About 30 miles or 45 minutes from downtown Palmer, Eklutna Lake is just far enough away to feel like a trip out of the Valley — but close enough for a daylight winter adventure. While plenty of Mat-Su dwellers might think of the lake as a great place to spend a warm summer day or vie for a site in the extremely popular first come, first serve campground, the short drive south has something else for nature-lovers: a quiet winter wonderland.
For as popular and crowded as the area is in the summer — even finding a parking space can be a major challenge — Eklutna tends to be pretty quiet over the winter months. And while the trail network is nowhere near as extensive as what’s available in Willow, it does offer a similar variety of recreation along with a change of scenery. One important note: although the area is regularly patrolled by state park rangers, there is absolutely no cell signal on or next to the lake. Be prepared to be on your own.
What recreation can you find there? Here’s some tips:
Public use cabin camping
Like many of the state park recreation areas in the state, Eklutna is home to multiple state park-owned public use cabins that offer perfect winter escapes. Unlike many of those, however, two of the cabins at Eklutna are especially friendly to users who can’t or don’t want to haul gear in a long distance. All of the cabins run $100 per night year-round.
For drive-up access, users can book the Dolly Varden cabin, which sleeps a max of 12 users, according to State Park information. Unlike the other cabins, which have a wood stove and require users to haul in wood, the Dolly Varden cabin has a propane heater. Users should note, however, that getting the cabin to a comfortable temperature can take many hours, users report, so be sure to pack cold weather gear.
The Rainbow Trout cabin, which sleeps a maximum of eight users, also offers fairly easy access from the parking area with an about .5 mile hike, ski or snowshoe in. Users should plan to bring a sled to pull in their gear, including plenty of wood for heating.
Another pair of cabins offer options for more adventurous users. The Kokanee cabin is ocated almost four miles south of the parking lot on the lake’s north end. Users should plan to ski or otherwise travel across the lake, and the cabin’s accessibility varies by season, dependent on ice conditions. The Yuditna cabin is located three miles up the lakeside trail, and can be reached by ski, fatbike or snowshoe and, once the area is opened for them, snowmachine. Both cabins sleep a maximum of eight people according to State Park information.
Fat Bike Trails
In the summer, a multi-use trail along the lakeside is perfect for hikers, runners and cyclists. In the winter, the trail transforms to ideal for fat biking. The 12-mile trail stretches from the parking area and around the side of the lake, offering fantastic views. A second trail heading the opposite direction ends near a spillway and one of the area’s three public-use cabins. After freeze-up biking across the lake is also an option.
Nordic ice skating
After freeze-up and before large amounts of snow comes down, the 3,200 acres lake is a favorite destination for nordic skaters, especially when conditions turn it to smooth, glare ice. Like most things in modern-day Alaska, outdoor enthusiasts track conditions for the lake via social media. For ice skating conditions at Eklutna and elsewhere in the region, join the Facebook group “NordicSkate-SouthCentral Alaska.”
Once snow comes in, the 3,200-acre skating rink turns into a 3,200-acre cross-country ski area. Skiers will also enjoy the wide trail that goes south along the lake from the day parking area to the Rainbow Trout cabin or out the 12-mile lakeside trail.
Last but not least, the Eklutna Lake valley offers pristine snowmachining in designated areas. Snowmachiners can travel from the bottom of lakeside trailhead to the toe of the Eklutna Glacier. Officials do not recommend the trail itself for snowmachine use due to potentially unstable ice, and many of the other trails, including the Twin Peaks trail, the Bold Ridge trail and the East Fork drainage, are not open to snowmachines. State park officials determine when it the area opens for use, and you can call the Chugach State Park hotline for the current snowmachine status in the park. That number is: (907) 269-8400.