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Destination: Alaska

Anchorage's Outback

At the city's edge, Chugach State Park serves up wilderness by the hour or day

June 21, 1998|BILL SHERWONIT

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — On a Friday evening in late spring, the sun was still high, promising enough daylight hours for me to unwind in Chugach State Park, the "accessible wilderness" that borders the east side of this city. After only a 30-minute drive from my home downtown and a 45-minute hike up the park's Flattop Mountain, I gazed out across hundreds of square miles of south-central Alaska, from the 20,320-foot Denali (also known as Mt. McKinley) to the north to the Cook Inlet at my feet.

In a state with 19 peaks above 14,000 feet and 17 of the nation's 20 highest mountains, Flattop is a mere bump at 3,550 feet. But this sawed-off mountain has an extraordinary allure for us locals. Less than 15 miles from downtown and visible throughout the city, Flattop is easy to find, easy to reach and, as mountains go, easy to climb. From the main trail head, it's only 1 1/2 miles and 1,350 feet in elevation gain to the summit. And in summer no climbing expertise is needed; the ascent is more of a strenuous hike, taking anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours depending on expertise. Some rock scrambling is necessary near the top.

Nearly all of Anchorage's 250,000 residents, it seems, have climbed Flattop, or at least tried. And enough have succeeded to make it easily the most-climbed mountain in Alaska, as well as one of the principal attractions in Chugach State Park.

Not many non-Alaskans visit the park. It gets barely a mention in mainstream guidebooks. Yet it is an incomparable diversion for people passing through Anchorage en route to popular tourism destinations. It is the perfect place to stretch your legs after a long flight, or while stopping over for a cruise, or before heading into the outback of Denali National Park. Regardless of age and back-country experience, any visitor with access to a car can sample what Chugach has to offer, from high-risk sports such as mountain climbing to leisurely picnicking, berry picking and bird-watching.

The most popular trails start from city streets. There are no roads through the park, but many attractions are along or accessible from the city's two main highways, Seward and Glenn.

Established in 1970, the state park encloses the western edge of the Chugach Mountains, a 300-mile-long coastal range that arcs from Cook Inlet almost to the Canadian border.

Inside its civilized fringes, the park has 495,000 acres of rugged mountain kingdom, rich with wildlife, jagged rock spires, forested valleys, tundra meadows, alpine lakes and rushing streams fed by dozens of glaciers. Much of this can be seen on marked trails into the interior, but serious outdoors enthusiasts should set aside at least a few days.

The park is home to 2,000 Dall sheep, 500 mountain goats, 400 black bears, 300 moose, 25 grizzlies and at least two wolf packs. Its seasonal inhabitants range from orca whales to tiny brown bats, from 100 species of birds to one amphibian (the wood frog).

Chugach also is prized for its wildflowers. More than 50 species are found in the park, including geraniums, paintbrush, monkshood, bluebells and fireweed.

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When traffic slows to a standstill on the stretch of Seward Highway that flanks the south side of the park, it's a good bet the Dall sheep are out. Wild as they are, in summer these snow-white sheep forage all the way down to the road and show no signs of fear even when people come as close as 30 feet.

From April through August, ewes, lambs and young adult rams inhabit the steep cliffs and grassy meadows along the stretch of the highway known as Windy Corner, between Mileposts 106 and 107. Peak viewing occurs in June and early July, shortly after the ewes have given birth. As many as 50 sheep at a time have been spotted from the highway (20 or fewer is closer to the norm). Only rarely will the older, full-curl rams be present; they prefer back-country solitude.

Biologists aren't sure why the sheep congregate in such large numbers in that spot, but retired state wildlife manager Dave Harkness believes the cliffs above the highway contribute to the animals' tolerance of human traffic: "The sheep know they have an easy escape route if they need it."

While Windy Corner's sheep are guaranteed to draw a crowd, they are not the only major attraction, or even the biggest, along Chugach State Park's south side, where for 25 miles three key elements intersect: the mountains, Seward Highway and the 40-mile-long estuary called Turnagain Arm. Together they exert a powerful draw.

The ice usually is gone from Turnagain by early May, and the hooligan--oily, smelt-like fish--are back. At Beluga Point (Milepost 110 on Seward Highway), people sit and stare at the thick gray water, looking for signs of the ghostly white beluga whales that often follow the hooligan. Belugas, in turn, are sometimes followed by hunting orcas. The presence of either species is likely to create highway "whale jams" on a par with Windy Corner's sheep jams.

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