Destination Guides

10 Must-Do Hikes in Alaska for First-Time Visitors

My blog posts likely contain affiliate links, including for the Amazon Associates program.
If you click, book, or buy from one of these links, I may earn a commission. Read more in my Privacy Policy.

There’s nothing like the feeling of a cool Alaskan morning as you set out on a hike. You might be bundled up against the chill, then shed layers as your body warms up. No matter the trail, there’s something comforting and awe-inspiring about the many hikes in Alaska, and if you love the idea of exploring Alaska on foot, hiking in Alaska is a must-do activity during your trip.

I’ll be honest: I did not consider myself a hiker until the last few years (it was actually when I discovered Pinnacles National Park in California!), but I’ve done a lot of hiking in Alaska over the course of growing up there and visiting many times since my family moved away. Now, planning a hike or two is part of every Alaska itinerary I put together.

Hikes in Alaska Hero

If you love hiking and want a challenge or just like the idea of exploring Alaska on your own two feet but aren’t the most outdoorsy, you’re in luck: The Last Frontier has something for everyone. Some of the best hikes in Alaska are easy trails that almost anyone can do – but there are plenty of moderate and hard trails that can challenge even the most accomplished hikers out there.

As you plan your Alaska trip, use this list to add a hike or two to your itinerary. These are what I consider to be the best hikes in Alaska for first-timers visiting my home state, and will show off the beauty of this special place.

In this post, I promote travel to destinations that are the traditional lands of many Alaska Native groups, including the Aleut, Athabascan, Haida, Inupiat, Tlingit, and Yuit peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.

Hiking Safety in Alaska

Before jumping into the list, I wanted to spend just a moment on a few tips I have for hiking in Alaska. Hopefully following these suggestions will help you have a fun – and safe – time on any of these Alaska hikes.

  1. Hike with the right gear. Bring good hiking shoes, poles if you need them, plenty of water, and snacks. Also pack layers for different weather, as it can change quickly, especially if you’re doing a hike with elevation.
  2. Be bear safe. While I don’t think you need bear spray, I recommend getting a good bear bell to hang on your bag, just for good measure. Also, be sure to make noise while you’re out on the trail, and give bears plenty of space or turn back, should you encounter them.
  3. Be moose safe. Ask any Alaskan, and they’ll tell you: moose are scarier than bears, and we’d much rather meet a bear on the trail than a moose. If you encounter a moose, do not attempt to pass them on the trail; unfortunately, the safest course of action is to turn back and try the trail another time.
  4. Obey posted signage. On many of these trails, there may be signage that advises you about wildlife safety, trail preservation, or other notes. Please be a good visitor, observe these signs, and leave no trace.
  5. Know the trail. In many parts of Alaska, you won’t have cell service. Use an app like Alltrails, as I do, to download the trail route to your phone in advance to ensure you stay on the right course.

Okay, let’s get into the trails where you need to know and apply these tips!

Flattop (Anchorage)

If hiking is an absolute must-do during your Alaska itinerary, there’s one hike you can’t skip – and best of all, it’s right in the Anchorage area. A local favorite, Flattop is one of the best hikes in Alaska for you. 

Open year-round, Flattop is a 3.3-mile loop trail near Anchorage. It is considered a demanding trail, taking 2 hours and 30 minutes to complete. However, the difficulty doesn’t seem to chase travelers away from the trail. 

Flattop is bursting with people no matter the time you visit, and you’re likely to encounter fellow travelers and furry friends as dogs are allowed on this trail (on-leash). The trail’s popularity stems from how visually rewarding this hike is from the moment you start. Of course, the best view is saved for last and those who make it to the top are rewarded with panoramic views of Cook Inlet, Turnagain Arm, Anchorage, the Chugach Mountains, and even the Alaska Range and Denali on a clear day.

As a heads up, the terrain on the last stretch toward the top is pretty rugged and steep, so you’ll have to rock scramble.

Mount Healy Overlook (Denali)

Many visitors who come to Denali National Park want to hike, and are surprised to learn that the majority of structured trails are in the “front country,” along the first 15 miles of the Denali Park Road. However, they’re also surprised to discover that the majority of the trails near the park entrance do not have great views of Denali. I’m sorry to break it to you, but the trails near the entrance are too far from Denali to give you good views of it. 

