Encompassing 9 distinct ecosystems, this wildlife-rich park stretches 200 coastal miles from Anchorage to Canada
Beyond the foothills at the edge of Alaska's largest city is Chugach State Park, the fourth-largest state park in the United States. While Alaska has wilderness areas that are larger and more biologically pristine than Chugach, no other wildlife-rich habitat on Earth is so close to a major city. The park is known for optimal accessibility and activities for adventurers of all skill-levels. Within minutes of the park are the communities of Palmer, Eagle River, Chugiak, Indian, Bird, Girdwood, the village of Eklutna, and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
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.
Chugach State Park is carved from the western climax of the Chugach Range, which stretches 200 coastal miles from Anchorage to Canada. At 495,000 acres, Chugach 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 even marine waters because its southern boundary extends halfway across Turnagain Arm.
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 occasionally 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 smaller populations of lynx, beavers, river otters, fox and mountain goats.
The Chugach is also amazingly accessible with 16 trailheads and 110 trails that provide almost 280 miles of options for traversing the park. 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 photography enthusiasts and professional alike, as they seek to capture the diverse wildlife and rugged topography of the area. With extensive ocean shoreline and abundant lakes, aquatic options such as boating and kayaking abound; only non-motorized vessels are allowed on park waters.
Chugach State Park’s most popular area for hikers is the Hillside trail system. Only a 20-minute drive from downtown Anchorage, the system’s four trailheads provide tree-line access to more than a dozen trails and routes. Many are also open to mountain biking, and in the winter are destinations for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Other popular trails are Flat Top Mountain and Wolverine Peak. Both paths lead to stunning mountain-top views that can include Denali, hundreds of miles to the north, on a clear day.
More developed areas of Chugach State Park include campgrounds at Eagle River, Eklutna Lake and Bird Creek. There is also a public-use cabin at Eklutna Lake and a cabin and two yurts available for rent at the Eagle River Nature Center.
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, latrines, flush toilets and a dump station. It is popular for its fishing and 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 (907-694-2108) 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 Iditarod National Historic Trail, a 26-mile trek through the state park to Girdwood.
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 and a beautiful campground. The seven-mile long Eklutna Lake was created after Eklutna Glacier retreated and mountain streams filled the valley it left behind. The campground lies at the west end and consists of 50 sites with an overflow area providing 15 additional sites. Two remote campgrounds at the east end are accessible by foot or by mountain bike at mile 8.8 and mile 11 of the Lakeside Trail.
Bird Creek Campground features 28 camping sites 20 miles southeast of Anchorage along the Seward Highway. Overlooking scenic Turnagain Arm, Bird Creek is a popular salmon stream among anglers. 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. 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. A railroad car on the site houses the Kenai Peninsula Visitor Center.
Most trailheads and parking areas in Chugach State Park have a daily parking fee. There are also nightly fees for campsites, the sanitary dump station at Eagle River Campground and the public-use cabins and yurts. Half of the campsites at Eagle River Campground can be reserved in advance (907-694-7982), while the public-use cabins and yurts can be reserved online through the parks reservation system.
Eagle River and Eklutna Lake are accessible by road from Anchorage via the Glenn Highway. Bird Creek, Potter Section House and the Turnagain Arm trails are accessed from Anchorage via the Seward Highway. A van shuttle service provides transportation to many of the trailheads in the Hillside trail system.
For more information contact the Chugach Area Office of the Alaska State Parks in the Potter Section House or the Anchorage Convention and Visitors Bureau (907-276-4118).