Encompassing almost a half a million acres in Southcentral Alaska, this wildlife-rich park is one of the four largest state parks in the United States.
Beyond the foothills at the edge of Anchorage - Alaska's largest city - is Chugach State Park. While Alaska has wilderness areas that are larger and wilder than the Chugach, no other wildlife-rich habitat on earth is so close to a major city. The park is known for easy access and activities for adventurers of all skill-levels. Within minutes of the park are the communities of Anchorage, Palmer, Eagle River, Girdwood, and Eklutna.
Things to Do
Chugach State Park is amazingly accessible with 16 trailheads that provide access to 280 miles of trails. Activities are vast, including hiking, biking, hunting, fishing, camping, glacier viewing, horseback riding, gold-panning, ATV riding, snowmobiling, berry picking…and the list goes on. The park is also popular with nature photographers who seek to capture the diverse wildlife and rugged topography of the area. Only non-motorized boating is allowed in the park, with excellent kayaking on Eklutna Lake and rafting on Eagle River.
Chugach State Park’s most popular area for hikers is the Hillside Trail System, particularly the Glen Alps Trailhead with access to one of the most popular hikes in Southcentral Alaska, the Flattop Trail. Only a 20-minute drive from downtown Anchorage, the system’s four trailheads provide tree-line access to more than a dozen trails that explore the peaks, river valleys, and ridgelines of the front range of the Chugach Mountains. Many trails are also open to mountain biking, and in the winter are destinations for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Other popular trails in the Hillside Trail System are Powerline Pass, Williwaw Trail, Little O’Malley Trail, and Wolverine Peak.
The Eagle River area, just north of Anchorage, provides access to additional trails, outdoor recreation, and camping in Chugach State Park. The Eagle River Campground overlooks Eagle River, which is popular for fishing, whitewater rafting, and kayaking. A number of local outfitters offer guided rafting and kayaking excursions on the river with rapids ranging in difficulty from Class I to Class IV. Nearby is the Eagle River Nature Center, which offers interpretive programs, wildlife viewing, and educational exhibits. The center serves as the starting point for several trails including the north end of the Crow Pass Trail, a 26-mile trek to Girdwood through the state park and Chugach National Forest.
Eklutna Lake is a scenic valley 26 miles northeast of Anchorage, offering year-round recreation. A 10-mile access road leads from the Glenn Highway to the lake, where there are hiking trails, mountain biking, fishing, kayaking and canoeing opportunities, a beautiful campground, and four public use cabins available to reserve in advance. The seven-mile long Eklutna Lake was created after Eklutna Glacier retreated and mountain streams filled the valley left behind. In the summer, visitors can rent bikes and kayaks near the parking area. In the winter, the area is popular for cross country skiing, fat tire biking, and northern lights viewing.
Heading south from Anchorage along the Turnagain Arm are more opportunities for hiking, camping at the Bird Creek Campground, fishing on Bird Creek, and wildlife viewing. Several trails start at sea level just off the Seward Highway and quickly climb into the alpine landscapes overlooking Turnagain Arm, including Bird Ridge Trail, Falls Creek Trail, and McHugh Creek Trail. For a flatter trek, the Indian to Girdwood Trail, known to locals as Bird to Gird, is a paved multi-use trail that travels along the coastline 14 miles from the small town of Indian to Girdwood.
Along the Seward Highway are several pull-offs which offer great vantage points to view beluga whales in the Turnagain Arm, Dall sheep on the sheer cliffs, and take in the stunning scenery. Closer to Anchorage along the Seward Highway is Potter Section House. The restored house and outbuildings were once part of a railroad section camp and now serve as Chugach State Park headquarters.
More than 45 species of mammals live in Chugach State Park, including nearly all the terrestrial mammals found in Alaska. Brown bears and moose are so prevalent they often wander into Anchorage neighborhoods. Biologists estimate the mammal population includes more than 1,000 moose, 40 brown bears, and 80 black bears. There are also 2,000 Dall sheep, one wolf pack, and populations of lynx, beavers, river otters, fox, and mountain goats.
Chugach State Park is carved from the western end of the Chugach Range, which stretches 200 coastal miles from Anchorage to Canada. At 495,000 acres, Chugach State Park has enough space to contain both New York City and Los Angeles within its borders.
The park features nine distinct environments including hemlock-spruce forests, muskeg, alpine tundra, the riparian habitat of rivers and lakes, coastal wetlands, and marine waters along its southern boundary on Turnagain Arm.
By the 17th century, the Dena’ina Athabascan people had spread across most of what is now called Cook Inlet. Captain James Cook was the first European known to write about contact with the Dena’ina community. Cook sailed up Cook Inlet in 1778 hoping to find the Northwest Passage, but had to “turn again,” leading him to name the water body “River Turnagain,” now called Turnagain Arm.
With the discovery of gold on the Kenai Peninsula in the late 1890s, prospectors, miners and homesteaders headed to Turnagain Arm seeking their fortunes. By 1908, most of the gold-bearing streams were mined out. With the infrastructure of the Iditarod Trail and the Alaska Railroad, the area continued to be developed, and by the 1960s, commercial logging became prevalent. In response to public pressure, in 1970 the legislature restricted the state-owned land and water described in Alaska Statutes to use as Chugach State Park.
Facilities and Camping
Chugach State Park has three campgrounds: Eagle River, Eklutna Lake, and Bird Creek. There are also 4 public-use cabins at Eklutna Lake, a cabin and several yurts at the Eagle River Nature Center, and 2 public use cabins at Bird Creek.
Eagle River Campground is located 12 miles north of Anchorage on the Glenn Highway and a mile east of the community of Eagle River. Overlooking Eagle River, the campground has 57 sites along with a picnic shelter, fire pits, water, and outhouses.
The Eklutna Lake Campground lies at the west end of the lake and consists of 50 campsites with an overflow area providing 15 additional sites. A remote camping area at the east end of the lake is accessible by foot or by mountain bike.
Bird Creek Campground features 28 camping sites 20 miles southeast of Anchorage along the Seward Highway. The campground is nestled among numerous trails and popular observation areas where travelers can view beluga whales that frequent the arm. About 11 miles further south on the Seward Highway is McHugh Creek Picnic Site, a favorite day use area and trailhead.
Eagle River and Eklutna Lake are accessible by road from Anchorage via the Glenn Highway. Bird Creek and the Turnagain Arm trails are accessed from Anchorage via the Seward Highway. A shuttle service provides transportation from downtown Anchorage to the Glen Alps Trailhead, and local tour operators offer guided hiking trips up Flattop Trail and other local trails.
For more information, visit the Chugach State Park website.