In my previous Listicle post, I shared the Top 6 Things I Wished I’d Done in Alaska. There were actually seven but I had a lot to say about the seventh so decided it deserved a post of its own.
Anchorage is filled with beautiful multi-use trails. These are paved throughout the city and I have walked on many of them. The Anchorage-area is doubly awesome because not far from the city are some epic hiking trails. And in the long light of summer days, hiking after work is doable.
The first time a friend asked me to go hiking, I felt incredibly intimidated but too embarrassed to say so. Thus, my introduction to hiking. Extreme inclines and declines are what I thought of when I heard the word “hike.” But many hikes are nothing more than, as Bill Byson so aptly put it, a walk in the woods.
To this day, my first hiking trail remains my favorite and I have been on it many times over the last 20 years. I say how many times because my exercise journal recently became a downsized item. I’ve known there would be times when momentary sadness would spring up because of something I no longer have. This was the first.
Turnagain Arm Trail
The trail is 9.5 miles long with four trailheads. The Potter Trailhead, just inside the Chugach State Park, is the first one you come to once you leave Anchorage on the Seward Highway. From there:
- Potter — McHugh: 3.4 miles
- McHugh — Rainbow: 4.2 miles
- Rainbow — Windy Corner: 1.9 miles
Potter to McHugh is by far the most popular while the other end of the trail is the least. The Potter and McHugh trailheads have a fee to park, are well maintained and have outhouses. Rainbow trailhead is a small parking lot. And Windy Corner is nothing more than a pull-out along the highway. Blink and you’ll miss it.
Some summers I didn’t hike at all. And other summers I went three times a week. I have hiked every section of the entire trail. The 6.8 miles from Potter to McHugh and back again is the one I have done most.
One summer I craved quiet solo hikes (and by solo I mean without people) so I did Windy to Rainbow a lot. Other times, I’d park at Rainbow and walk in 2 miles toward McHugh. It made the round-trip 4 miles but that section also has a noticeable elevation gain/loss so it was still a workout.
In the early part of the summer as greenery is developing, I’ve eaten fiddleheads along the trail. Fiddleheads come from ferns. Before the fern has fully bloomed for the season, its leaves are rolled tight. Snap off the end and that is a fiddlehead. A friend who harvests them taught me this. She freezes them to add to soups throughout the winter.
The same friend also forages rose hips to make honey.
There are lots of mushrooms through Alaska, including on the Turnagain Arm Trail, but I never felt I knew enough to be confident I wouldn’t poison myself so I haven’t ever foraged mushrooms.
My favorite foraging happens in August when the wild blueberries and raspberries are ready. Most Alaskans have secret blueberry picking spots and after a day of picking they come home with several gallon buckets filled.
Turnagain Arm Trail is no Alaskan’s secret blueberry picking spot. But if you know where to look there are a few bushes between Potter and McHugh. It’s fun to stop for a mini-snack. Since my dog has proven to be my best hiking buddy, whatever I pick, I split 50/50 with her.
A word of warning, bears are also looking for mini-snacks at that time of year.
Speaking of Bears
The closest I ever came to a non-zoo bear was hiking this trail. I never thought I’d be the kind of person who could be comfortable hiking alone. But once I got my dog, Solstice, I decided I had to try. Turns out if you have a dog, a can of bear spray and you both wear a bear/moose bell around your neck, you actually feel pretty safe.
Once you pass the outhouse at the Potter Trailhead, there are two paths: the paved switch-back path or a dirt trail. Turnagain Arm Trail runs above and parallel to the Seward Highway. At each trailhead, you start with an incline to get above the highway. At Potter, it’s a half-mile. The paved switch-back path is easier and longer while the dirt path is steeper and shorter.
I usually take the switch-back. But on this day, I led us up the dirt path. Solstice was ahead of me and I walked with my head down, watching my feet so I didn’t go splat since there is a lot to trip over on that trail. We’d gone about a quarter mile when I looked up to see a very big (at least that’s how it lives in my memory) grizzly bear coming toward us on the trail. I would’ve seen it sooner but I was watching my own feet.
I stopped in my tracks. My stomach lurched. I tried to recall what to do in this situation. I was most worried about Solstice who was so much closer to it. She was probably 20 feet away and I was another 20 feet behind her. I visualized that bear taking three or four running steps to be on her.
“Solstice,” I called. And, luckily, she came. I was hyper alert but not scared. I never reached for the bear spray. It was probably the way the bear meandered, not giving us any attention. It was simply looking for food. But I also knew that could change in an instant if the bear perceived us as a threat.
I turned and went back the way we came. Solstice followed. I looked behind us every step or two to be sure the hungry hairy beast hadn’t decided we’d make a better snack than blueberries. Not long after, the bear turned into the bushes and went off the trail.
We returned to the outhouse and started back up again. This time on the paved switch-back path. And we finished our hike.
When it comes to my favorite hiking trail in Alaska, I only have one regret.
I have always wanted to hike the entire trail. Start at Potter and hike 9.5 miles to Windy. McHugh has picnic tables, grills. I envisioned going with a few friends so we could have cars at Potter, McHugh and Windy. The McHugh car would hold lunch and we’d stop to enjoy sustenance next to the rushing sound of McHugh Creek.
Recently, I told someone this regret. She said there was still time. That’s true. And not true.
First, I’m not conditioned for that many miles. So it would take some some preparation. And with only a handful of weeks left in Alaska and so much to do, it’s not realistic.
And the other reason? My dog.
Solstice turned 10 on June 21, on the Summer Solstice. These days, a long walk for her is two miles. These days she can no longer handle the up and down of hiking. She certainly wouldn’t be able to walk more than nine miles, no matter how many breaks we took or how slow we walked.
And somehow I no longer remember that hike without her. The two are inextricably linked. I cannot imagine doing that hike this summer, leaving her home.
I know this adventure I’m embarking on is going to include many awesome hikes. In fact, it’s one of the things I’m most excited about.
But the Turnagain Arm Trail will always hold a special place in my heart. And taking a 9.5 mile walk in those woods from one end to the other remains on my bucket list.
This marks my second Listicle post where it is a list of one. Do you remember the first?