Remote Alaska Backpacking
Hello Alaska Travelers,
I'm new to the forum, and I don't really know a ton about Alaska. I've been much, but that was a cruise with my grandmother. Fun, but not really an Alaska adventure. I am a big backpacker, but the East Coast trails aren't really wilderness enough for me. I'm looking to head up to Alaska either this summer or next and find some middle of nowhere trails. I'd appreciate any tips I could get on what I should expect from different areas as it relates to skill level, amount of human presence, skill level required etc.
Solo? Guided? Any idea where and how long? What kind of trips have you done?
This summer, a friend told me a story about someone years ago, who set out from Deshka Landing in a Grumman canoe, floated down to Alexander Creek to fish for kings (successfully), but once there, ended up on the newspaper's front page when his canoe sank while fishing - because his dog jumped up on his head and someone took a picture. People have a great time in Alaska (and elsewhere) with imperfect (hillbilly?) plans, gear, knowledge and skills, but it's hard to recommend it.
For a trip like you suggest, the parks can be a good bet. I think the rangers day by day experience offers an advantage not available in other settings, but eyes wide open too. Friends of my son came out from the city (DC) 2 summers ago, planning to backpack Denali, which they did successfully. I cautioned them to be wary of stream crossings, often not a big part of backpacking experience for most. Seasonal rains, or warm temps here can change a wadeable creek into a hazard better avoided. The intel you got a week ago may or may not reflect conditions you'll find. In fact, many a hunter has found an unhappy surprise later the same day when needing to cross a stream to get back to camp. Topos? Aren't much help for this. Alaska's an amazing place, but unforgiving if you're either unprepared or unlucky. In the case of these particular backpackers, they lost some gear after apparently underestimating the force of current - it doesn't take much water depth to find yourself in trouble. They said rangers gave them bad info about an alternate crossing,
...which in my mind underscores the point - stream crossings are potentially dangerous and the time to consider what you'll do when water gets to knee deep or more, is beforehand. Once you get there, you'll be tired, maybe cold, etc. It can be tough make a good decision in those conditions, when the right thing, means bushwhacking another mile or more to find another crossing. Amat victoria curam.
Good luck, man.
I don't really want to do anything longer than 10 days although I would welcome multiple 10 days trips. As long as I get a good bar, and food in between. The vast majority of my experience has been AT hiking, but it just isn't wilderness enough for me. I really just want to experience beautiful unspoiled landscape by day and a full array of stars by night. Very few places in the lower 48 can provide that. The AT in particular has too much civilization for me. My plan is to do it with 2-4 friends. I'd prefer to do unguided, but if a guide is necessary no big deal.
If Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is on your to-do list, take a look at the trail & routes on this link: http://www.nps.gov/wrst/planyourvisit/hiking-routes.htm
There's a mix of roadside stuff and fly-in, some with public use cabins as part of the mix. What you won't find much of is crowding -- the park is 6x the size of Yellowstone.
...now you're depressing me. We're moving to the east coast and my husband keeps reassuring me that I can go backpack the AT, but from what you're saying I think I'll be disappointed!
Originally Posted by IV_hokie12
The big question is whether you're looking for on-trail or off-trail hiking. Both are very common in Alaska, though it goes without saying that off trail routes require considerably more skill and planning than on-trail ones.
Starting near the population center of Anchorage, you'd be surprised how fantastic (and uncrowded) many of the trails are in Chugach State Park. In most places, you'd never guess that you're within 50 miles of a city with a quarter million people. Trails there are mostly 1-3 day excursions, but much longer, very worthwhile trips can be plotted out with a little off trail creativity. Note that brush line is usually at around 2500 - 3000 feet in this area. Off trail travel is often quite easy above this elevation, though of course you have to look out for large streams and cliffy areas. The obvious benefit of staying near Anchorage is the time, money, and stress you'll save on transportation to the far flung locations in the state. Obviously though the trade off is wilderness that isn't as "deep" as in other places.
The Kenai Peninsula also has a good network of relatively developed hiking trails. Resurrection Pass is probably the most popular extended backpacking trip in the state, but the large number of public use cabins, and possible crowding are a turn off for me. Johnson Pass is another worth looking into. Again, many high country ridges can be used to link different parts of the trail network, but with a little more difficulty and possible brush than in Chugach State Park.
