Known as the outdoor playground for half of Alaska's residents, this forest attracts more than one million visitors a year
Only a third as large as Tongass National Forest, its twin in the Southeast Alaska, Chugach is still the second-largest national forest in the country and an impressive area of forests, rivers, lakes, mountains and glaciers.
By the 17th century, the Dena’ina mountain people had spread across most of 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.”
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 Alaskan 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.
Roughly the size of New Hampshire, Chugach features a geographic diversity that is truly unique among national forests. The 5,940,000-acre forest is spread across three distinct landscapes, stretching from the Kenai Peninsula east across Prince William Sound to encompass the Gulf Coast surrounding the Copper River Delta, then east from there as far as Bering Glacier.
Chugach is one of the few places left in the world where glaciers spill out of the mountains and into the seas. When combined with the Bagley Icefield from which it originates, Bering Glacier is larger than Switzerland. Columbia Glacier is one of the largest tidewater glaciers in the world while Portage Glacier and its Begich-Boggs Visitor Center is one of the most popular stop for tourists in Alaska.
Wildlife is plentiful especially for those who make the effort to hike away from the roads and highways. Black and brown bear inhabit most of the forest, foraging on open tundra slopes and in intertidal zones. In late summer, bears may be seen feeding on spawned-out salmon along streams and rivers. Record-size moose inhabit the Kenai Peninsula and the Copper River Delta. Dall sheep can be seen on Kenai Peninsula mountainsides, mountain goats are found on steep hillsides along Prince William Sound, the Copper River Delta and occasionally above Portage Valley. Boaters and kayakers in Prince William Sound may see Dall porpoises, harbor seals, sea otters, sea lions and Orcas and humpback whales.
More than 214 species of resident and migratory birds occupy Chugach National Forest. Seabirds, such as blacklegged kittiwakes, nest in sea cliff colonies by the thousands. Ptarmigan scurry over alpine tundra, bald eagles perch on shoreline snags and Steller's jays forage in the underbrush. The Copper River Delta protects one of the largest known concentrations of nesting trumpeter swans in North America as well as the total population of dusky Canada geese. Nesting waterfowl are joined in spring and fall by thousands of migrating shorebirds.
The Chugach provides an endless list of options to explore the area. More than 200 miles of trails are open to both hikers and mountain bikers, and backcountry camping is allowed. Boating, fishing and kayaking are also popular activities. Outfitters offer raft trips on several rivers and creeks within the national forest, including the Kenai River and Sixmile Creek on the Kenai Peninsula.
Chugach also offers a variety of fishing opportunities; anglers can cast for rainbow, lake and cutthroat trout as well as Dolly Varden, Arctic grayling and all five species of Pacific salmon. Many of the fisheries are easy to reach; roadside lakes and rivers abound throughout offering boat-less anglers a chance to fish for a trophy. Chugach's most noted fishery is the red salmon run of the Russian River where anglers are often standing elbow-to-elbow along the river bank in July and August in hope of catching dinner.
Glacier viewing is another popular activity for locals and tourists alike. At Portage Glacier
, visitors can take a 1-hour cruise to the glacier, and learn more about the Chugach at the Begich-Boggs Visitors Center. Through a unique partnership with the Chugach National Forest, the Alaskan Railroad offers the only access to Spencer Glacier via its Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop rail service. Visitors can view the glacier and enjoy well-maintained historically-themed waiting shelters, interpretive kiosks, a campsite and restrooms.
Scattered across Chugach National Forest are 42 U.S. Forest Service recreational cabins available to rent of which most are reached either on foot or by a float plane. Located along the road system in the Kenai Peninsula are 14 U.S. Forest Service campgrounds that become popular places for visitors to park their trailer from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
The most popular hiking trails are on the Kenai Peninsula and include Johnson Pass Trail, Resurrection Pass Trail, Russian Lakes Trail, Resurrection River Trail, and the Primrose and Lost Lake trail system. All of these trails can be turned into overnight treks while the Resurrection Pass, Russian Lakes and Resurrection River trails can be linked together for a 70-mile trek from Hope to Seward.
South of Anchorage via the Seward Highway is the popular Begich-Boggs Visitors Center (907-783-2326). The impressive facility was designed to provide views of Portage Glacier but ironically by 1994 the glacier had retreated out-of-sight of the center's observation decks and telescopes. Still visitors are fascinated with the center's high-tech wildlife displays and the excellent movie. Then many either join a cruise on Portage Lake or hike Portage Pass Trail for a view of the glacier itself.
In 2007, the U.S. Forest Service in Chugach National Forest partnered with the Alaska Railroad Corporation to offer an experience found nowhere else in the United States, a whistle stop train trip to a glacier. Utilizing a special self-propelled railcar, passengers hop off the train at the Spencer Whistle Stop for a narrated 1.3-mile hike with a ranger along a trail that leads to Spencer Lake and spectacular views of Spencer Glacier.
Most of the Chugach National Forest does not require an entry fee or permit. There is a per person entry fee for Begich-Boggs Visitors Center and most campgrounds have a nightly fee as do all Forest Service cabins. The cabins and some campgrounds can be reserved through the National Recreation Reservation Service (877-444-6777). Tickets for the Spencer Whistle Stop Train are sold through the Alaska Railroad (800-544- 0552).
Chugach National Forest is accessible by road, boat and float planes. The Seward Highway and to a lesser extent the Sterling Highway are the main avenues to the forest in the Kenai Peninsula while from Cordova the Copper River Highway provide access to the trails, campgrounds and facilities along the Copper River Delta and Childs Glacier. Boat cruises are available in Whittier and Valdez to see Columbia Glacier and other parts of the national forest in Prince William Sound while charter air services in Seward and Cordova can provide float plane transport to many of the Forest Service cabins.
For more information contact the Chugach National Forest Headquarters (907-743-9500) in Anchorage. Good sources of information on outfitters, fishing guides and boat operators that service the national forest are the Girdwood Chamber of Commerce (907-222-7682), the Seward Chamber of Commerce (907-224-8051) and the Cordova Chamber of Commerce (907-424-7260).