Chugach State Park

Anchorage's Crown Jewel
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Hikers spot Dall sheep on Flattop Mountain
Hikers spot Dall sheep on Flattop Mountain

Though neither as high nor as remote as its eastern extension, the western Chugach, beyond its civilized fringes, is a wild and rugged mountain kingdom, rich with wildlife, jagged spires, forested valleys, rushing streams, tundra meadows, and alpine lakes. Within Chugach's park boundaries are 155 peaks—the highest is 8,005-foot Bashful—dozens of glaciers, 2,000 Dall sheep, 500 mountain goats, 400 black bears, 300 moose, 25 grizzlies, and at least 2 wolf packs.

A place of expansive alpine tundra, fringed by boreal forests and coastal waters, the park is seasonally inhabited by nearly 50 species of mammals—from orca whales to little brown bats and 5 species of shrews—100 species of birds, 9 species of fish, and 1 amphibian: the wood frog.

Largely unknown outside the state, the park attracts more than a million visitors annually, 90 percent of them Alaskans, and is regarded by many locals as Anchorage's "crown jewel."

Along the Seward Highway, traffic slows to a standstill. Cars begin pulling over to the side of the road. Binoculars, Instamatics, and video cameras are grabbed. A crowd begins to gather, as both tourists and Alaskans maneuver for a better view of Dall sheep feeding less than 100 feet away. The wild, snow-white sheep pay little attention to the human spectators. Continuing to feed on grasses and willow, they sometimes wander close to the road and show no outward signs of fear, even when people approach to within thirty feet or less. It's a scene that's repeated dozens of times each summer, along one of Alaska's busiest stretches of highway.

More than 50,000 Dall sheep inhabit the state's mountain ranges, from Southcentral Alaska north to the Arctic. They're prized wildlife symbols of three national parks: Denali, Wrangell-St. Elias, and Gates of the Arctic. But nowhere are they so accessible to the public as the Windy Corner area of Chugach State Park, a half hour's drive from downtown Anchorage.

From April through August, ewes, lambs, and young adult rams belonging to the Falls Creek band inhabit steep cliffs and grassy meadows above the Seward Highway between Mileposts 106 and 107. Peak viewing occurs in June and early July, shortly after the ewes have given birth. As many as fifty sheep have been spotted from the highway (twenty or fewer is more the norm), but only rarely will the older, full-curl rams be present—they prefer backcountry solitude.

Biologists aren't sure why the sheep congregate in such large numbers along the roadway, but retired state wildlife manager Dave Harkness believes the cliffs overlooking the Seward Highway contribute to their tolerance of human traffic: "The sheep know they have an easy escape route if they need it. In a few minutes, or even seconds, they can be out of view."

While Windy Corner's sheep are guaranteed to draw a crowd, they are not the only major attraction, or even the biggest, along Chugach State Park's southern boundary, where for twenty-five miles three key elements intersect: the mountains, the Seward Highway, and Turnagain Arm. Surrounded by mountains, "The Arm," as it's locally known, is a forty-mile-long estuary that's one of Anchorage's primary playgrounds, though most of the play is in spring and summer.

By early May the ice is usually gone and both hooligan—oily, smeltlike fish—and humans are back in large numbers. Rock climbers practice techniques on roadside cuts, couples stroll along Turnagain Arm Trail, and families picnic at McHugh Creek. Two miles down the road at Beluga Point, people sit and stare at the thick gray water. Perhaps they're looking for signs of the ghostly white beluga whales that often follow hooligan into the Arm. Belugas, in turn, are sometimes followed by hunting orcas. The presence of either species is likely to slow, or stop, the flow of traffic, creating highway "whale jams" on a par with Windy Corner's sheep jams. Depending on the season, people also come here to camp, fish for salmon, windsurf the Arm's big waves, hike alpine trails, climb ice, and watch for North America's second-largest bore tide, a wall of water up to six feet high.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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