Hiking Trails

Horsetail Falls Trail

This leisurely, 2-mile roundtrip trail begins just south of Whittier, a little seaside town located some 2 hours south of Anchorage. The trail doesn’t climb much (about 700 ft), but it will take you high enough to get an unobstructed view of numerous waterfalls, including the long-dropping waters of Horsetail Falls as it sheets over the sheer rock face of Blackstone Ridge.

The Details

To reach the beginning of this trail, you must first drive through Whittier Tunnel and then follow Whittier Drive through downtown Whittier to the famous Anchor Inn at the far end.

As you drive through town, take note of the plain cement towers above the left side of town. If they look faintly military, they are. Whittier and the tunnel you drove through owe their existence to the U.S. military’s efforts to defend against the threat of Japanese invasion in World War II.

Follow Blackstone Road to the sign at the bottom of Reservoir Road that points the way to Horsetail Falls Trail. After passing around the gate at the beginning of the trail, the road leads you another 0.25 miles to where it narrows to an actual trail.

On the far side of a short bridge, you begin climbing through a spruce forest. Take note of how much work has gone into creating this fine trail. Steps, boardwalks, and switchbacks all make it a joy to hike.

As the trail continues to climb, the spruce gives way to alders. Higher up, where the trail swings up onto a slope above Cove Creek, the alders break into patches. As you climb through sporadic bits of meadow, the view opens up enough to see Horsetail Falls tumbling over the ridge at the head of the valley. Soon after, the trail ends at a wooden platform among a small stand of trees.

Though this platform looks out through the trees over Passage Canal and Whittier, it doesn’t offer the best views of the falls. For that, backtrack to the meadows and pick a spot with a view up and across the valley. There you’ll see the wide, sheer face of Blackstone Ridge and the cascading waters of Horsetail Falls dropping through curls of mist down its center.

If you chance upon one of the grassroots trails that people have forged through the brush toward Blackstone Ridge, consider following it for closer views of the falls. But unless you have experience clambering over rock slabs, you probably shouldn’t venture too far up onto the rocky ridge. It may look easy going up, but getting back down can be more difficult.

But if you feel comfortable scrambling over big rocks, you’ll find the ridge above worth exploring. Climb high enough and you can reach a point where you look down—not up—to the falls, making for a very dramatic perspective.

(For more, see Walk-About Guide to Alaska, Volume One by Shawn R. Lyons)

Portage Pass Trail

This 2-mile-long (4 roundtrip), family-friendly trail, which begins 90 minutes south of Anchorage at the far end of the Whittier Tunnel, remains the only easy way to see Portage Glacier on foot. And it’s has a spectacular conclusion: After cresting Portage Pass, the trail drops through glacial scrub before popping out on the wide gravel shores of Portage Lake, directly across from the snout of gorgeous Portage Glacier.

The Details

Not too long ago, you could walk from Begich, Boggs Visitor Center on the western end of Portage Lake down to a beach and reach out and touch the big, blue chunks of Portage Glacier.

Those days have passed. Now the lake extends from the beach in one large gray expanse. The glacier, once so near, has now retreated far behind the north buttress of Byron Peak. You can still see the glacier by boat, but to see it by foot, you have to hike the length of Portage Pass Trail. Fortunately, this excursion makes for a fine family outing.

The adventure begins with the drive from Anchorage to Whittier down Turnagain Arm, which is considered one of the world’s most scenic. Then you’ll experience the two-plus-mile-long drive through the Whittier Tunnel, a World War II relic designed for one-way train use. Emerge from the tunnel to see Passage Canal and glacier-draped mountains rising along its flanks. Turn sharply left and you can look directly up the length of Lenard Glacier to where it disappears high above around the backside of Maynard Mountain.

The hike offers even more marvels, and few difficulties. As you climb steadily up the old road that now forms the trail, you pass glacier-scraped stones and slabs both on and alongside the trail. When you look up, the low brush allows views of the steep, cliff-streaked slope of 4,000-foot-plus Maynard Mountain, as well as the massive rock of 3,718-foot Shakespeare Shoulder across the narrow valley.

All the while you continue hiking steadily toward two stone towers rising against the sky in the pass above. When you climb the last few steps into the narrow gap between those two towers, you’ve reached the pass—a mere 800-or-so feet above sea level. Here, tundra-carpeted mounds beside the trail offer plenty of places to take a break. Between the mounds, you’ll see deep trenches, evidence of the power of ice to shape the landscape

If you feel particularly adventurous, zigzag your way through the tortured landscape to the left of the pass. Look 30 feet down into a gorge as the run-off from nearby snowfields and glaciers rumbles through.

You’ll skirt one of the sources of that water—a small lake that fills the length of the narrow pass—then begin the descent to Portage Lake. Along the way, you’ll pass the appropriately named Divide Lake, which flows eastward to Passage Canal.

At the far end of the lake you then pass over a low rise and begin the 0.75-mile descent to Portage Lake. After winding down through the brush, the trail pops out onto a gravel embankment. From here, a series of small cairns lead you down the slope’s alluvial plain to the wide gravel beach across the lake from Portage Glacier.

Settle yourself onto the gravel and listen to the water lapping on the shore. Listen even more carefully and you can also hear water spilling from the snow-girted mountains that rise all around the lake. You may even hear the sounds of ice scraping against rock and water dripping through caverns, as Portage Glacier continues its long and slow retreat back into the mountains from which it once came.

One important thing to keep in mind: be sure to bring rain gear and warm clothing. No matter how clear and sunny the day appears in Anchorage (or even in Girdwood), the weather may be cloudy and rainy on the other side of the Whittier tunnel. Whittier, one of the wettest places in Alaska, often lies under lots of clouds, which makes for potentially hypothermic conditions.

Author: Shawn Lyons

Emerald Cove Trail

From the northeast corner of the Buckner Building, follow Salmon Run Rd for half a mile to the Lu Young Park Picnic Area, where king and silver salmon run during June and late August. Beyond here an undulating dirt road continues along the coast. It’s 1½ miles to Second Salmon Run where a trail alongside the creek leads up to a waterfall. The dirt road ends just past the creek, whereupon the rough-and-ready Emerald Cove Trail continues for several more miles, partly on boardwalks through a mixture of forest and muskeg. About a mile in, a side trail leads down to a beach.