In the native Alaskan Chinook language, a Cheechako is a person new to Alaska.
The term is usually used to refer to someone who recently moved to the state. They haven’t made it through their first few winters, they aren’t hardened by the harsh reality of life in Alaska. In my mind, all first-time travelers to Alaska are Cheechakos too, unless you decide to move there for the long term.
Part of what drives many people to Alaska is a desire to explore the outdoors; it’s one of the best states in which to do so. If you are traveling to Alaska and want to do a few easy hikes, here are three hikes I think basically anyone* can do. I’ve also added a few more hike options at the end if you want to take it up a notch. If you really want to have an experience, consider glacier hiking or one of these other cool (read: cold) things to do in Alaska while you’re there.
*In this case, I refer to people who have standard mobility. If you have limited mobility or difficulty walking or climbing stairs, I would advise against these hikes and seek local advice on good outdoor activities you can enjoy.
Disclaimer: As with all outdoor activities, hiking comes with a certain amount of risk. Know your own limits, and respect the power of nature when hiking in Alaska.
Savage River Trail, Denali National Park
When visiting Alaska, Denali National Park is a must-see. In your private vehicle, you can drive 15 miles along the Park Road to the Savage River bridge, where there is a small parking lot and a good trailhead.
The Savage River Loop Trail is a 1.7-mile trail with negligible elevation gain; it’s perfect for first-time hikers because it follows the river which is relatively straight and flat at this point in the park.
There’s also the Savage Alpine Trail, which climbs up and over the southwest shoulder of Mount Healy to end in Savage River Campground. This trail is fun to ascend 15-minutes up to a giant rock formation and climb up for a fantastic view of Denali National Park. On a clear day, you can even see Denali in the distance!
Want to kick it up a notch? Climb the rest of the Savage Alpine Trail. It’s deceptively challenging – a straight trail up the hill to a ridge that gives even better vantage points of the entire park, but which will leave your knees pretty sore after the walk down. Be sure to bring a bear bell, as wildlife is very common in the park. You don’t want to go surprising any critters, trust me.
Quick Tips for Visiting Denali National Park
- Where to Stay: Grande Denali Lodge (for views) from $379/night. Denali Hostel (for community) from $32/night for dorm rooms.
- Where to Eat: The Peak Espresso (at Grande Denali Lodge) for caffeine. Lynx Creek Pizza for dinner. The Salmon Bake for the McKinley Margarita.
- The Unique Alaskan Experience: Book an 8-hour bus ride into Denali National Park and be humbled by wildlife and pristine scenery.
North Face of Alyeska, Girdwood
Alyeska Resort is one of the best resorts to ski or snowboard in Alaska, but in the summer, the resort turns into a haven for hikers.
There are two ways to get up the mountain: you can hike the 2,000-foot ascent from the Alyeska Resort to the tram house, then wander around the trails near the top of the mountain…
… or you can go the easy way (as I recommend for most first-time visitors to Alaska) and take the Alyeska tram up the mountain. Unless you’re in great shape and hike regularly, this is definitely the way to go – and the way I went hiking in Alyeska during my 2014 trip.
Once you got to the top, there are loads of reasonable trails at varying inclines to choose from. My favorite path takes you up the ridge that overlooks the North Face (double black diamond, for you skier types). It’s a little bit challenging but has breathtaking views of Turnagain Arm and the seven glaciers in surrounding mountains.
Whether you climb or ride to the top, take the tram back down. It’s easier on your knees! (Tram tickets are $29 per person. See the Alyeska Tram webpage for details.)
Quick Tips for Visiting Alyeska:
- Where to Stay: The Hotel Alyeska (Luxe) from $204/night. Ski Inn (Budget) from $75/night.
- Where to Eat: The Bake Shop for breakfast. Jack Sprat for lunch. The Double Musky for dinner.
- The Unique Alaskan Experience: Try panning for gold at Crow Creek Gold Mine.
Exit Glacier Trails, Seward
Exit Glacier is one of my favorite glaciers in Alaska – which is saying something, as there are over 100,000 of them! Located 12 miles outside Seward, Alaska, Exit Glacier is a common day-trip for cruise ship passengers arriving or departing from the port.
The best part about Exit Glacier is that it is easily accessible for most people. The worst part about Exit Glacier is that it’s receding. When my family moved to Alaska in 1992, the glacier was spread out along a significant part of the valley floor; during my visit in 2017, the glacier has receded significantly so it will soon be classified as a ‘hanging glacier.’ Over time, Exit Glacier will continue to recede up into Harding Ice Field.
The trail is primarily paved or well-maintained, and flat. Even the trail up to the glacier lookout is a pretty easy climb as stairs have been created at more steep parts of the trail. For hiking, you have two main choices: the “Outwash Plain” trail, which is flat, and the “Edge of the Glacier” which requires minimal elevation climb to give you a better view.
If you have the time and love hiking, consider planning a day-long hike to Harding Ice Field. This 9-mile trail gains 3,500 feet in elevation but offers stunning views of the ice field and surrounding countryside. I’ve never been, but it’s high on my list.
Quick Tips for Visiting Seward
- Where to Stay: The Van Gilder Hotel (in town) from $129/night. Seward Windsong Lodge (out of town) from $276/night
- Where to Eat: Sea Bean Cafe for coffee. Seward Brewing Company for everything. Yukon Bar for the local’s watering hole experience.
- The Unique Alaskan Experience: Visit the Alaska Sea Life Center. Learn more about wildlife in the region, and efforts to protect or rehabilitate species.
Other Good Hikes in South Central Alaska
If you really enjoy hiking and want to add additional hikes to your list, consider the following:
- Flattop is one of the most popular hikes in the Anchorage area. The 1.5-mile trail gains 1,350 feet in elevation and gives you sweeping views of Anchorage and Cook Inlet.
- Mt. Baldy is a hike in Eagle River I’ve done many times (10 miles north of Anchorage). The full loop is a 4.6-mile route that gains 1,676 feet in elevation. Again, you’ll have great views of Anchorage, Cook Inlet, and Turnagain Arm.
- Crow Creek Pass is a V’s bucket list hike from Girdwood to Eagle River (or vice versa). It’s a two-day, 21-mile hike that gains 2,100-3,100 feet in elevation, depending on which direction you hike it.
- Eklutna Glacier is another fun glacier hiking spot. The Lakeside Trail is a flat 13-miles one way, so many people actually cycle the trail. Twin Peaks is only 2.5-miles one way with 1,500 feet in elevation.
As you can tell, there are loads of great hikes in the region. The choice is up to you on difficulty and how stunning the scenery will be!
This post was originally published in September 2014 and updated in August 2017.