Shawn Lyon's Alaska Hiking Trail Guides

Shawn Lyons, by vocation and avocation, lives a life of many parts. As a professional classical guitarist, he plays dinner music every Thursday through Saturday at Villa Nova Restaurant in Anchorage. When not playing guitar at Villa Nova, Shawn gives private guitar at the University of Alaska in Anchorage. There he also teaches Music Appreciation, English Composition, and Literature.

Most know him, however, as an avid hiker and hill scrambler. So much so that after many long hikes through many a valley and over many a summit, many consider him the hiking guru of South Central Alaska. In addition, as an ultra-athlete, he has won the Iditashoe wilderness snowshoe race times, and the 100-mile Coldfoot Classic, held each year on Halloween above the Arctic Circle, three times. For many years Shawn’s narratives about his hikes and races often appeared in a weekly hiking/climbing column that he writes for The Anchorage Daily News.

He now publishes articles and photographs of his hikes and climbs at his own web site: shawnlyonsbooks.com, and you can find his Walk-About Guides to Alaska in local book stores as well as online. Each hike in this guide for Alaska.org lists the book where you can find even more details on the hike.

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Hiking Trails

Family Hikes

Difficulty: Moderate

This 2‑mile-long, fam­i­ly-friend­ly trail, which begins 90 min­utes south of Anchor­age at the far end of the Whit­ti­er Tun­nel, remains the only easy way to see Portage Glac­i­er on foot. And it’s has a spec­tac­u­lar con­clu­sion: After crest­ing Portage Pass, the trail drops through glacial scrub before pop­ping out on the wide grav­el shores of Portage Lake, direct­ly across from the snout of gor­geous Portage Glacier.

Difficulty: Moderate Distance: 4 miles

If you want a great work­out — to stun­ning moun­tain views high above the val­ley floor below — but want to save your knees on the way down, this trail is for you. It leaves from the Alyeska Resort tram build­ing and climbs steep switch­backs 2.2 miles and 2000 feet to the mid-moun­tain restau­rant where you can catch a free aer­i­al tram ride back down to the hotel. 

Difficulty: Moderate Distance: 3 miles

If peo­ple sug­gest climb­ing Flat­top, tell them you’d rather climb Ren­dezvous Peak. Flat­top is arguably Alaska’s most pop­u­lar (and there­fore, most crowd­ed) moun­tain; Ren­dezvous is far less crowd­ed and offers bet­ter views from the sum­mit. See them by hik­ing up 1,500 feet to the 4,050-foot summit. 

Difficulty: Easy

With a length of just 1.5 miles and a sum­mit reach­ing only 874 feet, West Butte Trail on Boden­burg Butte — a 45-minute dri­ve north of Anchor­age — makes for a fine fam­i­ly out­ing. But even if you’re a more expe­ri­enced hik­er, don’t let the butte’s dwarf-like height dis­suade you. This small bump in the cen­ter of a grand allu­vial plain offers far-reach­ing views from its sum­mit; plus, the climb includes a pulse-quick­en­ing 0.25 miles of stairs up the steep  ...more

Distance: 2 miles Elevation Gain: 800 feet

Sum­mit Lake, locat­ed some 60 miles north of Anchor­age at the crest of Hatch­er Pass, offers a short, mem­o­rable lake­side ram­ble. Here you can explore the sur­round­ing gul­lies and slopes or just sit and watch hang glid­ers drift out over the long Wil­low Creek Val­ley, which extends for miles from the west side of the pass.

Moderate Hikes

Difficulty: Moderate Distance: 4 miles

Many peo­ple know of the gru­el­ing Mount Marathon race­course in Seward, some 130 miles south of Anchor­age. How­ev­er, most peo­ple don’t know that there’s also a hik­ing path to the top at Race Point — and it’s far less demand­ing. This 2.25-mile route, which entails hik­ing three dif­fer­ent trails, takes you up the moun­tain and lets you to explore a glacial val­ley along the way.

Difficulty: Moderate Distance: 2 miles Elevation Gain: 3600 feet

This fam­i­ly-friend­ly, 2.5‑mile trail climbs 3,600 feet to a sum­mit halfway between the sea and the heavens

Difficulty: Difficult Distance: 2 miles Elevation Gain: 2100 feet

It’s not as dif­fi­cult as you might think to hike to stand atop the pre­cip­i­tous, gul­ly-scarred face of Bear Point. But it’s not easy, either. The 2‑mile hike ascends 2,100 feet and can be tricky. But your reward is an amaz­ing view in all direc­tions, from the Kenai Penin­su­la to Denali and the Chugach Moun­tains to Matanus­ka Peak. 

