After more than two decades of left knee difficulties which culminated in a total joint replacement in 2017, I finally heeded doctor’s orders and started seeking more gradual hiking venues.
Through trial and error, this strategy actually worked in reducing pain and normalizing my knee’s condition.
This approach might have seemed obvious to many, but given my deep-seated streak of stubbornness and love of lofty heights, I had to make my own discoveries. I finally embarked upon a mission: find low-angled trails that would still take me into the mountains.
My first thought was to drive my car as high as possible to find hiking areas. There aren’t too many roads that reach high elevations, but I immediately located a few: Arctic Valley, Hatcher Pass, Palmer Creek off of Resurrection Creek Road on the Kenai Peninsula, and to the north, Denali State Park.
Here are some relatively easy trails for summer and fall hiking:
Hatcher Pass’ April Bowl Trail
For years I’ve driven to Summit Lake at the top of Hatcher Pass (elevation 3,822 feet), but it wasn’t until a year ago that I spotted people climbing up gradual switchbacks on the April Bowl Trail. The 1.2-mile trail rises only 800 feet and leads to beautiful alpine meadows and a couple of exquisite tarns. From there, the ridge offers easy access to higher elevations.
Arctic Valley – Pass between Rendezvous and Gordon Lyon peaks
Arctic Valley Road takes you to 2,500 feet. Following a gradual trail east about 1-3/4 miles, you’ll reach a pass at 3,460 feet that offers a great view of the Eagle River Valley. From this point, you have the option to hike up Mt. Gordon Lyon to the left (north), or Rendezvous Peak to the right (south). Always respect the adjacent military property and remember that the road closes each night at 10 p.m.
Twin Peaks Trail (near Eklutna Lake)
For years this has been a way for my friends and me to access Pepper Peak. But just tromping up the gradual 2.5-mile trail (one way) to the second wooden bench for a 1,500-foot elevation gain is rewarding enough. The view of Eklutna Lake and the surrounding mountains is incredible. From there, a more primitive trail angles off to the hiker’s right (or southeast) leading to Pepper Peak ridge.
South Fork, Eagle River
This popular five-mile trail to Eagle and Symphony Lakes has a gentle grade, with the exception of the return hike just past the bridge, which ascends about 400 feet. The vistas at Eagle and Symphony lakes are stunning, and grayling are stocked in the latter lake.
Echo Bend/The Perch via the Eagle River Nature Center
If you want one of the most incredible views in southcentral Alaska via a relatively easy trail, hike three miles from the Nature Center on the Crow Pass trail to Echo Bend. And by adding another 1.5 miles to your journey, you’ll reach The Perch for an even more incredible view of some Chugach Mountain giants. This includes Mt. Korohusk, Nantina Point, Kiliak and Mt. Yukla peaks. Goats and sheep are often seen on the mountainsides.
Stewart Homestead around Mt. Baldy
Close to home, the trail past the gate winding north and then east around 3,218-foot Mt. Baldy is an easy way (about two miles) to ascend the long, flat ridge leading to Blacktail Rocks. From the ridge, you can summit Baldy the easy way.
Hope Point Trail
Near the small Kenai Peninsula community of Hope, this trail has been reworked by Chugach National Forest crews in recent years and now offers great switchbacks all the way up to 3,360 feet, where you’ll enjoy a sweeping view of Cook Inlet and Resurrection Valley. To find the trailhead, drive 17.8 miles on the Hope road and take a left 500 feet from the Porcupine Campground. Drive a ¼ mile to begin the hike.
Palmer Creek Road
Driveable for about 10 miles, this gravel road forks to the left off Resurrection Creek Road and leads to beautiful alpine meadows that are studded with hemlock trees (at about 2,800 feet). You’ll find some very gradual trails leading to ridges overlooking old mining ruins.
Curry Ridge (from Kesugi Ken Campground)
Starting at Mile 135.4 on the Parks Highway, this relatively new trail is one of the easiest hikes I’ve found that, on clear days, offers a stunning view of Denali and its surrounding Alaska Range mountain giants. The three-mile trail offers an average grade of 6 percent and ascends 1,100 feet to an elevation of about 1,700 feet. But don’t let its low elevation in comparison to neighboring Kesugi Ridge fool you. It offers the same stunning views of Denali with much less effort.
One of my favorites, this trail starts from the Primrose Campground on the Kenai Peninsula (mile 18, Seward Highway). It is gradual but seven miles long to reach the lake, resulting in a 14-mile round trip. I love this hike so much that I would almost crawl to reach the lake if my knees were faltering. Okay, I exaggerate. Some.
Always consult with a physician regarding your own health issues, but my doctors recommended the following helpful tips for my knees: use two hiking sticks, go with the lightest pack possible, try some kind of knee brace for compression around the joint, use anti-inflammatory Flector topical patches (Prescription 1.3% diclofenac epolamine), or over-the-counter anti-inflammatory pills (if your doctor allows), and don’t forget persistent application of ice at home.
Hyaluronic acid and cortisone injections forestalled my knee replacement by about 15 years, allowing me to climb and hike, but these treatments (including stem cell therapy) must be prescribed by a doctor.
Enjoy good hiking this summer – stay alert, make noise, go in groups if you can, and carry pepper spray where it’s readily accessible.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River with his wife Rebekah, a retired elementary school teacher.