On the Lookout for Adventure at Glen Alps
I almost never know where I’m going when I get to the Glen Alps parking lot, yet somehow I always manage to find myself exactly where I want to be.
Sometimes a long jog out Powerline Pass leads me to an encounter with a stealthy coyote; others it’s an after-work quad blaster up Flattop Mountain where I’m forced to pause by a passing Dall sheep; there’s even the odd trip up to the viewing loop just for a breath of fresh air and breathtaking views of the city.
The reason it’s so easy to be so cavalier about planning a day at Glen Alps is its diversity. As the hub of a sprawling network of Chugach State Parks trails, it’s the jumping off point for adventures both mundane and mind-blowing. You’re as likely to see a world-class mountain runner lacing up their shoes in the parking lot as you are to see a first-time visitor simply strolling in wonder at the subalpine meadows surrounding the parking area.
And it is a truly Insta-worthy location. Rugged mountain peaks towering above crystal alpine lakes; snow-tipped mountains draped in sunset hues, plunging to tidewater fjords.
The photos seem too good to be true, but they are very real – and often taken just minutes from downtown Anchorage. But while much of the city’s allure is its proximity to some of the most stunning backcountry vistas anywhere in North America, visitors often find themselves overwhelmed when attempting to tackle the rugged terrain for the first time.
A group of berry pickers gathers blueberries with O'Malley Peak in the background on a fall day near the Glen Alps trailhead in Chugach State Park.
That’s where Glen Alps comes in.
Located less than 30 minutes from downtown, this gateway into the park is a premier destination for visitors and locals alike due to its remarkable variety of terrain and vast network of trails for hikers of all ability levels. And because it’s so accessible, it can be the beginning of virtually any type of Alaska adventure.
The Glen Alps parking area is situated near the end of Toilsome Road in the Chugach Mountains. There are two large parking lots – an upper and lower – with more than 170 parking spaces between them and room for overflow parking. (Note: The lot gets EXTREMELY busy on sunny weekend days, so it’s a good idea to visit either midweek or early morning/late afternoon to avoid the crowds.) There are restroom facilities at each parking lot. Parking is $5 per day, per vehicle, but there are no other fees required for hiking, biking, or camping in the park. Camping is limited to two consecutive weeks, and fires are prohibited inside the park so bring a camp stove if you’re planning overnight trips. The state also operates a webcam at Glen Alps to help visitors gauge traffic and assess the weather before heading up.
From downtown Anchorage take the New Seward Highway south to the O’Malley Road exit. Follow O’Malley head due east to Hillside Drive, then follow the signs to the Glen Alps Parking lot. The paved two-lane road to the parking area is narrow and 4-wheel drive is recommended in winter.
The observation loop at the Glen Alps trailhead in Anchorage is wheelchair accessible and provides some of the best views of the city anywhere in Anchorage.
QUICK AND EASY
The most accessible and easiest trail at Glen Alps is the observation loop directly adjacent to the upper parking area. This short (¼ mile), paved wheelchair accessible loop leads up a gentle grade to an observation area overlooking the city.
From a vantage point at the foot of Flattop Mountain, visitors can take in the Anchorage skyline backdropped by breathtaking views of Turnagain Arm, Fire Island, Mount Susitna, and Denali. It’s an ideal place to take in a romantic sunset view, and popular in winter for folks seeking out the northern lights. For a trail that’s not much longer than a high school running track, you won’t find a route with more per-mile payoff anywhere.
It’s also an excellent place to view the northern lights in winter. I came up here one time in January and sat for an hour in near total silence while the aurora danced over the city lights of Anchorage.
MORE POWER TO YOU
When I’m in a mood for something mellow, the trail leading toward Powerline Pass is an ideal option. This relatively flat trail begins at the end of the lower parking lot and follows – as the name implies – a series of power poles leading up and over a high alpine pass.
The Powerline Pass trail is popular with runners and mountain bikers due to its relatively flat character and wide, rideable terrain. The full route to the pass is about six miles long, with only the final mile requiring strenuous uphill hiking/riding. The trail is also popular in the fall due to the large number of moose that congregate there during the rutting season.
There have been many days where I didn’t want to do anything that started with a slow walk down the hill at the start of the trail and ended with me jogging happily back to my car covered in sweat. There’s something about taking that first step for me that often makes the next ones easier, and Powerline Pass has a way of filling me with energy I didn’t know I had that day.
The trail leading to Powerline Pass also connects to a couple notable routes worth exploring. Less than a mile from the trailhead on the left (while heading toward the pass) the trail splits off toward the Middle Fork Loop/Little O’Malley trail.
A pair of hikers walk down the trail with Flattop Peak in the background. The 3,510-foot peak is widely considered to be Alaska's most climbed.
NOTHING ‘LITTLE’ ABOUT THESE VIEWS
The Little O’Malley trail was recently redone with added switchbacks, making it much easier to climb. The trail is visible from the Glen Alps parking lot and climbs about 1,300 feet in elevation before reaching a saddle between “Little O’Malley” and the larger O’Malley Peak to the east. Little O’Malley is roughly comparable to Flattop in difficulty, but there’s less exposure at the top and the views are just as good – plus there’s usually a lot less people.
