Editor’s Note: Jim DuFresne, the main contributor to MichiganTrailMaps.com, made it to Alaska and sent in his first blog entry.
In Los Angeles, you cruise the Sunset Strip; in Paris, you stroll the Champs-Elyse’es; and in Anchorage, you climb Flattop Mountain. This is the first mountain every kid in Anchorage scales on the way to higher things. Flattop Mountain is to children in Anchorage what the Dune Climb is to kids in Michigan; their first big challenge in life. Only it’s a lot high, 3,550 feet to be exact.
I arrived in Anchorage on one those incredible clear evening when there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the downtown skyline was outlined by the snow-capped Chugach Mountains. On a day like that there may be no more beautiful city in the country than Anchorage.
In the center of all those peaks was Flattop Mountain, it’s distinctive sawed-off peak looking like the buzz-cut of a Marine Sergeant’s head. I knew then and there that my ultimate goal for my week in Alaska’s largest city was to work as hard and quickly as I could in updating my Lonely Planet guide in an effort to free up an afternoon to climb Flattop.
Flattop Mountain and the trail to it are part of Chugach State Park, one of the most unusual state parks in the country. Established in 1970, 11 years after Alaska became a state, Chugach spans over 773 square miles, making it three times the size of Isle Royale National Park and the third largest state park in the country. It’s home to lofty peaks, crisscrossed with wilderness trails and populated by brown bears, moose and dall sheep. A giant wilderness playground.
But the most amazing aspect of the park is that it lies on the edge of Alaska’s largest city, population 291,826. Within 15 minutes you can drive from the tall buildings of the downtown area to the trailhead of Flattop Mountain and within a few minutes after that be above the treeline looking at a stunning panaroma of the city below you.
On the afternoon I had free I called Flattop Mountain Shuttle, which runs a van from Downtown Bicycle Rental on 4th Avenue in Anchorage to the trailhead daily during the summer. There were 14 of us in the van, all non-Alaskans and would-be-mountaineers, ready to conquer Anchorage’s most favorite peak. We had three-hours to hike it, the van was leaving the trailhead at 4 p.m.
This is probably Alaska’s most popular trail, often on the weekend its 50-car parking lot at the trailhead is overflowing. The trek to the top is a 3-mile round-trip and is generally considered an intermediate hike, though at the end you’ll be scrambling on all fours to reach the summit. I arrived with trekking poles and a day pack loaded with water, energy bars and rain gear.
I had no more started climbing when I noticed children on the trail, dogs that looked older than me, mothers with an infant in a backpack, guys running up while sipping from their Camelbacks. One woman that passed me was wearing a dress and footwear that was something between flip-flops and sport sandals.
But for a Michigander like me, this was a climb. We just don’t have alpine in our state or anything like an ascent to Flattop Mountain. Yea, the Dune Climb is a steady uphill trudge to the top but you’re done in 10 minutes or less. It took me an hour to reach the top of Flattop and it was the kind of a trek where toward the end my heart was beating and I had to pause every so often to catch my breath.
When I reached that flat peak there was no view, the clouds were swirling around the mountain and I could barely see where to pick up the trail for the return. Still there I was, on top of a mountain, above the alpine, high-fiveing the other hikers I arrived with as if we had just conquered Mt. McKinley.
I’m from Michigan and I miss the alpine, the Porcupine Mountains just aren’t the same. On the way down I decided that I would devote my remaining six weeks in Alaska to climbing a peak every chance I get.