McHugh Peak (4,311 ft.)
If you asked people what the largest cities in the US are, few would guess Anchorage. But there it is at #4–at least, if you’re going by land area alone. By the same token, nobody would ever claim that McHugh Peak, which borders south Anchorage at the southwest corner of Chugach State Park, is the “largest” peak in the Chugach. It’s nowhere near the tallest or hardest, but by land area it’s a sprawling giant. Its southeast ridge steps steeply into Turnagain Arm, its north ridge reaches toward the south face of Flattop, and its eastern ridge winds all the way to Rabbit Lake below the Suicide Peaks. Its western flanks enfold several of South Anchorage’s hillside neighborhoods and don’t flatten out until they reach the New Seward Highway. This great expansiveness and proximity to Anchorage make McHugh an excellent choice for easy day trips, afternoon berry-picking jaunts, long ridge walks, and rocky scrambles. In the winter, it’s an attractive destination for hikes up its wind-blown ridges and backcountry skiing on its mellow north- and west-facing bowls.
McHugh is often climbed from one of three public trailheads: the McHugh Creek trailhead off the Seward Highway, the Rabbit Lake trailhead at the top of Canyon Road, or the Bear Valley trailhead at the top of Snow Bear Dr.
Starting in the 1960’s McHugh was typically accessed from the Stewart Trail, which leads to the peak’s northeast ridge. However, in 2012 local residents Frank and Oxana Pugh erected a large impassable gate to block public use of the trail. The City of Anchorage has repeatedly demanded that the Pughs remove the gate, without success. The group Friends of the Stewart Trail is currently working to restore public access to this route. Until access issues there are sorted out, stick with the signed public trailheads to avoid problems. If you do decide to bypass the gate and are harassed while on the Stewart Trail, do not sign any documents and call APD if you are threatened.
Bear Valley Route (North Ridge)
The North Ridge Route, from the Bear Valley tailhead at the top of Snow Bear Drive, is a fun Class 2 ridge walk with 2,300 feet of elevation gain and excellent views over Anchorage and across the inlet. Unfortunately, the most difficult thing about this route is parking: the official Chugach State Park trailhead only has room for about six cars, parked tightly between two signs. If you park anywhere else in the small lot, you risk having your car ticketed, towed, or vandalized. Because of the problematic access, this trailhead is best tackled on weekdays or in the off-season. Otherwise, be prepared to have (and use) a backup plan.
So you lucked out and got one of the spots? The trail begins right at the parking lot. It traverses through brush and then begins switchbacking up toward the broad shoulder of McHugh’s north ridge. After only a third of a mile from the parking lot, the trail hits treeline and opens up into the tundra. Though the main trail can be followed upward, from here all the way to the summit you’re basically free to roam. Just keep slogging toward Point 3,200, the prominent point above you on the ridge. This is the only part of the hike that can feel tedious, though even here the views are excellent, especially up the Rabbit Creek drainage toward Ptarmigan and the Suicides.
Once you reach the top of Point 3,200, follow the crest of the ridge 1.9 miles to the summit of McHugh. The wind-swept tundra and rocky ridgeline is easy to follow and runs at a fairly shallow angle, though there are two prominent notches during which you’ll lose (and regain) about 150 feet of elevation each time. This ridge is well-traveled and there is an informal trail running along it most of the way. At the last rocky point before the summit, the trail disperses onto a broad face that sweeps up toward McHugh’s craggy crown.
Once you reach the summit ridge, the view opens up and you’ll be able to see down the McHugh Creek drainage toward Turnagain Arm. Whether you decide to climb the true summit of McHugh or not is up to you: while the Bear Valley route up McHugh is just an adventurous Class 2, the final few feet to the true summit qualify as Class 4 (light rock climbing). The crag is climbed from the north side up an obvious, well-worn route that steps up a steep grassy gully, traverses a few feet to the east and then requires that you climb about 8 feet up the final rock. Anyone who’s been to a climbing wall would probably wonder what all the fuss is about, but there is exposure and it would be wise to move cautiously and deliberately, especially if it’s your first time.
Rabbit Creek Route (East Ridge)
The Rabbit Creek route is probably the least-used because it’s longer and less intuitive, but it has its perks. Unlike at the Bear Valley trailhead, finding parking at the Rabbit Creek trailhead is all but guaranteed year-round. The Rabbit Creek route requires far less elevation gain than the McHugh Creek route. And the rocky backcountry ridges, tundra cascades, wind-blasted passes, and plentiful berry patches on McHugh’s eastern ridges are fun to stroll through and explore.
To access the Rabbit Creek route, park at the Rabbit Creek Trailhead at the end of Canyon (Upper Hiland) Road. This trailhead lacks the signage and trappings of most Chugach State Park trailheads (including the parking fee!), but it is an official parking area. If your car doesn’t have good clearance or if the road is in poor condition, you may want to park at the lower parking lot and walk the last few hundred feet to the gate.
