What else is there to do in Alaska beside running for governor?
July 5, 2009 12:31 PM   Subscribe

Boyfriend and I decided to go to Alaska in August. We'd like to hike or backpack: where should we go?

We'll be flying in from Seattle, a hub of Alaska Airlines, so it'd be easy to go pretty much anywhere they fly in Alaska. We're not terribly experienced hikers, but we've invested in quite decent backpacking equipment (assuming three-season tents and sleeping bags will do in August in Alaska) and want to see as much glorious scenery as possible. Guided treks seem unnecessarily expensive at $300-$400/person/day, and three days is about as long as I'm willing to go without a shower anyway.

Considering that there's just two of us, would it be a better idea to stay in a hotel/lodge/cabin and go on day hikes rather than risk multi-day treks in unknown territory? What would be a good place to pick as a base in that case (as in, most spectacular trails accessible)?

What else should we do while in Alaska? City sightseeing is also cool, but I don't know anything about the state.
posted by halogen to Travel & Transportation around Alaska (16 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
never been north of Vancouver, but it is my understanding that the skeeters are something in the summer.
posted by @troy at 12:50 PM on July 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

Maybe not this time around, but next time drive the Alcan instead of flying from Seattle.

To appreciate how unique and remote Alaska is unless, you have to drive there.

And it's a beautiful drive.

I wasn't much of a hiker while I was there (no like big brown hungry bears much), but a lot of friends would regularly do the Crow Pass, Resurrection Pass, and Lost Lake Trails. Crow Pass is closest to Anchorage, the other two will require some driving.
posted by foooooogasm at 12:55 PM on July 5, 2009

Response by poster: foooooogasm, the idea of renting a car and driving up there is certainly appealing, but we only plan on spending 4-5 days up there this time around.
posted by halogen at 1:24 PM on July 5, 2009

There's a lot of Alaska up there. For 4-5 days you may want to pick one or two locations and spend time in and around them. We spent a week and saw only a tiny fraction of the state, but had a great time. Our itinerary was roughly - 3 nights in Anchorage, got hammered the first night because we kept looking outside the bar and it was broad daylight. Took a moderate hike up flattop mountain the next day to sweat it out. The route was pretty clearly marked. Great view too. Rented bikes and explored around the city the next day then took the train to Seward for 4 nights. Boat trip out to the glaciers, kayaked around the fjord, went fishing for rockfish, and hiked out to Exit Glacier. I'm pretty sure we'd have had just as much fun if we'd gone North though.

We stayed in B&B's, so I can't vouch for the camping grounds but if you go to Seward, stay at Soo's, she cooked some of the fish we caught for dinner and did the pile of laundry I'd expected to haul home.
posted by IanMorr at 2:28 PM on July 5, 2009

Since you're not experienced back country folk stick to the more traveled routes. There is a book called Hiking South Central Alaska- it's got lots of good hikes in it that are within driving distance of Anchorage. A lot of them are traverses where you start one place and come back out on the road somewhere else but it's easy to hitchhike back to your car in AK. Off the top of my head for a pleasant 2-5 day hike I'd recommend Resurrection Trail, Johnson's Pass, Crow Creek, Crescent Lake Trail or heading north to some of the established routes in Denali State Park but there are tons of other established routes.

Anywhere Denali or north can potentially get cold at night in August so be prepared for that if you decide to fly to Fairbanks and hike from there.

Bugs will suck, hiking somewhere there is a breeze is a good idea- above treeline near glaciers and rivers for example.
posted by fshgrl at 2:41 PM on July 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Never been to Alaska myself, but I lived in the Rockies (Jasper National Park) for 4.5 years. The hiking was fantastic, although I was always aware that there were bears, mountain lions, high cliffs, avalanches, slippery rocks, waterfalls, crevasses, 5 degree Celsius rushing rivers, and plenty of other factors that might lead to my demise. A couple of my coworkers went on a mountain hike on a brilliant sunny warm day one May. They got lost and ended up in snow. Lucky for them, they got search and rescued successfully. One of the girls ended up with frostbite on her feet and a pretty awful sunburn on her face. Sadly, not all of my stories from those days have such a happy ending.

Good hiking and camping equipment are worth nothing if the people using it have no knowledge of the area, with all its beauty and inherent dangers. I froze my ass off one August night because I brought a lighter sleeping bag than I needed telling myself there was no way it would drop below 10 degrees.

Don't go into the backcountry if you're "not terribly experienced hikers" who have never been to the area. Save it for another trip.
posted by futureisunwritten at 2:41 PM on July 5, 2009

Response by poster: Oh, we certainly plan to stick to only well-marked, maintained, and oft-traveled trails, regardless of whether it's a day hike or an overnight trip.
posted by halogen at 3:16 PM on July 5, 2009

Good call. Have an amazing trip!
posted by futureisunwritten at 4:06 PM on July 5, 2009

You'll be perfectly fine on the more established trails within easy driving distance of Anchorage. On average you'll run into 2-3 other groups every day, and more if it's a mountain biking trail. Very few of the popular routes in south central AK involve any altitude, dangerous river crossings, exposure or real map reading skill. The weather can turn bad but if you read up on the route, practice good bear camping rules, stay on the trail and plan ahead, then most of the hikes I mentioned are entirely suitable for occasional backpackers.
posted by fshgrl at 4:09 PM on July 5, 2009