This trail also leads to a place called “The Ballfield,” a wide, flat expanse of alpine tundra that might be the world’s most scenic picnic spot. Ambitious climbers and hikers can also use the Ballfield trail to access O’Malley Peak, which at over 5,000 feet is one of the dozen tallest peaks in the Chugach Front Range.
Hikers can also opt to take the Middle Fork Loop Trail instead of climbing to the O’Malley Saddle. This route heads roughly north toward Williwaw Lakes and Wolverine Peak, both of which are lofty goals and can be reached via a long day hike.
THE MAIN EVENT
While Powerline Pass is one of my favorite go-to trails at Glen Alps, the main attraction of course is the trail up Flattop Peak. Flattop is a 3,510-foot broad, flat plateau that ranks as the most climbed mountain in Alaska. On a warm summer day, hundreds of people make the arduous but pleasant walk to the summit via several trails that crisscross both the front and backside of the mountain.
However, while Flattop is climbed every day of the year and often by highly inexperienced climbers, it’s nothing to be trifled with. Parts of the trail are known to be quite steep, and a misstep on loose rock can result in grave injuries or worse, particularly near the rocky peak. Always wear good, sturdy hiking shoes when attempting to climb it, bring lots of extra water and pack a light jacket, hat and gloves – even in summer. Weather can change in an instant in the Chugach, and there have been many days when I’ve started a hike in hot sunshine and finished in hail or heavy rain.
The best advice I can give a first-time Flattop hiker is go slow and follow the signs. There are several older, abandoned trails up the mountain that are still used by hikers and hikers but are not well suited for beginners. The well-marked main trail up Flattop traverses Blueberry Hill and before leading up a series of railroad tie stairs that end at a saddle just below the summit. From there, it’s a rocky scramble up to the peak with lots of loose footing and boulders to navigate. Go slow and never, ever push yourself beyond your limits. There’s no shame in turning back, and even people who have summited hundreds of times have been known to stop below the summit in rainy and/or windy conditions.
From the top of Flattop, the views of the Anchorage Bowl and Turnagain Arm are downright spectacular. On a clear day, Denali rises like a ghost over the rolling landscape below, providing intrepid hikers with what’s probably the most rewarding view in Alaska.
The hike to the top only takes about an hour and doesn’t have to be a stopping point by any means. There’s a trail leading further into the backcountry and up a crude ridge system that will take climbers to a series of peaks called “Peak 2”, “Peak 3”, Flaketop, and Ptarmigan. These peaks get progressively higher and more difficult and should not be attempted by novice hikers or without someone familiar with the area.
On the Flattop’s “backside” there’s also a trail leading down into the valley below and onto Rabbit Lake. It’s about five miles of easy hiking to the lake, which sits at the base of the dual Suicide Peaks and makes an ideal place for an overnight camping trip. I once spent a silent evening sleeping next to the lake beneath the stars wondering how I got so lucky to have the whole world all to myself.
A map showing the various trails that can be accessed via the Glen Alps trailhead in Chugach State Park.
ALWAYS AN ADVENTURE
With so many ways to explore the Chugach, it’s no wonder the Glen Alps parking lot is usually overflowing by noon on a sunny summer day. I’ve been using the parking lot as a basecamp for my adventures in the mountains for 15 years now and it’s never the same experience.
The last time I was at Glen Alps I decided to take the main trail up Flattop. This doesn’t usually result in a whole lot of wildlife viewing, but it’s the most direct route to the summit and I was kinda in the mood for something simple. But Glen Alps always has something up its sleeve, and as I neared the final rocky climb to the summit my jaw dropped as a large Dall sheep sauntered directly out onto the trail no more than 20 feet in front of me.
I barely had time to grab my camera as the majestic animal walked casually across my path and off toward a steep slope of mountain tundra. I’d seen many sheep in my Chugach travels, but never so close to the top of Flattop and I had to laugh at my good fortune. I took a moment to admire the animal before turning to stare down at the vast city below.
It’s hard to believe so much adventure can be found so close to the city, I thought. But I guess that’s Anchorage for you.
The "upper" parking lot at Glen Alps trailhead with the observation loop visible in the background. Though there are more than 170 parking spots at Glen Alps, the lot frequently fills to capacity on busy summer days.
A word of caution here: Hiking in the Chugach is a true backcountry experience, and it’s easy to be lulled into a sense of security by the trails’ proximity to Anchorage. While it is indeed a park, the Chugach isn’t Disneyland, and there are thousands of hazards to take into account – bears, and moose frequent the area, there are jagged rocks, snow and ice well into the summer and ice-cold lakes and streams. Please do not undertake any adventure without proper planning. Bear spray is always a good idea, as is a pack containing water, extra clothes and a basic first aid kit.
Matt Tunseth is a freelance writer and avid hiker who lives in Anchorage, Alaska.