Review in 3 sentences: Three great trails branch off of the main Hiland trail into different side trips. Hanging Valley, Symphony Tarns, and Flute Glacier all offer some great hiking. Hiland Valley isn’t just a trail but rather an epic network of great hikes.

SAFETY-A note and disclaimer about safety: Always take responsibility for your own safety. Make sure you have a good idea what you are doing in the wilderness before venturing out. Do NOT rely solely on this review for your safety. Situations such as route conditions and weather constantly change and may differ from this article. Use any information herein at your own risk. Thank you and enjoy finding new frontiers!

Best time of year to visit: Mid-May through the end of September. Ice covers the lake and patches of snow usually persist well into May. New snow starts to hit in mid-September. June brings spring growth and dazzling fall color kicks in by September. Avoid this area in times of heavy snow cover. Nearly the entire access trail traverses through a high avalanche danger zone.

*Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Hiker level suitability: Hanging Valley offers half-day hiking suitable to most hikers. While hard to get really lost, the areas past Symphony Lake require some route finding capacity, especially when heading up. This option calls for at least moderately experienced hiking. Flute Glacier demands high endurance due to both overall length and trail composition.

Something unique to these hikes: One of the routes uses an ice cold stream as the trail for the better part of a mile. Overall, few Alaskan trails allow for such long distances in the mountains with the option to reasonably limit climbing elevations. Water ties these trails together. High mountain lakes, streams, falls, and a glacier all beckon explorers. And it all sits no more than an hours drive (plus some hiking!) from Alaska’s largest city.

GETTING THERE

To reach each of the Hiland side trips, visitors need to get to the South Fork Eagle River Trailhead. Many locals also know the trail as Hiland which derives from the main road accessing the valley. Technically, the entire area lies within the Municipality of Anchorage as well as Chugach State Park. But in reality, Anchorage residents feel they’ve left the city when they head north of Muldoon Road. Head up the Glenn Highway for about 10 miles/minutes to the first Eagle River exit. Turn right (away from the landfill) and after about a block turn right again at the stop light for the Hiland Road intersection. The road quickly begins to work its way laterally up the side of the mountain. It gains sufficient altitude then turns for one final steep push up into the long side valley.

Backcountry Beyond Symphony Lake

Hiland Road crosses over South Fork Eagle River and then back again before reaching the trailhead. Stay on the widest route and look for a small brown sign marking the state park before dropping down to cross the river the second time. Alternatively, when houses end on the right side and bottom of the valley, visitors near their trailhead destination. Both the parking lot (full of cars on weekends) and gravel trail are visible from the opposite side of the valley. On busy days, parked cars stretch down the road adjoining the small parking area. The good news is that as of 2018, a spot in the gravel lot was still free.  UPDATE In June of 2021, a $5 parking fee now required. Credit cards accepted.

TO THE HILAND SIDE TRIPS

For the first 2.5-3 miles, all of the Hiland side trips share the same trail. Follow the obvious route until reaching a bridge across the creek. At this point, hikers arrive at roughly half the distance to Eagle Lake. Incoming hikers, standing on the bridge and looking up the trail across to the mountains, see the front of Hanging Valley. The main route to the lakes, however, continues to parallel the small river up the main wide valley. Look for a narrower footpath to split off and head up into the mountains. This takes hikers to the first of the Hiland side trips. Read more about the early part of the trail in the “TO THE BRIDGE” section of the Hiland Hike Review article.

Beaver Accomplishments

Also, use that article to learn more about the next half of the trail leading to the lakes. Further info details crossing the boulder field to Lookout Point. Upon inbound approach, the green waters of Eagle Lake curve around to the left. Meanwhile, the blue non-glacial waters of Symphony Lake nestle over on the right. From Lookout Point, follow the green lake for access to the valley leading to Flute Glacier. However, pick a route right past the latter’s left side in order to explore Symphony Tarns and other attractions. Hanging Valley, Flute Glacier, and the Symphony Tarns area make up the three main Hiland valley side trips. Hikes 14-18 in 50 Hikes in Alaska’s Chugach State Park all cover Hiland side trips reached from the same trailhead.

*Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

HANGING VALLEY, THE EASIEST OF THE HILAND SIDE TRIPS

By Alaska standards, the main Hiland Trail carries a lot of traffic. It earns these visitors with fairly level terrain, great destinations, and plenty of options. However, some folks just want some space when visiting the great outdoors. Hanging Valley provides the quickest option for those looking to break away from “the crowd”. For a couple of shared miles, the trail provides quick moving conditions. After crossing South Fork Eagle River on the footbridge, push straight across and up into this first of the Hiland side trips. While narrow and less-traveled, a clear path works its way a few hundred feet up to the side valley. Meanwhile, a stream tumbles noisily down and to the left of the trail. Upon gaining the lip of the higher valley, it takes about another hour to reach a high mountain lake.

Headed Into Hanging Valley

In early June, the trail still navigates over deep patches of snow. Hanging Valley Trail never crosses the small stream on the valley floor. The valley itself rolls off the backside of the 5,600’ Hurdygurdy Mountain. Some hikers use Hanging Valley Trail to access Hurdygurdy, but Mr J has yet to take the trail that far. Back in the valley, follow the trail for approximately a mile or so. Eventually, about half of the creek plummets down through the side of the ridge just to the right. Hikers looking to reach its source lake need to start climbing up the steep hillside without crossing the creek. While deceptively steep, the tundra-covered access only climbs a few hundred feet at most. Sheer rock walls surround the lake on three sides creating a nice amphitheater that increases the sense of solitude. Plan on at least a couple of hours each way.

FLUTE GLACIER, THE MOST CHALLENGING OF THE HILAND SIDE TRIPS

The 18-mile roundtrip Flute Glacier Hike truly offers one of Chugach State Park’s greatest epic adventures. Mr J completed the hike once in his early twenties. He came to within about a half mile from the end on another occasion and ended up exhausted beyond expectation. On one other day, he glimpsed the glacier from an airplane. Those three interactions with Flute Glacier provide some expertise because few hike this longest of the Hiland side trips.

Flute Glacier from the Air

After hiking the six miles necessary to gain Lookout Point, hikers to Flute Glacier need to parallel green Eagle Lake. A fairly obvious footpath heads left from the lookout towards the back end of the lake. Some areas might require pushing back some bushes, but the way forward remains obvious. South Fork Eagle River runs braided and shallow through the valley for about a mile. On either side of the flat-bottomed passage, high steep mountain walls loom large. Meanwhile, mighty Eagle Peak towers further back. A cascading waterfall tumbles in front of it down from the point where the valley steps up towards Flute Glacier. Aim for the loose scree to the left of the waterfall. The route gains the height and wraps around into the valley at this point.

Upon arrival at the back edge of the lake, change into stream-crossing shoes that are a must on this hike. For indeed, the stream loosely marks the trail through the valley. Alternately, march straight up the frigid waters or else cross them where the creek swings from side to side between stands of brush. These icy waters make feet very cold. Make sure to keep a dry pair of socks and shoes to put back on after traversing the glacial stream. Both times Mr J plowed through the creek, levels ran less than knee deep. A person just about can’t get lost in the valley, but stay near the middle for most direct routes. In any case, cold water saps energy. For this reason, this hike drains reserves even faster than its 18 miles might suggest.

Watery Trail On the Way to Flute Glacier

After drying the feet and putting hiking boots back on, climb a hundred feet or so along the left side of the tumbling creek. This brings visitors to the upper valley. Some folks use this route to access soaring Eagle Peak on the left. Stay a bit high above the creek on the floor below and push straight back for just over a mile. The best views of the glacier come from a slightly elevated position. Mr J made it one time. On the other attempt, a growing exhaustion forced his retreat about a half mile from the goal. Of the three Hiland side trips in this article, Flute Glacier proves the most elusive. It may take a few attempts before meeting success, but that only serves to make the victory even sweeter. The trip pretty much concludes when the medium-sized glacier comes into view.

SYMPHONY TARNS AREA, THE BEST LAKE VIEWS OF THE HILAND SIDE TRIPS

Symphony Tarns represent a couple of mountain lakes deposited high on mountain shelves. The area beyond Symphony Lake follows the right side of Hiland Valley when it splits. In addition to the tarns, treeless terrain invites hikers to explore further up the valley. None of the other Hiland side trips provide so many picturesque lake views in one sweep.

Deep Green Symphony Tarn

On Mr J’s first foray into this area, he plugged alongside the small creek for about an hour or so. After passing between Eagle and Symphony Lakes, he went for the right valley but stayed to the left side. In the lower drainage areas just before Symphony Lakes, beaver activity pools up the water quite a bit. The best way to avoid it involves skirting it by traversing a few feet up on the mountain beside it. Whether valley exploring or headed to the tarns, stay left of the beaver damming. For the former, stay on the left of the creek. Head for the latter by crossing the unabridged stream and climbing the opposite mountainside.

Mr J had the energy that day to push back further, but a few locals changed his mind. As the faded trail turned into more of a route, he searched for the best way forward. He had just come to a section of steepening land right beside the creek. For a moment, he contemplated the best way around. At that time, he heard a strange noise coming from higher up the mountain on his left side. Upon first glance, it took a few moments to realize what he was looking at— a couple of large grizzlies. They jostled lightly and grunted with each other between 100 feet and 100 yards up on the hillside. This new reality of the situation put him on immediate alert. His mind immediately started running through bear safety procedures.

Local Residents in A Hiland Side Valley

First of all, he noted that the bruins did not seem to notice his presence. Winds pushed down the valley and the small creek crashed loudly reducing their nose and ear warning systems. If he pressed forward, then his scent would carry to them on the wind. Furthermore, he needed to gain some elevation at that point which would bring him nearer to their position. Mr J quickly settled on a hasty retreat. He kept his eyes on the grizzlies and started backwards making efforts not to move too fast. For indeed, the first rule of bear safety: NEVER run from a bear. With the wind coming his way, the bears likely never noticed his arrival. He lingered for just a few minutes after putting some distance in between.

Just a few more minutes down the trail, he happened to look back and caught an unusual and unexpected show over the next five minutes. Recent snowfall had accumulated on the higher peaks. Already in mid-June, the late season snows yielded to gravity and fell over a vertical cliff wall. Beautiful frozen “falls” made their way to lower elevations in a most unforgettable manner. While technically avalanches, the flows really resembled temporary graceful waterfalls and fell in a number of phases. Other than seeing ice calve and smash onto solid frozen rock at Kenai Fjords, this very likely represented a once-in-a-lifetime sight for Mr J.

Let the Snow Flow

On another day, instead of heading up the valley, he headed up one side of it. Off to the right side, the knowledge of hidden tarns lures informed hikers. Actually, the target that day was Triangle Peak. But some balance troubles combined with loose material on steep terrain changed his mind. The tarns acted as a worthy consolation reward for the days efforts. These deep green lakes settled on wide mountain ledges. Much further below, the beaver pond, Symphony Lake, and Eagle Lake respectively marched down the wider valley. Perched high on a narrow ridge dividing the tarns, Mr J took in five fetching lakes in one sweeping gaze.

FINAL THOUGHTS ON HILAND HIKING

The Hiland hiking ecosystem provides both a main trail and plenty of side trips. It might take multiple visits to see them all, but the area offers plenty of landscape, watershed, and wildlife wonders. From rocky peaks to colorful fall ridges and glowing lichen on a rainy day, Mr J recommends the engaging landscapes. Furthermore, a mile worth of boulder fields act as grand entrance to two of the Hiland side trips. On the watershed front, glaciers, tarns, lakes, waterfalls, streams, and even graceful avalanches wow visitors. It also isn’t every day that a creek doubles as a trail! In the realm of critters, Mr J recalls grizzly bear, marmot, and pika sightings throughout the valley. Moose, Dall sheep, and various birds call it home as well.

Above One of the Symphony Tarns

From the main trail to the numerous side trips, Hiland never fails to impress and surprise. So if you find yourself in the neighborhood, head on over to check out the hiking in Hiland Valley. Mr J sure makes it a priority whenever possible because he never fails to find new and fascinating frontiers.

*Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Other resources:

-Get 55 Ways to the Wilderness in Southcentral Alaska and read Hike 34 “South Fork of Eagle River” for even more info.

50 Hikes in Alaska’s Chugach State Park routes 14-18 provide info on 5 routes accessed from the Hiland trail network.

-If you can find this out-of-print map of Chugach State Park, then get it. It is awesome. Otherwise, this one should cover the routes mentioned in this article. The images on Amazon look pretty good.

Alaska Hike Search provides great info on hikes. Check out what they have to say about Hanging Valley, Flute Glacier, and Triangle Peak (route passes by Symphony Tarns).

We keep your data private and share your data only with third parties that make this service possible. See our Privacy Policy for more information.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.