Instead of flying both ways to Alaska, you might consider taking a ferry on the Alaska Marine Highway System, which leaves from Bellingham, WA. To save money, you can sleep on the ferries by pitching a tent on an outside deck or just rolling out a sleeping bag inside (you can also get a private cabin). When I did this, my partner and I bought a bunch of point to point tickets between towns. We'd usually get off the ferry and camp near the town (which all had campgrounds close by). We'd hang out for a bit and explore the town and do day lots of the nearby day hikes. Our favorite towns were Juneau, Haines, Sitka, and Tenakee Springs). We also stayed at a few US Forest Cabins that were within hiking distance of the towns, but be warned that a few miles out of town often means lots of elevation changes.

No matter what you do, Alaska is an amazing place and I'm sure you'll have a great trip.
posted by Staggering Jack at 4:36 PM on July 5, 2009

Seconding the ferry idea- even if you fly up here, you can get to many interesting places more cheaply than flying once you're here if know that's an option.

Three-season tents should be fine in August up here. If you are sticking to well-established trails you shouldn't need to worry about backpacking with just two people. Do bring decent raingear and lots of non-cotton layers, including a hat and gloves (I spent a week in Denali last month and spent four days in shorts, and two with long underwear on at times). You will need to educate yourself about bear safety, since it will be the height of berry season and...REI will rent you bear canisters for your food, and they are also available from the park service for free in some places.

This is a great site for more information about hikes within a few hours of Anchorage. The books Hiking Alaska, 55 Ways to the Wilderness in Southcentral Alaska and 50 Hikes in Alaska's Chugach State Park might also be helpful. Kesugi Ridge is my favorite backpack of all time, if you catch good weather...grand sweeping views of Denali when you start at Little Coal Creek, and there's a good bailout option if the weather turns. Lost Lake (near Seward) is fantastic. Crow/Resurrection passes are nice as well.

We are having a ridiculously gorgeous summer so far, at least in Southcentral, and I hope it lasts for you! MeMail me if you have any more questions, particularly about things to do/see/eat in Southcentral AK- I've lived in the Anchorage area most of my life and have traveled pretty extensively around the state as well.
posted by charmedimsure at 5:55 PM on July 5, 2009

I Live in Alaska, my advice is to get out of Anchorage. There is a saying here: Anchorage: 45 minutes from Alaska. It's not that it is a bad town, it's just a frontier town and if you are traveling all this way it would be a shame if all you experienced was the Anchorage area - granted you might see bears and moose in the city!

There are LOTS of options. If you only have 4-5 days I would recommend staying in one place and doing some day hikes - maybe an overnight. I have lots of ideas if your interested. Feel free to memail me.
posted by Fuzzy Dog at 12:45 AM on July 6, 2009

I live in Alaska as well (Fuzzy Dog, charmedimsure: meetup?), and I echo the advice to get out of Anchorage; it's just another small city. While guided treks are nice, they bring you deep into the bush where it's really unsafe for you to go alone. Hence the spendy prices. But there are tons of friendlier hiking options that will get you the spectacular views you're hoping for.

Driving south will get you to Seward, Kenai, Homer, all with some great hiking. You can even take a train to Seward if you don't want to drive. Driving or taking the train north will get you to Talkeetna and Denali, both with some excellent camping and hiking, but be aware that it can snow in Denali in August so bring plenty of layers. It really is a big state, so focusing your few days in one area would be best.
posted by rhapsodie at 9:24 AM on July 6, 2009

If you're flying into Anchorage and will be heading out from there you definitely need to pick up the book 55 Ways to the Wilderness of South Central Alaska (older, cheaper edition, not that it's probably changed much). Tons of hikes with varying levels of difficulty and length, and not just in the Anchorage area but most should be accessible if you rent a car.
posted by 6550 at 12:00 PM on July 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Go live in a yurt
posted by destro at 6:42 PM on July 6, 2009

The yurt idea is actually a great one, if you like to paddle...I've spent a few days each year the last few years in one or the other of them. You get a water taxi + kayak rental out of Homer (4 hours' drive from Anchorage) and boom! home sweet home without a lot of the hassles of camping. The paddling around there is safe and fantastic.

I think, if you're going to be here for under a week, you're really going to have to choose a part of the state to be in and base your plans on what's available within a few hours out of that location. Your best options are probably to fly into Juneau and stay in the Southeast doing something ferry-based (Gustavus/Glacier Bay, Sitka and Haines are all great places to go, but the whole of Southeast is beautiful and green and glacier/wildlife-filled) or fly in to Anchorage and have Seward/Homer/Whittier/the Mat-Su Valley*/etc. to explore as well if you want.

*Hatcher's Pass is spectaular...I did the Reed Lakes Trail yesterday for the first time in a while and had forgotten how gorgeous it is. In the same(ish) area is the Matanuska Glacier, which has impressed out-of-state tourists more than anything else I've done with them- you really do get to tromp around (at your own risk) on top of an actual glacier, which is not an opportunity that most people are going to get otherwise.
posted by charmedimsure at 4:57 PM on July 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

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