Having said this, Mount Healy Overlook is a trail close to the entrance that offers decent views of the top of Denali on a clear day. It is a strenuous 6.9-mile out-and-back trail and is best experienced from June through August. 

The path ventures through the forest and follows the beautiful Nenana River – you’ll get to see a huge beaver dam near Horseshoe Lake (more on that below). According to other hikers, things start to get steeper and narrower as you climb to the overlook. Clothes-wise, layers are your best friend, which you may already know if you’ve read my posts on what clothes to pack for Alaska. It’s can be windy and cold at the top, which is when the layers come in handy.

Unlike other hiking trails in Alaska, pups aren’t allowed on Mount Healy Overlook (or any other hiking trails in Denali).

Horseshoe Lake Trail (Denali)

Okay, let’s take a break from these challenging hikes. Horseshoe Lake Trail is a beautiful hike that’s great for those who aren’t up for the challenge of harder hikes – but still want to hike in Denali. Horseshoe Lake Trail is also considered one of the best Alaska hikes for beginners or families who can’t venture into difficult terrain with their little ones. 

This is one of the trails I hiked during my September 2021 visit, and it really is a stunner despite not having views of the Mountain or a ton of challenges on the route.

A 2.1-mile loop trail, Horseshoe Lake Trail takes 2 hours, tops. The trail has practically no elevation, and the hardest part is the two flights of stairs at the beginning. After that, you won’t find any challenges. The scenery once you get down to Horseshoe Lake is stunning. You’re going to have some beautiful shots of the Nenana River, wonderful rock formations, and beaver dams.

Savage River Loop (Denali)

Short and sweet, Savage River Loop is another easy trail if you’re an inexperienced hiker or are short of time to explore the park. This is another one I did in September 2021 because I’ve long recommended it but was curious about how uneven the terrain is and who it might be appropriate for.

Extending a short and sweet 2.1 miles, this trail is easily completed in an hour and feels more like a casual walk along the river. Just watch out for the puddles and slick spots when it’s rained or snowed. Don’t think that because you won’t be climbing steep mountains you’ll miss out on Denali’s beauty, though. Quite the opposite. This hike will have you oohing and ahhing over the beauty of Denali from the moment you start. High cliffs flank the trail on both sides and even a chance to spot Dall sheep on the slopes; there’s a picturesque stream and gorgeous wildflowers to enjoy, too.

Savage Alpine Trail (Denali)

Alaska in Autumn - Valerie in Denali

Savage Alpine Trail is by far one of the best Alaska hikes for those who want incline and epic views. However, as you might guess from the hiking details, it’s also one of the hardest. The trail extends only 4.1 miles but it is incredibly steep. At times, the winds are merciless and strong enough (40+ mph) to knock you over if you’re not very experienced, so hiking poles are a good idea if you use those.

All that said, the hard work pays off. It is just impossible to put into words how beautiful is the scenery you get to appreciate on this trail. In the fall, the trail boasts the most wonderful colors. The amount of wildlife you’ll see is unbelievable. There are opportunities to spot moose, arctic ground squirrels, golden eagles, and spruce grouse on this trail – sometimes the trail also closes due to bear activity, so be sure to check before setting out and respect posted signage about wildlife.

A little piece of advice: this is one of the Denali hikes you want to avoid if you have bad joints – your knees will not be happy on the way down. Also, don’t try to hike this without a hydration pack and a snack. You will probably want to take a break when you reach the top and just enjoy the views.

Have you budgeted enough for your Alaska trip?

Signup for my free trip calculator to get an estimate and see how you can save.

    You’ll also receive emails to help you finish planning your Alaska trip

    Mount Baldy (Eagle River)

    A hike I did many times while growing up in Alaska – and which kicked my butt every time – Mount Baldy offers a great challenge if you want to go hiking in the Anchorage area. Mount Baldy is a 2.7-mile loop trail and its summit offers great views of my childhood hometown of Eagle River, Anchorage, and the Chugach mountains. Of course, on a clear day you can also spot Denali too.

