The 7 Best Trails for Backpacking and Hiking in Alaska
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A brief overview of Alaska: the Last Frontier for hikingOutside of hiking in San Diego or exploring the wondrous trails of Colorado, few other places offer such a diverse setting as Alaska. In the remote corners of the north lies the Arctic tundra. Transitional and boreal forests spread across the state’s south central and interior area. The southeast is the wild kingdom of fjords and old-growth temperate rainforests. Kayaking through Prince William Sound lets you see the tidewater glaciers descend right into the water, and with the relatively low tree lines, you can even enjoy alpine hiking without gaining too much elevation.
Why hiking and backpacking is the best way to see AlaskaAlaska might seem like a place only for the daring. While opportunities abound for backcountry wilderness adventure, you can also find easy day hikes on well-prepared trails. With hundreds of options at your disposal and plenty more treasures off the beaten beath, every kind of hiker, regardless of fitness level, gear, and experience, can find a way to enjoy these stellar hiking tours. If you’re planning a visit to the largest state and one of the best hiking destinations in US, whose adventures rival even the best hikes in Washington, be sure to set aside enough time to explore parts of the Last Frontier you won’t see from a tour bus or cruise ship.
1. Chilkoot Trail, Skagway
What to expect on the popular multi-day Skagway trailThis is one of the most regulated trails in Alaska. You’ll need to secure a permit (a certain amount is set aside each day for walk-ins, but most are for reservations). Chilkoot Trail also crosses an international boundary, so you’ll want to be up to date on the current requirements for checking in with either Canadian or U.S. customs, depending on which direction you go. The trail is also rather popular. Despite the permit requirements, you’re not likely to have it to yourself, especially during peak season. On the other hand, it’s a wonderful opportunity to meet fellow hikers from around the world.
1. Chilkoot Trail, Skagway - Good to Know
Developed trail with some boulder hopping
3-5 days for trekking the full distance
South end: 9 miles from downtown Skagway; North end: Lake Bennet train station (not accessible by road) or Log Cabin on the Klondike Highway 5 miles past the Canadian Customs station.
Late June to mid-September
Consider taking the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway between Skagway and the northern end of the trail
Plan your visit with info from the National Parks Service and Parks Canada
2. Exit Glacier/Harding Icefield, Seward
Head to Harding Icefield for views of surrounding peaks and fjordsIf you’re an ambitious hiker, you can make a day out of it and follow the switchbacks up to Harding Icefield. This 500-square-mile frozen mass feeds almost three dozen glaciers, including Exit. The trail is well developed but steep with nearly 3,000 feet of elevation gain. After climbing above the forest and through the low brush and alpine meadows, the trail gets rocky. The view out over the expanse of ice and the jagged gray peaks surrounding it is worth the effort – even if it’s cloudy like it was for our visit.
2. Exit Glacier/Harding Icefield, Seward - Good to Know
Exit Glacier – choice of trails up to 1 mile long; Harding Icefield – 4 miles one way
Exit Glacier – easy; Harding Icefield – strenuous
Accessible/developed trail with some rocky sections near the icefield
Up to 4 hours, depending on fitness level
11 miles from downtown Seward in Kenai Fjords National Park
May to September
Seward is also a great place to take a sightseeing cruise or sea-fishing charter
3. Reed Lakes, Anchorage/Wasilla
Hike to Upper Reed Lake to see an abandoned plane wreckageThe trail continues, passing cascading waterfalls that feed the lower lake from the upper one. If it’s early enough in the day, and you can manage the steep ascent through rock and scree, you can continue up past the upper lake. Here you’ll find the wreckage of an Air Force bomber that crashed in the 1950s on aptly-named Bomber Glacier. Some people make this Anchorage hiking trail part of a multi-day traverse that includes the Gold Mint Trail the next valley over. This involves stretches of ice travel that should only be attempted by people with the proper training and equipment.
When I lived in Anchorage, Hatcher Pass was one of my favorite places to go. And Reed Lakes was one of my favorite parts of Hatcher Pass.
3. Reed Lakes, Anchorage/Wasilla - Good to Know
3 miles to Lower Reed Lake, 4 miles to Upper Reed Lake
Moderate, with some boulder hopping
Forest, brush, alpine meadows and lakefront
Archangel Road, Hatcher Pass (19 miles from Palmer, 60 miles from Anchorage)
June to September
Nearby Independence Mine State Historical Park offers a fascinating and photogenic look at the area’s past with grooming for Nordic skiing in the winter.
4. West Glacier Trail, Juneau
Continue hiking to take in views of Mendenhall GlacierIf you keep following the West Glacier Trail path, you’ll eventually climb out of the young forest and find yourself following cairns across bare rock. After cresting a rock shoulder, you come right to the edge of the glacier. When we did this Juneau hiking trip, the air noticeably cooled as we neared the ice. We appreciated the temperature dip as it was a warm afternoon for late May! You can get right up to the ice and take in the varying shades of white and blue. Keep in mind, extended travel on the glacier is for those with the proper experience (or guides!) and equipment. Commercial outfits in Juneau offer guided glacier explorations and even the chance to explore ice caves within the glacier!
This hike is worth the trek to the top for the incredible views of the Mendenhall Glacier — a seemingly endless ocean of vibrant blue ice.
4. West Glacier Trail, Juneau - Good to Know
3.4 miles one way
Moderate (mainly due to the incline at the end)
Developed trail through forest brush, then bare rock
4-6 hours round trip
About 1 mile from Mendenhall Loop Road and Montana Creek Road, just past the Mendenhall Campgrounds
Mid-May through September
There are shorter and easier hikes on the east side of the lake near the national forest visitor’s center. They also offer a view of the glacier, but don’t get as close to it.
5. Deer Mountain, Ketchikan
Traverse Deer Mountain trail for a variety of views and alpineThe Deer Mountain Trail starts steep shortly after leaving the parking area. You happen upon viewpoints at both the one- and two-mile marks. At 2.5 miles, a short spur runs up to the top of Deer Mountain itself. The main trail continues past a shelter available for camping on a first-come, first-served basis. You can also take shelter at Blue Lake, and the basin between Mahoney and John Mountains is suitable for tent camping. You can also find plenty of water along the way, as long as you filter or treat it first. If you traverse the entirety of this Ketchikan hiking tour, you’ll be crossing the mountainous spine of Revillagigedo Island. Here winter comes early and stays late. You might want to consider having an ice ax with you, even in the summer. If the weather or snow conditions seem questionable, play it safe and turn back at Blue Lake
No other trail in this region offers such dramatic views of surrounding islands, the ‘First City’ itself, and alpine lakes, than Deer Mountain.
5. Deer Mountain, Ketchikan - Good to Know
2.5 miles to Deer Mountain, 4.5 miles to Blue Lake, 12.5 miles for the full traverse
Developed trail as far as Deer Mountain, then rough alpine footpath
Half day to Deer Mountain; long day hike to Blue Lake; usually 2-3 days for the full traverse
1 mile southeast of downtown Ketchikan. Start on Steadman Street and follow the signs.
June through September
This is one of the wettest areas in Southeastern Alaska. Even if it’s sunny when you start, make sure you take rain gear!
6. Eielson Alpine Trail, Denali National Park
Hike the steep face of Thoro Ridge to gain impressive views of DenaliBy the time you reach the Eielson Visitor’s Center, you might be ready to stretch your legs a bit, and the Eielson Alpine Trail will do the trick! Even when clouds obscure Denali itself – which was the case for us – the view across the valleys to the west is panoramic. It’s a short but steep trail, climbing the ridge across the Park Road from the Visitor’s Center in a series of switchbacks. When we embarked on our Denali National Park hiking trip, marmots seemed quite fascinated with watching humans make their way up and quite happy to pose for pictures. The ridge is broad where the trail reaches the top, and you can easily walk a bit west and take in the expansive valley to the north. This view of Mount Galen and the distant hills is completely hidden from those who never stray from the busses. Most people return the way they came, though you could continue west and descend back to the highway about a mile or so west of the Visitor’s Center. More ambitious hikers could head east and make the steep trek up 5,629-foot to Thoro Peak. You won’t regret taking more time for hiking in Denali.
Even when clouds obscure Denali itself – which was the case for us – the view across the valleys to the west is panoramic.
6. Eielson Alpine Trail, Denali National Park - Good to Know
1.75 miles round trip
Developed trail through low brush and alpine meadow
Across the Park Road from Eielson Visitor Center, about 4 hours from the entrance
June through mid-September
Leave time to enjoy the Visitor Center and some of the other short trails; off-trail hiking is also welcome
7. Flattop Mountain, Anchorage
Climbing the popular but worthwhile Flattop TrailThe Flattop trail is a well developed and easy to follow Anchorage hike. Most of the hike is relatively easy, aside from a steep final pitch that’ll get your heart rate up. The last climb is on a north-facing aspect and can retain snow well into summer, which can make things slippery. When I went on a late May afternoon, I found hard-packed steps in the snow left by an endless stream of previous hikers. The top is a broad flat expanse (hence the name) where you can also camp overnight. Flattop is also the site of an annual summer solstice celebration where hikers get to take advantage of almost 20 hours of daylight. Hikers with an appetite for more hikes near Anchorage can follow the ridge to the southeast to bag two more peaks. Here you’ll find the less creatively named Peak 2 and Peak 3 in the front range of the Chugach mountains.
Flattop trail is short enough to enjoy time in nature without investing an entire day. The views of the water, mountains, and skyline are more than worth the minimal effort.
7. Flattop Mountain, Anchorage - Good to Know
1.7 miles one way
Developed and well-marked trail
Glen Alps Trailhead in south Anchorage
May through September
Blueberry Loop offers a shorter hike without the climb at the end; on the north side of the trailhead parking lot an accessible paved trail provides a panoramic viewpoint for those who don’t want – or can’t – hike to the mountain