Difficulty: Moderate Distance: 8 miles

While many peo­ple find sat­is­fac­tion in climb­ing to the top of Bear Point, oth­ers may won­der about reach­ing the sum­mit of Mount Eklut­na, the promi­nent peak ris­ing just to the east. It involves two more miles of hik­ing, up 1,100 feet, includ­ing a short, sharp scram­ble up a grav­el trail. You can return to the Peters Creek Trail trail­head via an alter­nate route, which makes for a fine loop hike. 

Difficulty: Difficult Distance: 2 miles

This trail quick­ly gains ele­va­tion on its way to an alpine mead­ow framed by the dra­mat­ic Twin Peaks and Goat Rock, but climbs to mag­nif­i­cent views over­look­ing the entire val­ley. Dall Sheep are often spot­ted above the tim­ber­line. From here there is a spec­tac­u­lar view of the lake below. This is also a good place for berry pick­ing in the fall. Because of the crushed rocks, the trail is hard­ly ever muddy.

Some 50 miles north of Anchor­age, this 1.5‑mile trail makes for a fine fam­i­ly out­ing. From the pic­nic table at the upper­most end of the trail, you’ll find a sat­is­fy­ing panoram­ic view of the Matanus­ka Riv­er and Knik Riv­er val­leys. It’s a view as good, or bet­ter, than that from many summits.

This 4.5‑mile trail, some 2 hours north of Anchor­age on the west side of Hatch­er Pass, climbs 1,000 feet up a very typ­i­cal Tal­keet­na val­ley — long, broad, and lined with tow­er­ing peaks on both sides. It also pass­es by relics and ruins of old min­ing days, when these val­leys echoed with the sounds of picks and drills.

The Fish­hook Trail­head park­ing lot is locat­ed at mile 16.5 of Hatch­er Pass Road. This area is active­ly used year round. In the sum­mer it’s a great area to hike and in late sum­mer the slopes are abun­dant with blue­ber­ries. This trail­head also leads to Mar­mot Moun­tain, were paraglid­ers launch from the top and land in the park­ing lot. In the win­ter, the area draws indi­vid­u­als to sled, ski and snow­ma­chine. This trail­head inter­sects with The Hatcher  ...more

Big Hikes

No oth­er min­ing trail on the Kenai Penin­su­la climbs as high or takes in more exten­sive views as the 6‑mile-long Crown Mine Trail. Begin­ning some 2 hours south of Anchor­age on the appro­pri­ate­ly named Mine Road just south of Trail Lake, this trail climbs to 3,900 feet above sea lev­el to a unique spot — a glacial cirque lit­tered with min­ing paraphernalia.

Difficulty: Difficult Distance: 9 miles

Pri­mar­i­ly built to pro­vide pack-rafters and kayak­ers access to the head­wa­ters of Twen­tymile Riv­er, this 9‑mile-long trail has also proved a draw for hik­ers — and with good rea­son. Just 45 min­utes south of Anchor­age, it makes for a very scenic hike into some high, wild, glac­i­er-girt­ed country.

Want to feel dwarfed by Alaska’s moun­tains? Take a 2‑hour dri­ve north on the Parks High­way and then up Hatch­er Pass Road, where you’ll find this 2‑mile-long ATV trail — a wide but occa­sion­al­ly steep path that leads to the crest of Box Lake Ridge. From the big, round­ed top of this ridge, you can’t help but feel over­whelmed by the enor­mous Tal­keet­na Moun­tains that sur­round you.

Difficulty: Moderate Distance: 16 miles Elevation Gain: 2900 feet

A straight­for­ward trip with big scenery pay­offs, like the pic­turesque Mint Hut and a val­ley dot­ted with hang­ing glac­i­ers. This trip is a great first back­pack­ing trip in Alas­ka with sim­ple logis­tics. It’s 16 miles with options for addi­tion­al miles and side trips.

Syn­cline Moun­tain fea­tures two sum­mits— whichev­er you choose, you’ll hike beneath a whole lot of sky and look out on a whole lot of country.

