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Best early-season Alaska hikes while snow still reigns up high

Shawn Lyons
Dall Sheep along Turnagain Arm.
Jesse Millan / Flickr
A hiker at McHugh Creek passes a sign warning of a recent bear encounter on the Turnagain Arm trail, May 16, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
A female Spruce Grouse along the Turnagain Arm trail on May 16, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
A Male Spruce Grouse courts a female along the Turnagain Arm trail on May 16, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Runners enjoy an early spring run along the Turnagain Arm trail, May 16, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
The Seward Highway Scenic Byway winds along picturesque Turnagain Arm on May 16, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Girls and their dog enjoying a warm early summer day on the mudflats near Kincaid beach, with Redoubt Volcano visible behind them, May 23, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
A hiker makes his way west along Kincaid beach, May 23, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Mt. Susitna, or Sleeping Lady, seen from the sandy dunes at Kincaid Park on May 23, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
A hiker bushwacking through Kincaid park, May 23, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Runners and their dog enjoy the Turnagain Arm trail between Potter and McHugh Creek on May 16, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
A hiker enjoys a warm spring day at Windy Corner along Turnagain Arm, May 16, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo

Leaning over the bridge one could glimpse through the bare trees snow geese grazing out on the mud flats.  One could also hear the chirruping of birds in the bare woods beyond the bridge.

A sea gull steered over the treetops, while a dirty stream of runoff churned 30 feet below. Spring had come to the lowlands. Though a chill breeze blew, the trees along this length of the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail beyond the airport had just begun to bud into bloom even though hardly a trace of snow remained along the trail, or in the woods, or even in the hollows.

Not so in the mountains. Just a few days before on Mount Eklutna, a cold wind blew flurries across still hard-packed snowfields and dangling cornices as our small party hiked upward — and we only labored on the outermost skirts of the mountains. When the clouded afternoon cleared enough to allow views deeper into the mountains, one could see only the gray and white of winter.

With winter still shrouding all but the outermost fringe of the Chugach, this only leaves precious few options for anyone eager to begin the hiking season — but there are sufficient choices to cover a wide range of experience.

First, one has a choice of hikes within the Anchorage Bowl. Though still muddy and even icy in spots, the Campbell Tract and Hillside ski trails already draw many runners, hikers, and a few bikers.

The route up and around Campbell Creek Gorge also offers some fine, though wet-footed views of both the valley below and the mountains above — not to mention the gorge itself. One might also consider circumnavigating Kincaid Park — a journey that includes pond-like puddles, a sandy beach, a bluff-edged trail, and even sand dunes.

The more ambitious may find several low trails in the mountains quite passable. These include Gull Rock Trail, which may include some avalanche debris; Bird Creek Trail; Peters Creek Trail; and Indian Pass Trail. Of these low-elevation trails, the Turnagain Arm Trail melts out the earliest and offers wide-ranging views through the trees now leafing up.

Other lowland trails, like Ptarmigan Valley Trail and Crow Pass Trail (from the Eagle River end) still have hard-packed snow on them. Others have some rather capacious mud patches. Still others seem more like streams than trails. All this comes with the season.

While much of the backcountry remains dangerous for most travelers, many fringe peaks have opened up enough for hiking. Of course, Bird Ridge and Flattop, which always seem to have well-broken trails to their summits, remain the most popular options. But for those looking for something a little less frequented, other options exist: Wolverine Peak, Near Point, and the south slopes of Peak Two and Peak Three behind Flattop.

One can climb McHugh Peak from either Bear Valley or McHugh Creek campground. Climbs a little farther afield include the south ridge of Rendezvous Peak, Baldy above Eagle River — with the more ambitious and able going on to Black Tail Rocks — and Bear Mountain above Mirror Lake. Even Mount Eklutna is a prospect — though one should carry an ice axe and expect to have to kick steps up some steep snow.

To the south, Rainbow Peak offers an exhilarating and largely snow-free climb to the summit and its dominant view of Turnagain Arm. 

As the snow slowly recedes higher up and farther back, other ridges and summits become safe for traversing and scrambling. That opens a dizzying array of possibilities, and one will need only a map and imagination to decide where to go and what to climb. Though that time seems a long time coming this chilly May, that time will arrive.

It remains, as the old saw says, just a matter of time.

Shawn Lyons is the author of a series of books about hiking and climbing in Southcentral Alaska.