It is a gift indeed that our family lives so close to alpine tundra. Growing up in the temperate, lowland forests near Seattle, it was more often than not hikes included a slog through wetlands that smelled of skunk cabbage, peat, and spicy old growth timber. Delightful? Oh, yes, it was (and still is), but on the occasions of high-alpine excursions mom and dad would often lose sight of their middle child, only to find me perched on a rock, staring across the planet, marvelling at contours, valleys, and ridgelines of places that looked bigger than anything I’d ever seen.
I guess some things never change, because if the opportunity presents itself to go UP, I will. Alaska is famous for its rocky reaches of turf that sport tunnel-like trails in the meadow grass, and carpets of tiny but valiant wildflowers that somehow manage to emerge, year after year, despite a harsh winter. It’s delicate but defiant beauty, and I love every meaningful moment I am able to spend within it.
Anchorage is right on the fringe of tundra-land, and we’re double-lucky that access is easy, trails are close-in, and our kid enjoys a romp among the lowbush cranberries and willows as much as we do. Our favorite? Arctic Valley.
I can see it from my living room window, and in the summer those hills beckon in a tantilizing, green come-hither wave. Summer means late-evening hikes, drinking in the cool stillness of high mountain air. We stroll rather than power up the hills, and take time to squish crowberrires in our mouths and taste their sticky tartness, our tongues turning dark purple. But fall is my favorite time, just after the berries are picked and the mountains change their outfits into a fawn-colored dress of drying grass and crimson flame.
It’s easy to reach Arctic Valley. The Glenn Highway leads to the Arctic Valley exit, just a few miles from Anchorage. From there, proceed up a steep, dirt road shared by the military until the views become spectacular and the Arctic Valley Ski Area unfolds in the center of the landscape. Park in one of two designated lots, and pay the fee of $5, which supports the ski area’s year-round efforts to maintain this delicious place. NOTE: Alaska State Parks passes are NOT honored here, so please pay the fee.
The simplest hike for kids is along the wider pathway leading from the chalet and heading between Rendezvous Peak and Mount Gordon Lyon. For a short loop, cross the footbridge at.25 miles (or so) and follow the narrow path that leads through willows, rushes, and the rushing, tumbling creek. For a longer scramble, hitch up your backpack straps, take a swig of water, and proceed up Rendezvous or Mt. Gordon Lyon for a few miles, or all day, depending upon kids’ endurance and your abilities.
Always remember your best wildlife behavior. Moose are frequent visitors, especially in the fall during their Season of Love, known as the Rut. Bears do show up when the berries are plentiful, so watch, make noise, and travel in groups.
Bring plenty of water, extra food, rain gear, hats, gloves, and wear hiking shoes or boots. Alpine trekking is unpredictable in both terrain and weather, and a happy hiker is a prepared hiker.
The area is a former Nike Missile site; therefore, some areas are off limits. Like, really off limits. Don’t go there. You will be fined and perhaps hauled off to face the music in town. But do read up on the history of our Cold War defense system; it’s quite fascinating.