When we visited Anchorage three years ago Flattop Mountain was at the
top of my list of hikes because there is so much information about it in
all the publications and on websites about the Chugach Mountains that
dominate the view east of the city.
Surely I had to see why it is so popular, no?
Jim and Cody accompanied me on that hike and we did, indeed, see why
it's such a popular hike. Although the steep, rocky upper part of the
main trail is a challenge to ascend and descend, the panoramic views
the summit are spectacular.
Jim, in white shirt, waits for
me to catch up on the steep upper section of Flattop on 6-22-2012.
Now that I've also seen the 360-degree views from
which is lower and easier to climb, I can tell you that the views from
it are equally stunning.
But I still had the itch this summer to climb Flattop again. I've
just been waiting for a weekday (fewer people) and clear
weather. This morning the stars aligned and I drove down to the Glen
Alps parking area to begin my assault on Flattop.
View of Flattop today from the north;
it's not really "flat" on top but it's easy to walk around up there.
It was sunny when I got up at 7:15 AM so I hustled to get ready
to leave for my hike. I wanted to avoid as much morning traffic as
possible but get there before most other hikers and while the sun was
still shining. By mid-afternoon it was overcast and we got some rain in
the evening. The area really needs more rain but I didn't want to
hike in it.
Temps were unusually warm today -- a high of 83 F. in Anchorage, only
the fourth day so far this year above 80 and well above the average of
mid-60s in June.
With such a warm
spring and summer, the wildflowers made quite a show on Flattop's slopes:
I got to the Glen Alps trailhead about 9:15 AM. It's an 18-mile
drive from our campsite at JBER, through the base and eastern side of
There were only about fifteen vehicles in the parking area when I
arrived and paid my $5 Chugach State Park fee. Several trails begin at
Glen Alps, the most popular trailhead in Anchorage. Since we were here
three years ago a second, smaller parking lot has been added beyond and
below the original one. Even with the additional parking both lots fill
up on busy summer days.
The beginning of the Flattop Mountain Trail has been modified, too, with
a wide switchback instead of steps going straight up to the first part
of the trail through some low spruce or fir trees.
There used to be steps going straight up behind the kiosk. Now the trail
switchbacks more gradually.
I went alone today. Jim hiked to the summit of Flattop with me
years ago but knew he didn't want to do this gnarly trail again so close
to his bike race.
Cody did fine last time but he's aged more in the last three years than
we have; I didn't want to stress him that much. Casey would do
fine on the steps and boulders but, well, she's just too much for me to
handle on a steep, unstable trail like this one.
My goal was to go slowly for safety and views, and to have fun.
The mountain and trails were noticeably different today than three years
ago, after that season's record winter snowfall in Anchorage:
Lower part of the Flattop Trail on June 22, 2012
(above) and July 6, 2015 (below)
Here's another comparison from 2012 (next photo) and 2015 (nearby view
today, with flowers):
Today there was no snow on the mountainsides or trails, no mud, no snowmelt.
Instead, the main trail was dry, dusty, and full of scree on the steep upper
As a warm up I did a half-mile loop on the paved, handicapped-accessible
overlook trail above the main parking area. We didn't go up this trail
the last time we were here.
The views are nice from here for folks who are unable, for whatever
reason, to hike all or part of the way up Flattop:
toward Cook Inlet and the Alaska Range
(Denali was visible, but you can't see it in this
View NE to
valley leading up to Williwaw Lakes
View west to
Anchorage Bowl, Cook Inlet, and beyond
the main trail on Blueberry Knoll from the Overlook Trail; Flattop is in
on the main parking area and Overlook Trail from Blueberry Knoll
LOWER FLATTOP TRAIL
Then I hiked up the main trail to the edge of the broad summit of
distance of about 1.7 miles one way and an elevation gain of 1,300 feet.
