Parks and Recreation Areas in Southcentral Alaska

The purpose of this page is to give you a feel for the parks and other recreation areas that you may be hiking or backpacking in during your trip to Alaska. Please visit the park’s official website I have provided below for more detailed information.

Please remember that I have only listed parks and/or trails that I have hiked myself or someone has submitted to the site. This list should not be considered conclusive nor should you assume that hikes not mentioned are worthless.

Caines Head Recreation Area

I always make it a point of doing at least one backpack trip a year here, usually early in the season. The best part is being able to hike along a beach and view glaciers, eagles, sea lions, otters, and a whole slew of water birds. I usually call this my resort backpack trip because the living is easy. Besides an outhouse and covered picnic areas at the end of the trail, there's nothing like having sand underneath your tent for a good nights sleep. With a toasty fire on the beach, this makes a great place to relieve some worldly stress. Take a day hike to Fort McGilvray for a bit of history and an incredible view. As of 2004 there is now a newly enhanced Alpine trail with excellent views.

Official Website

Map: National Geographic Maps Trails Illustrated; Kenai Fjords National Park and Chugach National Forest

Hikes Listed on this Site:

Captain Cook Recreation Area

This is a very small state recreation area tucked away in the northwest corner of the Kenai Peninsula just above the small town of Nikiski. This entire area is more suited to canoeing enthusiasts as there are numerous lakes with portages in between. If for some reason you are in the area, it is worth an afternoon to check out the beach for its eerie desolate view of the Cook Inlet as well as two of Alaska's most well known volcanoes. Otherwise, there is not that much to the place and it is not really worth the extra time off the main highway.

Official Website

Map: Kenai Peninsula Northwestern Portion (Alaska Road and Recreation Maps, Publisher)

Hikes Listed on this Site:

Chugach National Forest

This area covers the eastern section of the Kenai Peninsula starting near the end of Turnagain Arm to the city limits of Seward, as well much of the coastline and area of Prince William Sound east to Valdez. The main part of the Seward Highway runs through it and this site is mainly concerned with the trails off and near the highway. Most of the trails in this area are valley hikes through aspen and spruce, with some trails gently sloping up to tree line and above. This area probably has the easiest hikes due to their slowly increasing elevations as opposed to sharp climbs. A number of trails have 2 trailheads for through hiking, so if you have 2 cars available, you may want to take advantage of not having to repeat the same scenery. Most of the hikes run alongside creeks and rivers if you are inclined to fish. Be aware that since there are a lot of rivers with salmon runs, your chance of seeing bear in this section of the Kenai Peninsula runs high.

Official Website

Maps:
National Geographic Maps Trails Illustrated; Kenai Fjords National Park and Chugach National Forest
National Geographic Maps Trails Illustrated; Kenai National Wildlife Refuge/Chugach National Forest
*The Kenai Fjords Map covers the southern half while the Kenai Wildlife covers the northern section.

Hikes Listed on this Site:

Chugach State Park

Don't let the fact that this park borders Anchorage steer you away from this magical place. You may be close to Anchorage, but believe me, you are in gorgeous wilderness when hiking these trails. As a guy from back East, I appreciate the wide open spaces above treeline when I'm hiking in this area. After a couple of summers here, I realized that it was pointless to travel hours to get to scenery that was right in my own backyard. The park is comprised mostly of deeply cut glacial valleys with plenty of great 360 degree views. There is an incredible amount of wildlife here with plenty of moose, bear, coyotes, dall sheep, and even the occasional wolverine. If your trip up here inhibits you going far from Anchorage or if you are looking for a great overnighter, this is definitely the place.

Official Website

Maps:
Chugach State Park; Chugach Mountains (Imus Geographics, Publisher)
Anchorage and Vicinity (Alaska Road and Recreation Maps, Publisher)
*The second map only covers the southern portion of the park but it's easier to read. The first map gives a better feel of the terrain due to its enhanced graphics. If you can, try to check out both before making your decision.

Hikes Listed on this Site:

Denali National Park

Did you go to this one first? If you are an experienced backpacker, you've probably been dreaming of going here for a long time.

If you're new to backpacking, the first thing you need to know is that this is the real magilla-no trails! (with the exception of a few at the entrance to the park). You are expected to know how to navigate and with only 4 people allowed to a quadrant at any one time, you'd better not expect anybody to help you out in a pinch. Oh, and by the way- this is grizzly country. To drive home the point till you get it into your skull, make sure someone in your team has the wilderness skills it takes to travel in this park.

If this is the kind of backpacking you're looking for, my website will not be of much help, as I have narrowed the scope to designated trails. I do want to let you know how it works in the park as there is an incredible amount of false information out there.

