This is probably one of Alaska’s most stunning glacially carved valleys. The elevation lines of changing ecosystems is quite clear on this trail. Once you get above the spruce forest, there are great views of Turnagain Arm. You’ll then wind through willow and scrub. As you head south, up the chute, there is less and less vegetation and eventually it is just rocky tundra scrub. The McHugh Creek runs down the middle and is quite dramatic in some sections. At the end is Rabbit Lake as your final reward. There is a good chance of seeing eagles, hawks, moose, and ptarmigan on this trail.
The trail heads steeply up for the first 3 miles and it seems like forever just to get to this point but the views are so worth the effort, especially Turnagain Arm. It’s a tough hike, but I would put it on my top 10 of possible day hikes if you are visiting.
A shorter alternative is the loop hike just a ways from the trailhead that circles around a huge rock outcrop, a perfect spot for a nice lunch.
The DeArmoun route is much easier with very little elevation changes. The road there is rough, especially towards the end. The route follows the south side of the Flat Top peaks, and goes past Ptarmigan Peak.
The following was added March 20, 2005:
Breakup came very early this year and thought I’d take a chance and do this hike from the DeArmoun Road access. I don’t have 4 wheel drive and my truck definitely wouldn’t handle the steep mountain road in the deep snow to get there. However the roads were clear and I got there with no problem for a gorgeous 40 degree day with not a cloud in the sky. The trail was mostly packed wind blown snow and I got to the lake with no problem. It was a great way to get into some much needed tundra after being in wooded areas all these gray months. I couldn’t believe how many people were trudging up the passes and skiing down as well as snow-shoers, cross-country skiers, and hikers like me. If you live in Anchorage and the cabin fever is hitting you, this makes a great preseason area. However, beware of potential avalanche conditions!
Rabbit Lake is the ultimate base camp. There are so many trails nearby as well as off trail exploring. Especially if you’re a resident, you should get to know this wonderful area.
The following was added June 3, 2007:
Finally camped overnight about 2 weeks ago (sorry! been busy at work). While I’m sure it’s much clearer now, the ratio of snow to dry land was about 2 to 1 and the lake was still completely frozen. I used meltwater puddles for my drinking and cooking supply. However, it was warm and sunny and I was the only one there, which was real surprising considering how many people use this trail. I camped up at the foothills of McHugh, giving me great views of the Rabbit Lake, Suicide Peaks McHugh Lake, McHugh Valley, Turnagain Arm and in the far off distance, the Alaska Range. All in all, it was a good time and I was psyched to be out on tundra so early in the season, and you know how much I love my tundra.
There are 2 places of confusion on the trail if you come by way of McHugh. The first happens just as you leave the spruce. The trail splits straight and up. It seems more obvious to head straight but you should head up. If you do head straight, the trail will peter out shortly and then you’ll know where you made your mistake.
The second is to be aware when you go through the last grove of willow trees before the valley opens into tundra (just before the river), it looks very different on your return trip and many people get lost. When you’re coming back, the trail looks like it’s wrong as it goes into a small grove of willow. It isn’t wrong; plug away to the other end and you’ll see the trail.
Don’t let the two above hazards sway you. This is open land and if you screw up, you may have to bushwhack but you won’t be lost. You will be able to pick up the trail again.
I’m always surprised how late it is when I get back to the parking lot. Give yourself a good 6-8 hours for this hike.
Be extremely careful coming down as sometimes gravity can almost force you into a run. Be careful so that you don’t sprain or break a leg.
The following was added August 16, 2004:
Rabbit Lake is a great place to camp overnight but hauling a backpack would be a real chore up McHugh. One solution is to reach Rabbit Lake by taking Canyon Road off DeArmoun but you have to trespass private property. From what I know, the owner is OK if you stay on the road. You can also get to the trail by way of Powerline Pass to Ptarmigan Pass. It seems you can avoid the real steep part either way.
The following was added September 2, 2007:
The DeArmoun Road access is now legal. The private property to get there is now part of Chugach State Park. However, lots of changes are coming along with this purchase. Go to this Anchorage Daily News article link for more info.
There is a picnic area at the McHugh trailhead that is really nice with bathrooms, grills, a really nice view of Turnagain Arm, an interpretive trail and a waterfall.
The McHugh Recreation Area requires a $5 parking fee (bring exact change). The price for an annual parking pass is $40. You can purchase a pass at the Federal Building at 4th and F or the Atwood Building on 7th and E, 12th Floor.