McHugh Trail / Rabbit Lake

Chugach State Park
This hike was rated 4 stars.
Difficulty
Somewhat Difficult; from the Seward Highway trailhead, somewhat difficult - half the hike is uphill with some pretty steep sections. One small part of the trail is confusing on which direction to go. Plan on at least 6 hours to complete this hike.
From the DeArmoun Rd. trailhead - relatively easy.
Connects With
Miles One Way
7
Miles from Anchorage
10; off the Seward Highway
Season
Via Seward Highway - May to September (lots of snow past mile 2 in early season).
Via DeArmoun Rd - All year but may need snowshoes or skis in winter depending on amount of snow.

Description

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. 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.

Important Information

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.

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.

Etc.

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 Creek day use 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.

Finding the Trailhead

Rabbit Lake can be accessed from either the McHugh Creek day use area:

Center map
Traffic
Bicycling
Transit

Or, from the end of Canyon Road off DeArmoun in Anchorage:

Center map
Traffic
Bicycling
Transit

Topo Map

McHugh Trail / Rabbit Lake topo map

Comments on hiking McHugh Trail / Rabbit Lake

  1. Hannah — July 8, 2018

    My husband and I were going to hike Eagle/Symphony Lakes this weekend and camp overnight, but passed, because bears. We thought Rabbit Lake from De Armoun to McHugh Creek would be a good substitute. I’m going to preface the rest of the review with two things: 1) this was our first back country overnight trip and 2) we hike a lot but not normally in the back country. Okay cool. Onto the hike review:

    Rabbit Lake from upper De Armoun was gorgeous. This is a moderately trafficked trail and was not hard at all. My strava app indicated we hiked between 5 – 6 miles before we set up camp on the lake for the night. It’s mostly uphill but the trail is well maintained and has lots of wide areas for stopping for snacks, or a break. There is quite a bit of water available. The bugs are not bad. It was beautiful as we headed down into Rabbit Lake.

    The lake itself was a fantastic place to overnight. There were at least three other groups camping but we were all able to spread out. Lots of fun places to explore and chill. It was a little windy but not unbearable. 10/10 worth the hike in.

    After a nights rest and a beautiful sunrise we started the descent out the McHugh Creek trail. This trail was great for the first three to five miles. Beautiful views, tundra and alpine, with mostly well marked trails. Lost the trail a little bit on the way out of the alpine and had to muck through a bog but that’s okay. Get water at McHugh Lake. There’s not much between it and the end.

    As we started into the grassy areas the trail became pretty hard to see. It’s a single path – not very wide. Very different than the hike in. There’s a ton of grass and devils club that you have to push through. Probably best to bring something to bushwack. If you’re allergic to devils club/cow parsnip wear long sleeves and be prepared to wade through it. There are a few times where it feels like you’re not on the right trail – you probably are but there are no trail markers, so just be prepared to slog through for awhile. There’s also not a lot of places to stop to rest once you’re into the grassy section. (Side note, the views here were the best.) Be prepared to get water at every chance you get. If it’s a hot day, pack twice as much as you think you need. There is no shade.

    You’ve made it through the grassy area and are now headed into what I think used to be the start of the tree line. This is where it went from “well this is frustratingly overgrown and I can’t see where my feet go” to “where the hell is the trail???”. At this point, the trail takes you through the burned out section. It’s dusty. It’s hot. The trail is soft and hard to follow. There’s spots with little to no indication that you’re even on the trail. There’s trees to hop over and no water. Just keep heading towards the ocean. Be careful though – the ash is slippery and soft, watch your footing carefully. You’ll probably see goats in this area and the view is amazing. There is not a good spot to stop and rest… just keep going. If you think you’ve lost the trail – well, you probably have, but you’ll pick it back up again.

    After the burn out section, you FINALLY start to descend. And then you’re in the trees and you’re on the home stretch. There’s a few places where you have to make a decision (left or right), and it can be a little confusing but the trail is well traversed down this far and if you pay attention you’ll be fine.

