Alaska's biggest hikes naturally get the most attention — but some short hikes are worth a look too.
Take the Mile High Saddle trail in Eagle River: At three-quarters of a mile to the end of the "official" trail at the saddle, it's easy to dismiss. But this little trail is really a gateway to sweeping views over familiar ridges you've probably hiked (and if you haven't, you should).
It's also the juncture of a couple of great ridge trails.
The short hike is little more than a steep, sustained uphill with few switchbacks to ease the ascent. It's been a few years since my last visit, so it's striking to see how dusty and loose the trail has gotten in some steeper sections. Here's hoping it might receive a little switchback love soon to ease erosion, much as the front side of Mount Baldy got a couple of years ago.
Dusty or not, this short trail is beautiful, surrounded on both sides by lush cow parsnip and alders. It's the kind of greenery that can conceal a full-grown moose 10 feet away, a fact that other hikers, coming from a higher vantage point, kindly passed on. All we saw was greenery so thick that the rustling of the moose moving away didn't even cause a leaf to twitch.
The vegetation thins as you approach the saddle. In fact, you barely escape tree line before hitting your destination. But this is just the start of the fun: Even though the official trail ends here, you can hang a left and head for a little knob known variously as Iron Nipple, Tit Mountain or The Tits, depending on the map you're using. The names come from the way the peak looks from the city streets below, but from up high, it's just a great vantage point above Eagle River, Eagle River Flats and Knik Arm, with a neighborhood trail that leads back to the city.
Want a bigger challenge? Hang a right from the saddle and head up a ridge that leads to Mount Tucker and, from there, to rocky Mount Magnificent, which tops out at 4,285 feet.
Many people confuse the two mountains because Tucker has a flag, but don't be suckered in by that if you're heading for Magnificent. Do be ready for a rocky scramble on the notoriously loose, unstable "Chugach crud" that's largely shale. There's more than a mile of serious up and down along this ridge — it's about 2.5 miles to Magnificent, one way — and you may be surprised how windy it gets once you climb out of the saddle. Bring layers and a good attitude.
Fully equipped with such an attitude, our group of four turned and toiled up the next rise on the way to Mount Magnificent. As we gained altitude, views of familiar ridges rolled out around us. To the north (hiker's left), the back quarter of 3,315-foot Baldy formed an abrupt prow at one end of the long, trailing ridge that leads gradually up to 4,446-foot Blacktail Rocks and, just visible on the far side, 5,070-foot Vista Peak.
Given how broad, gentle and inviting that ridge is, it's strange that so few people choose to hike it. Perhaps there's a force field just past the Baldy summit, holding people back.
To the south (hiker's right), you'll see views over North Fork Eagle River Valley and, past it, a peek into the South Fork Valley. From this vantage, the ridge on the left of that valley leads to Harp Mountain, although you can't see the usual hiking route to the summit, which sits on its far side.
And to the right of the valley opening is 4,134-foot Mount Gordon Lyon, with Rendezvous Peak and its long, lazy ridge overlooking South Fork Eagle River behind it.
We strung out on the ridge, separated by photo ops, side discussions and the number of margaritas consumed earlier that day. One of the beautiful things about hikes like this is how quickly you get above tree line and how free it feels to roam once you're there, even though you're all still walking on the same thin ribbon of trail.
You're also very exposed to weather — so as clouds darkened to the west and winds picked up, blowing them toward us, we started to reconsider our plans. We were just one saddle away from Mount Tucker; the tiny point of its flagpole waved at us. But the reality of that steep descent, short as it might be, and a topless convertible Jeep Wrangler parked at the trailhead, persuaded us to head down before the rain caught up to us. It was almost eerie how quickly the wind switched off as we crossed back down into the bushes, off the exposed ridge and saddle.
In a way, the trail's nature helped us — not just because we knew a heavy rain would turn it into a virtual Slip 'N Slide, but because it's so short, but still so good, that getting up it doesn't feel like an impossible commitment. Instead of being a case of "we've come this far, we are now obligated to finish or the effort is wasted," Mile High Saddle is just a friendly, accessible trail you can easily hike for the quick saddle views or for the reasonably epic — or should I say magnificent — opportunities on the ridge behind it.
Notes: Getting to the trailhead is almost as entertaining as the hike itself. Head east on Eagle River Road. After about two miles, look for Mile High road on your left. Turn onto Mile High and follow it through obvious steep, zigzag switchbacks and many name changes as you head uphill. A gate and a tiny brown Chugach State Park sign are the only markers for the tiny turnout that serves as a trailhead. There's only room for a few cars. A small sign points you toward the start of the trail.