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Story Last modified at 11:05 p.m. on Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Out on the town
A wilderness getaway might be closer than you think

BY MATT TUNSETH
Alaska Star

photo:News

Hikers make their way up a hill after returning from viewing Thunderbird Falls on June 5. The trail is a popular local day-hiking destination, only about a mile long.
STAR PHOTOs by Matt Tunseth
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A fisherman prepares to try his luck in Ship Creek after baiting his hook with salmon eggs on June 5 in Anchorage. Ship Creek is a close-to-home salmon fishing alternative.

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Dawn Berube, Amelia Dillon and Jennifer Miller make their way back from viewing Thunderbird Falls on June 5.

photo:News

A fisherman waits to cast into Ship Creek in Anchorage on June 5. The fishery, located just 15 miles from downtown Eagle River, supports an annual run of king salmon. Last year, Eagle River teen Chaunti Hall won the derby with a 42.9 pound whopper.

Daylight now stretches into the wee hours, the fireweed has begun its death march skyward and fishing rods have replaced skis on top of people's cars. Summer can no longer be ignored.

So now what?

Area residents still adjusting to the newfound freedom from winter's grip can find a bevy of outdoor recreational opportunities within 30 minutes of their driveway. The trick is knowing where to look.

To help make the search easier, the Star has put together a list of some of the area's hottest spots for getting out and about this summer. It's not a complete list, but if you're just looking for a quick getaway, there's a good chance one of these places will have what you're looking for.

Although many Chugiakers and Eagle Riverarians head to the Kenai or Mat-Su for their weekend getaways, not everyone can afford a hundred bucks just to fill up the truck. So to keep things close to home, we've only included places within 20 miles of downtown Eagle River.

Now, take your mom's advice: Get outside and play!

Eagle River Nature Center

Distance from downtown Eagle River: 12 miles

How to get there: Follow Eagle River Road until it ends. There you'll find the center, an independently operated nonprofit facility within Chugach State Park.

What to do: Hiking, education and wildlife viewing are the primary activities around the center, which serves as the starting (or finishing) point for several popular hikes on well-maintained trails.

"The trails are in great condition," said operations manager Laura Kruger.

Kruger said there are about 12-15 miles of trails around the center, divided between three main routes. The first (and easiest) is the Rodak Nature Trail, a mostly flat route that's less than a mile long but provides ample opportunities for viewing wildlife from the viewing decks at the end of the trail.

"It's beautiful," Kruger said.

For the more adventurous, the three-mile Albert Loop (also relatively flat) takes hikers to the banks of Eagle River and winds through lowland wildlife habitat.

Finally, the Dew Mound Trail is a more moderate hike with some elevation gains and an eventual vista of the Eagle River Valley.

"Other than the distance, it's not too bad, a little hilly," Kruger said.

The center also serves as one end of the Historic Iditarod or Crow Pass Trail, a 25-mile trek that includes river crossings and glacier views as it traverses the Chugach Mountains between the center and Girdwood.

In addition to hiking, Kruger said the center offers educational events each weekend throughout the summer. On June 11, they'll hold one on safe drinking water in the backcountry. The next day, a family-friendly hike is planned, as is a seminar on hiking and camping in bear country.

It's $5 to park in the center's parking lot, and yearly passes are available. However, because the center is operated by a nonprofit, Chugach State Park season passes are not valid.

More information about the center can be found on the center's Web site at www.ernc.org.

Eagle River Campground

Distance from downtown Eagle River: 1 mile

How to get there: Take the Hiland Road exit off the Glenn Highway. Follow signs to a short frontage road, parallel to the northbound Hiland on-ramp, which leads to the campground.

What to do: Family-friendly camping and some fishing are the primary activities at this popular campground, a wilderness area located within a stone's throw of the state's busiest highway corridor.

Wynsong Peters, and her husband, John, are the campground's summertime managers. While fishing in the Eagle River on Memorial Day weekend, Wynsong Peters said the park is usually full most of the season.

"I'd say it's about 85 to 90 percent during the week, then she packs out on the weekends," Peters said.

