Caines Head Trail

Caines Head Recreation Area
This hike was rated 4 stars.
Difficulty
Easy; a small elevation gain in beginning. Be careful on the rocky parts of the beach (they can be quite slippery). If you misjudge the tide, you may have to climb a small mountain for a short distance.
Connects With
Miles One Way
4.5
Miles from Anchorage
120; just below the town of Seward
Season
April to September. A great pre-season hike. Snow melts quickly here and plenty of wood for a fire.

Description

One of my favorite hikes in the Kenai Peninsula! Most of the hike is along a rock strewn beach that you can only hike during low tide. While not a truly an Alaska wilderness experience, the hike has so much variety, I highly recommend it.

You have a good chance of seeing otters, eagles, and an abundance of waterfowl. One time I saw a newly independent brown bear hang out at the end of North Beach. Another time, numerous eagles were perched on trees around my campsite. If this isn’t enough to entice you, you get a beautiful view of Resurrection Bay, and the surrounding Kenai Mountains. Oh, and did I mention glaciers galore.

Set up camp at North Beach and day hike to Fort McGilvray, a WWII Fort filled with many underground rooms and an incredible view of the bay at the gunwales. Bring a flashlight as it is quite dark inside.

South Beach is a great place to day hike with a great view of the small rock islands that dot the entrance to the bay but it is a poor place to set up camp with an inconvenient water supply.

On the hike route are two state cabins (see this link for more information). While they are very nice, one, Derby Cove is set too far back to enjoy the views, and the other closes you off at high tide from exploring the fort, etc.

Important Information

You can pick up a tide table book at any bank in Alaska. There are also tables on the park’s official website. A good rule of thumb is 45 minutes to the beach to be there 1 hour before the peak of low tide. For example, if the low tide peak is at noon, you want to be at the beach at 11 am. This means you need to be leaving the trailhead at 10:15.

Just before North Beach is an outcrop (right after the trail that leads up the mountain). If you cannot walk around it, DO NOT WALK OVER IT!. The rocks are razor sharp and you will get cut severely. Wait for the tide to go further down or go back and take the trail over the mountain.

As I said above, there was a bear hanging around last season. While he kept his distance and did not prove to be a nuisance to anyone, it is still wise to make sure you are bear aware. There are attics in the picnic overhangs to store your food.

If you’re looking for solitude, especially in the summer, your chances on this hike are pretty low.
Make sure you have a water filter; the creeks in the forest run pretty low if there hasn’t been a lot of rain.

If it does rain, use the overhangs for day use to set up camp.

If you decide to camp at South Beach, there are a few campsites in the woods at the beach edge (the beach is too rocky). Head back up the mountain and at the destroyed barracks, head towards the creek below. This is the closest water source.

On the off chance you screw up making the low tide or it is very early in the morning, you can camp at Tonsina Point. Don’t bother with the campground. Head out to the beach (making sure you’re above the high tide line).

The following was added by the webmaster June 26, 2005:

I didn’t do this trail last year since I had done it 5 times and thought it needed a rest. Since then, there are 3 things I want to add.

1: I never paid attention in the tide tables about the height of the water. Well! When I came in Friday night, the depth was stated as 2 feet. What this meant was that the tide never went out enough to walk around the slimy rock portion. I waited to the last minute and waded mid-thigh around it. Some people went over it but I am way too klutzy to attempt it. It is seriously slippery!

On Sunday morning, the low tide depth was -2.2 and even 1 hour before the lowest point, I had lots of room to maneuver around them. Something to consider when planning when to go.

2. I was so surprised to see day hikers this trip! Who would want to wait 12 hours for the next low tide? Then I saw a commercial boat pick them all up at North Beach. I don’t know the name of the company or companies that provide this service but I’m sure the Seward Chamber of Commerce can help you out.

3. Try to work in the Alpine Trail! It’s amazing and worth every step!

Etc.

The Trailhead Parking Lot requires a $5 parking fee (bring exact amount). The price for an annual parking is $40. You can purchase a pass at the Federal Building at 4th and F or the Atwood Building, 7th and H, 12th Floor..

Two things in Seward you may want to consider before or after this trip; sea kayaking with a guide and/or going on a boat tour. I highly recommend either. There are many reputable outfits and tour groups with 3 hour to 3 day packages. Visit the Seward Chamber of Commerce website for more information.

Topo Map

Caines Head Trail topo map

Comments on hiking Caines Head Trail

  1. Dana W. — July 4, 2016

    It appears as though nobody has put any recent info on this hike, so I thought I’d add some 2016 revisions. First off, this Hike is AMAZING! definitely worth it. all the bridges up to Tonsina Point are intact, there is no river crossing that needs to be done. the trail up to Tonsina point is well maintained and easy to follow. from Tonsina point to derby cove was really fun, and definitely needs to be done at low tide, I can’t stress that enough.

