Pioneer Ridge-Austin Helmers Trail

Elevation Gain

5200 ft.



Why Take This Hike

Are you a mountain runner looking for a tough workout? Consider Pioneer Ridge Trail. This trail, located a 1-hour drive north of Anchorage on scenic Knik River Road, climbs some 5,200 feet over its 6 miles. Other trails, like Lazy Mountain Trail and Mount Marathon Race Route, may be steeper or rockier, but no trail in the Chugach Mountains climbs so steadily for so long as Pioneer Ridge.

The Details

Almost immediately after leaving the parking area, you’ll discover that this trail wastes little time in establishing its intent, snaking through the spruce and cottonwood forests toward the open slopes 2,000 feet above.

Hiking the many switchbacks, you can set a somewhat regular pace with a minimum of grunts and groans in climbing over boulders or up scree slopes. Occasionally, you’ll get sporadic glimpses of the surrounding country as you wind your way up these lower miles. These views only increase in size and frequency the higher you go. Imagining the better views awaiting your arrival above may even compel you to quicken your pace as you push out of the trees and into the alder and willow. The tree line lies just minutes ahead.

If you’ve started this mountain run on a hot day, you could very well find a cooling breeze at tree line. Plus, the view here becomes a horizon-circling panorama that extends down the length of Knik River and across the wide river basin to the high Chugach Mountains.

The trail will then lead up to the top of a broad ridge, where you’ll start to pass three picnic tables. You will know you’re approaching the top as you get closer to the ridge that crosses at a right angle.

Here a ptarmigan may flit by you in a blur of feathers, squawking at your intrusion as it dives below the ridge. A squall (the product of the collision between the cold glacier air upriver and the warm sea air downriver) may quickly pass overhead. You may even see a bear on a (hopefully) distant ridge. If you’re very fortunate, you may even spot a wolf loping down one of the hollows below.

The sight of the final picnic table at the top of this trail rarely fails to bring a sigh of both relief and satisfaction; after all, you’ve climbed from almost sea level to 5,330 feet!

Sit on the table and take more careful stock of the landscape—especially 6,393-foot Pioneer Peak rising directly above you. You may also notice the sheep trail leading south along the ridge, a trail that would eventually take you to the Bold Peak Valley and Bold Ridge Trail leading down to Eklutna Lake (after climbing over many peaks and covering many miles).

Save that marathon of mountain running for another day. Daydreaming about it may suffice for now, as you hop off the bench and start the 6-mile jog back down to your car far below.

Author: Shawn Lyons

Getting There

E. Knik River Rd.
Palmer, AK 99645

Access to the Pioneer Ridge-Austin Helmers Trail is from Knik River Road. From Palmer- go southeast on the Old Glenn Highway, after crossing the bridge over the Knik River (approximately 9 ½ miles from Palmer) take a left on Knik River Road, proceed 3 1/2 miles to the entrance of the trailhead on the right.

Driving Directions