Fifty years after residents pushed to protect the land that became Chugach State Park, Alaska citizens and visitors enjoy daily access to 500,000 acres of wilderness, wildlife habitat and outdoor adventure. And the trails that connect it all unfold just 15 miles from downtown Anchorage.
Bordered by the Chugach and Wrangell mountains, the Alaska Range, Prince William Sound and urban Anchorage, the city's vast backyard contains peaks that rise to more than 8,000 feet. Several glaciers are set here, along with nine diverse ecosystems, miles of scenic Turnagain Arm shoreline and a 300-mile trail system with both challenging ascents and more low-key loops.
More than 45 mammal species also live in Chugach, including moose and bears that sometimes amble into Anchorage neighborhoods.
"If you've never been to Alaska, but you close your eyes and picture what you expect it to look like, there's a pretty good chance that what's in your mind's eye is actually what's out in the Chugach," said Visit Anchorage spokesman Jack Bonney.
Chugach was one of the first state parks established after Alaska became a state in 1959. As the growing city of Anchorage expanded east toward the surrounding mountains, development and logging interests threatened the rugged natural landscapes. A group of residents lobbied to preserve the Chugach, and then-Gov. Keith Miller signed a bill creating Chugach State Park in August 1970.
Today, locals capitalize on the park's convenient location with lunch-hour hikes and after-work adventures.
A hiker in Chugach State Park, which has trails just 15 miles from downtown Anchorage. Photo Credit: Ashley Heimbigner
"You don't have to go really far into the Chugach to get the big payoff," Bonney said.
The Glen Alps Trailhead is a popular access point for daytrip travelers coming from Anchorage. A wheelchair-accessible paved path near the parking lot offers views of peaks, waterways and the downtown Anchorage skyline. The Blueberry Loop, with railroad-tie stairways and benches that offer panoramic views, traces a longer path.
Beyond that lies Flattop Mountain, a popular destination for hikers comfortable with steep and rocky terrain, and the longer Powerline Pass route.
Additional Chugach State Park trails branch out from the Eagle River Nature Center, about 26 miles from downtown Anchorage. Center staffers lead guided hikes, stargazing sessions, cross-country ski outings and a variety of public programs. Three yurts and a cabin are also available for overnight rental.
Elsewhere in the park, visitors will find kayaking, fishing, whitewater rafting and wildlife-watching opportunities. Several companies operate all-terrain vehicle, cycling and flightseeing excursions. Hike Alaska has expanded its schedule with winter waterfall walks and snowshoeing adventures, in addition to several summer tour options. Alaska Photo Treks also travels into Chugach State Park on various outings, including a moose photo safari introduced last fall.
Because it's between Anchorage and the 5.4-million-acre Chugach National Forest, Chugach State Park also serves as a starting line for wider adventures.
"This is an entry point for a huge mountain range that stretches all the way from Anchorage to Valdez," Bonney said. "It's a very vast place that's got a lot of untapped potential."
Trail maps, campsite reservations and other park details are at www.dnr.alaska.gov. On June 13, 50Fest events at the Arctic Valley Ski area east of downtown Anchorage will mark 50 years of Alaska State Parks with music, food trucks and family-friendly activities.