Looking west from the top toward Penguin Lake and King Point (July)
Penguin Peak is a graceful mountain that dominates the highway views along Anchorage's Turnagain Arm. While it's only just over 4000 feet, you'll have to earn that height honestly, starting virtually at sea level and laboring up a trail that follows an unrelentingly steep avalanche chute. A little scrambling on an airy ridge tops it off. The reward is a perch above the fjord that is hard to surpass.
Turnagain Arm offers a surfeit of dramatic ascents--Rainbow
, South Suicide
, Homicide's east ridge
, to name just a few--and the closed-in, one-dimensional march up Penguin's regular route might not be the first choice of a Turnagain Arm regular. But once on the crest itself, the view is as fine as any to be had. Penguin is also the western gateway to one of Chugach State Park's classic ridge traverses.
Access to Penguin Peak begins at the Bird Creek Valley Trailhead located off the Seward Highway on Konikson Road.
From Anchorage, head south on the Seward Highway to milepost 101 (which is about 15 miles from the city's southern outskirts) and turn left on Konikson Road.
If coming from the Seward direction, look for Konikson Road on your right 10.3 miles after the Girdwood turnoff.
Once on Konikson Road, travel half a mile to a dead end in a large gravel parking area. Park here and continue on foot.
The ascent gully opens out into pleasant tundra at its top endPenguin Peak Trail:
Walk north on the gated but excellent dirt road that leads out of the parking lot, sticking to the main road when smaller tracks branch off. After ten minutes of brisk walking on this level boulevard, take the signposted right turn onto the Penguin Peak Trail (map here
). The path is initially a little bit overgrown, and there are one or two false branches; just remember that it follows an alder-choked avalanche gully and does NOT enter the woods to your right. Climbing on a steady grade of about 1500 feet per mile, the path begins to emerge into meadows about 1500 up and then climbs a little tundra headwall about 2000 feet into the ascent. At the top of this, the trail fades out; continue up the same gully toward a large microwave relay at 3200'. Views of the fjord really open up at the relay! From here, turn left/north up scree and grass to the main ridgeline above. A few hundred yards of scrambling along the ridge brings you to the summit. The scrambling looks a little intimidating from a distance and a fair number of people don't continue all the way to the true summit. When you walk right up to it, though, you'll find that this final step is just a class 2 ascent on goat trails.
The total distance traveled from trailhead to summit is only three miles, but it will take some time. Two hours would be quite fast ascent time; most parties will spent three or four reaching the top.
Three cautions are in order about the Penguin Peak Trail. First, it's very closed in below treeline, and in this area of high grizzly density you need to make noise and be prepared. There has been at least one recent mauling nearby. Second, I can't overemphasize just how active this avalanche gully is for, you guessed it, AVALANCHES. There is an incredible snowshed on the upper mountain that causes massive slides to run far below snowline in both fall and spring/early summer (not to mention in winter)--sometimes all the way to the valley floor. And they come right down the trail. When the upper part of the mountain holds even a modest amount of snow cover, this is a risk. Finally, this steep and sunless trail is always wet and slippery--there's just something extra greasy about the soil here. I'm ordinarily no fan of trekking poles, but this is the one place in the Chugach where I wouldn't be caught descending without them.
It is a bit of a rite of passage among Chugach diehards to complete the whole of Penguin Ridge from the town of Girdwood to the village of Bird, or vice versa. At the Girdwood end the ridge is accessed near Gentoo Peak via the California Creek Trail
, and from there the ramble and scramble to Penguin Peak is spectacular but unforgiving. Since there is no easy exit from the ridge without completing the whole traverse, to do this you have to commit to about 9500 feet of total vertical rise, sort of like hiking the grand canyon twice in a day (only without the benefit of a trail for most of the route). And once the snow is gone, water can be just about as scarce as it would be in the Grand Canyon. The best description of this marathon is probably Bill Finley's, found here
Some may be tempted to consider dropping off the north side of the peak into the Penguin Creek drainage, perhaps with a visit to lovely Penguin Lake on the way. After all, the map makes it appear that you might be able to connect with a trail down there. Be aware that bushwhacking in the Penguin Creek Valley is truly heinous and the linkup to the trail system is not practical in any normal sense of the word.
Penguin Peak in October, viewed from five miles to the west. The trail goes up the shadowed left-to-right gully.
Penguin Peak is located in Chugach State Park; however, the trailhead parking does not require a fee like some others.
CampingBird Creek Campground
is about a mile from the trailhead. The campground has 28 sites with picnic tables, fire pits, water, and latrines. The site fee is $20 per night with a max limit of 7 nights.
Few will be tempted to camp on the mountain itself. Through mid-season, it would not be out of the question to camp in the bowl below the microwave relay, if one were inclined to carry a backpack there; pleasant and reasonably sheltered sites can be found on the tundra. Toward the end of the season, these sites would become waterless. Campfires are prohibited.
External LinksChugach State Park
Seward Highway Scenic Byway
Seward Highway video
(often visible from Penguin)