    Baldy – as we locals call it – takes about two hours to complete. The biggest challenges are that the trail is steep and slippery at times, especially on the ascent of the loop. Right out of the gate, you’re hoofing it uphill for about an hour. If you don’t have strong legs and decent cardio, this would be a hard hike. Hiking boots are a must; hiking poles are recommended. Getting to the top of Mt. Baldy takes a little over an hour, and you can choose to continue on to the next peak, but it is deceptively far. If you want to go for the longer hike make sure to bring enough water and snacks.

    Thunderbird Falls (Eklutna)

    Thunderbird Falls is one of the best hikes in Alaska for beginners. The beginning may seem scary – it starts off on a pretty decent incline, but you’ll be walking uphill for the first tenth of a mile only. The path then meanders through beautiful scenery, culminating in an overlook of beautiful Thunderbird Falls for which the trail is named.

    Thunderbird Falls trail is fairly short at only 1.28 miles. There are a couple of lookouts before you get to the waterfall, so, if you have binoculars, bring them. Given Thunderbird Falls is short, easy, and beautiful, it is one of the most popular Anchorage hikes, getting busy with local families, travelers, and even dog-walkers. If you visit during the summer months, bring bug spray; mosquitoes invade this trail!

    Exit Glacier Overlook (Seward)

    • Mileage: 2.2 miles (3.5km)
    • Elevation: 308 feet (94m)
    • Difficulty: Easy/Moderate
    • Route Type: Out and Back + Loop
    • More Details on Alltrails

    A  2.2-mile loop trail, Exit Glacier Overlook is a family-friendly trail, taking approximately one hour to complete. The first half of the trail going up is easy, and the second half of the ascent is a bit more challenging, particularly when the rocky ground is wet. The path traverses the cottonwood forest to the Glacier View, a viewpoint where sprawling views of Exit Glacier and the valley open up before your eyes. 

    When it comes to Alaska hiking trails, Exit Glacier Overlook is a bit of a reality check. While most hikes will have you marveling at how incredible nature can be, Exit Glacier Overlook will have you reflecting on the realities of climate change. On the road toward Exit Glacier Visitor Center and along the trail itself, you’ll see educational signs showing you the terminus of the glacier through the years. Needless to say, it’s sad and concerning how much the glacier has receded.

    Harding Icefield (Seward)

    Harding Icefield is one of the most challenging hiking trails in Seward – and indeed in Alaska as a whole, if you’re sticking to the trails and not heading out into the backcountry.

    The 9.2-mile round hike takes about seven hours to complete and is pretty steep. But you know how the story goes: steep trails equal incredible views. You’ll be climbing over 1,000 feet to a view of the largest existing icefield that is completely located in the United States.

    The first leg of the journey goes through the forests, making you feel like you’re in the jungle, but it isn’t long before you emerge above the tree line and get fantastic views of the valley and mountains behind you. The uphill climb is pretty steep until you get completely out of the woods. I recommend taking trekking poles if you have any (otherwise, grab a stick!). Also, this goes without saying for a nearly 10-mile trail, but make sure you bring appropriate hiking shoes too.

    Portage Pass (Whittier)

    A 4.2-mile out-and-back trail, Portage Pass requires a bit of hiking experience, but mainly, an all-around fitness level. It takes an average of 3 hours to complete. 

    The trail starts on the Whittier side of the Portage tunnel and ends at Portage Pass. You can continue and go about 15-20 minutes past the “Portage Pass Elevation 800” sign to the overlook, where you can see Portage Glacier reaching toward Portage Lake. Once you reach the top, you can descend down the other side for better views, or just turn around.

    The first quarter (and thus also the last quarter) of the route is the most challenging – you’re going uphills on a terrain full of rocks and stones and there are a few points in which you may need your hands a bit (nothing too grueling). Make sure you bring water and sturdy shoes, too.

    Have any other questions about these hikes in Alaska, or know of other hikes you think I should add to the list? Let me know in the comments below!

    Alaska eBook Bundle Hero

    Need More Alaska Travel Advice?

    My Alaska ebook bundle will help you plan an unforgettable Alaska trip, with tips on what to do in Alaska (including on a cruise), where to go, and the best Alaska itineraries.

    Get the bundle for just $19.99!

    Help others discover this post too!

    Avatar photo

    I was born on the East Coast and currently live in the Midwest – but my heart will always be out West. I lived for 15 years in Alaska, as well as four years each in California and Washington. I share travel resources and stories based on my personal experience and knowledge.

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published.