Eagle Lake below Eagle and Cantata Peak, South Fork Eagle River, Chugach State Park, Alaska

Southcentral Alaska centered around Anchorage has abundant, photo worthy pristine wilderness landscapes viewable right from the highways. It’s also a hiker’s paradise and you will find Alaska’s biggest network of trails here. I take full advantage of all the roadside landscape photo ops. However, as an avid hiker and backpacker, there is something special to me in capturing landscapes that are more off-the-beaten-path. The further you go somewhere under your own power, the more photographers you leave behind and the more unique your images become. Walking to a photo destination is a great stress reliever and creativity booster.

There are many more photo worthy hikes than what are mentioned here. These are just a start. All of these have easily accessible trailheads and the trails are clearly defined and easy to follow and lead to magnificent photo ops provided the light is favorable. So, pair down your camera gear to the bare essentials, lace up your trail shoes, get out there, and create some special backcountry images!

There are several places to get detailed directions to these trailheads, like AllTrails, Summit Post and even off alaska.org so I won’t re-invent the wheel here. This narrative is mostly about the photography potential and experience.

View of Portage Glacier and Portage Lake – a 2 mile hike from Portage Pass Trailhead near Whittier.

1. PORTAGE PASS AND LAKE

Description: A short, steep hike to a low pass (800’) that continues down to Portage Lake within Chugach National Forest. The pass separates Cook Inlet Basin from Prince William Sound. The trail starts from just pass the tunnel enroute to Whittier. It’s a 1.25 mile hike to the summit where you see a grand reveal of Portage Glacier and the surrounding Chugach.

What’s there to photograph: Sweeping views of Portage Glacier with the lake in the foreground and towering peaks above. Verdant green heather landscape in low elevations, and wildflowers, mostly river beauty (dwarf fireweed) along the lake in July and early August. If there are any icebergs on the lake they will likely be at that end. Up in the pass there are also good views of Passage Canal and the deep blue marine waters.

Best lens(es) in full frame equivalent: Personally, I like the 70-200mm perspective of the glacier and surrounding mountains. With all landscape locations, I am prepared with 2 lenses: a wide angle zoom (14-35) and short telephoto zoom (70-200).

Best times: The glacier gets first and direct morning light, however, dramatic light also takes place in the evening even though the glacier itself is in shadow. Best season is June to September. Winter sees extreme avalanche danger. Pay close attention to the tunnel schedule. Here’s the link: https://dot.alaska.gov/creg/whittiertunnel/schedule.shtml

Pros: Short easy hike with million-dollar views of Alaska’s most visited glacier. Quaint town of Whittier to hang out in on a warm day to enjoy beverages and/or lunch along the waterfront.

Cons: Frequent bad weather, dealing with the tunnel schedule and gaining popularity now that Whittier is a port of call for Princess Cruises. Catch the first tunnel from Bear Valley to Whittier (5:30AM in summer). You can be up on the pass and photographing good light around 6:15AM, well before the masses arrive. Use the forecast for Whittier NOT Anchorage for picking a day to go.

Hiker nearing the summit of Bird Ridge in Chugach State Park.

2. BIRD RIDGE

Description: Another short hike close to Anchorage within Chugach State Park with stunning views of Turnagain Arm and the Chugach Mountain backcountry. The hike is only 4.5 miles round trip but comes with a significant caveat – it’s steep climbing 3300’ in a little over 2 miles. Good thing it is low elevation. Starting at sea level, altitude is not an issue. Trailhead is right off the Seward Highway just before crossing Bird Creek. This a popular training trail for Mt. Marathon and other adventure races.

What’s there to photograph: Of all the photo hikes mentioned in this blog, Bird Ridge by far is the most visually exciting to me, especially in June with lingering snow, verdant green and wildflowers. Fantastic mountain views with deep green mountainsides and, in season, lots of wildflowers all above Turnagain Arm. (Alaska’s most visited fjord and the one and only road south of Anchorage which winds along the south side of this ocean fjord.) My usual approach is to scale the peak then do most of my shooting on the way down.

Best lens(es) in full frame equivalent: You can make good images with all lenses here. If you are going minimalist due to the strenuous hike and want one lens you can’t go wrong with then choose a 24-something high quality zoom.

Best times: Evening and sunset. In late June, around the solstice, the sun sank behind mountains to the northwest around 10:30PM. You can hike Bird Ridge year round. We’ve snowshoed up there several times in late winter (March).

Pros: Short hike close to Anchorage with great mountain and water views. You break out of the trees at about 1500’ and you have unparalleled views in multiple directions for the rest of the hike. Lots of wildflowers like geranium, lupine, paintbrush and fireweed.

Cons: It’s a knee killer on the way down! Trekking poles really help. Unless there are lingering snow fields you can utilize, it is a dry hike so on a hot day you will need to take at least 2 liters. You never really lose the sound of traffic on the Seward Highway but you can easily eliminate it from compositions.

