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Hiking the McHugh/Rabbit Lakes Trail

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Spoiler alert: I didn’t hike all the way to Rabbit Lake.  And I’m guessing that a lot of people who hike this trail, starting at the trailhead along Turnagain Arm, don’t make it all the way, because it’s a long uphill slog (albeit beautiful).  But the good news is, you don’t have to go all the way to Rabbit Lake, in order to enjoy this trail.  You just have to go far enough to reach a nice viewpoint of Turnagain Arm, and maybe you’ll spot some bears along the way.  I did.

Location

There are two trailheads for Rabbit and McHugh Lakes.  The easier and shorter one is located near Flattop Mountain in the residential eastern hills of Anchorage.  If you choose to use that trailhead, an out-and-back hike to Rabbit Lake will require about 9 miles of hiking, and a 1,200-foot elevation gain.  In other words, a nice, moderate day of hiking.

If you choose to start out at the McHugh Creek Trailhead, along Seward Highway (Alaska Route 1), you face a much more challenging hike.  An out-and-back hike is nearly 13 miles, with an elevation gain of 2,900 feet.

My Visit

It was my first day in Alaska, and I wasn’t mentally or physically prepared for a 13-mile hike.  Arguably, I never will be.  But, I wanted to do some hiking along Turnagain Arm, and I had heard good things about several trailheads along this stretch of the Seward Highway.  So, I picked one, and gave it a try, with the resolve of hiking as far as I wanted to, seeing whatever I could see, and then turning around.  I can’t say that my choice was the best choice of the trails in the area, but it was pretty good.  And it gave me my first encounter with bears in Alaska — before I had even been there for 24 hours.

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The hike begins along the Turnagain Arm Trail, which runs alongside the Seward Highway.  In itself, it’s a good place to go for a hike, and you’ll encounter plenty to see (including views of the highway and the water in some places).  I hiked it a short distance to the turnoff for McHugh Lake, and then started the climb.

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The first part of this trail is shady and wooded.  You’ll pass a lot of interesting trees, but views are limited for a while.

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I passed this sign for a “scenic loop”, but I couldn’t actually see a well-defined trail.  The scenic loop isn’t marked on the trail map, so I avoided it.

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About a half-hour into the hike, I had gained enough elevation that I was starting to encounter viewpoints that actually showed some of the scenic surroundings.  That’s Turnagain Arm in the distance, and beyond it, the northern end of the Kenai Peninsula.

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The further you hike, the more the views improve.  I suspect I would have found more wildflowers along this trail if I was hiking a few weeks later into the summer.

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I received some reassurance that I was on the right path, at this mile marker.  While I made it to mile 1, I never saw a sign for Mile 2, so I’m guessing I didn’t even make it one-third the way to Rabbit Lake.

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A few minutes after the one-mile marker, the views were astounding…

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… and the wildflowers were getting better, too!

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Around the time I came upon this nice view of Rainbow Peak (at least I think that’s the name of this mountain), the trail split.  I knew that the “low road” would continue to curve around the hillside, and on towards the lakes.  And since I knew I wasn’t going all the way to the lakes, I didn’t see much of a point in going around that corner, and losing the view of Turnagain Arm. So instead…

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… I took the trail that ventured through a patch of trees and overgrown brush…

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… and into this amphitheater area, where the mountain peaks wrapped around me.  The trail through the brush and up to this viewpoint was steep, and not as well-established as the primary trail, but I was confident that it would lead to a very good viewpoint of Turnagain Arm and everything else in the area.

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And I was right — it’s a beautiful spot, and a good destination for anyone who doesn’t want to make the full hike to the lakes.  I grabbed a rock and took a seat for, perhaps, 15 minutes.

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And how about that view of Turnagain Arm?!  Yes, I was very happy, relaxing here for a while.  And then, I decided it was time to hit the trail, and hike back down.

The only problem was, I wasn’t the only one on the trail.  I noticed some rustling in that patch of brush and trees, which I had passed through, in order to get up to my viewpoint.  It was the only way up to where I was, and the only way back to the main trail.  I figured it was probably another hiker, who had discovered the same spot.  But no human emerged from the bush.

However, a family of black bears did.

Yep, I had been in Alaska for less than a day, and not only had I spotted my first bear, I was seeing at least three of them: a mother and at least a couple of cubs, making their way through the berry bushes, snacking as they went.

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Take a close look.  Can you see them?

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From this distance, through the lens, they just look like black blobs.  The photographer in me wanted to get closer and shoot some amazing photos, but I was pretty certain that mama bear didn’t know I was there — or at least didn’t care.  I was at least a couple hundred feet away, and I was higher on the hillside, so I was pretty certain she wouldn’t come charging after me.

So I chilled out on the rocks for another 15 minutes or so.  I made some noise, even sang some songs (my apologies to nature), hoping to convince the bears to move along more quickly.  They were unfazed, and continued on a slow path, disappearing into the brush that would, just occasionally, rustle.

For the rest of the hike, I made an effort to be very noisy.  I whistled, talked, sang, and rustled as much as possible.  I didn’t have any more trouble with bears.

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On the way back down, I did spot this sign, saying some sort of side-trail was closed.  Was this the other end of the “scenic loop” that I had seen earlier?

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I don’t know, but I’m guessing the side trail led up to the top of this rock outcropping.  It probably would have been a scenic spot, but on this day, it was unreachable.

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Back at the trailhead, I spent just a few minutes checking out the Turnagain Arm trail.

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From the upper parking area at McHugh Creek Trailhead, the Turnagain Arm Trail drops down to a small waterfall, and this pretty view of the creek.  More beauty awaits on the Turnagain Arm Trail, I’m certain, but for this day I decided I had hiked enough.  I still wanted to spend some time driving the scenic Seward Highway along Turnagain Arm… so that’s where I headed next.

Drivelapse Video

Here’s a look at the drive on Seward Highway, Alaska Route 1, along Turnagain Arm:

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