by Allen Cox
The Municipality of Anchorage holds a virtual microcosm of Alaska’s geological and bio diversity in the form of one park: Chugach State Park. Approximately 775 square miles—about two-thirds the size of Rhode Island—make up this vast park in Southcentral Alaska. The park’s namesake is the mountain range that runs east of the city of Anchorage, which is named for the indigenous people of the upper Cook Inlet.
With mountains, ocean, lakes, forests, tundra, glaciers and ice fields, Chugach State Park offers plenty of recreation year-round for casual visitors who want to take in its beauty with little exertion as well as hardcore adventurers seeking a more immersive wilderness experience.
Chugach State Park is easily accessible from Anchorage and several nearby communities; it is a must-see for anyone visiting Southcentral Alaska with a little time set aside to experience the majesty of this region.
The Chugach Mountains frame the city of Anchorage on the east, and Chugach State Park is a 10-mile drive from downtown Anchorage. Many trails and viewpoints cover the flanks of the mountains in this area known as the Hillside Trails.
The Glen Alps trailhead offers panoramic views of Anchorage and Cook Inlet from parking-lot viewpoints, perfect for those with limited mobility or limited time. Visitors who want more of a challenge and an even better view can take on the 3.4-mile (round-trip) Flattop Mountain Trail. Because this moderate yet steep trail with a 1,300-foot elevation gain is so easily accessible from Anchorage, Flattop is the most hiked peak in the state. For visitors without a vehicle, the Flattop Mountain Shuttle provides ride service between Anchorage and the trailhead.
Many other trails in the Hillside trail system offer more of a challenge due to length, such as the Williwaw Lakes Trail, a 12-mile round-trip hike with a mere 800-foot elevation gain rewarding hikers with views of pristine lakes dotting an alpine valley; or the Middle Fork Loop Trail, 8 miles with an elevation gain of only 1,000 feet that traverses moose habitat.
Depending on the season, wildflowers and berries adorn the landscape, and the chance of spotting wildlife is good. It’s important to stay on the trails as the tundra plants are very fragile and take years to recover from trampling.
Eagle River Nature Center
The Eagle River Nature Center sits in a picturesque valley about 40 minutes north of Anchorage. This is a popular spot to safely observe wildlife; black and brown bears, Dall sheep, moose, beavers and porcupines frequent this valley.
This year-round destination is surrounded by the Chugach Mountains, offering stunning scenery. Trails offer hikers of all levels of ability a taste of this lush Alaskan valley and its surrounding mountains. Less than a mile long, the Rodak Trail has decks where visitors can pause to view spawning salmon and beavers.
The 3-mile Albert Loop Trail ventures farther into the valley and skirts the Eagle River for a portion of its length. The Dew Mound Trail is a 6-mile loop that includes a portion of the Iditarod/Crow Pass Trail.
Experienced back-country hikers up for a challenge can tackle the 23- mile Crow Pass Trail, which heads deep into Chugach State Park’s high country and connects Eagle River to Girdwood at the southern end of the park. Hikers will face 3,100 feet of elevation gain, snowy slopes, rock scree, ladders, weather variations, river crossings and dense vegetation.
For those who want to call the Eagle River Nature Center home for a while, a hike-in cabin, yurts and campsites are available to rent.
Turnagain Arm Trails
The southern border of Chugach State Park runs along Turnagain Arm, a long finger off Cook Inlet. This area of the park has coastline, the Chugach Mountains and captivating views of the Kenai Peninsula across the water. Dall sheep are frequently spotted on the rocky cliffs above Turnagain Arm. Moose, marmots and bears also live in this section of the park.
Hiking trails in this section of the park typically challenge hikers with distance and elevation gain. They explore forest, tundra, mountain slopes and coastal hillsides. One of the shortest hikes is the 5.4-mile round trip Falls Creek Trail, a steep trail with a 2,900-foot elevation gain that follows Falls Creek through the forest to a pristine lake in a scenic high-country valley. Other trails are longer, and none are classified as easy.
For bicyclists, the paved, 13-mile Indian to Girdwood bike path is offers the easiest way to explore this section of the park. The path runs beside the Seward Highway where mountains meet the sea with several points of interest along the way.
Chugach State Park by Air
Those with limited time and an appetite for adventure can take a tour of Chugach State Park from an eagle’s point of view. Several guide services offer flightseeing tours over Chugach State Park.
When You Go