Follow Alaska’s fall colors south to Lost Lake

[by Mollie Foster]

As spectacular as they are, it’s surprisingly easy to miss fall colors in Alaska. Once the leaves start changing hues, they only stay on the trees for two to three weeks, with peak foliage lasting only 48 hours in some areas.Fortunately, in a state as vast as Alaska, you can actually “chase” fall, from north to south, for up to two months. The first summer I worked a seasonal job in Denali National Park in 2009, I noticed this phenomenon—the colors, a majority of the humans, and even the animals all traveled south by late September.

“Hiking around the boomerang-shaped lake, we claimed our own piece of tundra.”

In response, I drove to lower latitudes the minute the leaves turned brown in Interior Alaska. With each mile south, the foliage morphed from dull rust to brilliant yellows, oranges and reds. I knew this would become a new tradition for me: watching fall in a dream-like time warp.

Fast forward to mid-September 2010, during my second summer working in Denali: I was itching to follow the colors again. After my 10-hour shift, I continually asked tourists, bus drivers—whoever I could—where peak colors were. Then I bolted out of work with my bike to find and photograph them in the soft autumn light. I started calling my autumn there, “living in a rainbow factory.” In Denali, colors could change within my work shift; I had to catch them through the lens of my camera before they were gone. After that, it was time to chase the rainbow.

Bearberry shrubs decorate the tundra around Lost Lake.

With two friends, we brainstormed ideas for our shoulder season adventure and decided on Lost Lake in the Chugach National Forest. It’s a seven-hour drive from Denali to the trailhead in Seward, so we decided to break up the travel into two days. On day one, we drove to my sister’s place, a halfway point near Anchorage to crash for the night. The following day, we drove two cars to Exit Glacier, eight miles north of Seward, to bike and camp for the night, closer to the trailhead. Lost Lake is a 15-mile, “through-hike” trail with 2,000 feet of elevation gain. Our route required a car drop at each end of the trail.

We loaded our backpacks and started at Primrose Trailhead, 16 miles north of the City of Seward, and at the southern edge of Kenai Lake. The hard-packed dirt trail made for easy hiking through the first five miles of dense spruce forest. About a mile later, the trees thinned out, exposing captivating views in every direction—lakes and ponds, layered tundra and rocky alpine slopes leading to snow-covered mountain peaks, including 5,710-foot Mt. Ascension.

A handful of raspberries and salmonberries picked along the trail to Lost Lake.

Hiking around the boomerang-shaped lake, we claimed our own piece of tundra. We stretched, played with our dog Reese, and set up our camping spot for the next two nights. Sitting on the edge of the peninsula, we cooked dinner, sipped whiskey and watched the clouds change to pink in the autumn evening light, bouncing off the surrounding unnamed mountains draped in fall colors. The next day, we climbed a nearby peak, scaling over rocky alpine outcrops, taking in the view of the multicolored carpet of bearberry, blueberry and willow.

We slowly hiked back to our campsite, continuing to admire its location, surrounded by water and tangerine-hued mountains.

Our last morning beside the lake was calm. Reflections off the water created a mirror in every direction of the tall peaks with puffy clouds as a backdrop.

As I snapped photos, I wondered when my next opportunity would be to visit Lost Lake, and stay even longer. We slowly packed up camp, silently wishing to extend our trip. As we threw on our packs, I thought there was no way the remainder of trail could compare to the previous miles. But when I walked around the next bend, I stared, blinking in astonishment at Resurrection Bay, an enormous fjord hemmed in by towering snow-clad peaks. We smiled to ourselves, shaking our heads at the beauty as we picked gigantic berries on the side of the trail.

If You Go

  • Consult the Alaska Department of Natural Resources website: http://dnr.alaska.gov/parks/aspunits/northern/lostlktlcamp.htm 
  • Figure out if you plan to hike out-and-back or hike-through to determine if you’ll need another vehicle.
  • Note: summer season is July through September, but the trail is open year-round.
  • Remember your camera, and a fishing rod.
  • Give yourself a few days to use the lake as a basecamp and do as many day hikes as you can.

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