King salmon fishing in the river is only open four weekends per year: May 28-30, June 4-6, June 11-13 and June 18-20. Always consult fishing regulations before heading out to make sure you're in an area that's open for fishing.

Fish and Game area management biologist Dan Bosch said fishing in the fast-moving, muddy waters of the river is a challenge.

"You've really gotta be patient there," Bosch said.

Wynsong Peters cautioned anyone visiting the campground to make sure and keep all food stored in a secure location. She said at least seven bears were spotted last summer, and keeping food from foraging animals is key to keeping both man and beast safe.

"It's up to us to protect the wildlife," she said.

Camp sites are $15 per night; day parking is $5.

Eklutna Lake Campground

Distance from downtown Eagle River: About 20 miles

How to get there: Take the Glenn Highway north to the Eklutna exit. Take a right on Eklutna Lake Road and follow it to the end.

What to do: With 60 campsites and miles of alpine biking and hiking trails around the scenic lake, the lake is a great place to "get away from it all" while still staying close to home. There's also a boat launch, and kayaks and small boats are a fixture on the lake throughout the summer.

Camping is $10 per night; day parking is $5.

Lower Fire Lake

Distance from Downtown Eagle River: 2 miles

How to get there: Just off the Old Glenn Highway (about a mile north of Fred Meyer), take Lake Ridge Drive to a small parking area.

What to do: Bosch said fishing for northern pike is a good bet at this in-town lake.

"Spawning's over, they're going to be hungry," he said.

Bosch suggested using topwater lures fished in the shallows near shore. Pike can also be harvested with spears or bow-and-arrow – provided the arrow is attached to a line.

Mirror Lake

Distance from downtown Eagle River: About 10 miles

How to get there: Take the Glenn Highway north to the Mirror Lake exit. Turn right for Mirror Lake; left for Edmonds Lake.

What to do: This is the place to go for sunbathing and people- watching beside the lake. On a sunny day, expect to see hordes of beachgoers working on their tans and splashing in the cool water.

There are also water sport opportunities at the lake, which has a fishable trout population.

Mount Baldy

Distance from downtown Eagle River: About 5 miles

How to get there: Take Eagle River Loop to Skyline Drive, follow the road as it winds up the mountainside until it ends at a small parking area.

What to do: A relatively short hike, the trip up Baldy is a must for locals because of the spectacular views of the Eagle River Valley and surrounding vistas, which on a clear day can stretch all the way to Denali. Watch for rocky terrain, and the trail can get muddy. Also, it's a steep climb, so be prepared to sweat.

Thunderbird Falls

Distance from downtown Eagle River: 15 miles

How to get there: Take the Glenn Highway north to the Eklutna exit. Follow the signs to the trailhead, about one-quarter of a mile on the right.

What to do: One of the most popular day hikes in Alaska, the short (about a mile) trip to the falls allows hikers to get close enough to be drenched in the spray from the cascading water above.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, the trail was packed with hikers of all abilities, including children, seniors and casual hikers strolling the gravel trail to the falls. For those not willing to make the short hike down and back to the falls themselves, there's also a viewing area located above that's perfect for taking pictures.

Once at the falls, hikers can take a short trail to the base, or even climb up the side of a rock wall to get a vantage point from higher up. That's what Mat-Su residents Jason Murak and Chelsea Halstead, both 18, did on their trip to view the falls.

Halstead said the tricky climb was worth it.

"You have a really nice view of the top of the falls from there," she said.

Cost to park at the trailhead is $5.

Ship Creek

Distance from downtown Eagle River: 16 miles

How to get there: Take the Glenn Highway south to downtown Anchorage, turn right onto C Street, cross the bridge over the creek and railroad tracks and follow signs to the parking area.

What to do: King salmon fishing at the urban fishery is just starting to pick up, said Fish and Game's Dan Bosch.

"There was actually a pretty good bite this morning," he said on June 6.

Bosch said several fish were picked up on the incoming tide that morning. Most anglers were using Spin-n-Glos with salmon eggs to entice the fish.

Bosch said the incoming tide is a good time to fish, although any time can be right once the bulk of the run hits.

Contact Matt Tunseth at 694-2727 or matt.tunseth@alaskastar.com.



This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, June 8, 2011.