Big Climbs

Reach­ing the sum­mit of Avalanche Moun­tain takes a con­sid­er­able amount of effort: a 5.5‑mile hike up Pow­er­line Trail fol­lowed by a 1.5‑mile off-trail scram­ble. But this 3,200-foot climb — which begins at the Glen Alps park­ing area, just 10 miles from down­town Anchor­age — takes no moun­taineer­ing skills. If you feel at all com­fort­able hik­ing and climb­ing over some loose stones and boul­ders, you should find this to be a very grat­i­fy­ing adventure.   ...more

Elevation Gain: 3293 feet

You don’t have to be a moun­taineer to reach the sum­mit of O’Malley Peak — the promi­nent spire ris­ing from the Front Range above Anchor­age — but don’t mis­take it for an easy climb. Some of the 5‑mile-long trail climbs quite steeply; oth­er parts add very loose grav­el to the incline. Still, these con­di­tions don’t make this hike exces­sive­ly dan­ger­ous, just sat­is­fy­ing­ly laborious. 

Difficulty: Moderate

Black Tail Rocks is a very airy climb that stretch­es to 4,446 feet above Eagle Riv­er, a town locat­ed just north of Anchor­age. It’s a jour­ney that involves only a min­i­mal amount of hand-over-hand scram­bling; you’ll be fol­low­ing a trail for most of the 4‑mile, 2,750-foot hike. And you’ll have a fine view from the top, look­ing up the length of the seclud­ed Mead­ow Creek Val­ley and well into the deep inner reach­es of the Chugach Mountains. 

Difficulty: Difficult Elevation Gain: 5670 feet

No offi­cial trail in South­cen­tral Alas­ka climbs as high as Matanus­ka Peak Trail. Begin­ning in a sub­di­vi­sion across the Matanus­ka Riv­er from Palmer, this near­ly 6‑mile-long trail runs up some 5,700 ver­ti­cal feet. Your des­ti­na­tion is the 6,119-foot sum­mit of Matanus­ka Peak, the very promi­nent rock spire that fills the sky just east of Palmer. But despite the impos­ing appear­ance of this moun­tain, the trail to its sum­mit requires no extensive  ...more

Distance: 7 miles Elevation Gain: 3300 feet

Begin­ning almost 120 miles north­east of Anchor­age on the Glenn High­way, the trail to the sum­mit of Gun­sight Moun­tain takes a while to reach. After all, it involves a 3.5‑mile, 3,300-foot climb through some very big coun­try. But the view from the top makes for an all-day excur­sion that you won’t eas­i­ly forget.

Hikes to Lakes & Seashores

Difficulty: Moderate Elevation Gain: 1056 feet

Begin­ning 103 miles south of Anchor­age on the Seward High­way, the 3.5‑mile-long Ptarmi­gan Lake Trail makes for a fine fam­i­ly out­ing. The lake itself is a long and nar­row body of water squeezed between ridges and moun­tains that tow­er as high as 6,000 feet. It even offers a small beach upon which to relax and enjoy the view while cool­ing your feet.

Distance: 6 miles Elevation Gain: 300 feet

If you only have a lim­it­ed amount of time in Anchor­age but want go out for a great hike, con­sid­er Kin­caid Bluff Trail. Just a 20-minute dri­ve from down­town Anchor­age, this is a 6‑mile loop hike to Kin­caid Chalet. Along the way, you’ll find 3 miles of rugged trail that skirt the sum­mit of pre­cip­i­tous bluffs at the end of the Anchor­age Peninsula. 

Difficulty: Moderate Elevation Gain: 1300 feet

Trail head begins by tra­vers­ing pri­vate land, but an ease­ment has been pro­vid­ed for such. Easy to bike, ski, run or walk to mild slope with a wide sides, mak­ing is safe from avalanch­es in the win­ter. Should you choose to turn left at the start, you can go to Flat Top as an alter­na­tive route or Peak 2 or 3, depend­ing how far down you go down the trail before turn­ing left. Ptar­ma­gan Peak would be a more promi­nate peak just before the Rab­bit creek  ...more

Difficulty: Moderate Elevation Gain: 1500 feet

This 7‑mile hike, which begins in the moun­tains just above Anchor­age, takes you to the numer­ous Willi­waw Lakes, all of which are clus­tered below the sheer north face of Mount Willi­waw — the high­est peak in the Front Range.

Difficulty: Moderate Distance: 9 miles Elevation Gain: 850 feet

Rarely do two lakes lie with­in a few feet of each oth­er. For­tu­nate­ly, the trail to see this geo­log­i­cal rar­i­ty begins just a 30-minute dri­ve north of Anchor­age. From the trail­head for South Fork Eagle Riv­er Trail, it’s a grad­ual 4.8‑mile (one-way) climb up a wide val­ley, lead­ing to a nar­row isth­mus between the green waters of Eagle Lake and the blue waters of Sym­pho­ny Lake.

Difficulty: Easy Distance: 1 mile

As you approach the Inde­pen­dence Mine Park­ing Lot, the trail can be seen to the far right end. It cross­es over a small bridge, and winds up past an old aban­doned min­ing cab­in, and then up a debris field and final­ly to the lake. Round trip, the hike is almost 2 miles, and the ele­va­tion gain is approx­i­mate­ly 600 feet. The trail can be mud­dy and wet for the first .25 miles, but it’s worth the hike to see Gold Cord Lake, and a great view of the Mine  ...more

Hikes to Waterfalls

This leisure­ly, 0.75-mile trail begins just south of Whit­ti­er, a lit­tle sea­side town locat­ed some 2 hours south of Anchor­age. The trail doesn’t climb much, but it will take you high enough to get an unob­struct­ed view of numer­ous water­falls, includ­ing the long-drop­ping waters of Horse­tail Falls as it sheets over the sheer rock face of Black­stone Ridge. 

Difficulty: Moderate Distance: 21 miles Elevation Gain: 3500 feet

Con­sid­ered to be one of the best hikes in all of the Chugach Moun­tains, Crow Pass fol­lows a por­tion of the orig­i­nal Idi­tar­od Trail, includ­ing its high­est point. End to end, it’s a 21-mile trail, which most peo­ple do in 2 days, but just the first 4 miles will lead you past some breath­tak­ing scenery. Along the way you’ll find glac­i­ers, water­falls, wild­flow­ers, wildlife, mine ruins, and berries (in late August and Sep­tem­ber). Hik­ing is not  ...more

Difficulty: Moderate Elevation Gain: 2200 feet

About a half a mile past where the road turns sharply left (by the old Moth­er­lode Restau­rant) is a pull off on the left and archangel road to the right. The road is dirt, and in the sum­mer­time you can dri­ve the trail for a mile or two, but it is pit­ted with deep holes and rocks. After a mile or two, a park­ing area and trail turns off to the right. Here the trail con­tin­ues with lit­tle ele­va­tion gain ini­tial­ly, but after a mile or so you will  ...more

Difficulty: Moderate Distance: 10 miles Elevation Gain: 1300 feet

The 5‑mile-long Eska Falls Trail is locat­ed a 2‑hour dri­ve north of Anchor­age in the moun­tains above the town of Sut­ton. And it leads to one of nature’s sym­met­ri­cal­ly framed won­ders — a 100-foot water­fall locat­ed at the end of a mile-long val­ley that’s flanked by two mas­sive sum­mits. This set­ting makes Eska Falls not so much a hike to a des­ti­na­tion as much as a hike to a presentation.

Hikes to Glaciers

Difficulty: Easy

This short day hike — with an eas­i­ly acces­si­ble trail­head a few hun­dred meters from the Begich Bog­gs Vis­i­tor Cen­ter — offers you big views of the Byron Glacier.

Difficulty: Difficult Distance: 10 miles

It’s not very often that peo­ple can see a glac­i­er in an untamed and remote loca­tion, far from any road or cruise-ship route. But if you feel capa­ble and con­fi­dent enough to climb a very rough trail up many ver­ti­cal feet of rocky ter­rain, then you might con­sid­er under­tak­ing the hike to Snow­bird Pass, locat­ed high in the Tal­keet­na Moun­tains just north of Hatch­er Pass. From this van­tage point you can look down the entire length of Snow­bird Glacier.  ...more

Off-Trail Adventures

Difficulty: Moderate Distance: 11 miles

If you have some out­door expe­ri­ence and an adven­tur­ous spir­it, con­sid­er this 11-mile tra­verse up the Col­orado Creek val­ley and down the Sum­mit Creek. Begin­ning 2 hours south of Anchor­age, this tra­verse doesn’t involve any rock scram­bling, riv­er cross­ings, or ardu­ous bush­whack­ing. But if you feel com­fort­able hik­ing in wide and track­less coun­try, you may reap the reward of hav­ing an entire val­ley to yourself.

Distance: 5 miles Elevation Gain: 4301 feet

You’ll have a hard time los­ing your way on this 2.5‑mile climb of 4,301-foot-high McHugh Peak. You’ll also have a hard time for­get­ting the view from the sum­mit, which extends up the length of Tur­na­gain Arm and across Knik Arm to the Alas­ka Range. It’s even more sat­is­fy­ing know­ing that you found your way to the sum­mit with only min­i­mal help from the trail. 