    My girlfriend Jenna and I hiked out past Caines head to north beach, then checked out Fort McGilvray (highly recommend that pit stop if you have the energy) and then on to south beach. After north beach the trail is not as well maintained, but still pretty dang easy to find. for an extra hour’s worth of walking, checking out an old abandoned military fort from the 1940’s is super cool! you can walk through the bunkers and read all about the fort. Jenna and I wanted a more secluded spot so we opted to go to south beach and planned on taking the alpine route back out the next day. the last part of the hike to south beach obviously hasn’t been maintained in a long time. tons of downed trees in the middle of the trail and worn paths around them which tells me they’ve been that way for some time. the sign at south beach had tide tables from 2010 if that gives you any clue as to the maintenance schedule. the beach out there is truly spectacular and we were the only people out there.

    the next day we hike about 20-30 minutes up the alpine trail, but it was so overgrown and poorly marked we decided to go back and take the main trail back out. I was excited to try the alpine trail, but not excited to be stuck in the woods lost so we made the safe bet. we met a guy on the walk back who did the loop in a day and said he lost the trail many times but still found his way. so if you feel adventurous, I hear it’s great.

    All in all this is one of the best hikes I’ve ever been on. tons of variety and different terrain, plenty of camping areas, and its just plain beautiful wherever you go! Highly recommended!

  2. KATHLEEN MCMONIGLE — June 1, 2016

    “A good rule of thumb is 45 minutes to the beach to be there 1 hour before the peak of low tide. For example, if the low tide peak is at noon, you want to be at the beach at 11 am. This means you need to be leaving the trailhead at 10:15.”

    Okay, 45 mins from the trailhead to the beach. Please clarify: Is the trailhead at Lowell Pt or Tonsina Pt?

    We hope to go there for a day hike, do North, South & Alpine Trails then return to Seward same day/evening.
    Is it possible to do in one long day ?
    Does the Mtn Pass used to avoid the tide, connect/become the Alpine Trail? Can we take that in or out if not on tide schedule?
    If try to return with low tide from South Beach, how much time should we plan to get back to rocks?

    Thank you!
    Kathleen

    Webmaster’s response: the trailhead is at Lowell Pt. Yes all of that is definitely doable in one long day, and yes you can use the Alpine Trail if not on the tide schedule. Here’s a link to a brochure from DNR that has a more detailed map with distances for each section, so you can better estimate times: http://dnr.alaska.gov/Assets/uploads/DNRPublic/parks/maps/cainesheadtrail.pdf

  3. Thomas A. — June 26, 2015

    My wife and I walked in March 2015. We have wanted to hike this for many years and finally did it. We rented the Derby Cove cabin. Before leaving, we knew the low tide times, but we hit a snow storm in Turnagain Pass on the way down from Anchorage which slowed us down and caused us to miss our planned start time. We had to climb over the slippery rock areas, and had to remove our boots to wade the last bit of beach to the cabin. When we arrived, there were still three kayakers in the cabin so we had to wait until they left. The cabin was nice. There was plenty of wood for the stove. I walked to North Beach and up to the Fort. The views are spectacular on the right day! I was there on the right day. I had a headlight and explored the bunkers. I saved South Beach and the Alpine trails for next time. There are plenty of campsites if you’re staying in a tent. Watch the tide book and you’ll have a great time.

  4. The following was submitted by Parke Cannon:

    You can get a water taxi to or from any beach off Caine’s Head trail from Miller’s Landing.

  5. The following was submitted by Conrad:

    On the way back we got an early start, well before the tide was going to be out and got hasty in our travels home, so we climbed over the above mentioned “DO NOT WALK OVER IT” set of rocks. Well, as I was climbing down, I kept hearing Bill D’s website in my brain “… razor sharp… do not … climb…. over…” and then I dropped onto the other side, and just as I started to smile wryly at his pansy advice, it happened. I slipped and have a forearm, from elbow to wrist, with scabs to prove it. I cursed myself for not heeding his sage advice for sake of beating the tide, and I paid for it. Wanna see what these little rock can do? Check out the photos above.

  6. The following was submitted by Parke Cannon:

    Rating: 5 moose hooves

    Just did this magnificent hike on the 21st and 22nd of May, 2005. By far this was the most fun I have had on a trail in Alaska yet. The opinions I got prior to my departure were accurate regarding the diverse and wonderful nature of this trail as well as the precautions and technical aspects of making the hike. There is an awful lot to this trail and I just thought I would like to give my perspective of a 2 day hike to Fort McGilray and back.

    I tend to judge a trail by one of two major criteria: 1. The destination. 2. The trail itself. In this case I have to admit that the destination to Caines Head, South Beach, or Fort MicGilray is far out shadowed by the trail itself. I give the destination 5 out of 10 and the trail a 10 out of 10.

