PALMER -- The Mars-like surface of Bodenburg Butte was covered in children on a recent spring morning when students from nearby Knik Elementary staged a takeover of the red-hued landscape atop the 900-foot hunk of rock. As teachers and volunteers did their best to keep watch, the children ran, jumped and scrambled around the natural playground that's become one of the Mat-Su's most iconic and popular climbs.
Few hikes offer as much bang for the buck. Bodenburg Butte is a short, easily accessible climb near Palmer that provides 360-degree views from atop what's essentially a large rock in the middle of a broad braided floodplain formed by the Knik and Matanuska rivers.
From the top, hikers can gaze upon a vast swath of rivers, forests and farmland stretching from Knik Glacier to Cook Inlet. To the south, 6,398-foot Pioneer Peak rises like a wall from surrounding farmland, while 6,119-foot Matanuska (Byers) Peak stands guard to the east. And nestled between the iconic peaks is Knik Glacier, its white-blue icy expanse drawing the eye like a giant shining gemstone. It's an impressive vista and one that lures hundreds of hikers a day during peak summer weekends.
Although it's a relatively short hike, "The Butte" offers an impressive amount of diversity. There are two main hiking trails up, a borough-maintained route on the northwest side and an unmaintained track up the south. Either way will get hikers to the top, and picking a path is often a matter of personal preference. However, there are significant differences between the trails that hikers should keep in mind.
West Butte Trail
To reach the borough-maintained West Butte trail head, take the Old Glenn Highway from Palmer to Bodenburg Loop, which loops around the hill. Follow the road about a half-mile to Mothershead Lane, a dirt road that leads to a small parking lot with restroom facilities. The trailhead is another couple hundred yards down the road.
The first half of the 1.5-mile hike is uphill but not particularly steep as it follows a wide, smooth gravel path. At the midpoint, there's a bench overlooking the Talkeetna Mountains where hikers can pause for a break or to take in the view.
From here, the trail heads up a long wooden staircase that introduces the second, steeper half of the hike. The trail to the top features a number of switchbacks and stairs built into the trail, as well as handholds at the steeper sections. If the trail is wet, it can be slippery, but there are no significant obstacles aside from the steepness. The borough made significant improvements to the route a couple of years ago, and the hike is suitable for novices and small children.
Near the top, hikers emerge into a rolling meadow that in summer is covered in blooming fireweed. From there, it's an easy scramble up to the top, a broad, rocky perch with plenty of room for roaming and exploring. The Williams' Reindeer Farm is located at the foot of the hill, and the herd can usually be seen grazing below.
Mat-Su Borough director of public affairs Patti Sullivan said further improvements are planned for the trail, including the addition of stairs up the final section to the summit. Sullivan said the stairs will be brought in on Monday via helicopter and will be used to mitigate erosion.
Old south trail
The "old" trail up the Butte is actually on private land owned by the Sandvik family. There's a $3 per vehicle fee to park at the small lot (there's room for about a dozen vehicles), as well as a portable outhouse across the street. The trailhead is also accessed off the Old Glenn via Bodenburg Loop, but from the loop's south end. The spot is easy to find because it's marked by a flashing yellow traffic light and a sign for the nearby reindeer farm. Take the loop 0.6 miles to the small dirt parking lot.
The old trail is much steeper than the borough-maintained side. It's also a lot dustier when conditions are dry, especially the first few hundred yards.
After a short, steep climb through willow and alder, the trail passes a barbed-wire fence marking a hillside horse pasture. There's a small pond there, and horses can sometimes be seen grazing in the meadow.
After a short flat section, the trail goes through a section of steep cliffs that will present the toughest obstacle for most hikers. A mix of rock and dirt, the area can be tricky to traverse, but the easiest way is to follow the clear path to the right for as far as you can, then scramble the rest of the way. Small children may have difficulty with this section, which requires a bit of care to climb safely.
From the cliffs, the trail breaks out into the open again for the trip to the summit. Adventurous climbers can take the direct route up the rocky face, while an easier route can be found by following the trail around to the left, where it links up with the West Butte trails.
Before you go
Hiking Bodenburg Butte has almost become a rite of passage for Mat-Su hikers, and its popularity is a double-edged sword. In recent years, the Mat-Su Borough has fielded complaints from nearby residents about crowding and trespassing on private land, so be sure to stay on designated trails if you go. Erosion is also a problem, and cutting off the main trail is strongly discouraged both by the government and private landowners.
A hike up either side can take anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours; either side can be slippery when wet, and good, sturdy hiking shoes or boots are strongly recommended. One final thing to keep in mind is that because of its perch just south of the Knik Glacier, the top of the Butte is often extremely windy. It's not a bad idea to bring a jacket, even on warm days, because the weather can change dramatically.
WEST BODENBURG BUTTE TRAIL
• Length: 1.5 miles to the top, 3 miles round-trip
• Elevation gain: 700 feet
• Total time: 1 to 3 hours
• Parking fee: $5
• Directions: From Palmer, take the Old Glenn Highway 5.5 miles to N. Bodenburg Loop and take a right (a left if coming from the south) then follow the road 0.5 miles to Mothershead Lane, which leads to the parking lot.
OLD' BODENBURG BUTTE TRAIL (SANDVIK FAMILY TRAIL)
• Length: 1 mile to the top, 2 miles round-trip
• Elevation gain: 700 feet
• Total time: 30 minutes to 2 hours
• Parking fee: $3 per vehicle
• Directions: From Anchorage, drive approximately 28 miles north on the Glenn Highway to the Old Glenn Highway exit. Take the Old Glenn roughly 11 miles to S. Bodenburg Loop and take a left at the blinking stoplight. Follow Bodenburg Loop approximately 0.5 miles to the small parking lot; if you reach the reindeer farm you've gone too far.