This 4.5-mile out-and-back hike with 2,250 feet of elevation gain starts out easy but culminates in a steep climb over loose rocks to get a glimpse of a pristine glacial lake among rocky Alaskan mountain peaks.
Whenever we roll through a new region, I fire up Google and search for two things:
For anyone who knows me, the first one is obvious–I love trying new beers. And there’s no better way to burn off those excess calories than by exploring the beautiful backcountry of the amazing places we visit.
There’s no shortage of stunning trails to explore in Alaska, but this one, in particular, called out to us.
The chance to see something only possible in a handful of states: a glacial lake.
- Difficulty: Strenuous
- Distance: 4.5-mile out-and-back trail
- Elevation Gain: 2,250 feet
- Highest Elevation: 4,550 feet
- Projected Time: 3-4 hours one way
The Reed Lakes Trail is a grueling 4.5-mile out-and-back hike that lulls you to sleep with its methodical, meandering climb alongside high peaks the Talkeetna Mountains before punishing you with a seemingly vertical boulder field.
That boulder field is no joke. I read on various sites that there would be some bouldering required, but I didn’t envision it being anything like this.
Click here to skip to this section of the hike.
After you conquer the rocks you’ve entered what looks like a totally different planet. There’s no plant life anywhere and temperatures drop about 20°F from where you started the hike. This is the land of glaciers, and this particular glacier feeds a beautiful blue glacial lake: Upper Reed Lake.
This is where our Reed Lakes Trail experience goes from strenuous to sad–we didn’t get to see Upper Reed Lake.
When we finally completed the boulder field and emerged in the alien landscape, there was no lake to be found. Instead, there was a small trickle of water running from the base of a glacier that fed the stream we followed on the way up.
We met a couple up there who said the lake must have dried up and that we were unlucky enough to have missed it.
In all of our exhaustion, we believed them.
As it turns out, we just went too far to the left once we summited the boulder field. Had we ventured further to our right, we would have borne witness to Upper Reed Lake’s beauty.
Give yourself a solid 6-8 hours to complete this hike. Not only is it slow going in parts, but you’ll want to take time at the top to catch your breath and soak up Upper Reed Lake’s beauty.
How to get to the Reed Lakes Trailhead
Located near Hatcher Pass about 15 miles outside downtown Palmer, the Reed Lakes Trailhead is easy to find, but also easy to miss.
You’ll follow the Little Susitna River for about 10 miles on Hatcher Pass Road. Give yourself a few extra minutes to stop at one of the pullouts along the river because it’s absolutely beautiful.
Along the way, Hatcher Pass Road becomes Palmer-Fishhook Road and then Fishhook-Willow Road. The transition from Palmer-Fishhook Road to Fishhook-Willow Road occurs near the Gold Mint Trailhead.
You should very clearly see a sign for Gold Mint Trailhead with a white building on your left-hand side. You want to take the sharp, hairpin turn to your left through the red and white gate.
Once on Fishhook-Willow Road it’s a short drive up the mountain to Archangel Road. This turn is sharp and somewhat hidden as shown in the street view screenshot below:
Note: The image above shows Fishhook-Willow Road as Hatcher Pass Road. I think these roads have multiple names so just be familiar with all of them as you’re driving through the area.
Archangel Road becomes a well-maintained dirt road. Follow it for about a mile and you’ll come to the parking lot for the Reed Lakes Trailhead where there’s a $5 self-pay station.
Parking at the Reed Lakes Trailhead
We parked near the self-pay station and began to walk further up the dirt road.
What we didn’t know (but wish we did) is that you can continue driving further up the dirt road. It gets really bumpy in spots, but most SUVs and trucks should handle it without a problem.
About a mile beyond the self-pay station, you get to this gate where you can’t drive any further. It’s time to begin the hike.
Reed Lakes Trail starts out nice and easy
Beyond that gate is a wide, well-maintained trail with a slow and steady incline. It’s an easy stroll, but things will get much harder.
As we followed the trail we surveyed the beautiful mountain scenery all around us. In the distance, we saw a climber scaling a vertical rock face. I zoomed in as far as I could to take a picture.
Soon the wide dirt trail narrows and you’re among the fireweed. This stuff is invasive and is absolutely everywhere in Alaska and Canada, but it’s still really pretty. I take pictures of it almost every time I’m walking past.
There’s a good amount of rusted metal strewn about the early portions of this hike.
There’s even an old, collapsed mine. I’m not sure what it was used for or how deep it is, but it’s just another reminder of Alaska’s proud mining history.
You haven’t really done any serious climbing yet. That’s about to change as you wind through this picturesque landscape to the top of a small hill.
First up, Lower Reed Lake
At the top of this small summit is the what I think is Lower Reed Lake. It’s small and shallow but is fed by the same glacial runoff that feeds Upper Reed Lake.
We push onward deeper into the valley
With Lower Reed Lake in your rearview, continue onward along the trail. The mountain ridges appear suddenly on both sides of you, and they’re steep.
For the most part, you’ll be following the stream from here on out.
