Cains Head Trail is an easy hike near Seward Alaska that is also a photographer’s dream. The first part of the hike along the west side of Resurrection Bay, offering fantastic scenery and many opportunities to see marine wildlife. Then enjoy a walk on old roadbed to World War II-era Fort McGilvray, which is abandoned, but open for you to explore. You’ll have great views from the fort’s 650-foot rocky cliffs, but the old fort and the remains of the artillery gun stations are the real treasures here.
This hike has just a little bit of everything Alaska: a forest stroll, beach rambling, old World War II ruins, spectacular views over the sea, and a pretty waterfall that lures and fast-moving tides that can leave you trapped if you’re not careful.
Driving into Seward, continue straight through town on the New Seward Highway, which becomes Third Avenue. Turn right onto Railway Avenue, which travels south out of Seward and becomes Lowell Point Road. After 2 miles, take a left on Border Avenue as if you were heading to Millers Landing, then turn right onto Pinnacle View Road and watch for signs directing you to the upper trailhead.
If the upper trailhead parking is full, continue straight on Pinnacle View Road and look for the lower trailhead. This will be on your right before Pinnacle View hooks sharply to the left along the coast. You must start the hike from the upper trailhead; a narrow foot path connects the two.
|0.0||Begin hike at Lowel Point|
|1.5||Trail drops steeply into Tonsina Point (camping OK)|
|3.5||Calisto Canyon cabin (fee) in the upland forest.|
|4.0||Derby Cove cabin (fee) set back in the tree line.|
|4.3||Cains Head Trail connects with Alpine Trail.|
|4.5||North Beach (camping OK / Ranger Station)|
A good base camp for exploring the rest of Cains Head
|5.5||Trail forks towards South Beach (1.5 miles).|
|7.5||Trail ends at Fort McGilvary.|
From the upper trailhead, set out on the obvious gravel road. Make sure that you respect the posted private property on both sides of the road.
Caines Head is the site of Fort McGilvray, a military garrison built to protect Seward’s harbor during World War II, and the state recreation area it anchors also features fee cabins at Callisto Canyon and Derby Cove, backcountry camping areas at Tomasina Creek, South Beach, and North Beach, a side trail into alpine country below Callisto Peak, and a trail to the more remote South Beach.
Harbor seals, Steller sea lions, sea otters, porpoises, and humpback whales cruise the coast, and the seabird population includes pigeon guillemots, cormorants, murrelets, scoters, oystercatchers, and harlequin ducks. Don’t forget the rain gear, the Gulf of Alaska coast is notoriously wet.
The main logistics of the hike revolve around the 2.5 miles of beach between Tonsina Point and DerbyCove, which is passable only at a tide of 3 feet or lower. (Check tide predictions prior to hiking, see “Contact” above.) The danger here is steep, extremely slick rock outcrops that jut out across the beach into the water; they’re too dangerous to climb over (one hiker died in the attempt), so you have to hike it at lower tide levels.The best plan is to leave the trailhead about 2 hours before low tide, allowing plenty of time to cover the 1.5 miles to Tonsina Point and still do the beach section before the tide creeps up to the edge of the outcrops again. Day-hiking Caines Head is possible during the long days of midsummer, but it would be a very long day, once you made it to Caines Head, you would have to wait nearly 12 hours for the next low tide to hike back to the trailhead.
From the trailhead, the hike climbs and then drops fairly steeply to Tonsina Point and Tomasina Creek. The point is an alluvial fan laid down by the two forks of the creek, one north and one south of the point.
Cross the bridge and just before the trail hits the beach, the Tonsina camping area offers tables and an open-sided shelter. If you don’t make the low tide, this is a good place to camp, and it’s an ideal destination for a led’s first backpack (short hike, plenty to see and do, a shelter if the weather turns ugly). Don’t forget the rain gear, the Gulf of Alaska coast is notoriously wet. The Tonsina camp area is also a good place to fish on the beach for Dolly Varden all summer and for silver salmon in late summer and fall. Salmon run up Tomasina Creek, and there may be a black bear or two in the neighborhood when the fish are in.
The Callisto Canyon fee cabin is in the upland forest near the end of the beach section of the hike.The Derby Cove fee cabin is well back in the trees at the end of a short trail from the northwest end of DerbyCove, the cove at the south end of the beach hike and just north of Caines Head. (To reserve one of the cabins, use the state parks website listed above, or contact the Alaska DNR Public Information Center at 550 West 7th Ave., Suite 1260,Anchorage,AK 99501-3557; 907-269-8400.)
The trail from Derby Cove to North Beach begins at the far, southeast end.of the Derby beach. It climbs over the north point of Caines Head, connecting with the Alpine Trail, a 3-mile hike that climbs to rolling alpine tundra at about 1,500 feet in elevation.The Loop Trail connects the Alpine Trail to the South Beach Trail, making a scenic loop passing waterfalls of more than 50 feet in the 5.5-mile route. North Beach is a good base camp for exploring the rest of Caines Head, besides a few good campsites (with bear lockers), there is a ranger station and two open-sided shelters (not for camping) in the trees behind the beach.The trail, actually an old army road, leads south to Fort McGilvray and South Beach.At theY intersection a mile down the trail, take a left and continue another mile to the fort or bear right another 1.5 miles to South Beach.
