Alaska's national parks get a lot of attention, and while it's well-deserved, it can mean other parks sometimes get overlooked. Chugach State Park is one of these underrated gems. It's made up of several geographically disparate areas all around Anchorage. The park protects the wildlife, history, glaciers, lakes, forests, and more in the breathtaking Chugach Mountains. From Eklutna Lake and Eagle River down to the Turnagain Arm, there are plenty of things to see and do in the park. And since it’s just a quick drive from Anchorage, you're never too far from the comforts of the city.
Anchorage is a great home base for those exploring the park, thanks to its many hotels, restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and, of course, breweries. Midnight Sun Brewing Co. is the city's oldest, and has been around since 1995. It boasts a beer for whatever crazy weather Alaska might throw at you: strong barrel-aged stouts and barleywines for cold, dark winters and lighter IPAs and Belgian ales for the mild summers. Midnight Sun’s owners are of the mindset that the soft, glacial water from the Chugach Mountains is what makes Alaska beer so distinctive, so you're really getting a taste of Anchorage here. Midnight Sun's loft has a taproom and restaurant onsite, and you can always grab some beer to go.
Admire Chugach's forests and mountains without even leaving downtown Anchorage on the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. The trail winds for about eleven miles along the water, offering views of Denali, the city, and the inlet. There are plenty of access points, including the southern terminus in Kincaid Park and the northern terminus near the railroad depot. The trail is popular with locals since it can be used for jogging, hiking, biking, and even cross-country skiing. It's also a great place to spot wildlife, including moose and beluga whales.
Whether you're visiting in the winter or summer, you'll probably want to enjoy as much outdoor activity as possible. Arctic Valley offers hiking trails in the warmer months, and skiing and tubing once snowy weather sets in. Lift tickets and tubing passes are affordable, and the 500 acres of open terrain guarantee that whether you’re hiking or hitting the slopes, you'll have plenty of space. And, like all great ski areas, Arctic Valley has a bar where you can unwind after a long day on the mountain.
No matter where you are in Anchorage, you're never too far from a part of Chugach State Park. Its headquarters, though, is on the Turnagain Arm in the Potter Section House Historic Site. The restored buildings and train cars here were once part of a railroad section camp that maintained 10 miles of track. There are some great hikes in this part of the park as well, including the Bird Ridge Trail, offering killer views of Turnagain's famous bore tide (if you're lucky, you can watch surfers ride the tide's waves) and the Turnagain Arm Trail, which was the railroad workers' support route from the 1910s.
No matter how much time you spend in nature, you can never guarantee a wildlife sighting. If you're set on seeing moose, bears, and bison, you can head to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. It's a nonprofit that takes in orphaned or injured animals and provides a permanent home for creatures that can't be released back into the wild. The 200-acre center has a 1.5-mile loop past various enclosures that you can walk or drive. Other animals you may see here include foxes, musk oxen, elk, wolves, reindeer, lynxes, and eagles. For a truly special experience, call ahead and ask about their bull moose encounter that lets you feed the animals.
Within the Chugach National Forest is the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center. It's set right on the edge of Portage Lake, and provides a wealth of information about the famous Portage Glacier. You could once spot the glacier from the Center, but it's receded so far back, a boat tour or hike is required to view it today. The Visitor Center is also a great place to learn all about the national forest; it's the country's second largest. Additionally, during the summer months, you can take advantage of campfire programs and guided hikes led by rangers from the Center.
For a bird's eye view of the Chugach scenery, hop aboard the Alyeska Resort's aerial tram. The three- to seven-minute ride takes you to the top of Mount Alyeska for sweeping panoramic views. At the top is a small museum and an observation deck with telescopes for enhanced sightseeing. Among the peaks of the Chugach range and spruce forests, you can spot bears, moose, hanging glaciers, and glittering streams. During the summer, the top of the mountain is a great starting point for hiking; you can pick berries and even walk across a glacier. Or, for a more relaxing experience, grab some lunch from the restaurant.
From astronomy lectures to guided hikes, there's usually something going on at Eagle River. It's run by the Friends of Eagle River Nature Center, Inc. and they do an amazing job of maintaining the center and the trails leading into Chugach State Park, while ensuring there are plenty of public programs for all ages. And for those who are looking to spend some time camping, they offer a rustic cabin and yurts for rent, as well as backcountry camping sites.
Thunderbird Falls is a great stop when exploring Chugach, since it can be a quick hike or a longer excursion. The falls themselves, which cascade down 200 feet, are viewable from an observation deck at the end of a trail that's a mile long. Extend your trip by exploring nearby Eklutna Lake, Coyote Trails or Mirror Lake. Oh, and if you're visiting during the winter, don't count Thunderbird Falls out ... it freezes into stunning, bright blue columns of ice when the temperatures plunge. Just make sure you've got ice grips on your shoes before attempting a cold-weather hike.
Chugach is rich in history and culture as well as natural beauty. You can learn all about the region's past at the Eklutna Historical Park, where you can see how Alaska native culture was blended with Russian Orthodox traditions in a Dena'ina Athabascan village. Russian Orthodox missionaries arrived here about 1840, making this one of the oldest inhabited areas in Anchorage. You can see the original St. Nicholas Church, one of the oldest buildings in the whole city. Aside from the distinctive domes of the new Saint Nicholas Church on the property, the best place to experience the unique culture of the area is at the cemetery. It's best known for its spirit houses. The brightly-colored wood structures were built by family members of the deceased. This is one of the most-photographed graveyards in the state.
And no trek through Chugach is complete without a stop at the stunning, glacier-fed Eklutna Lake. Hike the mountain flank trails on the south end of the lake for a view overlooking the water, or walk along the shore on the north side. You can also get out on the water by renting a kayak; a company called Lifetime Adventures is located onsite. Additionally, the lake is home to a campground and two public-use cabins.
Waterfalls, glaciers, mountains, forests, wildlife, lakes ... Chugach State Park truly does have it all. But best of all, Chugach surrounds Anchorage with wild and rugged beauty. Alaska adventures in Chugach are always close by for visitors and locals alike.
At the heart of air, road and rail travel in Alaska, Anchorage has phenomenal access to national parks and outdoor adventures. Find glaciers, 1,500 resident moose, views of Denali and 300 miles of wilderness trails in one place. The city blends the best of these natural wonders with urban amenities.