Terry | Feb 10, 2017 | 0
Our Pick of the Best Hikes in Alaska
It can be difficult to know where the best hikes in Alaska are when there are so many amazing trails to choose from. Dense forest, shimmering lakes, sweeping alpine tundra; this state has it all and then some!
Luckily for you, we spent four weeks searching out everything from multi-day backcountry adventures to accessible day hikes.
This post will take you through some of the best hikes in Alaska, why we loved them so much and some key info on how you can get the most out of them.
Pinnell Mountain Trail – Steese Highway
Our two days on the Pinnell Mountain Trail were hands down two of the best days of our whole trip. It was our backcountry debut and we’d chosen one of the best hikes in Alaska for it.
The Pinnell Mountain Trail is an actual trail, with signposts and emergency shelters, but it’s designed to be primitive. This basically means that the signposts are small and discreet and there are no designated camping areas. The trail itself often vanishes into marsh, or bog, or a rocky section.
The overall effect is one of wandering through the wilderness with nary another human being in sight. But, at the same time, there are markers for you to follow and two cabins for emergency shelter. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be well prepared, but it’s not quite as hardcore as going totally off-piste.
The Pinnell Mountain Trail is a thru-hike of 27 miles, but we decided to hike in and out the same way over two days. We didn’t fancy the possibility of hitchhiking back to our car in the rain! As it turned out, we were exceptionally lucky with the weather, but if you take on this trail make sure you’re prepared for the worst. The entire thing is very exposed and weather fronts can come in at a moment’s notice. If you’re planning on camping then you must take a tent; you can’t rely on the emergency shelter being vacant.
It took us about six hours to reach the first emergency shelter at mile 10.1 and we set up camp a short way away. The cabin was immaculate and had a water butt, so we could treat it with our steriPEN and refill our bottles without traipsing around looking for a stream.
The best bit of the entire hike, though, was what happened when we poked our heads out of the tent at 3am the next morning. We’d set an alarm with the vague purpose of maybe catching a glimpse of the Northern Lights….and got so much more than a glimpse.
This wasn’t some faint green glow on the horizon. These were pink, yellow and green globes of light dancing up and down across the sky like some kind of insane celestial firework show. We were dumbstruck. And then, about two minutes later, they were gone. I guess we just have impeccable timing.
If you want to try this trail for yourself, start at the Eagle Summit trail head at mile 107 of the Steese Highway.
Backcountry in Denali National Park
This isn’t exactly a trail, but our experience wildcamping in the backcountry of Denali National Park definitely needs a mention.
Four days of total isolation were spent bush-wacking through the undergrowth and drinking from streams (post steriPEN, of course). Every evening we pitched camp in the prettiest section of our unit that we could find, getting outrageously lucky with almost constant sunshine, but still waking up to ice on the inside of the tent! Needles to say that although the going got more than a little tough at times, it was absolutely worth it.
A full post on how to plan your backcountry camping trip in Denali will be coming soon. For now you can head over to the National Park Service website which has lots of helpful information.
Needless to say, if you’re after a bit of Alaska adventure, this is the place to find it.
Exit Glacier Trail – Seward
This 15 mile round trip was the first hike we did in Alaska. No exaggerations here – the view of the glacier at the end was absolutely spectacular.
We’d seen glaciers before in Torres del Paine, but I’d forgotten that a huge chunk of ice could be quite so breathtakingly beautiful. All kinds of green, blue and grey. Cut through with ripples and fissures. Somehow managing to be both stark and sparkling in the sunshine. It was so stunning I didn’t even care that the trail was crowded, which usually I hate.
It’s not an easy hike, but, if you couldn’t already tell, we reckon it’s worth it. Beginning with a steep incline through the woods, the path opens up after a few miles. At this point it turns into into sheltered, flower filled meadows and ultimately into windswept, alpine tundra.
You start to get views of the mountains and glacier from about half way along the trail. From here the incline drops off and the going gets easier. It’s possible spot bears along the route, though this gets less likely as the woods thin out. We came across a couple of marmots, which were very sweet, but that’s about it.
This is an in and out hike, but the way back is downhill, so you don’t really mind.
If you don’t think this is the trail for you but still want to see the glacier, never fear. There is a one mile accessible loop starting from the trail head carpark, which will give you a lovely, panoramic view.
Reach Exit Glacier by taking the Exit Glacier Road at mile post 3 of the Seward Highway.
