The Chugach Mountains, and the state park of the same name, are Anchorage’s backyard playground. Many is the time I have headed for a trailhead on the spur of the moment, usually with a friend or family member, for a hike of just a few hours.
Perhaps the most popular trailhead in the Chugach is Glen Alps, which is situated pretty far up the side of the mountains that ring Anchorage, right about where tree line gives way to low tundra. It is about a half hour drive from downtown. Once there, you can simply admire the view from the scenic overlook near the parking area or take a leisurely stroll along the Blueberry Loop trail, which is about a mile or so of fairly even ground after a short climb at the beginning. The trail is well named, as wild blueberries abound and are avidly harvested by locals of various species. Because the trail is just above the tree line, it provides great views in all directions, weather permitting.
Many people come to Glen Alps for the purpose of hiking to the top of Flattop Mountain, which has a separate trail that branches off from the Blueberry Loop. From the parking lot, the summit of Flattop is about a 3-mile round trip, with an elevation gain of 1300 feet. According to a very handy guidebook, 50 Hikes in Alaska’s Chugach State Park, Flattop is climbed more often than any other mountain in Alaska, so don’t expect solitude on the way up or at the summit.
I have to caution that, if you are like me, your ego will be somewhat bruised as you huff and puff up the slope of Flattop only to have some local kids in flip-flops jog past you with their dogs. Also, I have a small confession to make: I have hiked up Flattop many times, but I have never actually reached the summit. This is because the last couple of hundred feet consist of “scree,” which means small loose rocks and some larger boulders. Lots of folks, young and old, scamper up and down the scree without a care, but I personally find it somewhat unnerving and choose to stop at the scenic saddle just below the peak. Below that point, the trail is sometimes steep but very well maintained.
Sometimes our Chugach hikes are more ambitious than the stroll along Blueberry Loop or the well-groomed trails up to Flattop. In particular, my friend Jerry and I have made a number of full-day journeys into the backcountry of the Chugach, far off the trails that most locals frequent. Like Glen Alps, many of the trailheads are high on the hillside overlooking Anchorage and offer amazing views of the city, Cook Inlet and, far away, the iconic peaks of the Alaska Range, including Denali (Mt. McKinley).
What is even more amazing, however, is what happens after cresting the first high ridge east of the Powerline Trail that runs roughly north-south through Chugach State Park. Your mind knows that the city lies somewhere behind you, albeit out of sight. But the land in front extends for hundreds of miles, and seems just as rugged and wild as Denali Park or the arctic region. For all practical purposes, after traversing that ridge, you could be anywhere in the wilderness of Alaska. The only difference is that you can be back in town for pizza and beer in a couple of hours.
One time, my friend Phil had joined Jerry and me in Anchorage, where we all staging for a trip farther afield. Phil was unfamiliar with the Chugach, so we drove to a trailhead, parked the car and set out for Hidden Lake. It was hours later before we realized the lake was so well hidden that we had missed it and overshot by several miles. It was a good reminder to brush up on our orienteering skills or, better yet, to bring along a real topo map rather than a park guidebook. Fortunately, mid-August days are long in Alaska.
On this particular hike, sometime before we discovered our error and doubled back toward Hidden Lake, we came across a large expanse of snow and ice blanketing the hillside on the northern, shaded slope of a small mountain. We had our rain jackets with us, of course, although it was a warm and sunny day. It turns out that the coattails of a synthetic fiber rain jacket make an excellent sled, and soon we were coasting down the snow bank on our rear ends, whooping and hollering.
It occurred to me that I had seen brown bears doing more or less the same thing on a shaded hillside in Katmai Park in the heat of summer. Some of the bears just sat or sprawled out on the snow for its cooling effects on a sultry day. Others, and they seemed to be younger animals although I could not be sure, would slide down the snowy hill, then scamper around to the top and do it again. I subsequently read a similar account of snow surfing in Will Troyer’s book, Into Brown Bear Country, where he remarks on seeing “bears climb back up to the top of the snow patch to repeat the sliding game.”
Wolves and bears are routinely sighted by hikers in the Chugach, and my daughter one time had a tent destroyed by the raking claws of a black bear while she was camping in the park. I have met with moose and other mammals, but have not personally had the opportunity to see top predators in the Chugach. They generally frequent the less human-intensive areas of the park. That said, I am well aware of the potential for an encounter and I generally bring a can of bear spray with me, especially for the more extended hikes.
As Baird Callicott has observed, predators “need not be seen or heard to grace and enliven their … habitats. It is enough merely to know that they are present.” And it is remarkable that they are present in the backyard of Alaska’s largest city.