The Chugach spans the heart of Southcentral Alaska. As the second largest national forest in the nation—larger than New Hampshire—its 5.4 million acres stretches from Turnagain Arm and the Kenai Peninsula across Prince William Sound to the Copper River Delta and beyond. This vast landscape features almost every geographic zone found in Alaska—rain forests, coastal inlets, boreal woods and immense wetlands. Its 20 tidewater glaciers emerge from a snowbound coastal range with some peaks rising two miles high.
Despite such geographic scope, the Chugach is easy to visit!
It begins just 40 miles south of downtown Anchorage on the Seward Highway. The forest has no main entrance and scores of developed access points, often with parking and toilets at hand. Its front country straddles some of Alaska’s most traveled byways and connects to a half dozen communities and ports such as Girdwood, Whittier, Hope, Cooper Landing, Moose Pass, Seward and Cordova. Along the way, you’ll find two major visitor centers, 500 miles of maintained trails, dozens of campgrounds and recreation sites, and 41 public use cabins. More than 500,000 people a year visit the Chugach.
Three different regions to explore
Turnagain Arm and Kenai Peninsula
What’s it Like? The most accessible Chugach region begins at Girdwood along Turnagain Arm and covers the northeastern quadrant of the Kenai Peninsula with highway connections to Prince William Sound and Resurrection Bay. The terrain goes off-the-scale in its ruggedness and beauty—a dramatic geography dominated by mountains and hanging glaciers, fiords and U-shaped valleys, dense forests and salmon streams. As you might expect, the region is popular among Alaskans, serving as a favorite weekend recreation destination for residents of Anchorage and other Southcentral communities. Despite the relatively high visitation and proximity to modern Alaska services, you can discover wild solitude and fun things to do.
Access: This region is a snap to visit from Anchorage, totally rental car friendly, with many transportation and lodging options. The Seward and Sterling highways provide direct access to dozens of Chugach campgrounds, trailheads, viewpoints, lakes and streams. The Alaska Railroad offers several itineraries through the forest, including a Glacier Discovery trip through mountains without road access.
Popular Spots: Among the most popular destinations are the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center in Portage Valley on the shore of Portage Lake and its icebergs, adjacent to the highway tunnel to Whittier and Prince William Sound. Two other beloved spots are Hope, an authentic Gold Rush hamlet on the Turnagain shore of the Kenai, portal to the Resurrection Trail, and the Russian River area near Cooper Landing with campground, trailhead, Native heritage and some of the most productive bankside salmon fishing in the world.
It's more than the Chugach: This portion of the Chugach National Forest is part of a larger 8-million-acre expanse of public land, often with no distinct boundaries between units. Sharing the country are the Chugach State Park in the north, and the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in the south. Near Seward, the forest meshes with the Kenai Fjords National Park and several state parks such as Caines Head State Recreation Area. Taken as a whole, it’s one big outdoor adventure playground larger than the state of Maryland.
Prince William Sound
What’s It Like? The Chugach meets the ocean in Prince William Sound, an ocean archipelago with more than 3,500 miles of intricate coastline tracing hundreds of islands, inlets and fiords. The forest upland essentially borders an inland sea, much of it protected water that offers an open invitation to boaters and kayakers. The geography ranges from stark glacial-bound inlets still recovering from the ice age to lush rain forest enclaves. Venture out by kayak or get dropped off at a campsite or cabin, and you might spend whole days without seeing another human.
And yet, this marine wilderness attracts regular boat activity, with Alaskans at work and play. It supports a thriving commercial fishing industry and four fish hatcheries. Every summer, thousands of people do recreational boating and deep-sea fishing, take trips aboard the Sound’s many tour boats as well as enjoy some of the best sea kayaking and camping of coastal Alaska. There are two traditional Native communities and three port towns with full amenities. So it’s wild, yes, but also human. Evidence of its long settlement history can be found in the shoreline jungle, from old gold mines to collapsed canneries to the moldering ruins of fox farm outposts
Access: Visiting the Sound requires making arrangements to travel over the water via a boat or a seaplane, except for some limited hiking near Whittier along Passage Canal. Whittier, Valdez and Cordova offer a wide range of glacier and wildlife tour options (along with ferry service by Alaska Marine Highway System.) The three communities also support a mosquito fleet of guides and marine taxis offering sightseeing, deep-sea fishing, camping drop-offs and sea kayaking support.
Popular Spots: The western sound is dominated by the Nellie Juan-College Fiord Wilderness Study Area, a 2-million-acre marine landscape with countless islands, bays and fiords. Two classic kayaking, beach camping and sightseeing destinations are Blackstone Bay and Harriman Fjord, both featuring active tidewater glaciers that spill growlers and bergy bits into (usually) calm waters and concentrate marine mammals, birds and fish. These places are the Sound distilled to its essence.
For a destination with protected water that’s suitable for families and less experienced kayakers, try Surprise Cove State Marine Park, surrounded by the forest near the mouth of Cochrane Bay, about 14 miles out of Whittier.
The eastern Sound is generally more open, with several large inlets and islands. Take a tour from Valdez to the Columbia Glacier, where retreating ice is actively pulling back the curtain on Alaska’s newest fiord. There are many destinations for fishing, wildlife viewing and kayaking near Cordova.
Camping / Lodging: The Forest operates 15 public use cabins across the Sound (here’s a list, but check here for reservations.) Well-equipped people regularly camp on beaches, ranging from expansive berms with horizon-spanning views to pocket beaches suitable for a single tent. The number of high-and-dry sites will narrow or expand with the rise and fall of the tide cycle. In general, guides and water taxi operators can help identify beaches that will work during a trip. The state also operates eight marine parks in the western area and five in the eastern Sound, often with tent platforms, pit toilets and beach landing sites.
Cordova and the Copper River Delta
What’s it Like? The eastern third of the Chugach begins along eastern Prince William Sound and stretches more than 100 miles across the delta of the Copper River into remote and little visited territory beyond the river—a district covering more than 2 million acres of marine shoreline, vast wetlands, lowland forest, mountains and glaciers.
Access: The Cordova area is not connected to Southcentral Alaska’s road system, so visiting this region requires taking the Alaska ferry or an airline flight—an additional travel leg not unlike visiting an island. (If you don’t travel by ferry with a vehicle, you will likely need to rent a car in Cordova or take a tour.)
The 56-mile Copper River Highway follows the abandoned bed of the historic Copper River & Northwestern Railway, leading from Cordova to the salmon-rich Copper River. Unfortunately, a bridge at Mile 36 is currently (2019) impassable, with repairs not expected for years. Even with the bridge out, much of the Cordova-area forest remains easily accessible by road or water taxi, featuring kayaking and rafting, campgrounds, hiking trails, salmon fishing and some of the most extraordinary birding on the planet.
The Copper River Delta region offers excellent fishing, with the Alaganik Slough at Mile 17 of the Copper River Highway a good place to land coho salmon in August. The site features a boardwalk and a trail, offering a great way to experience the sights and smells of the Delta. Want to hike instead? The Forest maintains 15 trails.
Of course, visiting this Chugach region almost certainly means passing through Cordova—a friendly commercial fishing town with a working waterfront and the ambience of Southeast Alaska. Embrace it! Cordova has lots to do.