Visit Adak Island!
Five days in Alaska’s most unexpected tourist destination
July 10-14, 2021
Adak Island isn’t a conventional tourist destination. The island is located in the middle of a storm-wracked archipelago between the North Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea, and there are only two commercial flights in or out per week. The largely-abandoned town of Adak has no hotels, no normal car rental agencies, and no friendly information desk. Aleut Corporation, which now owns much of the town, once attempted to attract visitors and residents with an upbeat but doomed marketing campaign. Now, the most appropriate slogan might be something like “Come for the abandoned buildings, stay because your return flight was grounded by hurricane-force winds.”
And yet, despite being rough around the edges (and in the middle, and everywhere else) there is something irresistable about this place. I first traveled to the island on a caribou hunt in December 2014, and have returned several times since. From the raw, wild landscape to the history to the colorful assortment of folks who call Adak home, I have loved my time here and am always eager to introduce friends to the island. So I was excited when Sarah Bobbe, Dan Volland, and Bronté Smith all agreed to travel to Adak from July 10 to 14, 2021, to backpack in and explore this far-flung but endlessly fascinating place.
Every trip starts with a little last-minute chaos. But we somehow managed to hop the last logistical hurdles minutes before departing for the airport, and soon we were soaring over the Aleutian Islands in an Alaska Airlines 737. The flight from Anchorage to Adak must be one of the most scenic in North America, but I dozed or slept through much of it and before I knew it we were walking out onto the tarmac on Adak Island.
Because the weather on Adak is so unpredictable, we had decided to rent a condo and truck for the entire duration of the trip. That would allow us to choose the best weather window for backpacking (and bail if things turned on us–which often happens in the Aluetians).
In the airport lobby we met up with Aleutian Outfitters, from whom we had rented both our lodging and vehicle. Aleutian Outfitters has developed a big presence on the island in recent years, buying up real estate for its guiding, transportation, and lodging operations. This was the first time I’d rented from the company, and first impressions were good. The condo was functional and clean, and our brown Ford Excursion was brand new… at least by Adak standards.
As it turned out, the weather was fantastic when we landed and the forecast for the next few days was promising. After quickly changing and repacking backpacks in the condo, we piled into the truck and bounced down Finger Bay Road toward the trailhead.
All of my previous trips to Adak had been during the winter or spring, and I was surprised by how lush the island was in July. The hills were carpeted in bright green grass and the purple lupines lining the roadsides almost looked like the work of a lonely but passionately committed gardener.
We parked at the end of Finger Bay Road, pulled on our packs, and tackled our first challenge: wading across the mighty ankle-deep creek running out of Lake Betty into Finger Bay. On the other side, we followed a light hunting trail around the south side of Finger Bay.
As we crested a grassy hill, the ground dropped away into a broad valley hemmed in by rocky knolls and with a shallow, placid creek meandering through its center. I had first seen this place during that initial trip to Adak in December 2014. Even in the winter, this valley had looked so idyllic that we nicknamed it Shangri-La.
There are theories that humans are innately attracted to open landscapes with rolling terrain and moving water sources. These types of landscapes–so the theories go–provided our ancestors with the resources to survive, and live on inside of us as deeply ingrained aesthetic preferences. I can’t speak for the ancient humans, but for Alaska backpackers–many of whom quickly evolve aversions to thick brush, crummy rock, and endless bogs–Adak’s terrain just feels spectacularly right. The tundra is open, water is plentiful, brush is nonexistent, and backcountry routes abound. In many respects, Adak is a backcountry backpacker’s paradise.
At the bottom of the valley, we found the creek surrounded by carpets of wildflowers. Adak is home to at least three dozen species of flowers, including buttercup, daffodil, keyflower, monkshood, hairy catsear, and white bog orchid. The island is also the sole home of the Aleutian Shield Fern, which is the only plant in Alaska on the Endangered Species List.
After crossing the creek we climbed past a waterfall toward a broad pass between Lake Debbie and Scabbard Bay. The evening hiking was sublime. We ambled across broad plains, hopped creeks, and skirted ravines while the evening light played across the hills. Adak had really “dresssed to impress,” as Bronté put it.
We made camp by a small pond on a ridge overlooking Scabbard Bay. As evening fell, the temperature dropped and a thick gray mist coalesced off of the ocean and churned past the mountainsides. Dan found a couple shed caribou antlers, and managed to use one as a tent anchor.