The lower half of the
trail will get your heart rate up but it isn't nearly as steep or
difficult as the second half of the trail after it intersects with the
upper portion of the Blueberry Trail loop. The Blueberry Trail is an alternate way to hike the
lower part of the mountain.
I marked my route on this trail map
from the kiosk at the trailhead:
My plan was to return on the other (east) side of the Blueberry Trail for the last third of the
descent, like Jim and I did three years ago. It's a more gentle grade up
to the intersection with the main trail. I knew I could do the steeper,
rougher part of the loop on the ascent but preferred the easier way going back
down (bum knees).
As you'll see, that
plan changed completely after I wandered around the summit and saw even
more alternatives for my descent.
When I got to an overlook about 4/10ths of a mile up from the trailhead
I had a good view toward the Alaska Range to the north and I was
delighted to see 20,310-foot Denali!!
trees to the Blueberry Loop (arrow)
view of Denali, North America's highest mountain peak
The view got even more clear as I ascended and a few minutes later I
could also see Mt. Foraker to the left of Denali. Foraker is over 17,000
Redoubt, Iliana, and the other volcanic peaks west of Anchorage and the Kenai
Peninsula were also fairly visible, although there were some low clouds
over them. Very cool!
Unusual clouds on the way up the west side of the Blueberry Loop
At the upper intersection
with the Blueberry Trail I turned right, continuing up the main trail to
the summit. A
sign warns hikers of the difficult trail conditions ahead.
NOW THE HARD PART BEGINS
After about a mile into the ascent I came to the infamous steps, a
couple hundred roughly-placed wooden steps with lots of loose rocks on
either side and between them:
The irregular steps
are hard enough to climb up. I knew they'd be dangerous with my
lousy knees coming back down. I had one trekking pole for balance; two
poles wouldn't have helped much.
I was already looking around for
alternatives to avoid these steps on the descent . . .
Above the steps there is a memorial wooden deck
and then a saddle. This is another point where some hikers turn around so they can avoid the
really gnarly trail from there to the summit.
either turning around at the saddle or figuring out another way up. I saw two trails
traversing the west side of the mountain that looked easier to get to the top and
almost took one of them, but other hikers I saw
said those were actually worse than the main trail.
I knew I'd regret turning around so I just kept going up the main trail.
In retrospect, I'm glad that I continued on.
Looking back down at the saddle, power line valley, and Cook Inlet
A couple younger folks passed me before reaching the saddle. They were
far enough ahead of me, and no one was coming down then, that I
sometimes couldn't tell which way to go through the rocks when I saw
several faint trails going in different directions.
It's easier to pick a good line through the rocks going down,
when you can see more, than it is going up.
Perky alpine flowers
trails to the right are the ones other hikers said were worse . . .
I finally saw a nice fella coming down toward me and I asked him how he
knows which faint trail to take. He pointed out some very faded red (now
pink) and yellow blotches on the rocks and said that is the official
trail, but to go whatever is easiest for me.
That's what I did. Another couple passed me before I reached the top and
I kind of went the way they did until I couldn't see them anymore. It
was easier to follow the trail up and down last time because 1) Jim was
with me (two heads are better than one) and 2) there were so many people
that day, we could just see where they went.
Hiking with fewer
people around has its advantages. It also has disadvantages
Just do it.
The grade is very steep the last few hundred feet of the trail. I
stopped often to look for the best line up and to admire the awesome
scenery around and below me.
It was also fun to see the parking area get farther and farther away:
The tide in Turnagain Arm and Cook Inlet looked to be rather high, which was nice; I like seeing
the water more than the mud flats. And the mountains were more visible than
when we've seen them on the Coastal Trail this visit.
The sunshine and light wind were perfect on the way up and on top of the
mountain. It was a great day for this hike and I tried to make the most
of it, despite the difficulty negotiating the rocks and my growing
anxiety about having to descend that way.
Continued on the
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
Cody the ultra Lab, and Casey-pup
© 2015 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil