Scrabbling over the rocky top of the gully, I stood atop the 10-mile-long ridge, extending north from Summit Lake valley to the Resurrection Trail valley. In the late light of an early June evening, the surrounding valleys lay deep in mist. But above them, a vast maze of rippling ridges stretched away like rolling waves into the clear air.
To the east rose Venus. To the west set the quarter moon. To the north, the direction I was traveling, the horizon glowed red. Alone, but far from lonely, I breathed in the quiet view with an awe bordering on reverence.
Such a sight was scenic in all concepts of the word: picturesque, expansive, and wild. Some Alaska hikes prove especially memorable when, as on that particular night, location, weather, and season come together in a beautiful collaboration. But what makes any hike or climb most scenic smacks of subjectivity.
Ask any group their choice of best late-night snack, best beach-day book, or best anything and few provide similar answers. In choosing the most scenic hike, one can at least establish some criteria. First, scenic will mean providing a sense of remoteness in a distinctly Alaskan setting. Such a scene encompasses as little evidence of civilization as possible. Such a view also should have a bigness about it, encompassing many miles of dramatic terrain — including mountains (preferably snow-capped), braided rivers, and possibly one or two glaciers.
But not everyone has the physical capabilities to be able to witness the most scenic views. Therefore, the following list of most scenic hikes in Southcentral Alaska encompasses three grades: easy, moderate, and difficult — each requiring greater effort for a more scenic view. None requires any technical climbing ability or involve any dangerous rock-scrambling -- just a certain level of fitness.
Easiest: Turnagain Pass Trail
The new Iditarod Trail contouring the east side of Turnagain Pass barely edges out April Bowl Trail in Hatcher Pass and North Face Trail on Mount Alyeska. Turnagain Pass Trail surpasses other scenic and easy hikes -- not only in hiking ease but also its expansive views.
Though one does pass under the power lines that run through the pass and cannot avoid hearing or seeing some signs of traffic on the Seward Highway below, these minor intrusions don’t disrupt the hike. The trail has a wide and largely rock-free tread, allowing one to look around freely —and when a hiker passes through one of the many openings in the brush, there is much to look upon. Ridges on both sides of the pass dominate the views east and west. To the north and south one can also see all the way down the pass, across Turnagain Arm and up the length of Twentymile River to some of the larger peaks in the Chugach Range as well as far up Johnson Pass Trail valley.
Moderate: Gunsight Mountain
This scenic hike had stiff competition from Triangle Peak in South Fork Eagle River valley and Pyramid Peak above Turnagain Arm. From Gunsight Mountain, one can see the cars, campers, and trucks on Glenn Highway winding far below – and an abundance of wide and wild country. South across Tahneta Pass rise the glacier valleys and northernmost snowy peaks of the Chugach Range. To the north extends the Talkeetna Mountains, with the prominent heap of Syncline Mountain dominating the northeast view. To the west, beyond the far end of the 10-mile-long ridge to Sheep Mountain, stretches the Matanuska River valley toward Palmer. To the east, however, one can see all to the great summits of the St. Elias Range.
Difficult: Fourmile Creek ridge
The most difficult scenic hike entails circumnavigating the ridge around Fourmile Creek, a tributary of Peters Creek that empties the valley behind Mount Eklutna.
This hike begins by climbing Bear Mountain and following the ridge to the top of Mount Eklutna — from where one view the entire route. Continuing northeast and then east, the ridge climbs over numerous knolls towering above Fourmile Creek to the right and Thunderbird Creek to the left. Despite the elevation gains and losses while climbing numerous 4,000-foot peaks, the hiking remains generally easy over firm tundra and sporadic rock spines. Only after circling the far bend in the ridge — its highest point at 5,505 feet — does one have to contend with any scree and boulders. These difficulties should prove worth the trouble as the view takes in the upper valleys of the Chugach Range, including more than half the precipitous and typically snow-covered 7,000-foot peaks. There are even some glimpses of the great snowfields stretching away behind them.
The major difficulty comes during the descent off the far end of the ridge and down the clearing at the opening of the valley and the dirt road leading out to Peters Creek Trail.
Not long ago, a homesteader’s cabin stood there, but now only the opening remains. But the view while bushwhacking to this opening remains scenic enough to take one’s mind away from the brush.
That alone could justify calling such a hike scenic.
Anchorage freelance writer Shawn Lyons is an avid hiker and author of three "Walkabout Guides to Alaska" covering the Chugach Mountains; Palmer and Hatcher Pass; and Kenai and Turnagain Arm.