The day had started early in Anchorage and ended on a wind-scoured ridge in the Aleutian Islands. After dinner and a bit of time hanging out in the cool tundra, we were very ready to crawl into our sleeping bags.
Just after 9am, we abruptly woke to the ground shaking underneath us. Earthquakes are a common part of living in Alaska, but feeling the wobbles and sharp jolts move directly from the ground into my chest was new and startling. We later learned that this was a magnitude 4.9 ‘quake, centered about 38 miles southeast of the island. If nothing else, it served as a very effective (and appropriately-timed) alarm clock for the big day ahead.
After breakfast we broke camp and began working our way south along the complex series of benches, ridges, and slopes between the head of Scabbard Bay and the head of Boot Bay. Across a broad valley, the easternmost peaks of Adak moved in and out of the clouds. Below us, a rocky peninsula on Lake Nina Marie looked like the perfect place for a highland castle.
We stopped for lunch on a rocky hill above Boot Bay and enjoyed our first good view of the island’s southern coast. Most of the foot traffic on Adak comes from caribou hunters, but for practical reasons this group rarely hikes farther from the road system than necessary. For the next part of our trip, we would be in the more remote southern half of the island much less frequently seen by those under human power.
During our break we took some time to inspect and bandage one moderately deep cut on a knee. It wasn’t a serious injury, but it was a good reminder that we were far from home and help. The city of Adak recommends that those who journey to the island purchase supplemental rescue insurance, since medical evacuations from the Aleutian Islands are difficult and expensive.
After lunch we dropped onto the broad, rolling, lake-dappled shelf between the head of Boot Bay and Lake Arda.
The grassy rolling terrain on Adak is remarkably uniform from one end of the island to the other, and from the seaside to nearly the tops of the peaks. The joy of backpacking on Adak doesn’t come from seeing a variety of things, but in experiencing all the different iterations of a few things. Every hill, lake, stream, waterfall, ravine, field, and beach is made of the same stuff as every other, but each is unique. On foot, Adak is a near-endless puzzle of creeks to hop, ravines to butt-slide, points to summit, lakes to skirt, and ledges to traverse. Everything is similar, but always new.
We made more miles than we’d planned, and eventually set up camp on the crest of the broad pass between Lake Arda and Gannet Lake. After dinner, we drank wine till the light mist turned to something more like rain and nudged us into our tents.
There was no earthquake again this morning, but the fog was back. It gradually lightened and began clearing as we sat in the tundra eating breakfast.
We sidehilled around Gannet Lake before cutting up into the rolling ridge between Gannet Lake and Lake Betty. I’ve always found the rolling, rumpled terrain in this area to be particularly disorienting. During a winter caribou hunt years ago, several friends and I once hiked here during a windstorm. After shouting over the wind for several minutes we decided to turn around, and one member of the group inadvertently started hiking off the wrong side of the pass. The terrain on Adak can be disorienting to an extent that is almost unbelievable. This goes doubly if the weather is windy or foggy, or if you are tired. On Adak, all of these things are common.
On the other side of the pass we threaded through a series of cliff bands and filled up our water bottles at a waterfall before dropping down the wildflower-studded slopes above Lake Betty.
Once we reached the shore the walking was easier, and we found a light path along the east side of the lake. We alternated walking on the beach, taking the path, or just tromping through the water. Everything was already wet anyway.
At its north end, the outflow from Lake Betty tumbles down a ravine in a series of small waterfalls. Just below the falls we found our car sitting off the side of the road, right where we’d left it.
We headed back to the condo, cleaned up as well as we could, and then stopped by the small Adak liquor store for celebratory drinks. Everything on Adak is expensive, and that includes alcohol. In the end, we decided the most economical choice was Modelo Cheladas and a small bottle of 99 Bananas liquor that I’m not proud of but also don’t regret. Once we rang up our purchases with Lisa, we hit the town.
One of the most well-known landmarks on Adak is the abandoned McDonald’s, which once held the questionably significant title of “farthest west McDonalds’ in the world.” We’d been told that the menu above the counter inside provides evidence that McDonald’s once served pizza, but the windows were boarded up and the building was secured better than perhaps any other on the island.
