Chugach National Forest is really, really big. It spans nearly 7 million acres of Prince William Sound, the Kenai Peninsula and the Copper River Delta. For context, the state of Vermont is just over 6 million acres. Next to Tongass, Chugach is the largest National Forest in America. Most of Chugach is untouched, as well. Despite the size of the forest, there are only 90 miles of Forest Service roads. If you want a true wilderness experience, Chugach is among the best.
The land that is now Chugach was first settled by the Inuit. Europeans first visited in the 1700s, and Russian fur traders soon settled there. The US bought Alaska in 1867, and in 1907, designated Chugach as a National Forest. Chugach was actually created from a smaller section of an existing forest reserve. In any case, today we have millions of acres of beautiful, diverse landscape to explore in America’s last frontier.
About Chugach National Forest
Nearly half of Chugach National Forest lies within Prince William Sound. Roughly one-fourth of the forest is in the Copper River Delta, and one-fourth on Kenai Peninsula. Because of this, the forest has several distinctly different regions.
Each portion offers a vastly different experience. We provided a brief, but incomplete summary here. You can access a host of information by contacting the National Forest.
Prince William Sound
The Prince William Sound section is home to numerous bird and marine species. The Forest Service estimates that it’s home to over 200 active seabird colonies. Prince William Sound has up to 5,000 bald eagles. This is as many as the entire Lower 48 have. Over 3,500 miles of shoreline and 20 tidal glaciers are part of what make this section of Chugach remarkable.
If boating is what interests you, Prince William Sound may be the place for you. Over 200 bird species and at least a dozen marine mammals are found within the sound. The landscape of towering glaciers hosts humpback whales, killer whales, Steller sea lions, harbor seals and sea otters. It truly is a wild, wild place.
Copper River Delta
This section of Chugach National Forest is one of the most vital shorebird habitats in the world. It’s the largest unit in the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network. During peak migration, over 1 million shorebirds have been observed in the Copper River Delta at a time. The delta is the largest contiguous wetlands complex on the pacific coast.
If you want to see the delta by car, the Copper River Highway runs through this section of Chugach. This is a nearly 50 mile road that runs from Cordova to the Million Dollar Bridge. As an aside, “highway” is a bit of an overstatement. The last 35 miles are gravel.
The Kenai Peninsula portion of Chugach includes the Southern Trek of the legendary Iditarod National Historic Trail. You can access this portion via the scenic Seward Highway or Alaska Railroad’s Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop service. The Russian River on Eastern Kenai draws thousands of salmon fishermen every year.
Recreation in Chugach National Forest
Chugach is a choose-your-own-adventure kind of place. For the explorers and those filled with wanderlust, it’s heaven. But it’s vast and unforgiving. There are two visitor centers in the forest and several somewhat-developed campsites. You can visit the park and still enjoy the comforts of civilization. If you want a wild, one-of-a-kind adventure though, you may have to do some research on your own. That being said, we included a brief overview of camping and hiking within the forest.
Camping in Chugach is an experience like no other. The Forest Service has over 40 cabins available to rent throughout all three sections of the forest. You can find a full list of these cabins on the forest service website. They also have details and directions to each cabin.
Most of these cabins are quite remote, and all of them are unique in their own way. For example, the directions on the Forest Service Website to Beach River Cabin say this: “The cabin is located 200 yards south of Beach River on the Gulf of Alaska side of Montague Island. Access to the cabin is by wheeled plane at low tide on the beach”. Welcome to Alaska.
The Forest Service website lists campgrounds as well. One difference is that nearly all of them are on the Eastern Kenai Peninsula. It should be noted that most of these are somewhat primitive. Don’t expect running water, RV hookups or flush toilets. You can find the details along with the current status (most of them close over the winter) on the Forest Service site.
There are a lot of trails throughout the forest (over 500 miles). Dispersed camping is permitted on most of them. Here’s a link to the Forest Service page on dispersed camping. Dispersed caping in Alaska is one of the wildest adventures you can have. But remember, Alaska is bear country. Do your research and be prepared before entering the Alaska backcountry.
The hiking trails in Chugach are too numerous to cover here. To find a trail, you can go to the Forest Service Site. Here, trails are separated into backpacking trails and day hiking trails. For the most part, trails under the backpacking category are longer, and allow dispersed camping. To be sure, check the camping guidelines before you go.
Resurrection Pass Trail North and Russian Lakes Trail are two of many spectacular trails in the forest. Resurrection pass Trail North is a 39 mile trail with over that climbs to 2,600 feet. It has 8 public use cabins along the route, and is lined with spectacular ridges that offer amazing views.
Russian Lakes Trail is a multiple-use trail that goes from Copper Lake Road to Russian River Campground. The trail winds through a forest, but there are many clearings with remarkable views of the forest. It passes Upper and Lower Russian lakes, while following the Russian River valley.
Visit Chugach National Forest
Chugach National Forest is a place like no other. If you visit the forest, know what you’re getting into. Although half a million people visit the forest each year, nearly all of the forest is remote and undeveloped. But if you plan your trip accordingly, you can have an experience you will remember for the rest of your life.