Climbing
Sport climbing, Trad climbing, Non-technical rock
Alpine climbing NCCS rating
Grade I
Elevation Gain
463.00 ft (141.12 m)
Distance
1.00 mi (1.61 km)
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The Talkeetna Mountains are about as “Alaska” as it gets. Situated right in-between the silty ocean waters lined with tidewater glaciers and the permanently snowy Alaska Range, the Talkeetna Mountains are often mistaken as unassuming and neglected by visitors for the more popular sights to both the north and south. To most Alaskans, however, the heart of Alaska is in the Talkeetna Mountains. In winter, it’s home to some of the most spectacular backcountry skiing at only a couple hours from Anchorage. In the fall, berry pickers flock to the alpine tundra, scouring the treeless hills for blueberries, salmon berries, cranberries, and more. Summer, of course, is where the magic happens when the area opens up for hiking, alpine pursuits, and, of course, rock climbing, where the best rock Alaska has to offer lies tucked away deep in the granite mountains.

Admittedly, being the best climbing in Alaska is a bit of a dubious claim. Climbers go to Alaska to climb alpine routes and ice...they don’t go to climb rock. In fact, the Seward Highway, Anchorage’s only close crag to speak of, was dubbed the “worst crag in America” by the February 2003 edition of Climbing Magazine. Locals fondly refer to the brittle rock as the “Chugach Choss” after the Chugach Mountains within which the crag lies.

The Talkeetna Mountains, however, are home to rare rock that is both quality and sturdy. And the best of the best lies nestled between the dramatic alpine spires in Archangel Valley. Archangel Valley is stunning, sublime, and a true sufferfest. From the high-clearance-only dirt road in to the tricky approach to the boulders, some might call Archangel Valley inhospitable, which is Alaska’s way of saying, "There is price you must pay for the privilege of climbing here.” Like most things in Alaska, you have to earn it.

The approach to the boulders begins where the road ends, or just about. Near the end of Archangel Road is a small parking lot, which really consists of slight wide spots for cars to pull over and an outhouse. Just beyond the outhouse is a single sanctioned campsite, but it’s not unusual to find a group of people dirtbag camping in vans in the parking lot, hoping for early morning sends.

Follow the trail past the outhouse. It splits several times, but as long as you’re still going downhill toward the river, they all lead to the same spot. When you reach the river, follow the left spur of the trail down toward the rapids rather than right toward the slow, shallow moving section.

Ahead awaits a crossing of Archangel Creek, which makes even the hardest of climbers hesitate. This crossing is dicey even in the driest of seasons.  Many climbers have been known to finish the approach with wet shoes and, if unlucky, more. The trail ends at the rocks where the river is considered easiest to cross. The route is fairly obvious; step across a couple of smaller boulders and clamber up onto a large boulder. From there, drop down about 3 feet onto a large rock shelf. Be warned: In extremely wet conditions toward early summer, this shelf can be submerged in water, making the crossing even more tricky. From the shelf, carefully step onto a small pyramidal rock that sometimes just barely pokes out of gushing stream of water. Trust it and throw your weight over to another large rock, catching yourself with your hands. There’s no delicate way of getting across that rock saddle. Just straddle it and scoot, carefully sliding off the back onto some small rocks at the far bank. It sounds simple, but note that every Alaska climber considers it the bane of Hatcher Pass. Some even opt to wade through hip deep water of the slower section just to avoid the crossing.

Across the river, the trail continues along the bottom edge of the massive talus slide where for each developed boulder there are hundreds more waiting with potential. The boulders immediately up the hill from the river crossing, an area called Diamond South, has the densest concentration of cleaned boulders and established problems.

Continue right along the clearly worn trail deeper into the valley toward the other climbing areas: Fairangel (bouldering) and the monolith (sport/trad climbing). Fairangel is the place to go for the adventurous boulderer, and while there are relatively few developed routes, there is a staggering amount of potential. Once the trail begins to scrawl upward, it fades away, completely covered by alpine tundra foliage. Later in the season, stop for the some pre or post sending snacks of bunchberries and blueberries.

The brush may be good for foraging, but it is bad for navigation. The boulders as a whole are easy enough to find, but specific ones are nearly impossible to find for the first-timer, and the sheer multitude of rock makes giving good area beta pretty useless. The tops of the boulders are all covered in a thick, plush moss, as if the earth is trying to reclaim the rock. You can search for a specific boulder for hours only to realize you were standing on top of it.

It also makes the approach physically demanding and dangerous; it involves rock-hopping from one slippery boulder to another and hoping you don’t posthole through a patch of moss and break an ankle. It’s especially exhausting with awkward crash pads. If you'll be climbing for a weekend, local climbers are known to stash pads on Friday night so they don’t have to haul them day after day. 

It’s not a polished crag, by any means, and the paltry number of developed problems is disappointing to some and utterly stokeworthy to others. If scrubbing moss and first ascents are your thing, no crag holds quite as much potential. Bring lots of friends and crash pads because the landinsg are almost always brutal. Some landings are quite literally holes that tumble down and down into deep boulder pits.

If ropes are more your speed, Archangel has plenty to offer in the way of trad climbing. This includes the four-pitch area classic, Toto, the Monolith routes at the far end of the valley, and the infamously scary, Terror Vision (5.11d), a run-out twp-pitch trad line that scrawls underneath a huge roof on The Lost Wall. Many of these routes offer cool alpine link-ups as well, like the Toto link-up to the Pinnacle, a spire so sharp it’s unmistakable from any point in the valley.

For the truly dedicated, follow the valley to its far end where the river begins and follow a rusted mine pipe up to the where “The Sherriff” keeps a watchful eye on the rest of valley. This spectacular boulder overhangs the very mouth of river pouring from deep in the mountains. Yet another bowl of boulder lies on the slopes looming above The Sherriff that has to be explored.

Whether you're bouldering or roping up, Hatcher Pass’ Archangel Valley is Alaska’s most precious treasure, and there is so much left to be discovered. The valley makes you work for it in what is almost always an exercise in Type II fun, but it is so beyond worth it: ]a little scary, a lot of suffering, and endlessly spectacular.

Guidebooks: While fewer than half of the established routes are in the current guidebooks (though a new edition of the bouldering guidebook is rumored to be on the way), they’re worth it to pick up for tips on the approach and for identifying many of the boulders. You can pick them up in Anchorage at REI, The Hoarding Marmot, or Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking (AMH). 

Logistics + Planning

Preferable season(s)

Summer
Fall

Congestion

Moderate

Parking Pass

General Day Use Fee

Open Year-round

No

Open from

June 16 to October 06

Pros

Isolation. Dramatic views. Variety of activities. Free camping.

Cons

Rough road. Remote. Short access season. Difficult approach and treacherous terrain.

Pets allowed

Allowed

Trailhead Elevation

3,500.00 ft (1,066.80 m)

Highest point

3,037.00 ft (925.68 m)

Features

Vault toilet
Backcountry camping
Historically significant
Off-leash dog area
Near lake or river
Mine
Bouldering
Big vistas

Access

Hike-in

Typically multi-day

No

Permit required

No

Primary aspect

East facing

Class / Rating

5.8-5.14d/ V0-V13

Drinking water

Unfrozen water

Location

Field Guide

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