Lost Lake Trail – Seward
The first two miles of this 14 mile hike (7 in, 7 out) go through some of the most beautiful, unspoiled, verdant woodland I have ever had the privilege to walk through. I’m a huge fan of great, old, cathedral like forests full of mossy branches and fern covered logs, so maybe I’m a bit biased. But Terry said it was ‘quite pretty’ too, so it must have been impressive.
We freaked out a bit about a mile in when we saw a HUGE bear print. This was the first time we’d hiked through such dense forest in Alaska, so after that we were even more conscious about making plenty of noise!
Our conversations actually ended up getting kind of ridiculous after a while. It turns out that six hours of hiking is A LOT of time to fill with continuous chatter. In the end we were quite happy to get out of the tree line!
Once we got through the forest, the Lost Lake Trail opened up into alpine tundra. Think windswept grassland with towering, snow capped mountains to either side. Seriously beautiful! The path from here all the way to the lake is very exposed, so bring your waterproofs, folks.
Lost Lake itself is a serene, glass like stretch of water. It kind of makes you want to build a cabin next to it and stay there forever. Unfortunately, when we were there it was raining, so we didn’t stop for long.
The only downside to this trail is hiking out the same way you hike in. This means a lot of the same scenery, even if it is scenery that’s hard to get bored of.
If you wanted to turn this into a thru-hike then you could link up with the Primrose Trail just before Lost Lake. This would end up being about the same distance, but you’d have to organise a lift back to your car. You could also backcountry camp if you wanted to split the hike over a couple of days.
Don’t confuse this hike with the Lost Lake near Delta Junction. The trail head for this beauty is at mile post 5 of the Seward Highway.
Granite Tors Trail – Fairbanks
The first half an hour of this hike was so buggy, we nearly turned around and went straight back. I am so glad we didn’t! Once we’d made our way over the marsh (there are board walks here to help you out) and up through the trees, the meandering forest path opened up into some beautiful scenery and the bugs more or less vanished.
We hiked this trail in late August, so the hills were covered in gorgeous autumn colours. Bright red lichens, dusky blueberries and flaming orange trees stretched horizon to horizon. Autumn is my favourite season back in the UK, and this hike definitely reminded me why.
The most striking features of the Granite Tors Trail are, surprisingly enough, the huge granite tors which loom over you as you make your way along the ridge. They are imposing, and more than a little bleak, but they reminded me of childhood walks with my Mum on Dartmoor. I actually found them oddly comforting.
This isn’t an easy hike at 15 miles, but it’s a loop, so you’re not disheartened by retracing your own steps. There is also a much shorter, two mile loop trial that starts at the same point if you don’t fancy taking on the whole thing.
Access is at mile post 39 of the Chena Hot Springs Road.
Quartz Lake and Lost Lake- Delta Junction
We loved the trails around Quartz and Lost Lake because they were moderate, but felt very remote. We didn’t come across a single other hiker and saw lots of wildlife, including a very industrious beaver whizzing backwards and forward across the water. There were plenty of moose tracks too, especially along the shore, so we think we were unlucky not to spot one.
This is a State Recreation Area so has toilets, campsites, picnic tables and firepits, as well as boat hire during the summer. There is also a swimming area and plenty of opportunities for fishing. You have to pay a $5 day use fee, which you pop into an honesty box in the carpark along with your car registration number.
The turn off for Quartz Lake is at mile 277.8 of the Richardson Highway, north of Delta Junction.
Russian River Falls – Cooper Landing
We really enjoyed this gentle, two mile stroll. It was peaceful, secluded and easy going – exactly what I want from a chilled out, early morning potter through the woods.
When we got to the viewing platforms at the end it took us a good ten minutes to realise that the falls were absolutely teaming with salmon. We’d thought that the run was over, but apparently not!
We hung around for ages, optimistically hoping that a hungry bear might make his way down to the water for a tasty salmon dinner, but no such luck. The salmon were impressive though, and we saw lots of cute woodland animals on our way back.
The wide, gravel path makes this hike very accessible and a good choice for families with young children. You can pay a small fee at Russian River Campground if you want to park up at the trail head. Otherwise, add another mile or so to your walk and park outside the campground instead.
Find this trail near Cooper Landing at the Russian River Campground, milepost 52 of the Sterling Highway.
What do you think the best hikes in Alaska are? Let us know!