By Chugach State Park frontcountry standards, Bird Creek Falls is off the beaten path. Getting to it requires navigating a muddy maze of logging roads-turned-ATV trails absent from many maps.
The falls used to be a hidden sanctuary of sorts, said Chugach State Park superintendent Ben Corwin, dodging trail-eating puddles on a soggy Monday in August.
Word has spread. Anchorage’s backyard wilderness, including previously off-the-beaten-path places like Bird Creek Falls, is experiencing a surge in users that started at the outset of the pandemic and shows no signs of letting up.
The numbers are stark: Between 2019 and 2022, visits to Chugach State Park increased by about 50%, according to Alaska State Parks superintendent Ricky Gease.
Driven in part by social media and location-tracking apps, more people are recreating in historically less-used parts of the park.
Add the fact that Chugach State Park operates on a shoestring budget of just $1.2 million per year with less than 10 full-time employees, and the park is feeling the strain of popularity.
Just short of the waterfall, a tumbling column of clear water framed in rock and hemlock, Corwin pointed to a braid of roots leading down a steep slope.
Hikers have been using the roots as steps to approach the waterfall. The footsteps are eroding the bank and exposing people to a serious hazard.
“I haven’t had a search and rescue out here yet, but it’s just a matter of time,” he said.
More interest in outdoor recreation is a good thing for society, advocates say. But the increased use is also leading to problems like trail erosion, overspilling parking lots and conflicts over previously low-key trailheads in neighborhoods.
“You want people to see a beautiful place,” Corwin said. But in some areas, “the resource — it’s getting destroyed because of it,” he said.
[New trail will increase access to alpine terrain in Chugach State Park but draws objections from residents of South Fork Valley]
‘The most used public lands in Alaska’
Chugach State Park stretches across nearly half a million acres bordering Anchorage and its neighboring communities, making it one of the four largest state parks in the country. It contains around 250 miles of trails.
Just 20 minutes east of downtown, the park makes the city a place where you can hike to an alpine lake and make a Costco run in the same afternoon.
For many, that proximity of wilderness and city is a defining joy of living in Anchorage, said Frank Baker, an Eagle River resident, former member of the Chugach State Park Citizens Advisory Board, freelance writer and frequent hiker in the park.
People who use the park “appear to be the happiest people I have ever seen,” Baker said. “I would stack their state of well-being against any similar user group in any other state.”
It’s hard to come by exact use numbers, but when Corwin conducts training, he tells new employees and volunteers that about 1.5 million people visit the park each year. Other estimates put the number of annual visitors at 1 million.
“This right here,” Gease, the Alaska State Parks director, told a crowd at a community meeting at Eagle River’s South Fork trailhead last month. “These are the most used public lands in Alaska.”
Chugach State Park managers say a big increase in use coincides with the coronavirus pandemic, which drew more people outdoors.
“We hear about (the increase in use) at all levels,” said Gease.
From park director to superintendent to rangers to camp hosts to hikers, everyone is observing the same thing: There are just more people in the park.
The cellphone GPS tracking data that revealed the 50% increase in park use also shows who is using the park: About 70% of visitation is coming from Anchorage residents, with the rest from out-of-state tourists and visitors from the Mat-Su, according to Gease. The raw data is preliminary and will be eventually released to the public, he said.
The data, for the first time, confirms the use patterns that parks employees — and anyone trying to find a parking spot for a sunny day hike — has observed. The Anchorage Hillside access points receive the heaviest use, along with Arctic Valley, Eagle River and spots along the Seward Highway.
With the data, Gease hopes the department can develop analysis tools to prioritize projects based on need.
Lisa Maloney, a writer who has authored several Anchorage hiking guides, says she’s thrilled that people are finding ways to spend time in the wilderness. But even to her, trails feel much busier.
“I’ve been out there a lot less than usual partly because it does feel very crowded,” Maloney said.
Winter use has increased noticeably too, said Mat Brunton, an outdoor educator who founded the Anchorage Avalanche Center in 2011. He recently moved to Valdez.
Drive up to Canyon Road near Upper Rabbit Creek, the jumping-off point for popular backcountry ski runs, after work in the spring and witness a trail of cars up and down the road, Brunton said.
“State Parks is just grossly underfunded with the sort of situation that’s happening in Anchorage right now,” Brunton said.
To meet rising demand, Chugach State Park needs to increase access and disperse hikers and other users, said Trond Jensen, a member of the Chugach State Park Citizens Advisory Board and an avid skier, mountaineer and hiker. He too has observed what he calls a “significant uptick” in use as a result of COVID, but also a longer-term trend.
“We’re slowly becoming a more healthy society,” he said. “People use (public land) more. And we’re slowly providing access and trails and parking and then trailheads.”
That’s true, Corwin says.
“We’ve learned if you build it, they will come.”
Demand meets budget
Some of the areas that have seen the most growth are the smaller, neighborhood access points with limited parking.
Corwin isn’t sure what’s driving more people to some new hotspots, including this gentle waterfall hike. But he’s willing to bet that new social media tools and location tracking apps such as Strava are making previously little-known areas of the park more accessible. That’s also not a bad — or even new — phenomenon. Media has always been a channel by which people have learned about places to visit in the park.
What’s changed, he said, is the speed of information.
It used to be that a newspaper article highlighted a trail and drew a predictable flood of users, Maloney said. Now, “all that social media has done is elevate that and make it happen faster and more easily,” she said.
A single video, photo or post on a social media group can drive enough new users to overwhelm the limited infrastructure. Some Alaska hiking Facebook groups have tens of thousands of members.
When a trail becomes suddenly popular, it can cause problems with property owners nearby. That happened around the fall of 2020 when usage of an access point to Ram Valley, in Eagle River, boomed seemingly overnight. Corwin said he wasn’t sure of the precipitating event. Access required crossing a slice of private land, which had been OK with the landowner until that point. Suddenly, many dozens of vehicles turned up, according to Corwin. Some blocked the driveway.
“The property owner said, ‘I don’t want this.’ And so here we are without any viable access.”
Ram Valley isn’t the only access point with problems. The Honeybear trailhead, in Bear Valley, consistently runs out of parking with only a few dedicated spots. Recently, neighbors around the South Fork trailhead in Eagle River objected to a new trail extension because they feared it would draw more users to a trailhead they say is already hazardously busy. Cars park on the shoulder of the only road to some houses.
In Anchorage, Canyon Road, which dead-ends near trailheads for Rabbit Lake and Flattop’s south side, is another Chugach State Park area stressed by demand for parking. In recent years, after a new switchback trail made the route up Flattop more accessible, the spot has received “mega use,” Corwin said.
On sunny days, cars park on both shoulders, leaving room for only one lane of traffic. Some cars park far down the hill, at times blocking residential driveways. Getting an ambulance up there isn’t possible. They have to park below the cars and send paramedics walking up. Expanding parking to catch up with demand is one of the highest priorities for the park.
“It’s a bit of a mess,” he said.
Creating more official access points to the park is a top priority, said Jensen, the advisory board member. Sometimes it creates tension: Private landowners don’t necessarily want trailheads or parking lots in their backyards, he said. “We have to navigate the desires of the public versus the wishes of the owners.”
With increased use in new parts of the park, the need to build and maintain trails that are sustainable — less steep, more switchbacks — has taken on new urgency, Corwin said.
Same with the need for dispersing people to new areas, rather than users being concentrated in a few packed areas.
“What I would like to see is better access to trailheads that would disperse people to other areas,” said Steve Cleary, executive director of the nonprofit Alaska Trails, which handles trail maintenance and building in the park.
Behind the curve
Alaska State Parks operations budgets are funded about half through receipts from parking passes, cabin rentals and other income-generating sources such as concession contracts, Gease said. The other half comes from a share of the state vehicle rental tax.
Chugach State Park, which covers about 495,000 acres, has an operations budget of roughly $1.2 million per year and has no dedicated budget for trail construction or trail maintenance, according to Corwin.
There are only eight full-time employees, plus one eight-month seasonal employee. Funding has been flat for years, Corwin said, though the department has received one-time grants for special projects.
By comparison, Chugach National Forest, at 5.4 million acres, had a 2020 budget of $21 million and 110 permanent employees.
Denali National Park, estimated to draw 600,000 visitors per year, had a 2020 budget of $15 million.
“We’re essentially getting what we pay for, and we’re not paying for anything,” Cleary said.
Alaska Trails recently rebuilt the popular Little O’Malley trail and assisted with design of the new Muktuk Marston trail, not yet officially open to the public, at Arctic Valley. Many states have similar volunteer organizations, said Steve Cleary, the executive director of the nonprofit. But few rely on them as heavily.
“I think most other states have taxes that would then fund state park operations, maintenance and trail crews,” Cleary said.
Nonprofit fundraising efforts such as the Chugach Park Fund have stepped in to fill the gaps.
“State of Alaska funding is no longer adequate to hire a trail crew to maintain the 265 miles of trails in Chugach State Park,” the organization’s board wrote in June. “Nor has money been allocated to rebuild old, existing trails to a standard that will hold up to the use of those million visitors.”
“It truly is a puzzle, given the amount of money Alaska has in revenues … that more emphasis is not placed on funding state park needs,” said Judy Caminer, a retired National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management manager and one of the founders of the Chugach Park Fund.
The fund, operated through the Alaska Community Foundation, was founded in 2016.
“We saw … state budgets were not going to keep up with parks,” she said. The fund receives corporate and individual donations.
At least once a year, the park fund leaders sit down with Corwin to talk about what most urgently needs to be fixed in the park.
The fund focuses on trail improvements and adding educational or interpretive signage. But an expanded parking lot or a new trailhead?
“No,” Caminer said. “A parking lot would be not only out of our scope but way beyond the means. And perhaps something better suited to government spending.”
Projects like expanding parking at busy trailheads, including Canyon Road, are a priority.
Baker thinks that more use of Chugach State Park will accelerate investment in the park.
“They’re behind the curve right now,” he said. “But I think there’s going to be more advocacy.”
It’s a good sign that people want to experience their public land, Maloney said.
“I think it’s hugely important for all of us to have some level of connection to nature and to the place that we live in,” Maloney said.
For Baker, the land itself is the comfort. The park may change but with 495,000 acres, there’s always somewhere to find whatever it is you’re looking for.
“There’s so much space,” he said. “There’s room for everyone.”
Correction: Earlier versions of this story incorrectly stated the size of Chugach National Forest. The forest is 5.4 million acres of land and water, according to the National Forest Service, not 700,000 acres. Earlier versions of this story also incorrectly called the Chugach Park Fund the Chugach State Park Fund.