Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Hiking in Chugach and the Return Home (Part Four of my Alaska Adventure)

My all-too-brief visit to Alaska wrapped up with stops to hike several sections of Chugach State Park, after I spent my first day there with a drive down the Seward Highway and a visit to Exit Glacier, and began my second day birding after the return to Anchorage.  Alaska is a hiker's heaven, with trails ranging from easy strolls to multi-day treks across the vast wilderness, and though I didn't have the time (or equipment) to engage in the latter, I still wanted to get in a bit of hiking before heading back to Chateau Papillon.  Armed with Best Easy Day Hikes Anchorage, I headed into the wilds!

Chugach State Park encompasses nearly a half million acres--making it the third-largest state park in the United States and the largest in Alaska.  (I've been to the second-largest, California's Anza-Borrego Desert, too, which is a fantastic destination in its own right.)  The park wraps around the Anchorage area along the Chugach Mountains to the east and offers access to dozens of trails from 28 trailheads.

My first stop was in the park's northern section, where I opted for an easy hike to Thunder Bird Falls.  Located about 15-20 miles northeast of Anchorage along the Glen Alps Highway, the two-mile hike to Thunder Bird Falls travels through some beautiful birch woods hugging a steep gorge above Thunder Bird Creek.  In addition to the hike to the falls themselves, another trail descends to the creek far below.

Again I ran into a group of tourists smoking--and again I have to ask: when out amidst all this pristine nature, why must you light up?  (Not to mention that smoking in the woods is incredibly reckless and has started more than one forest fire.)    I really don't have anything against smokers--and have several in the family, in fact--but at the same time, I don't choose to smoke, so I shouldn't be forced to inhale your smoke, either, particularly when I'm out trying to enjoy nature.  Sorry, I'll step off my soapbox now.

I had originally planned to take a more extensive hike upon Bird Ridge overlooking the Turnagain Arm, but that uber-steep hike requires 4-6 hours and covers a grueling 3400-foot change in altitude over just over two miles.  By contrast, the healthy hike to the "T.V. tower" on the mountainside behind the home I grew up in ascends only 750 feet or so over a course of two miles, and the sweat-inducing climb to Delicate Arch in Utah gains just under 700 feet in a mile and a half.  All in all, my calves think I made the right decision.

After Thunder Bird Falls, I drove back down toward Anchorage proper to pay a visit to an even easier hike in Chugach's "Hillside" trail system; namely, the Anchorage Overlook trail located just below the popular Flattop Peak.  The drive up to the Glen Alps trailhead climbs steeply over the Anchorage basin into the foothills of the Chugach Mountains; along the way, I spotted my first bear of the trip.  A young black bear just waltzed out into the street.  I didn't stop for a photo, though; even a bear so small I thought it at first a large dog seemed something to drive on by without attracting its attention.

A brief hike and some panoramic photos (which I've yet to assemble), and then it was time to head to the airport for the long flights home.  A red-eye from San Francisco always seems like a good idea until you're on it, particularly when you get a glass of red wine spilled in your lap midway through the flight.  At least United gave me a $200 certificate for future travel for that experience; my trip ended up in the black thanks to that bit of discomfort.

One thing I discovered on this trip which I never would have suspected beforehand: I'm a desert boy at heart.  Don't get me wrong; Alaska was a fantastic place to visit and a trip I surely do want to repeat on a longer scale, with Beth along so we can share the experience.  It's filled with some of the most scenic and pristine natural beauty I've ever witnessed.  And I don't mean I would want to live in the desert, either; I like forests and mountains a bit too much for that, and a beach house would be awfully nice.  In terms of sheer majesty, in some sense which speaks directly to my heart, though, deserts have a special essence which transcends simple natural beauty.

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