Trail Time: Some of the Best Hikes in and Near Anchorage, Alaska
The summer mountains smell good.
It's not easy to describe that smell, but I always notice its absence once I've spent a few days indoors. It's something to do with wide open space and the blending-together of growing, living things, all responding to the sun, wind, and rain and heaped up in bigger quantities than you'd ever find in a single backyard.
That elusive mountain scent is also a nice reminder that as much as we live vicariously through our friends' social media posts (especially the epic outdoor pictures, right?), all our senses come into play when we go outside ourselves. You can't escape the gritty feel of a loose dirt trail underfoot, the tangy taste of an almost-ripe blueberry, or the cheerful twittering sound of birds claiming territory, wooing mates, and feeding young.
Happily, there's never been a better time to explore the Chugach Mountains that sit so beautifully on Anchorage's skyline. Of course, I might be a little biased: I've spent the last couple of decades hiking here, there, and almost everywhere in those mountains, partly as research for my hiking guidebooks, but mostly because it's such wonderful fun.
With that in mind, here are my favorite picks for Anchorage-area trails, from mild to wild and WOW. Have you hiked them all?
MOST POPULAR: Flattop Mountain
There's no contest: The most popular mountain in Anchorage, and probably all of Southcentral Alaska, is Flattop. And who can blame us for loving it? It's so close to town, and the views are amazing. On clear days you can delight visitors by pointing out the Alaska Range, and sometimes even Denali, sitting on the horizon like a rumpled white blanket.
The classic route up Flattop starts from the Glen Alps trailhead, and if you don't have a vehicle you can book a shuttle from downtown Anchorage to get there. That classic route does involve some legitimate rock scrambling at the end, though. If you'd like a scramble-free and less-eroded route up, consider taking the Sunnyside Flattop trail from the other side of the mountain, starting from the Upper Canyon Road trailhead.
Anyone considering a hike up Flattop is advised to come prepared, and to pay attention to their own comfort zone and skillset. For example: Some people love that scramble at the end of the classic route, while others prefer to give it a skip. We want you to enjoy this great hike, but not take the mountain for granted just because it’s popular and easy to reach.
WILDEST DESTINATION IN THE FRONT RANGE: Falls Creek
There are plenty of wild, remote-feeling pockets in the mountains close to Anchorage, but the steep trail alongside Falls Creek never disappoints. The small trailhead, a few miles south of Anchorage on the Seward Highway helps limit the number of people on this trail at any one time —but the combination of the cascading creek and thick greenery along the trail quickly swallow you up, making the place feel even more remote than it is.
The maintained trail ends about where the creek breaks out of treeline, but there's a clear footpath that'll take you through summer wildflower meadows and all the way to a small tarn — the headwaters of the creek — if you have it in you.
The remote feeling of this hike is a great cue to make sure you’ve covered your bases for safe hiking. That includes carrying essential hiking gear, filing a trip plan with a trusted friend, and staying true to your comfort zone. Remember, this is supposed to be fun!
BEST GOAL HIKE: Wolverine Peak and Bird Ridge (tie)
For some people Wolverine Peak is an evening trail run, but at 9.3 miles round-trip and 3,707 feet of elevation gain, it's a serious goal hike too. Make sure you take plenty of water, because in a typical year there is no reliable water source once you start climbing.
If you're willing to drive a little south of Anchorage Bird Ridge is another classic sufferfest. It’s 4.6 miles round-trip but gains a whopping 3,218 feet of elevation in the 2.3-mile uphill charge. There's no other word for this hike than "steep" but man, the views are worth it — even if you only go partway up.
BEST THRU-HIKE: Rabbit Lake to McHugh Lakes
It's tempting to pick the 9.2-mile Turnagain Arm trail here, because it's absolutely beautiful. But my actual pick is the approximately 12-mile traverse from Rabbit Lake to McHugh Lake, starting from the Upper Canyon Road trailhead.
The hike to Rabbit Lake is popular in its own right, but a lot of people stop there instead of continuing a short distance south to McHugh Lake — and even fewer people keep hiking all the way down to the McHugh Creek trailhead from there. Doing it in this direction means you're losing elevation instead of gaining it, but none of the grades are torturously steep. Of course, you'll need to set up a car shuttle, and this is a particularly beary area — so keep your bear spray and your wits about you.
BEST NEW TRAIL: "Muktuk" Marston Trail
Just opened this year, the "Muktuk" Marston trail is a lovely 8-mile round-trip from Arctic Valley. With great views starting just a short distance from the trailhead, and only gradual elevation gain and loss, it makes a surprisingly easy out-and-back hike just northeast of Anchorage.
You can also turn the Marston trail into a loop by hiking back along the Rendezvous Ridge trail, an 8-mile loop in total. I'm not a big fan of doing this in the other direction, because the descent to Hunter Pass — where Rendezvous Ridge connects to the Marston trail — is ridiculously steep. I'd rather go up that part than down, but your mileage may vary.
Now you know some of my favorite places to catch a whiff of wilderness around Anchorage. What are your favorites?
by Lisa Maloney - email@example.com