Standing a mile in the air is a thrill that Pepper Peak provides, made even more breathtaking with Ekltuna Lake down below. I’m dubbing this my most rewarding, yet grueling hike in Alaska, because climbing 4,500 feet in about 4.5 miles is a feat that shouldn’t be taken lightly. The trail to Pepper Peak starts at Eklutna Lake Campground and then follows the Twin Peaks trail past the benches and up the ridge line. The first viewpoint comes at the first bench and depending on your route, stays with you the entire hike.
The journey begins along what looks like a jeep trail zig-zagging through an aspen forest. Cars haven’t been on here in ages but a fallen sedan on the side of the trail tells us that it was in fact drive-able at one point.
A moose and her calf foraged near the first few switch backs darting up the trail just beyond the car. We put Theo and Kalla on leash and talked loudly, hoping the animals would scamper off so we could keep going. The moose & calf pictured below are actually from Denali National Park. I couldn’t get my camera out quick enough to take a photo of the ones we saw on this trail.
Hiking to Pepper Peak via Twin Peaks Trail
The first bench comes after about 2 miles along the jeep trail. Rather than continuing up the winding path, Elizabeth and I took the smaller trail to the right, which goes straight up the ridge. It was steep and bushy but every time I looked up I could see a turquoise lake shimmering below. Wind rippled off of Eklutna Lake cooling us down while Bold Mountain stood with its peak hidden at the far end of this natural beauty.
I took a moment; pausing both to take in the scene and catch my breath. Elizabeth stood high above, patiently waiting for me to reach her. The trade off for this incline was an incredible view of Eklutna Lake but it was leaving me exhausted before we were even above the tree line. The view from the bench stays with you as you skirt the ridge line but should only be attempted by experienced hikers! If you continue on the jeep trail, which darts back into the forest, the view escapes you briefly.
Beautiful Views of Eklutna Lake
We hiked a bit further. The trees thinned out considerably and convinced us to have a picnic break. Sun bathing with the lake to ourselves could have been a perfect day. If only we brought a book instead of our hope to reach the summit.
Elizabeth led the way, waiting for me to catch up time and time again. My legs are still learning what it really means to be an Alaskan and each step took my breath away, both literally and figuratively. Alaskan wonder filled me with joy as I’m reminded again and again how much I love calling this place my home.
Mike, Elizabeth, Theo & Kalla taking a snack and photo break on the way to Pepper Peak
Staring down we could see specks of people playing on the beach as a canoe floated not far from shore. Lake adventures would be for a different day, today we were focused on the mountain and continued up the Pepper Peak trail.
Pepper Peak Trail Map
We took the red route up and the green route back down to get to Pepper Peak. I suggest buying a Chugach State Park Map or downloading this one so you can take it with you!
Getting to Eklutna Lake
Eklutna Lake is about 1 hour from Anchorage by car.
Take Alaska 1 North past Eagle River until the exit for Eklutna Lake.
Google Maps Directions are simple to follow.
Parking at Eklutna Lake
Don’t risk a $50 parking ticket!
Living in Alaska? Get your parks pass for $60
Visiting Alaska? Pay a $5 parking fee at the entrance.
The shortcut and main trail converged right when we happen to run into Jana, an former coworker of mine. She was on her way back down and didn’t go all the way to the summit today but has been there before and said we probably had another 2 hours to the top! We chatted a bit more commiserating about ending the school year with COVID-19 adaptations before venturing onward.
The next large stretch of trail was well marked and a pleasant climb. Alpine habitat takes over, leaving lichen covered rocks and squishy grasses instead of trees. Theo ran across the hills searching for marmots and other fun sniffs while Elizabeth and I passed the time with word games. Before we knew it the easy stretch had dissipated and was replaced with sheer, rocky cliffs. We paused the game and focused on staying upright as traversing these sketchy sections.
The occasional glance upward revealed ominous clouds warning of an impossible Alaskan thunderstorm. Historically Alaska doesn’t have major thunderstorms but with climate change bringing warmer summers we’ve had more and more lightning fill the skies. The dark skies were just clouds while we neared the summit.
Clouds rolled up the ridge on either side of Pepper Peak and we were sprinkled with a few raindrops. We didn’t hear any thunder, but decided that we wouldn’t linger at the peak anyway.
View of Eklutna Lake from the top of Pepper Peak Trail
By the time we reached 5,450 feet on Pepper Peak’s summit there was a slight drizzle. The view northward should have revealed Palmer and Hatcher Pass, but was obscured by a black cloud. Moments later a flash of lightning coursed through the clouds! I counted; one, two, three, four, five, BOOM! Thunder echoed along the mountaintops as lightning struck about a mile away and we wanted nothing more than to get down the mountain.
Elizabeth and I turned and discussed as we descended. We quickly agreed to jog the easy stretches and posited the best thing to do if the lightning came closer. There were a few rock outcroppings but nothing that could provide shelter. Our best bet was to get down the mountain before the storm came. We could lie flat and hope for the best but it could take a while for the storm to pass. I recalled reading about young hikers who were fascinated by their hair standing up before being struck by lightning. If we felt any static electricity or strange feelings we hit the ground immediately; otherwise we just descend!
Thankfully the storm stayed on the far side of the mountain. We felt a few raindrops here and there but were more wet with perspiration than precipitation. We passed a few other groups on the way down and felt better about our situation. Most of the lightning wasn’t even visible as a few more sonic booms echoed down to us. I counted the seconds after the next lightning strike and happily realized it was now two miles off.
Recommended Reading for more Alaskan Adventures
- Amazing Denali Views while Hiking the Curry Ridge Trail
- Winning the Denali Park Road Lottery
- Backpack through Denali National Park
- Camp at Grewingk Glacier
- Cross a frozen lake to Portage Glacier
- Ski to Skookum Glacier
- All Season Adventures -Hike Rabbit Lake Trail
- All Season Adventures -Explore Eklutna Lake Trail
- Aurora Hunting in Fairbanks for New Years Eve
- Biking to Knik Glacier
We turned the hike into a bit of a loop by following the normal trail downward. Descending on the steep shortcut would have been treacherous at best and by now we weren’t worried about the storm. We took our first break at the second bench with a view of Twin Peaks and Goat Mountain where dozens of white specks grazed idly between green and brown patches. With some trees and plenty of mountain above us to lure the lighting away we watched the sheep and picked up our word game again.
Hiking back down a mountain is usually my least favorite part of a hike. My knees poked pain into my system as my leg muscles warned me how much they would be aching tomorrow. Pepper Peak was the toughest hike of this season so far but in all likelihood just the tip of my Alaskan hiking summer.
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