This hike was rated 3 stars.
Somewhat Easy; gently slopes up to the midway point at the pass, then down. The trail is relatively easy with short spurts of elevation.
Miles One Way
Miles from Anchorage
64; North Trailhead: 64
South Trailhead: 94
All year (cross country ski, snowshoe, or hike in winter)


7/11/03: After finally getting the chance to at least hike to Johnson Lake from the North Trailhead, this page has been entirely rewritten.

6/9/04: I finally finished the southern portion of the trail. Again, this page has been edited.

If I could only use one word to describe this hike, it would be lush. With the exception of the very tops of the mountains and the water, the entire area is covered in green. I highly recommend this hike to wildflower lovers as there is an abundance and wide variety of them including lupine, wild columbine, and fireweed. It is amazing the growth in this pass. If it weren’t for volunteers keeping the trail clear, I do believe it would be overgrown within a couple of years.

If you start from the north, most of the trail to the pass follows Johnson and Bench Rivers with sturdy bridges when you need to cross them. They are huge and beautiful water systems. At one point the water flows through a deep rock cut chasm culminating in an incredible waterfall. There are also other huge waterfalls coming down many of the surrounding mountains. The middle of the trail is dominated by Bench Lake and Johnson Lake where many people fish for graylings.

However, the trail’s strengths are also its weaknesses. All this lushness and water really brings the bugs out. There are numerous mosquitoes, no-see-ums, and black flies so make sure you bring the DEET. Another annoyance is the growth along the trail, where in some parts it’s as high as your head. One time, during a bike ride, I brushed some devil’s club, a weed that leaves itchy irritating tiny needles on you. Needless to say, don’t bike shirtless. There is also a lot of cow parsnip. Best to wash any exposed areas of skin when you get to the lakes to avoid a rash. My opinion is that to really enjoy this hike, you need to do it in the small window of opportunity of the last weeks of June when the snow has melted but the greenery is just starting out..

About half the people using the trail are bikers and I don’t blame them. This is probably one of the best mountain biking trails in the state. I went in 8 miles one summer and it was a thrilling experience. To be able to have vehicles at each end and bike the entire trail in one day would be a great experience for any mountain biker at any level of experience.

Taking the trail from the south, the first part goes around Upper Trail Lake then heads up and into canopy with in and out views of the mountains and the lake. At one point you can see two very small glaciers. The northern portion is much nicer and has better attractions than this part of the trail. I would only do this as a thru hike if I was biking it. Save the hassle of 2 cars and just do north to Johnson Lake.

This is a fine trail for winter and many people use it for cross country skiing. I hiked in one winter and got some great photos, one of which you can see on the photos page.

Important Information

There are not a lot of campsites at Bench Lake. Plan on staying at Johnson Lake. The best sites are on the other side, across from the trail where it is flatter with less vegetation. The 2 designated camping areas on the southern portion are less than desirable. The first one is amid cut down trees and totally takes away from a wilderness experience. Check the ground carefully where you plan on setting up your tent. What looked dry to me was totally soaked a few inches down in the lushness.

There are frequent sightings of bears on the trail. Bikers should definitely be cautious under canopy and rounding corners. Luckily there are plenty of trees to hang your food from.

Be aware that this section of the Chugach gets an incredible amount of snow and if we’ve had a heavy winter, it may not melt until late June.

I would advise filtering your water at the lakes as they do not have a strong flow to them and much of the water lies stagnant.

Remember to educate yourself on fishing regulations if you plan on trying your luck.

On the northern side, the bridges are a great way of judging your pace and distance. From the north trailhead to Johnson Lake, there are 6 bridges which divides this part of the trail into 7 sections. They are almost equidistant so at bridge 3, you’re almost halfway there. Plan on lunch at this point and check out the huge waterfall in the distance. You’ll find the really cool chasm after bridge 5.


Interesting geographical note: While the 2 lakes are only a mile apart and there doesn’t seem to be much difference between them, Johnson lake is classified as an alpine lake, while Bench Lake is a sub-alpine lake.

Topo Map

Johnson Pass topo map

Comments on hiking Johnson Pass

  1. Joe — July 16, 2018

    If planning on backpacking over night and going all the way thru what’s the best way to plan? I can’t seem to find where the South trailhead is. Is the North to South route the best way to go? Planning on putting a car at the South trailhead if I can find how to get there.

    Webmaster’s response: the south trailhead is at mile 32.5 of the Seward Highway. Here’s a link to Google Maps:

  2. Paula — June 26, 2016

    Last Wednesday my 2 grown kids, niece,nephew and I hiked the whole 23 miles in one day. As described, it was a beautiful and fairly easy hike that took us approximately 9 hours to complete. Majestic views of the mountains,lush vegetation, gorgeous lakes, rushing waters, sturdy bridges, butterflies, and Eagles! We did see lots of bear poop and footprints ,had come equipped with bear spray and bells and thankfully didn’t run into any bears. The only real down side to this hike was the omnipresent bugs. The trail is in good condition but you may want to be sure to wear waterproof hiking boots as there are several places where you have to wade through moving water or mud or swampy areas. (The mud and water were higher than my hiking shoes in at least 5 places) highly recommend and will definitely be tackling it again!

  3. KATHLEEN MCMONIGLE — May 29, 2016

    Planning 3 weeks in AK starting late June, Can’t locate Johnson Pass trailhead on Google map. Another site showed it near Carter Lake Trail?? Can you direct me please?

    Webmaster’s response: the trailhead is at approximately mile 64 of the Seward Highway. Here’s a link to Google Maps:

  4. Thomas Austin — June 26, 2015

    My son and I hiked the entire trail in late July 2014. We started on the north end and walked south. There was little traffic the entire trip. We stopped at every bridge on the way up the pass. There’s a nice waterfall with an overview about 2 miles short of Bench Lake. We camped two nights at Johnson Lake at the sight closest to the lake. We used the bear box as described. It made a nice table for cooking and a great place to stash your backpack with food. We walked without rain almost the entire day. Once we had our tents set up we received 12 straight hours of rain. The trail up from the south had been ridden recently by someone on an ATV as the overgrowth had been smashed down up to the summit between the lakes. I fished a little between showers and caught some nice rainbows on flies. On the walk out. we narrowly missed seeing some bears at one of the bridge crossings. The creek was full of reds swimming upstream. I really love this walk and would recommend it to anyone who wants to get away from the crowds elsewhere on the Kenai Peninsula. The trail was in good condition and there are numerous campsites along the way that can be used for home base while exploring.

  5. L. Hood — April 28, 2015

    I hiked the first 7 miles(from south trail head) in mid April 2015. The trail was mostly dry. There was 2 downed trees. While I was at the camp site near the 7 mile mark I noticed a rather large pile of bear scat. I walked right by it, then noticed later. I liked this hike and this camp site. true to our wacky weather, the wind picked up and out of no ware I was in a late season blizzard. The hike back to my car was as quick as I could. I can’t wait to hike and maybe camp on this trail.

  6. The following was submitted by a Seward District Trail Ranger:

    As a trail ranger, I would just like to inform hikers and backpackers that we have installed three bear boxes on the Johnson Pass Trail. Coming from the south there is one about 7 miles in at a campsite. Last week we also installed two, one at Johnson lake campsite and one at the Bench Lake campsite. I would advise backpackers to use these bear boxes to their advantage and to make sure while at these sites to camp away from both the bear boxes and the designated fire rings. Other than that the trail is in great shape with a few minor things that the Seward Ranger District trail crew have on the to-do list for this summer (2004).

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