Mid August sunset view of Cantata Peak (6410’) in the clouds and Eagle Lake, from Rendezvous Peak Trail.

3. SOUTH FORK EAGLE RIVER & EAGLE AND SYMPHONY LAKES

Description: A beautiful and relatively easy hike to 2 gorgeous lakes ringed by big peaks in the heart of Chugach State Park – a wilderness mountain park that is larger than Grand Teton National Park. This trail is in my “backyard” and my stomping grounds for over 30 years. The easy to find trailhead is way up on Hiland Road in Eagle River. The trail is great but sometimes wet in places for the first 5 miles out to the outlet of Eagle Lake then it deteriorates across a treacherous boulder field to get to the medial moraine that separates the 2 lakes. Elevation gain to Eagle Lake is only 800 feet. There are several other options here like Hanging Valley Trail and Hunter Pass/Rendezvous Peak trails.

What’s there to photograph: The main attraction are the views of Calliope Mountain, Cantata Peak, and Eagle Peak with 2 lakes – the glacial, turquoise Eagle Lake and the clear Symphony Lake. The South Fork of Eagle River, which the trail follows, is also a nice foreground of moving water that is often a pretty blue glacier color. There’s so much more. Depending upon how much time and energy you have, you can climb Rendezvous Ridge on the west side of the valley and/or continue well beyond Symphony Lake toward Triangle Peak with stunning views of glacier lakes below and the deep Chugach backcountry overlooking Ship Creek drainages.

Best lens(es) in full frame equivalent: You can make good images with all lenses here. If you are going minimalist due to the strenuous hike and want one lens you can’t go wrong with then choose a 24-something high quality zoom.

Best times: Evening and sunset. From June into early August, you can stay at the lakes until direct light on the peaks is gone and still can hike back to the trailhead without a flashlight. I’ve hiked the 6 miles to the lakes several times for sunset, returning to the vehicle around 2-3AM. Believe it or not, there are still hikers out there. There are wildflowers all summer but not massive fields. My favorite time for here is late August to mid-September. In a good year the fall tundra colors are just awesome! Reflections on Symphony Lake are better than Eagle due to it having clear water. You can also go a short distance off trail to the river and play with slow motion shots of the rapids.

Pros: Except for the first 1/4 mile in the spruce trees, the trail is almost entirely in the alpine and views of the high peaks never get old. The trail is relatively fast out to the outlet of Eagle Lake. I think on good days with good light there are just too many good photos to describe. As long as you are past the bridge that goes over the outlet of Eagle Lake on your return, you can easily follow this trail back to the trailhead in the dark with a headlamp if necessary.

Cons: Lower-48 sized crowds on weekends and in late August in berry picking season where the parking can be challenging. Even with that, I’ve never seen another photographer with a tripod while I’ve been out there doing photography. You will see a lot of gun toting peeps on the trail. As with anywhere else, the further you go back or up on Rendezvous Ridge you will lose the crowds. Overuse scars from inconsiderate people are visible along certain parts of Eagle Lake. Going across the talus field requires caution. This is not the place to turn an ankle or scrape the skin off your shin bones. Though the park keeps improving the trail you will get your shoes muddy.

Hiker in front of Raven Glacier, near Crow Creek Pass.

4. CROW PASS

Description: This is another gem north of Girdwood and Alyeska Resort in Chugach National Forest. Crow Pass Trail is a marathon run going 23 miles to Eagle River Nature Center. But you only need to go to the pass, a 3-mile, 2100’ climb to get into some good stuff up in the alpine. The trail is moderately steep often dotted by wildflowers in the summer. The pass is at 3550’ and often there is lingering snow and even some ice on Crystal Lake into early July. After the pass, the route continues with more fantastic scenery and you cross over from Chugach National Forest into Chugach State Park. If you are a really hardy and fit shooter and want an epic Alaska day or overnight adventure, do the whole trail. You will need a shuttle or a pick-up at Eagle River. For good reason almost all hikers go from Girdwood to Eagle River. With the long days of summer you can do this in one day but expect 12+ hours to complete not accounting for time to craft a lot of shots. You will need to ford the glacial Eagle River. Once across the river, views are limited by dense forest but if lucky, you can stop at the viewing deck near the end and get commanding views of Polar Bear and Eagle Peaks bathed in warm evening light.

What’s there to photograph: There’s a lot of variety here. There are wildflowers in season with even some photographable views close to the trailhead. Most of the route is in the alpine with unlimited views. There are a couple of nice waterfall shots and the trail crosses a beautiful cascading stream near the pass. At the pass there is the glacier blue Crystal Lake that makes a nice foreground for surrounding peaks. There is also a USFS Public Use Cabin (you need reservations so be respectful of occupant’s space). Just over the summit is Raven Glacier which is rapidly disappearing but it still makes for a great backdrop with hikers in the foreground. In early summer (into early July) lingering snowfields and the meltwater from them also add visual interest. Mountain goats also frequent the area and are accustomed to being around people. But like all wild animals their movements and presence are not a guarantee.

