Hiking in Alaska: A Guide for the First-Time Hiker

Grizzly bear in front of Mt McKinley, (Ursus arctos), Alaska, Denali National Park, Copyright David Hoffmann

Hiking in Alaska is different than in other parts of North America. The wilderness is rawer, the weather more volatile, and the margin of error smaller. Cheechakos (a local word for first-time visitors) have a few extra things to take into consideration.

Take the wildlife, for instance. Alaska has more grizzly bears than the rest of North America put together. Courtesy of an abundant diet of coastal salmon, Alaska’s brown bears are bigger too, weighing up to 680 kilograms.

Then there are the national parks. North America has some whoppers to be sure, but Alaska’s Wrangell-St Elias National Park is the country’s largest, at 13.2 million acres. It is 25 per cent bigger than Switzerland—and most of it is roadless.

View of autumn Wrangell st. elias national park, Alaska, USA iStock

The mountains can be equally intimidating. Denali, a giant stand-alone monolith, dwarfs anything on the rest of the continent and is the third highest peak in the world by prominence. It’s big enough to create its own weather.

And, just in case you think all this hyperbole isn’t relevant to the average hiker, there are the trails—or, to put it more bluntly, the lack of them. Gates of the Arctic, a chilly subarctic national park roughly the size of Belgium, has zero trails. Even well-travelled Denali National Park, which gets 600,000 annual visitors, likes to promote itself as a hub of off-trail hiking.

So, what should a nervous, inexperienced hiker do?

The short answer is start easy, err on the side of caution, and do your research.

Ease Into the Action in the Panhandle

Mount Roberts Mt Roberts Trail. Credit: Brendan Sainsbury

Southeastern Alaska, often known as the Panhandle, is a good starting point for cheechakos in search of a softer adventure. The climate there is wetter and milder, and the terrain not radically different from coastal British Columbia.

Most of the small panhandle towns are reachable on the public ferry system and have one or two easy-to-moderate day hikes emanating directly from their downtown cores. In Ketchikan, you can climb four kilometres to the 915-metre summit of Deer Mountain. Rough-hewn Wrangell has a short but pleasant one kilometre ascent of 152-metre Mt Dewey, most of it on boardwalk; Juneau is overlooked by ever-popular Mt Roberts (1,184 metres and partly accessible via a tramway); while the gold rush town of Skagway is the starting point for a steady climb to above-the-treeline Upper Dewey Lake (11 kilometres round-trip).

Visit a National Park

Harding Icefield Harding Icefield. Credit: Brendan Sainsbury

Alaska has eight national parks. Most are large, wild and roadless, but at least three have decent infrastructure and a small selection of well-marked and unintimidating trails.

In contrast to its vast, tundra-like interior, Denali National Park has a half-dozen ‘entrance area hikes,’ easy strolls through verdant taiga ecosystems that mostly don’t exceed five kilometres. A tempting lure for the more experienced is the 15-kilometre Triple Lakes Trail, the park’s longest marked path which ascends to a scenic ridgeline and gives hikers a palpable taste of the Alaskan wilderness without the fear factor.

Vast Wrangell-St Elias National Park is accessible by a summer shuttle and worth visiting for its historic copper mine ruins at Kennicott. From there, several hikes venture onto the cusp of this Swiss-sized wilderness, including a six-kilometre walk alongside the frigid-blue Root Glacier and a steep 14.5-kilometre out-and-back climb to the abandoned Bonanza mine high on a nearby mountainside.

Kenai Fjords National Park is famed for the interpretive paths that fan out to the ever-retreating toe of the Exit Glacier. But the region’s grandstand hike (and arguably one of the best in Alaska) is the steep, yet well-trafficked climb up to the frozen snowscapes of the Harding Icefield (13-kilometres round-trip).

Hire a Guide or Join a Group

Lost lake Trail Lost Lake Trail. Credit: Brendan Sainsbury

Short and free ranger-led walks are a beloved bonus during the summer months in Denali, Wrangell-St Elias and Kenai Fjords national parks.

In Denali, you can take things a stage further on a ranger-led Discovery Hike which will introduce you to the park’s almost limitless trail-less hiking possibilities on excursions lasting up to five hours.

These days, you can customize pretty much any kind of excursion in Alaska if you have the money, including guided hikes. St Elias Alpine Guides offers guided day-hikes and multi-day backcountry adventures in the eponymous national park. Packer Expeditions in Skagway conducts fully guided and catered excursions along the iconic Chilkoot Trail.

If you’re nervous about steep climbs and bears on the Harding Ice Field trail, try hiking under the auspices of Exit Glacier Guides based in nearby Seward.

Other Good Entry Level Hikes

Alaska hiking Flattop Mountain. Credit: Brendan Sainsbury

Flattop Mountain (5 km): This short but steep scramble to Anchorage’s Sentinel Peak is a favourite summer fitness challenge for local citizens. A daily shuttle runs from downtown to the trailhead.

Perseverance Trail (7 km): Named for an erstwhile mine rather than the qualities you need to complete it, this relatively flat trail transports you from urban Juneau to a majestic valley full of weeping waterfalls.

Preserverance Trail Perseverance Trail. Credit: Brendan Sainsbury

Lost Lake Trail (22 km): Starting just outside the town of Seward, this long, steady climb through several ecosystems deposits you beside an icy subalpine lake with views back down to Resurrection Bay. It’s a perfect trail-run!

Indian River Trail (14.5 km): Well-maintained and mostly forested trail starting near Sitka that skirts an open muskeg area with mountain views and terminates at a divine waterfall.

Chilkoot Trail (53 km): Usually spread over 3-4 days, the Chilkoot bisects a national historical park and guides you in the footsteps of the Klondike gold rush prospectors into Canada.

Trail-Less Hiking

Powerline Trail Powerline Trail. Credit: Brendan Sainsbury

Since many national parks and protected areas in Alaska don’t have an extensive network of marked trails, hikers are faced with a wilder alternative: to get off the beaten track and explore the backcountry on their own.

Trail-less hiking can be an intimidating experience to the uninitiated, especially when you’re sharing the environment with bears, moose and other wildlife. The key to successful backcountry travel is being able to use a compass, read a topographic map and navigate with confidence through varied terrain. As always, safety comes first: plan ahead, bring extra food, have everything you need to spend the night and tell someone where you are going.

River valleys are easy routes to pick out and usually provide clear natural thoroughfares for backpackers to follow. Ridges are also good landforms to utilize if the weather is clear.

For those who have never undertaken trail-less hiking, Denali National Park is a good place to start. With a 92-mile-long (148-kilometre) Park Road bisecting the area, the park offers excellent transport links with regular hop-on, hop-off shuttle buses plying the route throughout the summer months. Additionally, thanks to its high latitude and altitude, most of the park is above the treeline, allowing hikers to enjoy broad sightlines across undulating mostly obstacle-free tundra. As a result, the Park Road will be rarely out of sight, even when it’s five kilometres away, and hikers are less likely to experience surprise encounters with wildlife.

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