There’s even a little waterfall
One of the better photo ops comes about 0.5 miles beyond Lower Reed Lake. Dawn demonstrates below.
Soon it’s time for your first real climb
To this point, Reed Lakes Trail has a slow and steady upward trajectory with the occasional steeper incline. But as you’ll recall from the hike highlights box at the beginning, there’s 2,250 feet of elevation to climb. That begins here.
The backdrop makes for some impressive pictures. We’re only a couple of miles beyond the last parked car, but the parking area is nowhere in sight.
The landscape also begins to change. There’s no more fireweed up here and the grass is mostly ankle-high.
Keep moving upwards and you’ll see a flat rock that walks you right out towards the edge of the mountain you’re climbing. Just another great photo op.
When you’re done taking pictures, which admittedly could take a while, it’s time to continue the climb.
The further you go along the trail, the more harrowing it gets. Bouldering aside, nothing is especially dangerous. But there are some segments that are narrow and right along somewhat steep slopes.
The boulder field is in sight
About 2 hours into the hike, you come to the base of the boulder field. The fireweed returns.
It’s hard to see it from the pictures here, but the stream you’ve been following runs right below the rocks, occasionally rising to the surface and splashing on the uneven terrain.
One hour later…
We were caught off guard by the difficulty of scaling the boulder field. Preoccupied with surviving the hike, we didn’t get any pictures on the way up, but I did get a shot of Dawn descending the boulder field on our way back. Click here if you want to see that.
About an hour after marveling at the beauty of the landscape at the base of the boulder field, you finally reach the snow-capped summit.
Take a minute to survey this moon-like landscape. Beyond the perma-snow is a glacier with that signature blue color hidden beneath layers of dirt and bacteria.
Unfortunately, there was no Upper Reed Lake for us.
As mentioned in the intro, we failed to find it. We were accompanied by another couple at the top of the mountain and they convinced us the lake must have dried up.
We were too exhausted to explore any further. I wish we had. I think if you keep going a few hundred yards to the right of this point, you’ll end up by the lake. Oh well, we’ll just have to do this hike again!
Look for Bomber Glacier: One of the glaciers up here is called Bomber Glacier. It’s named after a downed TB-29 Superfortress bomber aircraft that crashed on November 15, 1957. You can actually walk to the crash site where the wreckage still remains. We didn’t get a chance to do it on this hike. Another thing to look forward to next time!
Time to begin the slow trek down
Having reached what we deemed to be an acceptable turnaround point, it was time for us to descend the mountain.
As we approached the top of the boulder field I was struck by the scale of everything. That’s where I took my favorite photo of this entire hike.
I want to say the hike down is easier, but it really isn’t. Descending the rock field is a dicey proposition. It’s extremely easy to kick large rocks free, sending them hurtling towards those in front of you. This happened to us on a couple of occasions. Thankfully, we were prepared for the possibility and gave each other plenty of clearance.
All told, it took us over an hour to descend from the hike’s highest point to the bottom of the boulder field, just over 0.8 miles away.
You follow the same trail out. The downhill portions were welcomed…after completing the boulder field, that is.
Bonus hiking! We thought there was an injured hiker
Six hours after starting the hike with the grueling boulder field behind us, we were exhaustedly trudging home along the flat ground near Lower Reed Lake.
In the distance, we heard a dog barking somewhere up the mountain slope flanking the trail. It was odd behavior reminiscent of Lassie signaling that Timmy had fallen down the well.
Dawn pulled out her binoculars and we located the dog about 200 feet up the steep slope. A group of four hikers next to us stopped as we all weighed our options:
- Keep walking and forget we saw anything
- Someone goes up there to investigate
I chased this damn dog for a quarter-mile as he ran higher and higher up the slope. Then, suddenly, the dog bolted back to the beginning where we first saw him. He was just playing a game!
I climbed back down, now completely drained, and we continued our walk back hoping I’d made the right decision to abandon the search.
About five minutes later we ran into another hiker who said the dog was on the other side of the valley barking on the opposite slope about an hour earlier. I left with a clear conscience but some seriously fatigued quads.
Parting thoughts after surviving a grueling climb over a steep boulder field on the Reed Lakes Trail
Palmer was one of our favorite towns in Alaska, and this hike was just one of the many awesome things we did while passing through.
Reed Lakes Trail certainly is not for the faint of heart, especially those who are afraid of heights or unsure of their climbing abilities, but it’s a rewarding experience even if you fail to find the upper lake like us.
Wear sturdy shoes and pack long sleeves for the summit, as it gets legitimately cold up there. I find I’m particularly susceptible to the lower oxygen at elevations, so the 4,500-foot summit made me a little woozy. I packed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and some granola for the hike and I definitely needed it at the top.
While the Angel Rocks to Chena Hot Springs Trail was longer with a similar elevation gain, the bouldering portion of this trail was among the hardest hiking experiences we’ve ever had due mostly to how unsteady the ground is.
If we come back to Alaska next summer, you better believe we’ll do this hike again. I need to see this glacial lake!