    TLDR: Bring more water. I thought the trail followed the river a lot more closely but we were definitely away from it for the most part. Bring more Deet – the horse flies are unbelievable. Bring more sunscreen. Bring hiking poles. The burned out section of the trail is the WORST. There are no markers or cairns or anything from the alpine on. It’s very confusing. The hike itself was moderately hard but the confusion of where the hell do I go is the worst. Also, my strava app said this hike was close to ten miles and some maps show 12.5 miles from the trailhead at McHugh to the lakes.

    The views were worth it.

  2. Misty L — June 8, 2018

    6/8/2018

    First time doing this trail and it was beautiful. Can get windy towards the lake so bring a light jacket. Still some snow patches at this time and a bit muddy. Lake is still covered in snow and ice. Worth it! The first two miles are uphill but not awful. Go further in the summer to see the lake when it’s not covered in snow!

  3. Fred Noteboom — May 12, 2016

    Hiked this trail in 2008 and felt like we had it all to ourselves – highly recommended – Fred

  4. CK — May 4, 2015

    Just want to add an update to help with some confusion, as I feel there are a lot of ways to accidentally hop on a moose trail or just take the wrong trail.

    As you follow the signs to McHugh Lake Trail you will walk up on a rock outcrop that will be on your left (North). You will see some sign posts that the trail is closed due to erosion. Less than 200 ft ahead, as you keep walking with the outcrop on your left you will see a well defined trail that heads straight up. If you’re looking for a a nice place to stop and eat lunch and hang out, take this up and you will end up on a nice viewpoint. From that viewpoint I would recommend back tracking down to the trail intersection. There are a lot of moose trails from the viewpoint that can be very confusing and lead you up a difficult path, especially if you’re looking to get on the ridge.

    If you are looking to get on the ridgeline, continue past the aforementioned intersection, you will see a mile marker with a trail map. Continue and you will begin ascending. Continue up and the rocky, somewhat unclear trail will take you to the best part of the ridgeline.

    If you look on a map you see the ridgeline beginning to the WSW of where the trail ascends. You don’t want to trek up that portion of the ridge, especially if you have a dog, as it is rocky and steep. The trail, marked in blue, that heads straight North up the draw on the Topo map posted on the site is the easiest and best way to get on the ridgeline.

    I’ve seen a few different descriptions on the best/easiest way from McHugh Trailhead and found them to be either confusing or dated. Hopefully this helps.

  5. AUTiger23 — June 29, 2014

    A friend and I do this hike at least once a year from the Canyon Rd (DeArmoun) side. I took my pedometer with me today and to the lake from that side is just over nine miles total. It’s a fair amount of uphill and rocky on the way in, so I’d classify it as a bit higher than easy. Maybe light moderate? I find it harder than Hidden Lake.

  6. Angel — August 27, 2013

    August 25, 2013 (Sunday) – I wanted to do the 7 mile hike to rabbit lake, but I stopped at about 3 miles. The trail is not well maintained and it started getting very grassy that almost covered me at 5’2”. It’s a little bit scary at times due to the sharp corners and turns because you can’t see far ahead of you so you never know what you will run into. Based on my quick chat with locals, a guy saw a mama bear with a cub. Be on a look out and talk loudly. Also, bring bear spray or ride with a local who is carrying a gun or is with a dog.

  7. Christine — June 12, 2013

    Hiked via canyon road trailhead to Rabbit Lake today. Beautiful, trail in good condition. There were people out hiking but never did we feel crowded like some of the more popular spots in Anchorage.

  8. Jim Bruckman — April 18, 2013

    My golden retriever’s favorite hike. Lots of parka squirrels sounds for her to chase. At a easy steady pace, it will take you about two hours to get to the lake from upper canyon road. The first half of the trip going out is uphill [about 2.1 miles] and then you are in open country and it can be windy. Lots of color and berries in the fall. Have seen bear and moose, sometimes sheep by the lake. Bring a camera and hike light. It’s a great hike.

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