Hatcher Pass is a place that is well known for its world class hikes and stunning scenes around every corner. Yet with so much to explore, many simple hikes with incredible sights are easy to miss.
I have lived in Alaska my entire life and I was so surprised to discover that once you step away from the ever beautiful and well-known Summit Lake and Independence Mine areas, there are some real hidden gems.
This article is the first in a new series that will cover a few lesser-known trails (some of which have no official trail status at all) and were actually a part of my journey to eventually discover the Pika Township and Marmot Village. So let’s get ready to explore the first of our new locations and learn why it is worth the hike!
Get ready for… The Willow Paradise Trail!
The Willow Paradise Trail: How To Get There
Most people, when making the trip up to Hatcher Pass come in via the Palmer Fishhook Road. However, I actually recommend taking Willow Fishhook Road, as you not only get a whole different perspective of the pass, but also get to see some sights/locations that most people never ever see.
You can easily access this road if you head Northwest of Anchorage Alaska, like you were headed towards Talkeetna. Just hang a right directly before the Lead Dog Expresso coffee hut and it’s a straight shot all the way up.
- Directions: Lead Dog Expresso Coffee Hut, Willow AK 99688
It is also important to point out that Hatcher Pass is only fully road accessible July 1st through September 15th. Check the Department of Natural Resources website to make sure the road is open over the pass before you go.
Bring waterproof boots, bug spray, and a trekking pole if you have one to make sure you have the best experience. Only the beginning of the hike is wet, but your hike won’t last long if you can’t cross some small streams.
Take your time exploring on the way up, but also know that the best nature and wildlife viewing does not begin until you are near or above the tree line.
Once You Are Above The Tree Line
It takes about 30-40 minutes to pop out above the tree line (depending on how much you stop to take photos) and once you do, oh boy, you are in for a treat. You will be greeted by vast mountain valley views with lush grasses and high alpine wildflowers dotting the landscape.
You should keep an eye out for paragliders, golden eagles, and falcons soaring above you and curious arctic ground squirrels and marmots down below. If you are here in late summer or fall, there is also incredible spots to stop for wildberry picking and crowberry picking.
The road eventually splits in two directions, to the left is a road that leads to a private drive, and to the right the road continues up through the pass.
Right before the road splits in two, there is a pullout big enough for several cars, be aware that there are no markings or signs (this place is a secret after all), but you can see a creek and beaver lodge fairly close to the road that will tell you that you are in the right spot.
Welcome to the Willow Paradise Trailhead!
The Hike Up Willow Paradise Trailhead
The absolute best thing about this trail, is that it will vary for every single person who takes it. Unlike many places that have well established social trails, the Willow Paradise Trail has very few (if any at all in some spots) and you can take your time and customize it to your liking.
Don’t be afraid to explore, you will never lose sight of your car, and it’s almost impossible to get lost.
That being said, I will give you my version of the hike, and also give you the most important piece of advice up front: take your time. There will be beautiful changing views all around you, animals aplenty, and wildflowers to enjoy everywhere on this hike.
The ultimate goal of this hike is to head South a bit and gain some altitude slowly to be rewarded with an incredible view, then to walk back (this is an out-and-back trail).
Start At The Beaver Lodge
The beaver lodge is, other than the creek next to it, the most recognizable feature to let you know you are starting this trail in the right spot.
That said, I usually start my hike at the beaver lodge for four reasons:
- It is really cool to see the beavers if they are out!
- There are cool little mountain waterfalls created by the nearby beaver damming and the creek flowing into it.
- Alpine plant life and wildflowers love the extra water created by the beaver dams, so there is a lot to see and enjoy.
- It is the only spot where you can actually cross to the other side of the creek easily.
Once you’ve had your fill in this area, cross to the other side of the creek right next to the beaver lodge/dams and spend some time walking along the creek.
Walking Along Willow Creek
Following Willow Creek up and to the left you will get to witness the incredibly beautiful and unique crystal-clear waters that gently flow over the rich earth colors of the smooth rocks below.
The spot in the photo above was so relaxing to me, I actually spent about an hour there.
I had a little picnic and all the while enjoyed the sweet smell of the alpine flowers wafting in the gentle breeze, the sound of the water trickling over the rocks nearby, and getting to watch all the different birds flying happily overhead. It was paradise to me, and that is exactly how this trail got its name.
It was paradise to me, and that is exactly how this trail got its name.-Phillip Flippo
Continue Hiking Up
Next, its time to get some altitude and escape the low brush by walking in the direction towards Summit Lake (if you are unfamiliar with the area, just look to see where the road goes up into the distance, see where all the cars are coming from and that will be a good guide). It’s a fairly low grade at first, with only about 15-20 minutes of slightly steeper hiking at the end.
If it’s late summer or fall this is the perfect time to pick a few blueberries or crow berries. That way you can take breaks and also eat a fun wild Alaskan treat at the same time.
This part of the hike is absolutely all up to you and how far up you would like to and are comfortable with hiking. I think that about 45 minutes to 1 hour from your car is very doable for most people used to hiking slight grades (or 2 hours if you really want to get up high and explore).
Don’t Forget to Look Down
Walking amongst the towering mountain peaks, and seeing the infinitely vast scenes in front of and behind you, can have you always looking up. I promise you however, that looking down can be just as rewarding and interesting!
Perhaps one of the best memories I have of being on this trail is getting to see the always animated Arctic Ground Squirrels and hardworking Marmots in a setting without a lot of people. The animals along this trail are not constantly bombarded with tourists like around the Summit Lake area.
Because of this, you get the opportunity to see animals in a truly wild setting, which is magical.
Keep an eye out in the tall grasses/dirt for the holes dug by the Arctic Ground Squirrels and once you start to see more boulders as you ascend, listen for the unique whistling sounds of the Marmots. If you get lucky, a curious Marmot might even pop their head up and say hello!
Reaching The Top Of Willow Paradise Trail
If you keep hiking up towards the Summit Lake area you will eventually reach some larger boulders, and it is here that the hike will come to an end (if you followed my path that is).
I like to climb up on a medium sized flat boulder here and just take everything in from the adventure, and stare out over the Willow side of the pass.
This view, which is also very similar from the Summit Lake area, is so much better to me because you are alone, and it is peaceful. I have never, ever, seen another person out on this trail.
So even though you are just a few hundred feet from all of the hustle and bustle above, you now have a private mountain view of one of the most breathtaking places on Earth.
Time To Head Back
Once you are satisfied it is time to head back and, as stated before, it will be a very easy return trip as you will never have lost sight of your car at any point during the hike.
Be careful as some of the wet vegetation can be slippery even if it did not recently rain. It should not take longer than an hour to get all the way back to the trailhead.
This was one of the first new easy trails I discovered while on my quest to find the Pikas in Hatcher Pass. The Willow Paradise Trail has so much to offer, but unfortunately after several attempts in the area, I learned it was not the appropriate habitat for large colonies of Pika. So I continued to search around the higher Alpine areas in hopes of seeing them.
I was told that there had been some sightings around the April Bowl Trail area, and so as I had never been, decided to give that a go next!
In my next article I will detail the approximate difficulty and amazing sights I saw along that trail, and who knows… maybe that’s where I finally found one of the rarest animals on earth, the Collard Pika.
Read the next article in this series on finding the Pika: