After eight years living in the PNW, I finally found my way up to Alaska, and I loved it! The air felt fresher, the water was clearer and the mountains seemed grander. It was a wilderness paradise. While I marveled at the beauty of this landscape, I was also reminded how fragile it is. Miles of rapidly receding glaciers left behind bare rocky valleys, and millions of spruce trees, ghostly grey and brown among the otherwise green mountains, killed by an explosion of beetle population. They were signs ominously spelling our doom as the global temperature rises year after year.
Anchorage hit a record high temperature this year and was mired in forest fire smoke in the weeks prior to our visit. Fortunately, the rain clouds came through before our arrival clearing up the air. We had a week in Alaska and we started our trip with four hikes between Anchorage and Seward.
Flattop Mountain (Near Anchorage)
We arrived to Anchorage airport in the morning and couldn’t wait to hit the mountain trails. We picked Flattop Mountain as our first hike since the trailhead was only thirty minutes drive from our airbnb in Anchorage.
Flattop Mountain was about 2.5 miles long round trip and approximately 1500 ft elevation again from the parking lot to the top. The short distance and rapid elevation gain made the hike moderately challenging. On arrival to the trailhead, we realized that we had less than 1L of water among the four of us. Should we drive to the nearest gas station and pick up some water? That seemed like the most rational decision, but who wants to be rational in this irrational world? In this rare occasion, Tricia succumbed to my irrational decision and proceeded to hike without excessive amount of water.
We experienced a real culture shock at the trailhead where we found many hiking parties packing guns. We parked behind a truck where two guys took turns aiming a rifle down a valley. One of them carried the gun all the way up to the top of Flattop behind us. One young guy in front of us holstered a handgun on one side of his belt and bear spray on the other. I figured it can’t be a fluke that locals pack guns on hikes here, and it made me hyper-vigilant about animal encounters for the rest of our trip. Bear spray is a must in the wilderness in Alaska.
The hillside of Flattop was covered in beautiful purple/pink fireweed flowers, which acquired its name from being the first vegetation to recover after a forest fire. After zigzagging for 40 some minutes, we made it to the top, where we found a clear view of Anchorage, the bay, a calm Pacific Ocean extending to the horizon to the west and snow-covered mountain tops to the east.
Lower Winner Creek Trail (Near Alyeska)
Lower Winner Creek Trail was a 3 mile long horseshoe shaped hike with one end on Crow Creek Road and the other at Hotel Alyeska. The hike had very little elevation gain and had an easy and beautiful trail through the forest.
The first highlight of the hike was the hand tram crossing Glacier Creek. It’s a mile from the Crow Creek Road parking lot. Stepping into a steel cage bobbing on a rope, which hangs over a hundred feet above the deepest part of the gorge, was a thrilling experience. If you arrive to the hand tram by yourself, you can pull yourself across the gorge inside the steel cage. But it’s far easier to have assistance from fellow hikers. It’s a kind gesture to help fellow hikers pull before and after you cross the gorge. Lend a hand if you are able.
A quarter miles after the hand tram was the Winner Creek Gorge, where the river was forced to squeeze through a narrow crack between two boulders, and dropped in a series of cascading falls. The water was clear with a deep blue hue. A wooden bridge quietly perched on top of the boulders providing a sturdy crossing for the foot traffic. This was my favorite spot on this hike.
Byron Glacier Trail (Near Portage) and Exit Glacier Trail
Both of these hikes were about a mile long. They both get you very close to the glacier. We were able to walk on the bottom part of snowpile for a bit at Byron. Both glaciers are receding rapidly. At Exit Glacier signs marked the edge of the glacier at different years. It was depressing to see how much of the ice had disappeared. Some say that the glaciers cycle in accumulation and melting phases but seeing the glacial edge marked by year still turned the mood of our group morose.
Exit Glacier has an alternative trail taking you up higher up the valley, which was about 4 miles each way and approximately 3000 ft elevation gain. We didn’t have time to hike this trail, so feel free to leave me a message if you have done it and want to share your experience.
Alaska | Denali Day 1 >