Good spring hiking is easy to find if you know what to look for. While not every trail is open yet in the early season, the key to good spring hiking is to seek out low-elevation trails that don’t gain too much elevation. Look for trails that meander along the forest floor or skirt the coastline. We’ve gathered 5 options in Southcentral Alaska, and a few tips, to get you out on the trails in the early season!
Red Shirt Lake
You’ll find Red Shirt Lake within the Nancy Lake State Recreation Area near Willow. The 5.6-mile round trip is mostly a ramble through spruce and birch forest, with fiddlehead ferns abundant in early season. The trail is an out-and-back to the lake, and it’s well-marked, with a high point of only about 320 feet.
The trailhead is located at the South Rolly Lake Campground, part of the Alaska State Parks network. Usually, state park campgrounds open between May 15 and Memorial Day—opening date often depends on snow coverage. (Here are some tips for early season camping.) The campground is first-come, first-served, and is a popular one among locals on the weekends. Get there early to claim a site if you’re not planning on a midweek adventure.
Canoes are available for rent at the lake, but you need to reserve them in advance—and, of course, it depends on whether the lake is ice-free yet or not.
A gentle 3.2-mile loop, the Albert Loop is one of a few trails that begin at Eagle River Nature Center. The ERNC is a Chugach State Park visitor and interpretive center with a range of activities and educational materials. Activities for kids of varying ages are popular and frequent, especially as summer settles in.
Most of the trails from the ERNC are loops and are well-marked with clear signage. The Albert Loop is mostly flat, with boardwalks in some areas, and meanders through forest and wetlands. Migratory birds, including trumpeter swans, like to hang out here, and you’ll see frequent evidence of beavers and their handiwork as you hike.
Especially during spring, you’ll probably encounter muddy areas along the trail, so be prepared to hop over and around streams and puddles. Pay attention to occasional reroutes when overflow is at its maximum.
Turnagain Arm Trail
A favorite among Anchorage-dwellers, the Turnagain Arm Trail begins just south of the city and continues along Turnagain Arm. It can be accessed at 4 different points along its 10.4-mile length, but most people usually only hike a short section at a time.
The aptly named Potter Trailhead is located just south of Potter Marsh, and is the beginning (or end) of the trail. This is the most popular access point for Anchorage locals, and is usually pretty busy on weekends and on sunny days after the workday ends. Continuing south on the highway, you’ll pass, in order, the McHugh Creek parking area and trailhead, the Rainbow trailhead and the Windy corner trailhead.
The trail itself follows the contours of the mountainsides, and the access trails can be a little on the steep side, but they’re pretty short. Thanks to its proximity to Turnagain Arm and the humid breezes (and gales) that blow down its length, the snow melts here pretty quickly and this trail is one of the first to open up in the spring time. As you hike, look out for the panoramic vistas of Turnagain Arm and the Kenai Mountains beyond. Bonus: If there’s a bore tide, you’ll have a great view of this amazing phenomenon.
Seven Lakes Trail
In the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, the Seven Lakes trail actually only passes by four lakes. This can be done as a through-hike, but we recommend an out-and-back starting from the Kelly Campground, just off the Sterling Highway about 20 miles from Cooper Landing.
The trail skirts the shores of Kelly Lake, passes by Hiker’s Lake and Hidden Lake, and ends after skirting Engineer Lake, 5 miles in. Hikers and Hidden Lakes are accessed via spurs off the main trail, about 2 miles in and 3 miles in, respectively. Take the trail to one of these lakes and back for a shorter round trip.
This trail is another wandering walk through the woods, this time through rolling hills dotted with black spruce. The Kelly Lake campground is first-come, first-served, though it’s mostly a wide parking area with a few spots to pull off. It’s free to camp, but remember to pack out your trash and leave the area as clean as you found it, if not cleaner. There’s also a similar camping area at Peterson Lake, down the same access road as Kelly Lake.
Grewingk Lake Trail
For a bit of extra adventure, try a hike in Kachemak Bay State Park, across the bay from Homer and only accessible via water taxi. The Grewingk Lake Trail can be accessed via the Glacier Spit Trailhead or the Saddle Trailhead, so you have the option to do an out-and-back or a through hike. You can schedule a water taxi drop-off in the morning at one trailhead, and pick-up in the evening at the other. It’s about a half-hour or so boat ride from the end of the Homer Spit.
You can access a network of trails in the state park from either of these trailheads, though early in the season the flatter trails toward Grewingk Lake are the only ones likely to be clear of snow. If you hike end-to-end, it’s 4.5 miles, and the spur trail to the lake starts about 3 miles in from the Glacier Spit side.
The broad, gravelly beach of Grewingk Lake is a great place for a picnic lunch, featuring an awesome view of the Grewingk Glacier at the lake’s far end. For even more adventure, take the side trail about a mile and a half from the Glacier Spit trailhead, and hike in another mile to the hand tram. There, you can pull yourself across the creek in a basket attached to a pulley system, and you’ll connect to the Emerald Lake trail on the other side.
The trail to Tonsina Point and Caines Head is a good trail to hike from Seward in the early season, and the Eklutna Lake Trail just north of Anchorage is another good one attached to a campground. We would also be remiss if we failed to mention the amazing trail network to be found right here in Anchorage—and the bike paths often start getting plowed in mid-April, so they’re open even before the rest of the snow melts!
These trails and more are detailed in Day Hiking Southcentral Alaska, by Lisa Maloney. We have a copy in the office, but we also highly recommend you pick one up for yourself for directions, mile-by-mile trail descriptions and elevation info. We also always recommend you check with locals in the specific area you’re headed, as they’ll be able to give you a more accurate report on the state of the nearby trails.
Ready to start your early-season adventures? Book now! (Don’t forget about Spring shoulder season rates!)