    From the start I immediately got a sense of a let down as the trail was just a road leading to private property south of Miller’s Landing over Lowell Point. It changed after about a quarter to half mile splitting of to a rock strewn trail. Climbing Lowell Point took about 30 minutes and then the view of almost the entire rest of the trail comes into view before the first descent into the river valley. The site got my adrenaline roaring.

    Down the south side of Lowell Point the first true realization of the rain forest starts to set in. Thick, lush moss covers everything like Kudzu in Georgia, only even more prominently.

    There are 2 bridges at Tonsina Point south of Lowell Point but I am not sure if they both cover just the Tonsina Creek. One bridge is a sturdy well maintained steel frame, arced bridge. The south one is not so well maintained and looks to have been rebuilt a number of times. The last 30 feet of the bridge was washed out from the snow melt the month before. Someone laid two medium sized spruce trees across the downed span, uneven as they were. It worked and all was well. Tonsina Point is flat with a salt marsh full of dead Spruce looming eerily over the beach. When the trail heads inland for a short while the moss covered Spruce awed me with it’s beauty and wilderness feeling. Leaving there you head to the beach trail.

    I heard from numerous sources not to attempt the hike unless you plan to make the beach hike to Derby Cove at low tide. At the cove I ran into a fellow sitting in the sun waiting for the tide to recede. He told me that a group of kids already went south down the beach even though the low tide was not until 6:30 PM. It was a little after 3 when I decided to attempt the beach. Admittedly it would have been much easier at complete low tide but I got it in my head I could at least try. I made it to the kids where they stopped for the tide after all but I continued on. Shortly after they caught up and passed me by. 20 minutes later I caught them again as they came to a rock head covered with slime and didn’t want to go any further. I did any way. I guess they felt they couldn’t be shown up by an old man and passed me again at the beach at Derby cove.

    My pack was heavy with camera equipment and I am 46 so I made my way slow. The fellow I saw earlier also passed me by. Both him and the kids left the beach at Derby cove and made their way into the foothills. They all planned to make the hike to South Beach and back again before the tide came in again. I did not see them again for the 2 days I was out there. They obviously made it back to Derby Cove in time to make the tide back to Lowell Point and Miller’s Landing.

    The rest of the trip, alone, I was in hikers heaven. Beautiful views of Resurrection Bay from the fort were shadowed only by the stark reality of walking through a true rainforest to get there. I made it to Fort McGilvray somewhere about 7 or 8 pm. I first planned to camp there but felt it a poor place to camp and did not want to start a fire in the woods even though every thing was wet. I falsely reasoned that if I hurried I could make it back to Derby Cove and still have enough low tide to make it to Derby Cove in time to attempt the beach trail. I was way wrong. I made it to the North Beach and started to walk the inland forest trail to Derby Cove and quickly turned back. The combination of the sun getting low and the dark clouds that rolled in and the thick growth in the woods made it impossible. I couldn’t see 10 feet ahead. I went back out to the North Beach.

    I tried to start a fire with wood and debris I found under hollowed trees as they were the driest wood I could find in the wood fringes. To afraid to venture further in to the woods to find wood under rock over hangs I cautiously walked the short dark trail to the ranger station nestled in the woods. It is hard to find and if you didn’t find it by accident going in the first time you would never know it was there. Under the cabin I was able to find crisp dry twigs to get the fire started. Soon after a large hot fire dried out the huge stockpile of wet driftwood I accumulated over the next hour. I made the pile huge because things started happening that made me want to make sure I had a large fire all night.

    Black bears started roaming the edges of the forest breaking branches and snorting as they walked. Off in the distance I could hear numerous growls from about 3 different directions as far as I could tell. Plans for a comfortable nights sleep changed to my burying myself beside a large log with the fire on the other side. The ocean was at my feet so as far as I was concerned there was only one direction I could be seen. The wind blew offshore so my smell was not a factor.

    It was a long night but the early 4 am rising of the sun made it easier on me. After a few cups of instant coffee and a few attempts to see if the woods were light enough to travel in I finally made my way into the brush. No sign of any bears then.

    The tide was extremely low even 2 hours before low tide so I made a plan to walk the entire beach all the way back to Miller’s landing bypassing the climb up Lowell Point. Big mistake. Just shy of actually making it there by about a quarter of a mile I had to turn back. There was no way around and I lost over a mile to being stupid and presumptuous. Don’t try it.

