Crow Pass Trail connects the Eagle River Nature Center with the trailhead at Girdwood, 23.2 miles away. It can be traversed in one very long day of hiking or more leisurely by camping overnight.
On the south side of the Valley, well-traveled pathways lead to Eagle and Symphony Lakes. Both are scenic and provide different views. Eagle Lake is glacial fed while Symphony Lake is fed by snowmelt and groundwater, resulting in differing shades of blue.
At about Mile 20 of the Old Glenn Highway, just north of Amonson Road, is the Ptarmigan Valley Trailhead. It gives access to a 3.5-mile trail that leads to what in the early 1960s was where Ray Beam planned to develop a downhill ski area. He put in a rope tow but had to abandon the plan when needed financing for expansion was not found.
Farther north at Eklutna is Thunder Bird Falls, a spectacular 70-foot drop in Thunder Bird Creek, a tributary of the Eklutna River. The trailhead is located between the Thunderbird Falls and Eklutna exits on Old Glenn Highway. A viewing platform is located about 1.5 miles from the parking lot.
Just before reaching the Glenn Highway’s Eklutna Flats, which are resplendent with blooming wildflowers in season, is Eklutna Lake Road. The road is long and daunting due to its grade, but the view at the end is breath-taking. Lake Eklutna is glacier-fed and deep. In the 1950s the face of Eklutna Glacier could be reached by a road on the lake’s north side but has since receded by a great distance. The lake surface then was at the level of today’s parking lot but dropped substantially after the tunnel was cut through to connect with the power plant far below. The parking lot is ample and a variety of trails make it a popular spot to visit either on foot or bicycle.
Along local trails, a variety of wildlife can be expected. Chugiak-Eagle River is the natural habitat for black and brown bears, moose, sheep, goats, lynx, wolves, beaver and fox. A multitude of feathered varieties can be spotted, and Eagle River is aptly named for the national symbol present in summer.
Eklutna Village popular tourist attraction
Perhaps the community’s most popular tourist attraction is at Eklutna where the village operates a museum and offers tours of the colorful cemetery. The village dates far back in history as the home of the Athapaskan Indians who inhabit the area along Knik Arm. The St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church is located there with the original log church built in the mid-1800s still standing. The building is the oldest structure in the Anchorage area. It was dismantled and moved to Eklutna from Knik and reassembled around 1900.
Of particular interest are the colorful spirit houses that cover the graves of Eklutnans who have passed away. In keeping with their beliefs of life in the hereafter, implements to aid them in their journey are placed at the grave. The spirit houses are painted in bright colors to honor those who now are with us only in spirit.
Local parks are plentiful and heavily used
Chugiak-Eagle River has its own parks and recreation service area within the Municipality of Anchorage. It is overseen by a board of supervisors made up of representatives from the area’s five community councils plus one local resident appointed by the mayor. Its office is located adjacent to the library on Business Blvd., staffed by the local parks manager.
The district controls 2,500-plus acres of public land containing 16 developed park facilities and another 13 still to be developed. Among its facilities are the Beach Lake Chalet on South Birchwood Loop, the Chugiak High School pool and the Harry J. McDonald Memorial Center. Facilities include 11 picnic shelters, 10 playgrounds and 14 athletic fields. There are a large number of small parks scattered throughout the community. Find a list of all these facilities, information about permits, operating hours and other things at www.muni.org/Departments/ERparks.
The McDonald Center is named for the late Harry McDonald, longtime teacher and hockey coach at Chugiak High School who died in an airplane accident. It boasts of an Olympic-size ice rink, a two-lane walking and jogging track, two community meeting rooms and a multi-use turf field. It is used by hockey, speed and figure skaters and offers learn-to-skate classes. Affectionately called the “Coach Mac Center,” it is managed by a non-profit company formed in 1983 and led by local residents.
The Lions Park complex on Eagle River Road has public tennis courts and picnic areas. Loretta French Park in Chugiak is a fun place with picnic tables, a hill to climb, and playgrounds. Associated on the acreage are baseball fields, an equestrian facility and an archery range.
Mirror Lake offers picnic pavilions and swimming. Beach Lake on South Birchwood Loop has a barrier-free facility and dog mushing trails.
The Birchwood Recreation and Shooting Park is situated on 72 acres opposite the Birchwood airstrip, overlooking Knik Arm at the end of North Birchwood Spur. Operated by a non-profit club, it has camper spaces. There are several shooting ranges for pistols, rifles and shotguns and competitions are hosted. Membership is required, but short-term arrangements can be made.
Chief Alex Park is a small but colorful spot at the entrance to Eagle River where a clock tower reposes. It is decorated with flowers each spring by the Chugiak-Eagle River Chamber of Commerce, which erected the clock and welcome sign. It is named for the late Mike Alex, son of Eklutna Alex, the last shaman at Eklutna village.
Town Square Park is a large and comfortable facility located on Business Blvd. in downtown Eagle River. It offers a playground and is convenient to the People Mover terminal.
What, you might ask, is the connection between a column on Chugiak-Eagle River history and the coming summer’s tourist season?
The answer is simple. The sights to be seen are here because of what happened in the past. This community played an important part in history, from the presence of the first Alaskans at Eklutna, to the Iditarod Trail that passed through Eagle River Valley, to our pioneer residents’ interest in recreation. When the Municipality of Anchorage was formed in 1975, local residents were instrumental in insuring that service areas were provided. That part of the municipal charter allows us to have these great facilities, maintained under guidelines set by local residents and under a budget approved by the local board of supervisors.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com.