You don’t have to drive far from Anchorage to hike a popular, easy trail, and spend some time relaxing next to an impressive waterfall. Thunder Bird Falls is easy to access, the hike is relaxing and short, and it can all be done in just a couple of hours — even if you allow plenty of time for admiring the falls.
Thunder Bird Falls is just one of many attractions in Chugach State Park – the playground for Anchoragites (or is it Anchoragians? neither one sounds quite right). From the city, take a drive up Highway 1, the Glenn Highway. Just past mile marker 25, you’ll see an exit for Thunder Bird Falls. The exit is only available for northbound traffic — if you’re coming from Wasilla or Palmer, you’ll need to go to the next exit and turn around.
It was my first day in Alaska, not only on this trip, but in my entire life. I had arrived in the middle of the night, caught a few hours of sleep, and then suddenly had the realization that I was here, actually here, and I could go and do anything I wanted. But that left me somewhat stunned. There was so much to do, what would be first?
I decided to set an easily attainable goal. I’d drive up the Glenn Highway, and go for an easy hike to acclimate myself to the area. Thunder Bird Falls seemed like a good choice.
From the parking lot, there’s just one path to follow. The trail runs along a ledge, with the Eklutna River down below. It’s slightly uphill but easy to hike, and you’ll probably run into a good number of other hikers. Even without the promise of a waterfall at the end, this would be a nice, relaxing hike through the forest. I breathed deeply, absorbing the oxygen and the realization that I really was, finally, in our 49th state.
That ledge could be dangerous! Obey the humorously-altered signs.
Eventually, the trail turns to follow Thunder Bird Creek, which flows into Eklutna. Before long, you have a choice:
You can either take a boardwalk to a viewpoint of the falls, or hike down to the creek, and follow it up to the foot of the waterfall. I took the boardwalk first…
… which continued to prove itself to be quite pretty. At the end…
… was a somewhat distant and fairly shadowy view of Thunder Bird Falls. From this point, you can see more of the falls than you can from the creek below, but you’re a good distance away from it, and you have to dodge tree branches.
I backtracked, then headed down the other part of the trail to the creek.
Along the edge of the creek, these giant roots are the most interesting thing to see, until you reach the waterfall itself.
The falls comes crashing down the hillside into a small pool of water. You’ll probably have to wait your turn for the best viewing spots, since the waterfall is so popular with visitors and locals. But with some patience, you’ll get to enjoy the cool spray of water, and a fairly decent view of most of the falls.
Most of the falls was shadowy, but the sky was clear and bright, which made it a tricky photo to capture. Bring a tripod and use a slow exposure…
… to capture the motion in the water, and don’t be disappointed if your best shot doesn’t show the whole thing.
The Bottom Line
The drive up to Thunder Bird Falls will take about a half-hour from Anchorage, and hike out to the falls will probably take a similar amount of time. It’s about one mile, one way, from the trailhead to the falls. Just about anyone should be able to do the hike – at least out to the viewpoint at the end of the boardwalk. It’s a good place to start your Alaska adventure, or just fill in a gap of a couple of hours between your other awesome plans.
Here’s a dashcam drivelapse video of the trip from Anchorage up to Thunder Bird Falls: