Pioneer Falls, Alaska

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.

Directions:

  1. From AK-1 (Glenn Highway), take the exit onto Old Glenn Highway (just before you cross over the Knik River).
  2. 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.
  3. Continue along E. Knik River Road for 1.2 miles. On your right, you should see a sign for Pioneer Falls.
  4. 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.
  5. 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?

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Thunderbird Falls, Alaska

Thunderbird Falls in early June 2011

I guess the first thing I’ll say is that Thunderbird Falls is one cool name for a waterfall! And to go along with that, it’s also one cool waterfall. After taking a look at the falls I visited in my short time in Alaska, Thunderbird Falls has go down as my current favorite. There aren’t a whole lot of competitors, and that might just be because many of the waterfalls are unadvertised or unknown (by most people).

There’s something about the falls that is just right. It’s in a perfect forest setting.  Coming in at a two-mile round trip hike, it doesn’t take a terribly long time to get to the falls, but you also get to explore the Alaskan scenery around you. When you get to the falls, there are two different options here…The first option is to go to the viewing platform near the crest of the falls. This is where the photograph shown was taken. It really reveals both segments of the falls and its height. There’s one portion that’s hidden from view. Now, if you don’t feel like you’re close enough to the falls, the second option is to descend down to the base. The hike down isn’t difficult until you get nearer the base. At that point, it’s actually flat ground, but in early June, there was still a significant amount of ice near the river, and the falls were flowing pretty well, so I did have to be extremely careful to ensure I didn’t slip on the ice. But once you get near the base, you’ll be impressed. It does require a little more work, though…

Directions:

  1. Exit Highway 1 (Glenn Highway) at mile marker 25 (which is north of Anchorage).
  2. The signs clearly indicate the direction to the falls. There is a parking area, and a $5 entrance fee. (I feel that some people may have parked outside of the parking area to avoid that?)
  3. Follow the trail to the falls!

Accessibility: 7/10 (easy/moderate, to full viewpoint)
Height: 70′
Length of Hike: 2 miles round-trip

Where in the World is Thunderbird Falls?