    It was a long trip and after the disappointment I just had the last uphill to the top of Lowell Point was not something I looked forward to even though it is not that hard a climb. Still I was hurting and anxious to get back so I walked diligently and kept quiet in concentration. This quiet made it possible for me to walk right up on a small black bear right on the side of the trail. We startled each other and we both jumped in the air. He looked at me with his head down and I started screaming. He didn’t do anything at all except look at me as I walked by screaming. At the next switchback I looked back and saw him following me. I screamed louder and more franticly and he stopped to move just off the trail. I walked a little faster. When the switchback made its way directly over where he was looked for him thinking I may be able to get some pics but he was gone and I never saw him again.

    I made it back to Miller’s Landing just after 9 am where I got a coke and an $8.00 ham sandwich. $10:00 for a coke and small sandwich. What a rip. I went to the beach, ate my sandwich, drank my coke and reflected on my trip before I finally got some sleep on the black sun warmed black sand. The last 18 hours I saw Eagles mating, Sea Otter, Stellar Sea Lions, many types of birds and fowl, a bear, beautiful moss covered Spruce rain forests, pristine beaches, caves, waterfalls, an abandoned WW2 heavy weaponry outpost, and a squirrel. My heart stopped once, my pants got green slime on them, my feet and knees hurt bad, I got soaked in an evening shower and in no way form or fashion would I trade it for free tickets to the World Series.

    Don’t wish you could do it, just DO IT!

  7. The following was submitted by Conrad:

    Just got back off this trail April 17th. It was a great trip, easy walking, except for the afore mentioned rock outcropping. On our way out there, the low tide was not as low as normal, and we had no choice but to walk over the slick rocks. these are the algae covered rocks just below the razor sharp rocks. It was slow going, just for fear of slipping into the foot of cold water that awaited us. Beyond that, it was easy going again, the short jaunt from Derby Cove to North Beach was awesome in a nice little spruce forest outcropping with good shade and a great forest carpet to walk on. We camped out on the high gravel bar, and used the overhang to cook and store food. Not to mention the bathroom. That was a totally rockin’ find (can’t always trust what a map says is there).

    I loved the hike. The scenery was great. The trail from North Beach to Ft. McIlvray was all snow covered and I did quite a bit of post-holing. but it was well worth it to go explore and see Hat and Fox Islands from that far away. Thanks for this one Bill.

  8. June 18, 2008 – Update from the Webmaster:

    I hiked in a couple of weekends ago and the bridge is still out. You have no choice but to cross the creek but it’s not dangerous at all. However, you will get your feet wet so I would cross barefoot or bring sandals. It will be over in 10 seconds.

  9. The following was submitted by Turner Vail, as a followup to the information from Garrett:

    Just an update, as of July 9th 2007 Caines Head Trail is passable. The second bridge is out but all you have to do is follow the river edge to the bay. There it becomes braided and instead of crossing one major river, you just cross 3 small creeks. My advice is to head off an extra 1/2 hour early, that is 2 1/2 hours before the low tide. Then just kick of your shoes, cross the river and use the extra 1/2 hour to warm up with a beach fire on the other side of the river. Check the pictures for a visual inspection of what you have to cross. Do not use the trees to cross; very precarious. Go have fun.

  10. The following was submitted by Garret Spargo:

    This link to the DNS website says the following about the Caines Head Trail, which was severely damaged in the flooding last fall:

    11/2/2006 – Flooding in Seward during the month of October 2006 damaged and destroyed sections of the hiking trail that leads to Caines Head State Recreation Area. Between the Lowell Point trailhead and the south fork of Tonsina Creek there is extensive damage to the trail from heavy rain and flooding. Numerous drainages flooded during high water flows and eroded sections of trail. Fine gravel material on the trail tread has also washed away. In addition, there were also minor landslides that destroyed sections of trail and deposited debris on other sections of trail. Damage extends over approximately 50% of the 1.5 miles of trail, between the Lowell Point trailhead and the south fork of Tonsina Creek.

    The Tonsina Creek south fork foot bridge was also damaged and the trail that leads to Caines Head State Recreation Area is impassable at this point. Approximately 40′ of the 140′ trail bridge has been destroyed and support pilings damaged from high water and debris flowing downstream.

    Due to the extensive trail damage, Alaska State Parks does not recommend hikers use the trail between Lowell Point and the south fork of Tonsina Creek. The public use cabins at Thumb Cove State Marine Park, Derby Cove, and Callisto Canyon remain open and available for renting and access to these cabins is recommended by boat or water taxi. The recent storms also blew down a number of spruce and hemlock trees near the Callisto Canyon Public Use Cabin.

    For more information please contact the Kenai/Prince William Sound Area Office at (907) 262-5581.

    On 6.25.2007 I spoke with my brother, who works for DNS, and he said that the trail is passable (although more difficult than before) up until the Tonsina bridge, which is still severely damaged. I was going to make the hike over the weekend, however, I will settle for Reed Lakes instead.

Have you done this hike? Please share your experience below: