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.
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.
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.
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.
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 north face.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Pass Snowmobile Corridor Trail, making it an launching point for a ride to over Hatcher Pass to the West.
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.
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.
You will see a sign for the Gold Mint Trailhead just before the road turns sharply to the left after the Motherlode Lodge. This is a long, mellow hike with only serious elevation gain at the very end. There is some brush initially, but soon it leads you to an open tundra valley. Beaver dams have rerouted the trail in an odd way and add interest to the hike, but there is a bridge at the first crossing. The river might need to be crossed. You can check with the ranger if crossing is safe at the time.
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.
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.
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.
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 rock-scrambling or rock-climbing skills; just some boulder hopping, a bit of balance, and a lot of energy.
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.
More a gated road than a trail, this hike largely remains a local secret among the residents of Cooper Landing, the fishing mecca located some 105 miles south of Anchorage on Sterling Highway. Many in this town consider it their personal getaway, which makes it quite a popular secret. A foreman for Chugach Electric (the company that manages the dam on Cooper Lake) said he often experienced congestion while driving to the dam, due to the heavy volume of families, hikers, and bikers who come here. But no matter what your purpose, this trail, which ends at the Cooper Lake dam, makes for a fine excursion into the Kenai Peninsula’s high country.
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.
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.
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 head waters. Directly in behind the head waters is South and North Suicide Peak. On the right of the lake is McHugh Lake and a drainage continuing south from there, and the main peak on the right of this valley is McHugh Peak itself.
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.
This trail starts out on a boardwalk, but shortly afterwards turns onto a trail that traverses the right side of the valley as you head away from the parking area. Some people choose to go straight up to a pass that looks down on Ship Creek and is a high ridge traverse. However, if you continue down the main trail, it eventually drops down to the South Fork of the Eagle River and a couple miles further to two lakes, Eagle and Symphony, that nestle together towards the end of the valley.
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 area. If you are adventurous, you can climb to the pass at the back end of the lake for views in Archangel Valley. Marmots, Arctic ground squirrels, and tundra birds are often seen and heard on the hike.
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.
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 recommended in winter due to avalanches, but the trail is usually relatively snow-free by late June (though the Crystal Lake basin, south of the pass, and some of the gullies north of the pass may still have snow well into the summer).
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 begin the steeper section, with lots of boulder jumping. The trail turns left and follows a creek over some beautiful waterfalls, and eventually ends up at the Reed lakes, which are being fed by glaciers and are turquoise blue. While it's possible in a day, most prefer to do this as an overnight backpacking trip.
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.
Portage Valley may be one of the most popular visitor destinations in Alaska, but don't let that scare you away. The truth is that most people stop at the visitor’s center for a quick walkthrough, take a photo on the deck and then get back on the road, to Whittier or elsewhere. And while it’s true that the valley's blue ice and glacial scenery is outstanding from More...
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. And you probably won’t have to share that view with anyone but your hiking companion(s). Enveloped by that magical sense of remote solitude, the view becomes all the more special.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 More...
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 high cliffs or climb any sheer faces during your workout.
This 0.4-mile-long trail, which begins within earshot of downtown Homer, plays host to a variety of birds and plants. Wheelchairs may have some trouble in the first few feet of soft gravel, but once they reach the plastic boardwalk they should find the going much easier—and maybe worth the trouble it took to drive 4 hours from Anchorage.
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.
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.
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 two platforms with views of beaver activity, spawning salmon, and Eagle River Valley. There are interpretive signboards, abundant wildflowers, lush vegetation, and great scenery throughout the hike.
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.