The bottom line is to not get too attached to any one area as you will only be able to get the permit to backpack it 24 hours in advance. As stated above, only 4 people are allowed to a quadrant. If someone beats you to the punch, you can either sit around and wait or pick another quadrant. My best advice to you is go into the welcome center and talk with the knowledgeable and extremely friendly rangers and decide where to go based on their advice and what's available.

You will be expected to view a bear safety video and you will also be given a bear proof container. There are no private vehicles allowed on the road so you will use the bus system to drop you off and pick you up. Busses run roughly every half hour so once you get back to the road after your trip, you won't have to wait that long. Since the busses only go 20 miles an hour and stop frequently for wildlife viewing, make sure you get on an early bus to your destination.

Whether you backpack or not, it is definitely worthwhile to take the bus tour through the park. Bring food and drink as there are no places to get them once you start the tour. If you're lucky, you will see an incredible amount of wildlife as well as some spectacular views. I recommend the Toklat destination bus. It's 6 hours roundtrip, which is just about how long you'll want to be riding. For those backpacking, taking the bus trip before you plan can give you some great ideas. A hard quadrant to get but would be my first choice would be the Polychrome Mountains.

Just so you don't say I didn't warn you, due to the weather conditions Denali creates in itself, you will only have a 30% chance of seeing it unobstructed by clouds on any given day.

Official Website

Map: National Geographic Maps Trails Illustrated; Denali National Park and Preserve
*Use this map only for reference; you will use detailed topographic maps that the park will provide for actual backcountry travel.

Hikes Listed on this Site:

Denali State Park

Yup! You heard right. What may also surprise you is that you have a better chance of seeing Denali (Mt. McKinley) in this state park than in the national park. Even if this hard to miss mountain weren't there, this would still be a great place. The park has great views of the Talkeetna Mountains and the Alaska Range.

There are 3 rest areas with views of Denali and 3 campgrounds, one an RV park with a spectacular view of the Mountain. The Byers Lake Campground has two cabins for rent. Many people use the lake for fishing, boating, and kayaking. There are also a few hiking trails around the lake.

However the gems of the park are the several hiking trails that run along the ridge of Kesugi Mountain. They are great trails in themselves, with incredible tundra and rock formations, as well as loads of lakes and tarns. However, the fact that most of the time on these trails, you'll be seeing Denali certainly adds to the flavor.

Just so you don't say I didn't warn you, due to the weather conditions Denali creates in itself, you will only have a 30% chance of seeing it unobstructed by clouds on any given day.

Official Website

Map: National Geographic Maps Trails Illustrated; Denali National Park and Preserve
*There is a small section dedicated to the State Park. You'll probably want to combine this with USGS Topos.

Hikes Listed on this Site:

Kachemak State Park

When I was hiking here, it wound up being the closest I've ever come to ending a backpacking trip in an emergency room. But even with that, it was one of the most incredible backpacking experiences of my life. The terrain is incredibly varied and I urge you to explore this park thoroughly as an option if you are a visitor deciding on a backpacking trip. Trust me, it is a much overlooked gem. While there are many wonderful places in the southern portion (below Halibut Cove), many of the trails are overgrown. The northern portion's trails are better for hiking and the scenery is more visible.

The park is only accessible by water taxi (a list is of these boats is available at the official website-see below). As such, you are far from help. Be careful and be prepared! Due to the extremes in tides in the area, the "driver" will determine when he can drop and pick you up depending on where and when you want to go. Be prepared that if adverse weather conditions occur, the driver may not be able to pick you up at the designated time. You may even have to stay over one more night. Make sure you have extra food, etc.

The Lagoon Trail connects the northern part of the park with the southern but there is an extremely deep, cold and fierce glacial river to cross. Plan your trip in either section but not both. If you feel confident, educate yourself about fording rivers.

Official Website

Map: National Geographic Maps Trails Illustrated; Kachemak Bay State Park

Hikes Listed on this Site:

Kenai Fjords National Park

There are not many trails in this park as most of the land is covered in glaciers and a huge ice field. The park also encompasses the surrounding fjords that the glaciers carved into the Pacific Ocean. Subsequently, the best way to view this area is with an all day boat tour out of Seward. There are many people, if you are so inclined, who explore the fjords in a kayak with a qualified guide. Either way, the scenery is incredible and hopefully you will get the chance to view whales, puffins, sea lions, otters and other marine life.

Hands down - no contest!: the best day hike in the Kenai is Harding Icefield (see below). If you only do one hike - do this!

Official Website

Map: National Geographic Maps Trails Illustrated; Kenai Fjords National Park

Hikes Listed on this Site:

Kenai National Wildlife Refuge

This area mainly covers the western section of the Kenai Peninsula. It is mainly flat taiga with numerous lakes, and as such, its primary recreation is suited more toward water activities, especially fishing. Most of the hikes are short trails that end at a lake. Most have trailheads at or near campgrounds. The water in Kenai Lake, Skilak Lake and the Kenai River is gorgeous. These are great hikes if you have very small children.

The entire Skilak Lake area is a great place to hang out, especially for families. There are several great state campgrounds, easy trails with great views, fishing, lots of wildlife, and some nice scenic overlooks.

Offiicial Website

Map: National Geographic Maps Trails Illustrated; Kenai National Wildlife Refuge/Chugach National Forest

Hikes Listed on this Site:

Matanuska Valley

This is not a park. It is the huge glacial valley situated north of Anchorage extending west and ending at the Matanuska Glacier, which in its heyday covered this entire region. There are a multitude of lakes which is why many Anchorage residents have weekend getaway cabins in this area. I'm sure I'll get many emails from the natives up here due to the fact that I'm including many hikes in this region that stretch the defined area of what is considered the "Matsu" Valley. But due to the fact that it's mainly comprised of small recreation areas off the Glenn and Parks Highway, I really couldn't think of a better way to group them. And it is beyond the scope of this site to go into detail concerning every one.

However, there are two notable areas I do want to mention. The first is Hatcher's Pass, an old mining area that is rich in history as well as some very worthwhile hiking. A rough but serviceable road goes over the mountain pass and it makes a great scenic drive.

The second is the Chickaloon area. I mention this because there is not a lot of details in the guidebooks on the hikes and trails in this area but it is arguably the prettiest part of the Chugach and Talkeetna Mountains. So far, I've explored Nelchina Valley and I plan on really getting to know the area in the coming years. If anyone can help me, please proceed immediately to Submit Hike. Thanks!

Official Website

Map: Use topo quad maps for most hiking in this region.

Hikes Listed on this Site:

Municipality of Anchorage

I'll be honest with you; as an urban landscape, Anchorage isn't up there for architectural wonder. Most of the buildings and houses are pretty drab and unimaginative. Thankfully, we are compensated for having to view fatal design by being only minutes, and sometimes seconds, away from gorgeous wildlife and scenery. What the city lacks in cityscape more than compensates with its endless trails, parks, and greenbelts intermingled throughout the developments and neighborhoods. No matter where you live or stay in Anchorage, you are close to a place to quietly relax and reduce your stress level. For summer visitors who will be in the city proper for a few days, it is highly recommended that you rent a bike and ride the Coastal Trail. With 20 hours of sunlight, you can find the time- trust me.

Ironically, I have seen more wildlife on these trails than out in the backcountry.

Official Website

Maps:
Anchorage and Vicinity (Alaska Road and Recreation Maps, Publisher)
Anchorage's Trails & Parks Map - A brochure of all the biking, hiking, and skiing trails in the city. Go to the Anchorage Park Foundation for more information.
For Bicentennial Park, download the map linked to at the hike page site (see below) or you can purchase one at the Campbell Creek Science Center located in the park.
MOA Trail Mapper

Hikes Listed on this Site:

Nancy Lake State Recreation Area

In the summer, this place is a canoe trail system with short portages between the lakes. There are some trails that don't need portage. In the winter it makes a great getaway when the winter blues get deep. This is on the list with the suggestion that you rent one of its 14 fee cabins and stay the night. The James Cabin will give you the most privacy; the ones on Nancy Lake proper the least.

Official Website

Map: There is a detailed map provided in the brochure you will be given when you rent the cabin. You can also download the map at their website.

Hikes Listed on this Site:

Wrangell - St. Elias National Park

If you're looking for that truly, no one around, "this is really remote!", kind of backpacking, the Wrangell-St. Elias surpasses even Denali National Park. With just two rough roads going into the park, few amenities or man-made structures, and one of the largest wilderness areas in the world, this is truly an awesome experience. Four mountain ranges meet in this park: The Chugach, Talkeetna, Wrangell, and St. Elias. The park is dominated by Mt. Drum, Sandford, and Wrangell - an active volcano.

Needless to say, but let's make sure no one misunderstands: you better know what you're doing if you want to explore this area. This is an extremely primitive park and there are not a lot of resources available for a rescue due to an ignorant trekker. Make sure you or someone in your group has the skills necessary to attempt this area.

One drawback is the money factor. To truly experience this park, it is often necessary to fly by bush plane to your destination, then either get picked up or walk out. Most pilots charge around $300. For the financially challenged, there are great hikes off of Nebesna Road in the northern section of the Park (see below).

Another drawback for people who live Outside is the planning. There is not a lot of good information out there on where to hike and backpack. However there is one highly good source: Hiking in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park by Danny Kost, published in 2000. Not only is this a great guide but I can vouch for Mr. Kost as I had the privilege of working in the same office with him. Danny is one of the Wrangell's number one fans and has not only hiked the area extensively but spends his summers in McCarthy. If the Park is on your short list for major trips up here, I seriously urge you to start with this book.

Official Website

Map: National Geographic Maps Trails Illustrated; Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve

Hikes Listed on this Site: