Keystone Canyon Falls in August 2014
Keystone Canyon is one of those places that is hard to describe. On the way in to Valdez, I had been driving for about an hour and a half. (It’s about 5 hours from Anchorage via road.) Even if I had been driving for longer, I think I would still have had my breath taken away as I entered Keystone Canyon. It was drizzling a bit, giving the canyon a special atmosphere. The road winds through the canyon, at times crossing over the Lowe River. Cliffs climb above you on both sides of the road.
And then the waterfalls start appearing. Bridal Veil and Horsetail Falls are the two named waterfalls. As I’m driving along, though, I see another waterfall. I don’t know if this one has a designated name, and I wasn’t sure what the name of the creek was, therefore it’s Keystone Canyon Falls to me.
The mountains above the gorge climb about 5500′ feet in the matter of about 4 miles. So while you’re probably seeing about 100′ of waterfall in this picture, there’s likely more waterfall hidden above.
I often mention whether you should go out of your way to see a waterfall…In this case, it’s taken to extremes. I was headed to Valdez to go on a day-long glacier/wildlife cruise. As I mentioned, the drive from Anchorage to Valdez is about five hours, and there are long stretches of beautiful nothingness. You could fly, but then you’ll miss these waterfalls. On the way, you’ll get some great views of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, and a “short” detour from the road to Valdez will lead to Liberty Falls. In addition to Bridal Veil Falls and Horsetail Falls, there’s also Crooked Creek Falls in Valdez. With all of the additional beautiful, it’s a good reason to drive, but you’ve got to set time aside just for this.
- There isn’t any other way to enter Valdez via road than on Alaska Route 4. From Anchorage, you’d follow AK-1 for a really long time to the junction of AK-4.
- Turn right and head south on AK-4, and then after an hour or so, you’ll enter Keystone Canyon. It’s clearly signed. It’s hard to miss the different waterfalls.
Length of Hike: roadside
Height: ~100′ (could be more or less, not the greatest judge of height)
Where in the World is Keystone Canyon Falls?
The middle portion of Pioneer Falls (in August 2014)
Trying to find a somewhat comprehensive list of waterfalls in Alaska is not an easy endeavor. The sheer size and remoteness of much of the state leads me to believe there are far more waterfalls than listed. I even remember watching one of the reality shows about mining gold in Alaska, and they had found a waterfall in some remote area. Alaska’s tourism website (found here) does a fairly good job of identify 27 waterfalls, but it still is incomplete.
Exhibit A: Pioneer Falls. I was staying at cottages near Palmer and Wasilla, and I was looking at Google Maps to see if there was anything interesting to do in the area. And as I scanned the page, by pure chance (or what seemed like it), I noticed a marker for “Pioneer Falls Trailhead”. I had never heard of this before, and decided to search a little more. It seemed like Pioneer Falls existed, and after discovering it was on paved road, I decided to go and check it out.
Pioneer Falls does exist! It’s surprisingly easy to get to, and it’s a very short hike to view the falls up-close. One reason Pioneer Falls might not be widely visited: it’s a difficult waterfall to view in its entirety. As I’ve said before, I’m a terrible judge of heights, but I’d guess the total drop is greater than 100′. And yet from any portion along the trail, you’re only going to see one piece of the falls. From the gravel parking area, you’ll get a pretty good view of the uppermost drop. As you start hiking toward the falls, you’ll get a better view of the lower and middle portions, but even those are almost impossible to view together. So it’s rather hard to gain a full appreciation for the waterfall. So I don’t know if I would seek out just Pioneer Falls on its own, but if you’re headed from Anchorage to Palmer, you can see Pioneer Falls while also stopping at Thunderbird Falls and South Fork Eagle River Falls.
- From AK-1 (Glenn Highway), take the exit onto Old Glenn Highway (just before you cross over the Knik River).
- Head east along Old Glenn Highway until you get to E. Knik River Road. (Old Glenn Highway veers to the north and crosses over the Knik River), while E. Knik River Road continues east.
- Continue along E. Knik River Road for 1.2 miles. On your right, you should see a sign for Pioneer Falls.
- Continue for about 50 more feet to a gravel road on your right. There’s a mailbox there on the right, and when you turn onto this gravel road, it goes for a short distance to an oval parking area.
- Park in this gravel lot, and you will be able to see the falls from here. It’s maybe a 0.2 mile hike to the falls, if that much.
Be careful. If you decide to hike further up, realize that the trail can be slippery in places. Exercise caution!
Accessibility: 10/10 (to get a view from the base of the lower portion), 6/10 (to go up a bit further)
Height: ~100′ (?)
Length of Hike: 0.4 miles round-trip
The lower portion of Pioneer Falls
Where in the World is Pioneer Falls?
McHugh Falls in May 2011
I have to admit McHugh Falls doesn’t have a huge amount of appeal. It’s a rather small waterfall, and I don’t like to discriminate against waterfalls, but you really can’t get very close to it. With small waterfalls, they’re best enjoyed nearby, not behind a fenced area.
It’s one redeeming quality is that it is very easy to visit. I believe there are a number of unadvertised waterfalls in Alaska, but how many are actually accessible? This is one of the few that is accessible. As you driving south along the Seward Highway from Anchorage, you’ll enter Chugach State Park (which is very expansive), and pass the parking area for McHugh Falls. There’s a $5 daily fee to enter the park, which I always support paying, though the first time I visited, I just got out of the car and took a few photos, and then left. There is a trail that leads somewhere, though I’m not sure where.
- Head south on the Seward Highway from Anchorage.
- You’ll enter Chugach State Park, and after a ways, you’ll find the entrance/parking area for the falls on your left. It may be easy to miss, so pay attention. I’d say it’s about a 1/4 of the way from Anchorage to Seward…
Accessibility: 10/10 (Easy)
Length of Hike: Roadside
Where in the World is McHugh Falls?
There are at least two easy-to-visit waterfalls in the Anchorage area. This is the easier of the two to visit, South Fork Eagle River Falls (which shows up on Google Maps as Barbara Falls). There is some steepness, but the trail is short at 0.5 miles one-way, meaning you won’t exert yourself too much. (There is another trail that is longer that also leads to the falls.)
Now, one thing I want to mention about the falls is that the parking area is VERY near private property. Make sure you do NOT trespass on any property, and it seems to be all around the path… I even doubted that there was parking allowed, but it does seem to be. Once you get to the falls, there area a lot of barriers preventing further exploration, and I decided not to do that. It just doesn’t seem safe or appropriate. The fencing must be there for a reason. This did mean that I wasn’t able to get the greatest of photos, but that was more due to the angle of the sun. It actually brightened the trees up a lot, but didn’t really ruin the waterfall itself.
August 2014 “Update”: There’s not really a whole lot to update. I followed the same set of directions, with the same set of warnings about being careful about private property! This time, the sun wasn’t really out, so the view was much better. (My camera also wasn’t broken, which usually helps!)
- Head north of Anchorage along AK-1 to the exit for the Eagle River Loop.
- Drive only 0.2 miles to Hiland Dr., and turn right.
- Drive on Hiland Rd. for a little over 3 miles, and turn left onto River Park Drive.
- It gets very confusing, as River VIEW Drive then turns into Waterfall Drive suddenly.
- Head to the end of Waterfall Drive, and turn right onto River PARK Drive.
- Head to the end of River Park Drive, and take the LEFT fork onto Ken Logan Circle.
- The parking area is at the very end.
- From the parking lot, head to the blocked road, cross the bridge, and then turn right at the sign indicating the Falls.
- Head up the trail. Near the end, it splits again. Head right. (The left is marked as private property). Heading right, you should end up at the waterfall in a very short distance.
Accessibility: 8/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Length of Hike: 1 mile round-trip
South Fork Eagle River Falls in August 2014
South Fork Eagle River Falls in May 2011
Where in the World is South Fork Eagle River Falls?