If you haven’t done it already, it’s time to stretch the legs and get in some easy summer hikes to limber up and prepare for some of the harder ones.
Hands down, the most popular hiking destination for Eagle River folks is Mount Baldy, at the top of Skyline Drive. 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 two mile route takes you from 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 catch a few rays from the low hanging sun 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 for 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.
Another popular hiking 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. A challenge in hiking to Symphony Lake is negotiating a ½-mile wide boulder field. 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 is 10 miles, but you don’t have to go all the way to this destination to make Hanging Valley a rewarding hike.
For longer hikes, 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 (to climber’s right) 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.
Mile High Pass (Saddle)
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 Stewart Drive (on the other side of the road from P&M Gardens). 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 (west) or right (east) to higher terrain for terrific views of Meadow Creek and Eagle River Valleys.
Beach Lake Trail System
Accessed off South Birchwood Loop just past Chugiak High School, the trail system extends an overall 15 kilometers. Known primarily as a cross-country ski area in winter, it is also good for hiking and mountain biking as it winds through deciduous forest. It is quite hilly, but the hills are not very high. The trail is lit during the dark winter months and groomed for cross-country skiing.
Lower Eagle River from Briggs Bridge
There is a small campground and parking lot near the river, where you can pick up the trail that goes east for about two miles through birch, aspen and spruce forest over relatively flat terrain. When you reach the South Fork stream, there is no bridge, and if you hike down to its outlet into Eagle River, be wary of bears during summer months because salmon are present. If you park in the campground inside the gate, be sure to leave the area before 10 p.m. because the gate is closed and locked. There is a small parking lot outside of the gate, however, if you think you will be later than 10 pm.
This is a very rewarding and easy one-mile (one way) hike to a 200-foot waterfall, visible from an expansive wooden viewing deck. From the trailhead near the Eklutna River bridge, the trail angles gradually uphill and skirts the deep canyon of Thunderbird Creek. Do not approach the edge of the canyon, as several people have slipped and fallen to their death from the rim.
Eklutna Lakeside Trail
This is a relatively flat, eight-mile long (one-way) trail that skirts the eastern shore of Eklutna Lake and is good for hiking, skiing, bicycling and on certain days, motorized recreation. If you proceed to the very end of the trail along Eklutna River (West Fork) the distance is 12.9 miles one way.
But you don’t have to travel the entire distance to have a wonderful outing. Just about anywhere along the lake you can diverge from the trail, head to the lakeshore, and find your own private picnic spot. Sometimes lake levels are high, taking away much of the beach. But usually you can find a nice spot to enjoy the beautiful setting. To reiterate what we’ve said in past columns, safe hiking in Alaska requires appropriate gear, most importantly foot gear; and some kind of bear protection. I recommend pepper spray, but some prefer carrying firearms. Hiking in groups, making a lot of noise and remaining vigilant is the best way to avoid bear contact.
It’s also important to know one’s fitness level and also the fitness level of pet dogs. I’ve seen many an exhausted dog running behind people speeding along on bicycles.
Frank E. Baker is a member of the ECHO News team and freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.