Best lens(es) in full frame equivalent: You can make good images with all lenses here. If you are going minimalist due to the strenuous hike and want one lens you can’t go wrong with then choose a 24-something high quality zoom. I like bringing a 70-200 here to get nice waterfall and flowing water close-ups and/or to possibly capture environmental portraits of mountain goats if they are nearby.

Best times: Afternoon to sunset. As with many very mountainous locations you don’t actually see the sunset as it goes behind ridges long before setting. But late-day light is best on Raven Glacier and surrounding mountains. Season is summer/fall as there would be significant avalanche danger and the low winter sun would never really illuminate the valley.

Pros: Fantastic mountain scenery with verdant green hillsides, cascading streams, a glacier (visible from the pass), and possible wildlife. If backpacking/primitive camping isn’t your jam and you want to overnight, you can try to reserve the Crow Pass Cabin off recreation.gov but it is in high demand and the chances of it being nice while you are there are marginal but possible. Better to cherry pick your day to go and hike down in dusk if necessary.

Cons: Road to trailhead (turn on road to Double Musky Inn) can be bumpy, steep and narrow near the top. Parking lot is small. The first mile of trail is brushy and lined with alders with limited visibility so make your presence known. You don’t want to surprise a bear.

Lupine along Lost Lake Trail with Lost Lake and Mt. Ascension in the background.

5. LOST LAKE TRAIL

Description: This is the longest trail mentioned in this blog and it is also the furthest away from Anchorage. It can easily be done as a day hike, especially on long summer days but expect 4-5 hours of driving round trip. The trail is 15-miles and a point to point hike. The north end starts at Primrose Campground at the south end of Kenai Lake, 17 miles from Seward. The southern trailhead is just north of Seward by the fire station where you turn on Lost Lake Trail Road. You can do this hike as an out and back from either trailhead. If doing an out and back, I prefer the northern end. The middle 7 miles is in the alpine with roughly 3.5 miles on either side in what I call a “green tunnel” as you walk through the forest. I would rate this as an easy hike with only 2600’ elevation gain. At a casual pace with no photo stops you can do this in 6 hours. In June to mid-August there is abundant daylight. You can also do this as an overnighter and even walk all the way around the huge glacial Lost Lake. Fresh water is abundant here and there is no need to pack any more than a liter of water and a filter like a Sawyer Squeeze.

What’s there to photograph: If Lost Lake were anywhere else in the Lower-48, it would be a national park. The alpine landscape is just stunning! Some of the biggest fields of lupine I’ve seen are along this trail in June to mid-July. The middle 7 mile alpine section is the rock star here and it’s where you will want to spend most of your time. Even though Lost Lake dominates the foreground there are several small ponds along or nearby the trail that make for great foregrounds with mountain backdrops. The trail climbs to its highest point south of the lake toward the Seward side. Even without wildflowers the lush green landscape in stark contrast with lingering snow and sharp alpine peaks is pure visual delight. The fall colors are equally as impressive and with the warmer coastal influence, fall tundra colors last into late September here.

Best lens(es) in full frame equivalent: You can make good images with all lenses here. For this hike for me, it is worth carrying 2 lenses – a wide zoom (14-35) and a tele zoom (70-200). If you are going minimalist bring one lens like a 24-105 and a tripod so you can get maximum depth of field for flowers and tundra colors and do slow motion water work.

Best times: Both morning and evening light are good here. In fact, you can find something good to shoot here in almost all lighting conditions. Sunrise and morning work best for reflections off the ponds or Lost Lake itself. As with many very mountainous locations you don’t actually see the sunset as it goes behind ridges long before setting.

Pros: Fantastic mountain scenery, verdant greenery, abundant wildflowers, great tundra fall colors, little ponds and streams, and nice campsites with tent pads and bear boxes. In late season you can stay late especially on the Seward side and hike back under headlamp. The trail is easy and wide and you won’t get lost. Relatively long hiking season with minor snow issues in the alpine in June. If you are willing to filter water, you can get away with carrying very little making it easier to carry camera gear as 2 liters is 4 pounds alone.

Cons: Can get really crowded with mountain bikers on weekends but it is highly unlikely you will have any interference or competition for photo spots or people ruining any landscape view. A car shuttle or hitchhike along the Seward Highway is required to do a through hike here but on a nice day it’s worth it! Consider staying in Seward or Cooper Landing. Coastal climate means rainy days, but in summer, mist and fog make for even better flower photography.