Hiking Alaska: Autumn brings out the best in Southcentral hikes

Hiking AlaskaOctober 21, 2013 

As I stood knee deep in wet snow, my wind jacket flapping in the gusting wind and the clouds enveloping the cold ridges above, I thought about the day before. Less than 24 hours earlier, I stood on a beach in the spotted-sunlight afternoon. What a change: Though only a dozen miles apart, two seasons separated the spots.

Many hikers who revel in snow may prefer the former location. Others may prefer to avoid it until absolutely necessary. Winter lasts long enough without needing to seek it out in the mountains.

This raises the question of where to go once the snow falls in the highlands.

Some possibilities seem too obvious to mention -- Turnagain Arm Trail, Rabbit Lake Trail, Powerline Trail, Middle Fork Trail and Eagle River Trail. Others seem to need only a gentle reminder -- Winner Creek Trail, Indian Pass Trail, McHugh Lake Trail, South Fork Eagle River Trail, Ptarmigan Valley Trail and Peters Creek Trail.

If one doesn't mind driving, the Glenn Highway beyond Palmer leads to many good autumn hiking destinations. These include Kings River Trail, Purinton Creek Trail and Crooked Creek Trail beyond Eureka Lodge.

To the south, on the Kenai Peninsula, one can find Caines Head Trail, Ptarmigan Creek Trail, Devil's Pass Trail, Russian Lake Trail, Crescent Lake Trail, Gull Rocks Trail and Johnson Pass Trail.

Other more exotic choices exist, however. Either because they have no official standing or simply because of their out-of-the-way location, these destinations rarely feel the tread of hiking shoes. Of these, three novel choices come to mind.

First, Skilak Lake Road on the Kenai Peninsula leads to a number of short and scenic trails. These also prove surprisingly varied. Turning off the Sterling Highway at mile 58 on Skilak Lake Road, you'll find trails that climb low mountains and descend to Skilak Lake or the shores of the Kenai River.

These include the 2.5-mile long Skilak Lake Overlook Trail, the one-mile Bear Mountain Trail, two-mile Hidden Creek Trail, four-mile Kenai River Trail, and half-mile Lower Kenai River Trail.

Second, many people may find Jim Creek Trail a worthwhile destination. It has its drawbacks. Many won't like sharing the trail with ATVs and Jeeps. Some may find it too broad, flat and wet for hiking. It does, however, go where no other trail goes -- up the scenic eastern shore of Knik River toward Knik Glacier.

Beginning in a parking area just east of Polar Speedway in Palmer, the trail follows a narrow road about 1.5 miles through the woods before dropping onto the Knik River flats. Staying between the woods on the left (east) and river on the right (west), the trail next reaches the shore of Jim Creek.

Usually this crossing prove quite easy (no more than knee- or thigh-deep), though the water can be a foot or more higher after a number of rainy days. Once past Jim Creek, the trail continues up the river flats for more than 10 miles toward Knik Glacier. On the way, it offers extensive views of the river, the glacier and the ramparts of the Chugach Mountains rising above the far shore.

Finally, Kincaid Park, with its circuitous maze of trails, offers views of the mountains above and the sea below and much wildlife.

This may seem an even more obvious destination than those mentioned earlier, but many people overlook it -- and might not even know about the most scenic trail in the park.

This trail does not follow a ski trail. Instead it follows the crest of the bluffs along the southwestern edge of the park. Approximately five miles in length, this route begins at the chalet. From there it follows the Coastal Trail down to what many call Fourth of July Beach.

Once on the beach, the route turns south. Approximately 100 yards down the beach it turns up a steep trail that climbs the spine of the bluff. The route then follows the crest of the bluff, offering panoramic views stretching from Mount Susitna to Turnagain Arm. It eventually reaches the sand dunes, drops into the woods and, after a short bushwhack of only a few hundred feet, reaches a ski trail.

Besides these three options, you could also seek out the trail around Campbell Creek gorge on the east side of town, Moose Creek valley north of Palmer and the Bodenburg Butte. Though the snow may fall in the highlands, the lowlands may offer more than enough snow-free hiking destinations for those still wanting to get out.

With that I wish you a fond adieu for the winter.

Anchorage freelance writer and classical guitarist Shawn Lyons is the author of several area hiking and climbing books.

 

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