Alaska Road Trip Part 2: Chugach State Park
Camp next to a secluded tarn in quiet Hanging Valley on this out and back trip within Chugach State Park.
Standing in downtown Anchorage, it isn’t hard to find Chugach State Park. Just look to the east, where the horizon is defined by its lofty summits and deep valleys. Chugach is one of the largest state parks in the U.S. and has numerous areas to explore. After returning from a rainy few days in Seward, we set out for a quick overnight into one of the park’s valleys.
We started our trip at the South Fork Eagle River trailhead, about a 30 minute drive from Anchorage. The trail is popular with day hikers, and is well maintained as it rises steadily along the side of a ridge. Several trails branch off the main path, but we continued along the South Fork Valley Trail towards Eagle and Symphony Lakes. As we took in the views of the valley before us, to the east we could see Hanging Valley, our destination, intersecting the main valley.
We continued on the South Fork Valley Trail as it descends and crosses the South Fork Eagle River over a small wooden footbridge. A little less than half a mile from the bridge, we located a narrow unmarked side trail that branches to the east into Hanging Valley. Some hikers returning from a day trip in the valley approached us at the junction, surprised to see our destination was the valley they considered a hidden secret. After promising to treat the valley with care, we followed the single track trail as it rises into Hanging Valley, through fields of wild blueberries and past several small ponds.
As we reached the end of the valley, the trail edged around the left side of a small tarn, and rose over a crest of alpine tundra. The weather was turning cold and windy. To our right, a steep winding trail led up to Hanging Valley Lake, a large picturesque tarn surrounded by a steep cirque of mountain peaks. A quick, but strenuous jog up the hill revealed several mediocre spots for camping on the far side of the lake.
Returning to the group, we pushed on deeper into the valley instead, which ends in a second amphitheater of jagged summits. Just before the final climb, a small tarn to the left side of the trail flanked by a large meadow offered an excellent place to camp, and one more sheltered from the wind. We pitched out tents with plenty of time to make the steep climb to Hanging Valley Lake unburdened. From the tarn, one can also continue to the top of the ridge for 360 degree views of Hanging Valley and down to Eagle and Symphony Lakes.
Our hike out the next morning brought some of the first real sunshine we have seen so far on the trip. Alaska’s fall colors were just beginning to show here, giving us hope we might catch their peak farther north in Denali National Park, our next destination.
Fees: No entry fee.
Best Time To Go: Late Summer. Early September brings fall colors and wild blueberries, but be prepared for chilly temperatures and unpredictable weather.
Other Attractions: Alaska State Fair, held at the end of August in nearby Palmer, features your typical fair attractions and rides, concerts, and other events.