Hatcher Pass, near Palmer (60 miles north of Anchorage) would be another great place to take off on a long-ish freestyle backpacking trip with some on trail, and lots of off trail travel. The mountains are very craggy, but generally a little more laid back than the Chugach, making wandering at will more feasable.
There's a couple trail systems near Fairbanks as well, but in general the scenery in the higher mountain ranges is more jaw dropping. One area of note though is the Pinnell / Prindle Mountain area off the Steese Highway. It would be easy to plan a good one way, long on/off trail backpacking trip in this area, sticking mostly to the ridges.
The Kesugi Ridge trail system north of Talkeetna (near Denali) is great for a 3-4 day trip. Would be tough to make a longer trip worthwhile.
Many coastal towns have limited trail systems, but most are only good for daytrips or overnights, and the country beyond the trails is often too rugged (brush, cliffs, glaciers, large streams) to extend trips off trail. Still, this is some of the most beautiful country in the world, and it would be a shame not to take in some day hikes near the towns of Seward, Cordova, Haines, Skagway, Sitka, Ketchikan, or Juneau.
For off trail hiking, Denali National Park is by far the most popular, and offers the advantage of a knowledgeable group of backcountry rangers for advice, as well as much easier transportation than most remote parts of the state. The trade off is more permits and red tape, as well as more people in the country, though they're good at keeping it from feeling "crowded."
Wrangell St. Elias is one of the most extraordinary and rewarding backpacking venues in the world. The tiny town of McCarthy is well situated to offer relatively short (thus reasonably priced) bush flights into some mind blowing, trailless country. Take note though that travel here is usually RUGGED. Don't want to put anybody off, but take trip planning here seriously.
One barely tapped, road accessible hiking area that I'm intensely interested in is the upper Koyokuk country on the west side of the Dalton Highway, in the arctic. No trails here by any means, but tree and brush line are low, there are few glaciers large enough to produce dangerous streams to cross, and many of the ridges are just laid back enough to allow travel. DO NOT go in peak mosquito season (June and July).
You mentioned stars at night. Not gonna happen in summer. The sky doesn't get fully dark until September.
That is about exactly what I am looking for. Although I might be tempted to go in September based on your advice. According to weather.com the average low in Anchorage in September is 42 which isn't too bad.
September can be the best time of year, or it can be exceptionally miserable, depending on where you are and what the weather decides to do. Generally speaking, the weather gets rainier throughout the summer months, and if one looks at the statistics, September and October are the stormiest months of the year. That said, each of the last 4 years at least has had an extended stretch of spectacular indian summer sometime in September (bookended by rain and wind of course...). All in all, if you want to do some rugged, mountain hiking AND have a chance at the northern lights, you should book your trip with September 1st as a midpoint. Focus on the interior mountain ranges because the area is less suceptible to bad fall weather than places near the coast (and has exceptional fall colors if you time it right). It does get dark enough for stars and lights in late August, though you have to stay up pretty darn late to see it.
A few things to keep in mind: September is big game hunting season in Alaska, and unless that's on your itinerary, you're going to want to stick to the national parks and otherwise protected areas after Sept. 1st. Most of the hiker specific trails I listed are in these areas.
Here's some approxomate times for peak fall colors for different parts of the state. I wouldn't recommend going to an area after peak colors, partly because it won't be very attractive, but mostly because significant snow becomes likely (yes even in early September).
Arctic north of the Brooks Range (Gates of the Arctic National Park): mid-late August.
Interior high elevation tundra (Denali, Wrangell St. Elias National Park): last week of August, first week of September.
Coastal mountains and interior low elevation forest (Chugach and Kenai hikes, Fairbanks): early - mid September
Coastal low elevation forest (Anchorage, Mat-Su Valleys): mid-late September
The warmest coastal locations like Valdez, Seward, Homer, and Cordova can be nice into early October, but the weather is often very bad.
Sorry I haven't responded. Not sure if you are going to get this or not, but I can send you a lot of pictures from some of my favorite AT sites. If it would help.
Originally Posted by dreamerofdreams
I can't thank you enough! Everything you have sent is about spot on for what I want to do. I have also added snowboarding Denali to my bucket list, and I can't wait to get that done. It might cause me to delay my trip a little so I can work on my mountaineering skills. I think I'm going to try and warm on with Mt. Rainier this summer. All I can say is I am very excited.