Seward was one of our favorite towns during our Alaska road trip, and I could’ve stayed a week there for the hiking alone. There were a ton of great options, and the Tonsina Trail in Caines Head Recreation Area was a fantastic way to kick off the trip. While steep in places, this 4.5-mile round trip is worth the heavy breathing to reach the beach at Tonsina Point. You’re rewarded with panoramic views of Resurrection Bay and the surrounding mountains.
If you don’t want to go that far, normally I would say just go as far as you want and turnaround…but there aren’t really any cool views along the way. Just being in the northernmost rainforest in the world is pretty cool, but a word of warning that there aren’t any breaks in the trees for pretty scenery until you get to the beach.
Hiking the 4.5 miles took me two hours and 15 minutes from start to finish, so make sure to budget your time accordingly and bring plenty to eat and drink. The nice thing about Alaska is all the daylight you have in the spring and summer, so you won’t have to worry about running out of light for hiking!
How do I get there?
Lowell Point State Recreation Site is the easiest way to access Tonsina Point. The upper parking lot is a 10-minute drive from town and parking is $5 per day. I recommend you stay on Lowell Point at the Alaska Paddle Inn, a 10-minute walk from the trailhead.
The drive is straightforward since there’s only one road to Lowell Point, however it’s not paved and is also filled with potholes. You don’t need an SUV or any four-wheel drive capability, you just need to be prepared to go slow! Walking to the trailhead was uphill but nothing crazy; just keep an eye out for car traffic since the road is narrow. If you don’t walk to the trailhead, it’s probably half a mile shorter.
Where do I go?
Once you reach the parking lot, there is one obvious option to take. The trail leaves from the end of the parking lot with the restrooms and informational kiosk. If you do get turned around, you may accidentally find the connector trail to the lower parking lot, which will take you the wrong way. Just make sure you’re headed uphill and not downhill and you’ll be fine!
There’s only one point on the trail that it’s a little confusing which way to go, which is in the first mile. You’re hiking along a private driveway at first, and eventually the trail splits from the driveway. Bear right at that fork to continue uphill and follow the signs for the trail. You won’t run into any other trail options while you’re out there, and the trail is very easy to follow through the forest.
What should I wear and bring?
Something waterproof! We ended up hiking almost entirely in the rain, and I was very grateful to have a waterproof jacket. Hiking pants ended up being water-resistant enough that my legs stayed dry, too. I dressed in lots of layers, which is the key to any hiking in the springtime in Alaska.
It was in the mid- to upper-40s during our hike, so I wore a warm long-sleeved base layer, a fleece hoodie, and my winter coat plus a beanie and gloves. On the bottom, I had on long underwear and my hiking pants. I run cold, but I did end up getting quit hot on the hike back since a lot of it is uphill. Make sure to leave a little room in your backpack for peeling off layers.
There are two water crossings, plus you’re walking along a beach that’s pretty wet, so I was very glad to have waterproof hiking boots on. My husband wore trail runners that weren’t waterproof and was just extra careful crossing the water. Definitely wear something with more grip than regular running shoes, as the trail has a lot of rocky and irregular surfaces that are often also wet.
Since you’ll be out there for a few hours, make sure to bring water and snacks. I was about three months pregnant when I did the hike, so was eating and drinking much more than normal. I brought trail mix, beef jerky, and a liter of water.
I also recommend bringing bear spray, particularly if you are hiking this trail later in the summer once the salmon are “running” (as the locals say) in Tonsina Creek – it’s pretty common to see black bear fishing there, apparently! We didn’t see any, but like hiking anywhere in bear country, pack bear spray just in case and make lots of noise while you hike. My personal favorite way of doing this is remixing popular songs (my husband and I have turned Hey Jude into a rousing bear safety number called Hey Bear).
For more information on what you should bring hiking no matter what trail you’re on, read my post here.
Is it crowded?
We purposefully went to Alaska in late May before the main tourist season kicks in. We saw a few dozen people on the trail, but still had the beach to ourselves. It was a perfect balance of not feeling alone out there but also not feeling like I was jammed on the trail with a hundred of my best friends.
Anything else I should know?
Like I said, the trail is a doozy coming back up. It’s got a few steep hills on your way out but is generally very rolling until you start descending down to the beach. It didn’t feel that steep coming down, but I had to take a few breathers (and an emergency bathroom break) coming back up. Bring hiking poles if you have them, drink lots of water, and take as many breaks as you need.
The only bathroom is at the trailhead, so take advantage of it! Fortunately, since you’re in a rainforest, there is plenty of cover should you need to make an emergency pit stop.