Next we cruised through the Bayshore development on the east side of town. The tall, sail-like walls of these buildings clearly hadn’t been able to match Adak’s stormy weather, and all of the buildings were in a state of near-ruin. It was hard to see how some were even standing.
On the edge of the Bayshore development we parked at Kuluk Bay beach, which was wide, sandy and surprisingly beachy by Alaska standards. During World War II, Kuluk Bay was once full of battle-ready US Navy warships. Today, it was pretty much just us with our Cheladas. The sand was decorated with small sponges, crab shells, and pieces of colorful fruit salad that had presumably been chucked overboard from a fishing tender anchored in the bay.
After walking up and down the beach we jumped back in the brown Expedition and drove a loop around the bunker-dotted hills just west of town. All of the bunkers were empty, and many were overgrown with grasses and wildflowers. The acoustics inside the larger bunkers were fun and eerie.
The high ground on this part of the island is a 600-foot hill that served as the site of the Cold-War-era White Alice communication system. The only traces we saw of the giant dishes, which were razed in the mid 1980s, were concrete footings and scattered pieces of rusty metal hardware.
After winding back down the White Alice hill, we stopped at the historic Bering Chapel (also called the Old Chapel). This structure is in a state of steady collapse, and every time I visit Adak I think it might be the last time I see the building still standing.
I can’t imagine what it must feel like for people who grew up on Adak to see this iconic landmark disintegrating into the tundra. After the trip, I posted a gallery of photos to a Facebook group for former Adak residents. For most of those who commented, seeing the chapel again was bittersweet:
“I remember carrying a palm frond on palm Sunday as a child there. 74 or 75”
“65-67. My father was the protestant chaplain. I remember the chapel well.”
“It is so sad.. when i was there in 91-93 they had just refinished it…”
“I was married in that chapel in 1970…..”
“Time in that chapel changed my life. So sad.”
Back in town, we went to check out the abandoned hospital. Most of the exterior was boarded up, but a single door on the east side of the building had been left open. The X-Ray machines still dangled from the ceiling, refrigerators were stocked with bags of saline solution, and in the old dental clinic we found a tooth. Dan said it looked fake, but it was hard to be sure.
That night we played Jenga till we didn’t feel like picking up the pieces anymore, and then crawled into beds (or onto couches) for the first time in several days.
Sarah was determined to find the legendary Adak hot springs, which were supposedly located on a beach on the north side of the island. I wasn’t so sure. I’d heard about the springs, but on previous trips we’d never been able to find them and I was starting to believe that talk of them was some kind of long-running prank. But we needed a mission for the day and we were all up for giving it a shot.
As we made our way north, we made the obligatory stop at the small clump of trees called the “Adak National Forest,” and drove the short spur to the west side of Candlestick Bridge. A family of small birds fled on foot from our vehicle straight down the road, and Bronté jumped out to try to steer them into the grass. Success was hard-won but eventually the birds were safe and we continued on our way.
We parked at the Horseshoe Bay overlook and used an old rope to lower ourselves down the steep tussocky tundra to the beach.
Following instructions Sarah had found online, we walked to the far end of the beach and found a faint trail leading up toward a notch in the headlands. The trail was steep, slippery and partially washed out, and a fall would have meant tumbling over an overhanging cliff back onto the beach. When it comes to sketchy scrambling, I was at my limit. Dan decided to stay at Horseshoe Bay, while Sarah, Bronté and I carefully picked our way along the exposed slope. On the other side of the notch, a series of ropes (one partially buried under rockfall debris) led back down to the beach.
Back on level-ish ground, we walked along the beach till we noticed a sweet mineral smell in the air and saw steam drifting up from the rocks. Hot springs!
The hot springs were located entirely in the intertidal zone, just below the beach. Scalding water bubbled up from a fissure in the rocks and trickled down a set of shallow, progressively cooler pools before reaching the ocean. The trick was finding a pool that was just the right temperature, and then finding a comfortable position. With a little work, it was able to get cozy and fully submerged. Or close to fully submerged, anyway.
Once we’d settled in, we passed around a bag of premixed margarita and watched seals swimming offshore, just a few dozen feet away.
Sure, there are hot springs in the world that are more luxurious, easier to get to, or deeper. Or that aren’t often flooded by the tide. But the scrambling, seaweed pillows, and marine mammal company made this hot springs experience a true mini-adventure. There’s nothing like becoming a temporary “tidepool creature” in the Aleutian Islands.
On the way back, we followed an alternate route that hugged the ocean around the base of the headlands. This route turned out to be easier and almost certainly safer. After a few feet of climbing up a volcanic rock face with profuse hand- and footholds, we just had to scramble through a few boulders and we were back on the beach.
This lower route would only be accessible at low tide, and would be terrifying if big swells were rolling in off of the ocean. The next time I visit the hot springs on Adak, I might just hike over the hill behind the springs. Based on the topographic maps this route doesn’t look steeper than lots of terrain on Adak, and it would bypass the sketchy Horseshoe Bay headlands completely. It might also be possible to walk to the springs along the coast from Andrew Lake, but as of this writing the beach is closed due to the risk of unexploded ordinance.
To see a GPS route map of our trip to the hot springs, click here.
Back at Horseshoe Bay we met back up with Dan for a light lunch of crackers with smoked salmon, crème fraîche, black whitefish caviar, and dill. Plus whatever else happened to be in our backpacks.
After climbing back up the hill we drove to the Loran Station ruins at the end of the road, and then headed back to the old recreation center on the lower slopes of Mt. Adagdak, overlooking Clam Lagoon. The rec center and the housing around it were in a state of chaotic musky ruin: rooms were filled with piles of solid oak furniture, old vacuum cleaners lay scattered around, and the bowling alley and a church area were filled with broken glass.
From the rec center we drove down the hill and then headed northeast around the edge of Clam Lagoon. The road was lined with wildflowers and the lagoon was packed with birds, sea otters, and seals. At the end of the road we came to Candlestick Bridge. Our car rental contract forbade us from driving across the bridge, but between the drifted sand and obstacles placed in the road, the clause really wasn’t necessary. From the bridge we watched seals play in the current, and Sarah and Bronté went in search of clams.
We had a little more afternoon left, so we drove back into town and explored a few more buildings, including the abandoned swimming pool and another gym. At the theater, we performed what was probably the finest rendition of Romeo and Juliette seen there in the last few months.
One of my favorite exploration finds was a set of portraits drawn on a wall in the old Heat Shop building, which served as the nightclub. We’d seen many illustrations on the walls of abandoned buildings on Adak, but most of them were signage or military symbols. The quirky portraits were a reminder of all of the personalities once crammed together on the island during the military years. From what I’ve read, many enjoyed their time here. Others no doubt just tried to make the best of a stationing that might have felt like a deployment to Mars.
On our last day we slept in again, and after breakfast got to work cleaning the condo. We stripped the sheets from the beds and ferreted stray Jenga pieces from under the chairs. Overall, our rental experience had been very positive. The car and condo had both worked perfectly.
We had a little time before our flight, so we spent it filling up the truck (unleaded fuel price: ~$9/gallon) and cruising around the old harbor. We didn’t go into any of the buildings. We’d seen enough, and anyway we had a flight to catch.
The airport was “crowded” again, but everything was more or less on time. We’d been told that an ash cloud from a distant volcano might stymie our flight, but apparently it had drifted elsewhere.
We recognized many of the staff at the airport from our time in town. It seemed about half of Adak also worked at the airport as baggage handlers or TSA agents whenever a plane comes in.
After takeoff, our pilot flew a big arc around Sitkin Volcano. The snow and ice on the summit of the mountain were stained with ash–visible signs of the ever-present geological activity in this region that had woken us up after our first night on Adak.
Back at the condo before departing, we’d bumped into our neighbors in the adjacent unit. They explained that they were the host and cameraman for a documentary about a search for buried Russian pirate gold on Adak. I was a little suspicious of the premise of the show; Alaska is often used as an exotic set piece for absurd scripted “reality” TV shows that leave actual Alaskans rolling their eyes. But the two men were friendly, curious, and seemed genuinely excited about their time exploring the island. I wondered how many people would learn about this island for the first time while watching their show.
It’s hard to know what the future holds for Adak. This is the kind of place where the survival of the community can hinge on decisions made by bureaucrats thousands of miles away. As long as the planes are flying, hunters will probably continue coming here for the caribou. But it’s easy to imagine visitorship from other demographics increasing as well. There may be no other place in the United States that is so accessible, yet offers such an extraordinary experience of remoteness and adventure. The vast majority of tourists would probably be happier elsewhere, but for a certain brand of traveler a place like Adak is worth more than gold.