The Angel Rocks trail has a special place in my heart, being the trail that first ignited my love for hiking when I was 14 years old. Over the years, I have hiked it countless times. In fact, it’s usually the first trail I hit every spring as soon as the snow melts.
You can take a short trip to the Angel Rocks and back (about 2.5 miles), or an 8.7 mile trek from the trailhead to Chena Hot Springs Resort — where hamburgers, beer, and hot springs await. (Any guess which one I prefer?)
Doing the traverse requires a shuttle between the resort and the trailhead. If you have a group, bring two cars and leave one at the resort.
I once hiked the traverse solo, then hitched a ride back to my car in the bed of a pickup truck. It was freezing!
(Springtime can be pretty cold in interior Alaska.)
The Angel Rocks trail begins at mile 49 Chena Hot Springs Road, in the Chena River State Recreation Area. The first part of the trail is flat and wide, traveling through a spruce and aspen forest alongside the Chena River.
About 1/4 mile in, it passes a beaver dam. An interpretive sign describes beavers and their exceptional engineering skills.
I was lucky enough to see a beaver there, one cool spring evening. It was just relaxing, floating in circles in the calm water. I slowly stepped closer to get a better look, and every time I made a noise it dove underwater with a loud “smack!” of its tail.
Several seconds later it would pop back up and resume floating around, as if nothing had happened.
The Angel Rocks trail is rough in places, with exposed roots and rocks. Spring snowmelt and rain can make some portions quite muddy. At about 1/2 mile, the path forks to the right, and a boardwalk takes you over a marshy section.
This is where the trail starts to climb, getting steeper as you go. Erosion and foot traffic have taken a toll, making some parts very rocky.
As you gain altitude, you begin to get nice views of the rolling hills surrounding the valley.
This area burned in 2004, leaving wide swaths of dead trees. You’ll pass through some of the devastation, where the forest is in the very early stages of renewal.
At about 3/4 mile, you reach the first of the Angel Rocks, massive granite monoliths called “tors” jutting out of the hillside. The tors are fascinating geological features, and they beg exploration.
Many have sheer faces suited to climbing and rappelling, although you can get to the top of most of them without ropes.
Be very careful when climbing on the rocks, though. A fall here could be fatal.
At 1.2 miles, you’ve reached the top of the main group of tors.
The Angel Rocks trail splits — a right turn begins the traverse to Chena Hot Springs, and a left turn loops around the tors and descends to the river, where it reconnects with the main path.
Take a left here to explore the tors. Right away you’ll see the entrance to a small cave in the rocks.
Here at Angel Rocks, there are several large tors worth investigating.
However, I do not recommend descending by the loop trail. It is extremely steep and eroded.
In 2007, I went with my wife, Jaimi, and two nieces, Cody and Taylor. We were sliding and falling down, grabbing at trees to slow our descent.
Cody fell, scraping her hand and drawing blood. It was not fun.
There’s not much to see on the loop trail, anyway, so do yourself a favor and return the same way you came.
If you are doing the traverse, or simply want to reach the high point before returning, turn right at the sign. The trail takes you through a gently sloping, open brushy area for awhile, then becomes steep again, going through a stand of spruce and aspen trees.
You’ll pass one more large tor, then ascend a steep, rocky hillside.
The trail becomes less visible here. Look for cairns (piles of stones marking the path) to guide you. Of course you’ll have your compass, map, and gps device in case you get lost, right?
The high point is at mile 3, and it’s worth the effort to reach. It is a bald dome, giving you unobstructed views in every direction. On a clear day, you’ll see the White Mountains to the north and the Alaska Range to the south.
It’s pretty easy going the rest of the way. You’ll walk along a ridge for a mile or so, then begin descending towards the hot springs. At the 5 mile point, there’s a small trail shelter for riding out bad weather.
At 6.7 miles, the trail forks. Unless you’re in good shape and feeling energetic, take the right path. The left one is Bear Paw Butte trail, and it adds 1/2 mile and several hundred feet of elevation to your trip.
At 7.5 miles, the trail forks again. Take the left path, as it is higher and drier than the right one. Eventually it turns into a dirt road which descends steeply to the resort.
Once you reach the resort, head for the restaurant, then hit the hot springs to soak those weary bones!