With 6 million acres of pristine wilderness in Denali National Park alone, Alaska’s landscapes are a feast for those who prize exploration. Soaring walls of rock, living glaciers, wildflower-splashed meadows, and stirring coastline are there to be witnessed for anyone with a solid pair of hiking shoes, a sturdy pack, and plenty of layers. Although it would be impossible to hike all of awe-inspiring Alaska in a lifetime, here are some can’t-miss, leg-stretching, heart-pumping trails for the thrill and view seekers among you.
Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, Anchorage
Okay, so you won’t exactly be scrambling up rock faces on this hike, but nevertheless, Anchorage’s Tony Knowles Coastal Trail provides a fabulous introduction to the city and its surroundings. Beginning at Anchorage’s 2nd Avenue, the trail follows the Cook Inlet for 11 miles to Kincaid Park. Along the way, keep your eyes peeled for waterfowl, beluga whales cresting in the surf, and large game such as moose.
The trail becomes hillier and more rural the further you go and treats pedestrians to panoramic views of the Cook Inlet and the Chugach Mountain Range. As a bonus, the hike’s terminus at Kincaid Park features some of the gnarliest mountain bike trails around.
Kesugi Ridge & Mount Eielson Loop, Denali National Park
For those accustomed to the strict on-trail policy of most National Parks, Denali’s more laissez-faire approach might seem daunting at first. A park nearly the size of Massachusetts bisected by one sole road… and you’re saying that you can technically hike anywhere? Yep, that’s what we’re saying. Denali National Park is like one huge, magnificent adventure land where intrepid hikers can truly experience the solitude of the backcountry in all its glory. Make sure to come prepared, however, especially if you’re planning a multi-day hike.
If you need a little nudge in planning your expedition in Denali, look no further than the Mount Eielson Loop, a 14.6 mile route that has it all: Mt. McKinley views, ridges and gullies and even a stream-crossing or two. The Kesugi Ridge hike in bordering Denali State Park affords a clear, well-marked 27-mile trail that allows you to drink your fill of mountain vistas without needing to cross any roaring rivers.
Exit Glacier & Harding Icefield Trail, Kenai Fjords National Park
As most of breathtaking Kenai Fjords National Park is not accessible by road, the Exit Glacier and Harding Icefield trails give great access to a variety of hikes that will have you up-close-and-personal with the life cycle of glaciers. Multiple short routes are available to explore Exit Glacier from the Visitor Center. More ambitious walkers can scramble over a rock field to reach the Toe of the Glacier. Or, approach the ice wall via the Edge of Glacier Trail.
Ever wanted a window into the Ice Age? For a demanding, longer hike, the 8.2 mile roundtrip Harding Icefield Trail crosses through a variety of flora before climbing above the tree line for ridiculous views of the icefield. With an elevation gain of approximately 1,000 feet for every mile hiked, your lungs and calves will be thankful for the multiple stops to take in the scenery. Just be sure to check the trail conditions before you lace up those boots.
Granite Tors Trail, Fairbanks
Located near Fairbanks off the Chena Hot Springs Road, the Granite Tors trail offers 15 miles of hiking in a landscape that can only be described as mythic. You’ll see why when you reach the Plain of Monuments, which is scattered with striking henge-like rock formations. These are the granite tors. Formed up to 90 million years ago from molten rock surging upwards and hardening beneath the surface of the earth’s crust, many millennia of erosion have brought them to view. Popular with climbers as well, the cathedral-like tors are truly one of Alaska’s hiking treasures.
Atigun Gorge, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
About as remote as it gets, Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge can be found in the northernmost reaches of the state. Another chance for off-trail exploration, the Atigun Gorge is much more accessible for hikers than the remainder of the gigantic refuge, and can be reached from the road. Expect sweeping tundra vistas, craggy mountains, and plentiful wildlife sightings of rare Dall sheep, caribou, and even bears. As with all of Alaska’s fragile alpine ecosystems, please tread carefully.
Resurrection Pass Trail, Kenai Peninsula
A 38-mile stunner of a trail that offers medium-difficulty hiking on the main trail and some more challenging tangents into the surrounding wilderness, the Resurrection Pass Trail is the perfect pick if you’re hankering for a longer expedition. The trail begins in the community of Hope and finds its terminus at Coopers Landing. Along the way, hikers are treated to a medley of Alaska’s best scenery: wildflowers, spiny ridges, and tundra as far as the eye can see. West of Resurrection Pass, the optional steep scramble to the ridge top rewards with a 360-degree glimpse of the Harding Icefield and Mt. McKinley that can only be described as epic.
Alaska’s vibrant pioneer history comes to life on the 33-mile Chilkoot Trail, a route that once linked the coast and the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush. Originating in Dyea, AK and terminating in Bennett, British Columbia, the trail follows the old line of a Tlingit trading route and represents a unique historic park in cooperation between the U.S. and Canadian governments. Beginning in an atmospheric ghost town and crossing three ecosystems—coastal rainforest, alpine, and boreal forest—the Chilkoot Trail gives a tour of the relics of the gold rush before hikers cross over what is known as the “Golden Stair” into British Columbia. These stairs were painstakingly hacked into the stone and ice by miners making the difficult journey more than 100 years ago, often stopping to weigh their goods at the “Scales” before crossing the imposing mountaintop.
Backpackers on the Chilkoot Trail are permitted and limited to 50 at a time, and many well-maintained campsites and interpretive sights pepper the route. A long hike that should definitely make your bucket list, the trail allows hikers to open a window into Alaska’s hardscrabble past while accompanied by the amazing scenery and wildlife that so characterize the spectacular outdoor experiences of Alaska.
What is your favorite hike? Share tips with your fellow adventurers in the comments.