Difficulty: Difficult Distance: 1 mile

If you only have a lit­tle expe­ri­ence doing off-trail hik­ing, then this scenic 5‑miler will help you get a bit more under your belt. Begin­ning on Rab­bit Creek Trail, in the Front Range just above Anchor­age, this hike vis­its a sur­pris­ing­ly expan­sive and scenic plateau that remains hid­den from sight until you actu­al­ly climb to it. 

Difficulty: Difficult

Not every­one should under­take this 13-mile tra­verse that begins at Glen Alps above Anchor­age. Con­sid­er­able off-trail hik­ing, plus a steep climb to a ridge top, might be out­side your com­fort zone. But this trail does offer a pro­found sense of soli­tude and some spec­tac­u­lar views. It also includes the nov­el­ty of hik­ing a mile-long sheep trail that tra­vers­es the back of The Wedge, some 500 feet above the seclud­ed waters of Ship Lake. 

Cardio Workouts

Distance: 6 miles Elevation Gain: 3000 feet

Don’t expect to run very much of this world-famous race route, which begins 2.5 hours south of Anchor­age and climbs near­ly 3,000 feet from down­town Seward. Though the first part of the route is very runnable, the next 1.5 miles climb Mount Marathon and are too steep and rocky for most to run. Just the hike itself makes for a very inten­sive workout. 

Difficulty: Difficult Elevation Gain: 4200 feet

A short road called Konikson locat­ed just past Bird Ridge head­ing east will take you to the trail­head. Stay to the right until you see a trail about a quar­ter mile in going right and up. The trail fol­lows a small drainage, and quick­ly gets past the tree line. 

Difficulty: Difficult Elevation Gain: 5200 feet

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.

Difficulty: Difficult Elevation Gain: 3000 feet

Why Take This Hike This trail, locat­ed 90 min­utes north of Anchor­age just across the Matanus­ka Riv­er from down­town Palmer, makes no pre­tense about its pur­pose. Almost imme­di­ate­ly after leav­ing the park­ing area, it begins to climb straight up the steep west face of Lazy Moun­tain. For some 2,000 feet, there’s nary a switch­back or respite as the trail winds up to the sum­mit ridge. It’s a tru­ly breath­less work­out. The Details Out of Palmer,…  ...more

Difficulty: Moderate Elevation Gain: 3700 feet

Begin­ning a 1‑hour dri­ve north of Anchor­age in Gov­ern­ment Hill Recre­ation Area, Gov­ern­ment Peak Race Trail offers a fine oppor­tu­ni­ty for a hard work­out; it climbs some 3,700 ver­ti­cal feet in just 3 miles. Plus, this climb doesn’t include any extra­or­di­nary dan­gers. (A friend refers to one short ledge on this trail as death rock,” but she tends to exag­ger­ate.) Some sec­tions require spe­cial care to nego­ti­ate, but you won’t have to tra­verse any  ...more

Wheelchair-Accessible Hike

Difficulty: Moderate

If you have the abil­i­ty to trans­port bicy­cles, this trail makes for a great after­noon trip. The dirt path winds through the Portage Val­ley, pass­ing glacial lakes and end­ing at Portage Lake (this part of the trip is 5 miles each way). Make sure to bring your cam­era: you’ll see hang­ing glac­i­ers and, very like­ly, some wildlife.

Difficulty: Easy

This trail has its own sit­ting area and view­ing deck with views of Anchor­age, the Alas­ka Range, and Cook Inlet. It is real­ly good for see­ing sun­sets in the evening but it is also windy. The whole route is wheel­chair acces­si­ble. This is a good short hike for the fam­i­ly to see the view over Anchor­age, but not a good trail for the train­ing runner. 

Difficulty: Easy

This trail is less than a mile, and very kid friend­ly. Two view­ing decks offer views look­ing down the impres­sive val­ley, and wildlife is often seen here. Beaver Pond is also part of the show, and salmon spawn­ing can be seen in late August through Sep­tem­ber. This pop­u­lar trail is usu­al­ly packed with walk­ers, strollers, and the fam­i­ly dog — all eas­i­ly accom­mo­dat­ed. The trail is wheel­chair acces­si­ble and begins on a wide, slight­ly down­hill path to  ...more

Difficulty: Easy Distance: 1 mile

This short, paved trail is an hour’s dri­ve north of Anchor­age in south­ern Wasil­la. It leads out to a bluff on Palmer Hay Flats — a large stretch of wet­lands with all kinds of wildlife. There, a view­ing plat­form over­looks the flats and the Chugach Moun­tains beyond.