Many of us bemoan the arrival of fall in Alaska because, as we like to say, “You know what comes after fall.” Although it makes for small talk, I think there’s more to it than that.
Fall is cozy. I think Alaskans are secretly excited to start to turn in again after a long summer of endless daylight and lost sleep. At night there are stars in the sky. The air gets cooler every day, reminding us of how exhilaratingly far north we are.
For me, fall is the time to slam my office door at exactly 5 p.m. and gun it toward the hills. I want coziness and stars in the sky, but first I want to hike. I want to hike whether the sky is blue or rainy. I want to hike if I had a terrible day or a good one. I want to hike whether I’m hauling up a ridiculously steep slope with my husband or ambling through berry patches with a friend’s toddler.
After all, there are only so many hours of daylight and short-sleeved weather left. I need to make the most of this before winter, when a T-shirt is what I put on under five other layers.
Here are some of my favorite Southcentral hiking spots -- in various conditions and with various company.
South Fork Eagle River
I played (boss approved) hooky from work recently to go pick berries with a friend and her toddler in Eagle River. If you’ve never hiked out of the South Fork Eagle River Chugach State Park trail head, you probably need to play hooky too.
One lovely part of this hike is how open it is, making it easier to spot wildlife than on other trails. It’s also easy hiking. My friend’s toddler caught a ride on mom’s back up the initial switchbacks, but then ambled on her own along the wide, relatively flat trail. After five minutes of walking, we found big patches of blueberries, along with trailing raspberries that left brilliant red juice on my skin as I picked them. Needless to say, we kept a close eye on the toddler who was remarkably obedient about not putting things in her mouth and actually helped with the berry picking, both by being adorable and contributing the more-abundant crowberries to our haul.
This has always been one of my favorite hikes because the colors range from tundra reds to aspen yellows as fall settles in. If you hike at least the first 2 or so miles to the bridge across Eagle River, or the full 4.8 miles to Eagle Lake, you see the contrast of warm fall tones with glacial blues and it’s extraordinary. This is a beautiful hike especially on a blue bird day, but is also mysterious looking, ringed with low clouds in the rain.
Getting there: From Anchorage, head north for about 8 miles on the Glenn Highway. Take the Eagle River Loop exit and stay right, then take a right onto Hiland Road. Follow this road for several winding, hilly miles; there will be a Chugach State Park sign indicating the correct right hand turn onto South Creek Road. From there, turn right onto West Creek Drive and you’ll see the parking lot on your left.
At 15 miles one way and about 1,800 feet in elevation gain, this is what I’d call an easy-intermediate hike. Logistically, hiking the Lost Lake trail north of Seward can be challenging because it’s not a round trip adventure. Two trail heads provide access: the Lost Lake trail head at the southern foot of the trail and Primrose campground to the north. Sure, you can pick a trail head, hike up to the lake and turn back, but you won’t want to -- you’ll want to keep going and see the trail through to the end.
However you make it happen though, Lost Lake is worth it and doable for a wide range of hikers. The elevation gain is modest compared to many other Southcentral hikes, and the trail is thoughtfully carved into switchbacks making for easier, zigzag hiking up what might otherwise be steep slopes. Most of the elevation gain takes place over the first 4 miles or so. Then the trail flattens out over rolling tundra, with lakes interspersed along the pass.
Personally, I love to complete the Lost Lake trail in one day. There is something masochistically satisfying about putting in long hours and miles, taking in as much of the glimmering lakes and distant Resurrection Bay as possible. Since the Lost Lake trail tends to hang onto last winter’s snow through much of the summer, fall is the ideal time to go. The air is cold early in the morning and my breath creates clouds, but by midday I’m taking off layers in the sun, surrounded by reddening tundra and bright blue water. It’s a stunning hike. Camp out and make it a two-day trip if you want to take more time.
This trail is at its best on a sunny day because it’s amazing to see Seward and the bay sparkling in the distance from up on the pass.
Getting there: To the Lost Lake trail head from the Seward Highway: Turn west at Mile 5 into the Lost Lakes subdivision. Follow signs to the trail head. To the Primrose Campground: Turn west at Mile 17 of the Seward Highway onto Primrose Road and travel 1 mile on the gravel until you reach the campground. The trail begins at the far end of the campground.
Many hikes culminate with a beer, but unless you haul one uphill with you, you have to wait until after you’ve worked your way down the mountain. Not so in Girdwood, where you can hike up to a fancy bar on a mountaintop and take a tram back down.
Here’s a new spin on date night: hike one of several routes 2,300 feet up to the top of Mount Alyeska. Once there, indulge in appetizers and a cocktail at Seven Glaciers restaurant. Then take the aerial tram back down to the bottom. Bonus: The ride down is free.
The hike itself is a pretty direct uphill walk no matter which way you cut it. Switchbacks near the top of the North Face Trail alleviate the steepness a bit -- although at 2.2 miles one way, you’re still looking at roughly 1,000 feet of elevation gain per mile. The North Face Trail starts right behind Hotel Alyeska.
There’s also the Tanaka Road that starts behind the Daylodge near the Sitzmark. Another steady uphill slog, this broad boulevard will nag at your calves as you walk. However, there are plenty of salmonberries along the way, which encouraged me to pause and take in a spectacular view replete with glaciers, rainforest, and the Cook Inlet in the distance.
It’s Girdwood, so expect heavy clouds, light drizzle and cool air. Pack a sweater if not a light change of clothes, because sitting in the restaurant, you can quickly get a chill. I wore a necklace to try my best to fit in at the fancy Seven Glaciers bar. Not sure if it worked. I had to swallow some pride as I looked around me at what seemed to be a predominantly respectably dressed Alyeska resort crowd, but I will say they make a delicious Old Fashioned that pairs well with a long slog uphill and a tram ride down.
Another perk: Dogs are not allowed to ride up the tram, but are welcome to ride down (they must show ID to be served at the bar).
Getting there: From Anchorage, take the Seward Highway 40 miles south to Girdwood. Turn left onto Alyeska Highway and take it to the end. Turn left onto Arlberg Avenue For the Tanaka Road access, park at the Daylodge and find the start of the road near the chairlift behind the building. Park at the Alyeska Hotel and find the North Face trail head at the foot of the tram.
Fall is the final, giddy push of summer before winter rakes leaves off the trees and snow falls. It’s my favorite time of year, and one of the best ways to experience it is to hike. Whatever going on a hike means to you -- whether it’s ambling at a toddler’s pace, taking a long day on a mountain pass, or baiting yourself up a hill toward beer -- Southcentral rewards those who get out on the trail this time of year.
Most days, 5 p.m. can’t get here fast enough.
Alli Harvey lives, works and plays in Anchorage.