The Rabbit Lake Trail is about as exciting as hiking on a road, which is exactly what it used to be. From the trailhead it beelines up the valley, staying a few hundred feet below brush line and only wobbling slightly as it crosses avalanche runouts. Though you could bushwack across the valley toward McHugh at any point, as you head higher up the valley the brush gets thinner and the Rabbit Creek ravine gets shallower. At roughly the 2.5 mile mark, the Rabbit Lake trail reaches a high point below Ptarmigan Peak and then begins to descend slightly into the upper valley. A line of old wooden fenceposts runs perpendicularly across the trail. Around this point the brush begins to give way to open tundra and the views open up a bit. The Rabbit Lake trail uncoils a little into multiple paths, though it remains easy to follow.
At this point, you have options. You can head south off-trail here, thread through the brush, climb down and then up the small Rabbit Creek ravine, and then head up McHugh’s northern bowls and faces. Alternately, you can continue up the Rabbit Lake Trail all the way to the lake and then make a hairpin turn onto the east ridge.
The routes marked on my map are really just suggestions, and it’s up to you to find your way through this collection of shallow ridges, rocky outcrops, and tundra slopes.
Whichever route you take, you’ll end up on McHugh’s east ridge. It has a few outcrops that you may not want or need to climb over, but it’s generally easy to follow and fairly low-angle. Just follow the ridge west to the summit of McHugh. My notes on the summit pinnacle itself are in the Bear Valley route description above.
McHugh Creek Route (West Ridge)
The McHugh Creek Route up the west ridge starts nearly at sea level and requires just over 4,300 feet of elevation gain to reach the summit–far more than any other route. But while this route adds some thigh-burning it also features more variety than the other routes: it starts in groves of huge cottonwood trees, winds through the brilliantly-colored site of the 2016 McHugh Creek wildfire, and traces the wind-blasted crest of McHugh’s west ridge to the summit of McHugh Peak.
Because it is south-facing in a high-wind area next to the ocean, this route is often fully snow-free as soon as early May. In fact, it is arguably the most reliable early-season hike in the Chugach, and is often snow-free long before traditional early-season hikes like Bird Ridge or Wolverine.
Drive the Seward Highway to the McHugh Creek parking area. There is ample parking here year round for $5 (or an annual State Parks Pass), and the trailhead is located at the end of the uppermost parking lot.
Follow the large-well-maintained trail about 400 feet until it intersects with the Turnagain Arm Trail. Turn left (northwest) onto the Turnagain Arm Trail and follow it about a third of a mile to the signed cutoff for the McHugh Lake Trail. There are many unofficial trails, game trails, and old inholding trails in this area. While they are fun to explore, unless you know the area well it would probably be fastest to stay on the main trail.
Partly because it becomes snow-free so early in the season, the McHugh Creek drainage is notorious for bear sightings and encounters. Make noise, carry bear spray, and follow other best practices for traveling in bear country.
At the signed intersection, cut right/northeast/uphill onto the McHugh Lake Trail. This smaller trail switchbacks uphill until it gets above the V-shaped cut bank of McHugh Creek and then parallels the creek all the way back to McHugh and Rabbit Lakes, beneath the Suicide Peaks. In 2016, a large wildfire tore through portions of the McHugh Creek drainage, leaving a striking landscape of brilliantly-colored orange and green mosses between the charred, fire-sculpted trunks of burned trees.
After about a mile and a half, the McHugh Lake Trail passes the base of a prominent rock and tundra gully with a small trail leading up it. This trail is not marked on official maps, but it is nearly as well-defined as the rest of the McHugh Lake Trail itself. Follow the trail .7 miles straight uphill to the ridgeline. Go off-trail as necessary or desired, but don’t get sidetracked by the many sheep trails cutting horizontally across the mountainside. Toward the crest of the ridgeline the trail gradually disperses and disappears into loose rock.
At the ridgeline, views open up north toward downtown Anchorage. Follow the ridgeline 1.5 miles over the top of Ruby (the west summit of McHugh Peak) and then on to the summit of McHugh Peak itself. Hikers determined to follow the crest of the ridge may find some adventurous Class 3 scrambling, but steeper sections are generally easily avoided by moving onto the north side of the ridgeline.
From the summit either retrace your steps or drop off the ridge to the south for a cross-country downhill to the McHugh Lake Trail. The brush on the south side of McHugh is not at all bad by Chugach standards, though the tundra and grasses can be steep and slippery.
More Information and Resources
- Alaska State Park’s guide for the Turnagain Arm Trail, which also shows the McHugh Lake Trail