With the ever-changing waters of Cook Inlet on one side and the tundra-clad Chugach mountains on the other, Anchorage and its neighboring communities make the perfect launching pad for some of Alaska's best hikes. Keep your eyes peeled because even when you're close to the city, there's plenty of potential for encounters with wildlife like moose, bears, lynx, eagles, and sometimes even wolves. Unless otherwise noted, trailhead parking costs $5 (cash or check, no change given) or you can buy an annual Alaska State Parks parking pass for $50.
1. Portage Pass
Hands down, this is the most spectacular short trail anywhere near Anchorage. Less than a mile on a rocky old Jeep trail gets you up to the top of 800-foot Portage Pass , with the tiny seaside town of Whittier gleaming behind you and Portage Glacier in the distance, on the far side of Portage Lake. From there it's another mile and a half downhill to the broad, flat lakeshore. You can't quite walk around the lake to the glacier, but you can get close; and there are plenty of frothy creeks and gorgeous waterfalls dotted around this mountain bowl to keep you entertained.
Bonus: To reach the trailhead in Whittier, you go through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, the longest combined vehicle/railroad tunnel in North America. There's no parking fee for the trailhead—yet—but this hike is so popular, it's probably only a matter of time.
2. Byron Glacier
Nobody agrees on exactly how long the Byron Glacier Trail in Portage is, but at least we all agree that it's beautiful. My GPS and I think it's about four miles round trip. The first mile parallels Byron Creek on a trail so well-maintained and (relatively) flat, you can take a stroller on it. Byron Glacier is a receding blue jewel clinging to the mountains' rocky flanks; behind you, there's a picturesque view of Portage Valley and Portage Lake. You can get another mile closer to the glacier if you leave the established trail and hop boulders, but nowadays you'd have to ford a small creek and sprout wings (or a climbing rope) to get within arm's reach of the ice.
Heads up: There's a ton of avalanche hazard in this valley, even in the spring when the trail itself is clear of snow but the mountains above are still loaded.
3. Crow Pass
The 26-mile Crow Pass Trail runs from Girdwood (south of Anchorage) to Eagle River (northeast of Anchorage). But the first 4 miles of the trail—from the Girdwood Trailhead to the pass—are the very best. You'll see emerald mountain slopes, vast scree fields, old mining ruins, and alpine glaciers—and, if you bring your binoculars, this is one of the best places to see black bears grazing on berry patches in the fall. There's a public use cabin near the pass, and extreme winter avalanche danger can last well into spring.
4. Bird Ridge
If you want to say you've hiked a steep Alaskan trail, head for Bird Ridge . This trail just off the Seward Highway gains about 3,400 feet of elevation in 2.5 miles, but that translates to near instant gratification as you take in the great views over the highway and Turnagain Arm—and they only get better as you climb. If you get tired of watching eagles and other birds coasting wind currents below you, turn around and follow the ridgeline you just gained another couple of miles deeper into the mountains.
5. Turnagain Arm Trail
People sometimes overlook the Turnagain Arm Trail because it's so close to the Seward Highway. But that means easy access at four different trailheads, with the same gorgeous water views you'd get from the highway but zero risk of a car crash. The trail is set far enough back in the trees to be mostly protected from road noise, especially between the first three trailheads (Potter, McHugh, and Rainbow). The trail from Rainbow to the last trailhead, Windy Corner, is rockier and more exposed; it's a great place to watch for wildflowers and mountain goats on the surrounding cliffs. No parking fee at the Rainbow and Windy trailheads.
6. Little O'Malley Peak
Cute Little O'Malley Peak starts from the same trailhead as the hike for Flattop Mountain—Southcentral's most crowded and eroded trail. Don't get me wrong; Flattop is good, but Little O'Malley is much better. It's a short, steep climb, but your reward is at least a mile of crowd-free wandering on a broad ramp of tundra hummocks—locals call it the "Football Field"—and views over Williwaw Lakes, an exceedingly beautiful hike in a neighboring valley.
7. Hidden Lake
This is another one of those trails where nobody can quite agree on the length. I measure it as just under 13 miles round trip from the Glen Alps trailhead in Anchorage over rolling tundra to the aptly named Hidden Lake, which is sunk so deep in a tundra well that it's easy to walk right by it. This is a great overnight camp spot, surrounded by lush tundra on two sides and barren, Mars-like rock that's tumbled down the shoulders of O'Malley and Hidden Peaks on the other.
Located in Eagle River, Anchorage's only real suburb, Baldy is a steep, short climb that gives you great views out over Knik Arm. Even with recently added switchbacks, the trail is brutally steep in places and dangerously slick when wet. But your reward for bagging more than 1,000 feet of elevation in a mile is an easy ridgewalk through alpine tundra to neighboring Blacktail Rocks, Vista Peak, and Roundtop.
9. Eagle and Symphony Lakes
A little farther to the south of Baldy, you can hike a 12-mile round trip to Eagle and Symphony Lakes . This is mostly easy walking along the floor of a broad, glacier-carved river valley, with stands of aspen trees and the river itself for company. The trail gets you within arm's reach of turquoise Eagle Lake; from there it's almost a mile of boulder hopping to reach cobalt blue Symphony Lake or a rocky "spine" that runs between them. Watch out for the seagulls that, for reasons known only to them, come inland every year to nest in the boulder field and dive bomb unsuspecting hikers.
10. Eklutna Lake
This old roadbed follows the shore of glacier-fed Eklutna Lake for 8 miles, then another four and a half to a lookout that's meant to showcase Eklutna Glacier. There's just one problem: the glacier isn't there. You can still see it if you're willing to trudge more than a mile to where it's receded but, in the meantime, the walk alongside Eklutna Lake is its own reward. Heads up: This trail is also popular for mountain biking, and ATVs are allowed Sunday through Wednesday.