Trekking in the Chugach: Exploring peaks in Anchorage’s backyard

The Chugach Range is 250 miles long and 60 miles wide. Some of the most popular peaks leave from the outskirts of Anchorage. (Emily Russell/Alaska Public Media)

The Chugach Range rises up from the outskirts of Anchorage, offering a world-class playground for locals to explore year round. Alaska Public Media’s Emily Russell recently climbed some snowy peaks in the Chugach Range with NPR reporter Brian Mann and sent us this postcard.

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We set out on our first hike before sunrise. The stars are still out and just off in the distance behind the silhouetted mountains, we can see some orange and yellow colors starting to rise.

We’re heading up a trail that leads high up in the mountains in the Chugach Range.

If we were doing this hike in the summertime we wouldn’t really be able to see much because there are big willow bushes. But since they haven’t bloomed yet, we’ve got this really clear, open view that’s pretty rewarding from the start.

We watched the sunrise behind the Chugach Range across Turnagin Arm. (Emily Russell/Alaska Public Media)

There’s a sudden flurry up ahead, an explosion of white and black feathers.

Brian tells me he’s been seeing little tracks in the snow.

“I kind of guessed maybe they were ptarmigan,” Brian says. “At first they were kind of just like these beautiful little white bodies running through the snow– very pretty.”

We continue on. It’s tough climbing so far. The trail is not too technical, but it’s steep. After about an hour I start to feel my legs aching.

Hiking through a valley can mean spending most of the day in the shade, but the views were rewarding from the start. (Photo courtesy of Brian Mann)

It’s also kind of impossibly beautiful, though. We’re in this narrow valley right now, and down here where we are it’s still kind of dark and cold.

Finally, the sun creeps down the ridge. We find a sunny spot out of the wind for a little break.

Brian takes off his backpack and digs around for lunch– pizza and caribou sticks. We’re perched on a ridge right in the middle of the valley looking down to Turnagain Arm and the mountains just rise straight up from the water.

It’s unlike any other place we’ve both ever been.

We feel like explorers. We follow different paths on different days into different parts of the Chugach Range.

Sometimes we’re in snow fields, sometimes we scramble over high, bare rock.

Trails in the Chugach Range can be steep screes near the summit. (Emily Russell/Alaska Public Media)

On this day, we’re climbing in this enormous scree field below the ridge.

“Is this fun?” Brian jokes, as we pause to catch our breath. “I think a lot of people will hear this and think, ‘Why are you doing that?’”

That’s a fair point. To be honest, it’s a question I ask myself a lot when I’m in a place like this. We just spent the better part of an hour slogging up through sharp pebbles.

Then, out of nowhere, the world just drops away.

“Where we are now you can see all of Anchorage stretched out in the sun and this big, snow-filled valley,” Brian explains.

The last hurdle before the summit is an outcropping of boulders balanced on the ridge.

“I find being up in this kind of a place kind of scary,” Brian admits.
“It’s very scary,” I say.

A herd of dall sheep perched on a ridge in the Chugach Range. (Photo courtesy of Brian Mann)

It doesn’t feel safe, so we turn back. We start the long scramble down. That’s when we see them– a herd of dall sheep, horns curved like conch shells. They’re perched on an outcrop nearby.

We stand and watch for a minute, but then the wind kicks up again and we start the scramble down.

When we’re off the steep section of the mountain, following the dirt trail through the forest, I spot something in the woods.

“I want to show you what it is,” I say to Brian, “Do you see that?” I ask him.
“Not yet,” Brian says.
“Let’s walk a little closer,” I say.
“It is a moose,” Brian says, as we peer through the trees at the moose curled up. “He’s just hunkered down,” Brian explains.

The moose was hunkered down about 15 ft. from the trail. (Photo courtesy of Brian Mann)

We’re nearly down when Brian turns to me.

“That was super hard,” he says.
“It was extremely hard, yes,” I say.

“One of the things that’s true about Alaska is that it is Alaska,” Brian says. “What do you think? I mean, when you come to the end of a day like this do you think, ‘Never again,’?”

I laugh. “It’s one of those things where you’re miserable, but now that we’re off the scramble, no, of course, let’s go,” I say.

“Let’s go,” Brian agrees.

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Emily Russell is the voice of Alaska morning news as Alaska Public Media’s Morning News Host and Producer. Originally from the Adirondacks in upstate New York, Emily moved to Alaska in 2012. She skied her way through three winters in Fairbanks, earning her Master’s degree in Northern Studies from UAF. Emily’s career in radio started in Nome in 2015, reporting for KNOM on everything from subsistence whale harvests to housing shortages in Native villages. She then worked for KCAW in Sitka, finally seeing what all the fuss with Southeast, Alaska was all about. Back on the road system, Emily is looking forward to driving her Subaru around the region to hike, hunt, fish and pick as many berries as possible. When she’s not talking into the mic in the morning, Emily can be found reporting from the peaks above Anchorage to the rivers around Southcentral.