The U.S.Army built Fort McGilvray to protect Seward, the main supply port for the military in Alaska, after the Japanese attack on the Aleutians in 1943.You can explore the innards of the old fort, but take a flashlight or headlamp to find your way through the dark, dripping passageways. A short hike up to the grassy summit south of the entrance to the fort leads to the fort’s gun platforms and a fine view of Resurrection Bay and the wide-open waters of the Gulf of Alaska.
South Beach is a stony, exposed beach that faces the wind and weather of the outside of Resurrection Bay It’s much more isolated than North Beach. Remains of the army ghost town, the fort’s living quarters, lie back in the woods.
Boating to Derby Cove or North Beach is another option for seeing Caines Head. (Avoid South Beach unless it’s completely calm, the beach is exposed and often a very rough place to land a boat.) If you boat in, you’ll still have plenty of energy for exploring Caines Head once you arrive, and you also won’t be tied to the schedule of the tides. Miller’s Landing, Mile 3 Lowell Point Road (0.3 mile beyond the trailhead), (907) 224-5739, (866) 541-5739, offers a charter-boat drop off and pick up service, rents kayaks and gives lessons if you want to paddle to Caines Head on your own, and runs a campground where late-arriving hikers can camp before starting the hike the next day.
Campfires are allowed only on the beaches. Please leave all artifacts in place so everyone can enjoy them.
A pleasant picnicking/day hiking destination in its own right, and it’s also the start of the beach walking for anyone going all the way to North Beach.
This is where timing matters: you can do the next part of the hike only during low tides of +3 feet or lower (+2 feet or lower during the winter), and should leave Tonsina Point at least two hours before low tide. If you time it wrong, you may find yourself trapped against steep cliffs as fast-moving tides eat the beach out from under you. Also, keep in mind that the tides and wave action can be affected by the wind, and are especially variable during the winter: always apply common sense.
The beach is made of loose shale, and is sometimes strewn with extremely slippery kelp or, in late fall, unexpected rimes of ice. Carry light gloves to protect your hands from the rocks.
After reaching Fort McGilvray, you can’t hike back to the trailhead until the next low tide. Most people will either camp or hike one way and take a water taxi the other direction. Cell service on North Beach is sporadic at best, so make your water taxi plans beforehand, find a list of authorized water taxis at the Alaska Department of National Resources website. Most carriers will require a minimum of two or three passengers per trip, but during sunny summer weekends it’s not hard to combine with other parties.
Seward Water Taxi Captain Louis Garding Phone: 907 362 4101 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Web: sewardwatertaxi.com
Fort McGilvray was a United States military fortification located on Caines Head, a cliff 650 feet above Resurrection Bay south of Seward, Alaska. The United States Army established a series of defensive positions along the coast of the bay during World War II to defend Seward against a possible Japanese invasion. The bay was a strategically important location, as it remained ice-free throughout the year, and Seward served as the southern terminus of the Alaska Railroad, an important route for transporting civilian and military supplies throughout the territory.
Defense of the bay prior to the war consisted of four mobile 155-mm guns. The earliest constructions at Caines Head and South Beach along the bay were started on July 31, 1941. With the U.S. entry in the war, permanent mounts for the guns were constructed at Rocky Point, south of the site of Fort McGilvray. Plans were approved for three new batteries, two 6-inch batteries, one 90-mm gun, and numerous fire control and searchlight positions. Construction was hindered by the difficult terrain and winter season. By the end of 1943, the battery at Lowell Point just south of Seward was completed and manned by troops. Located near the fort at South Beach were utility buildings and barracks to house the 500 soldiers that supported the area’s defenses.
In March 1943, the installations atop Caines Head were named McGilvray after an Army officer who commanded Fort Kenay to the north in 1869. American and Canadian forces reclaimed Attu and Kiska islands in the Aleutian Islands Campaign between May and August 1943. The Alaskan Department ordered the installations dismantled in March 1944. Many of the constructions were not yet fully completed. The guns were disassembled and shipped to locations in South Dakota and San Diego and the buildings were abandoned
In 1971, the Alaska Division of Parks was established to control recreational land. The Caines Head State Recreation Area was established with 1800 acres. In 1974 it was expanded by an additional 4000 acres. The first work in clearing the abandoned military roads began in 1984. When workers reached the fort’s site at the top of Caines Head they discovered the concrete buildings well-intact, with functioning doors and windows. Military and engineering experts consider it one of the most well-preserved sites in Alaska.
The pilings at the beach are the remnants of a World War II-era military dock that survived the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake and the resulting tsunami but was eventually destroyed by wave action. You’ll also find a bear-proof locker hidden in the trees (look fore reflective sign on the trunk of the biggest spruce, in about the middle of the beach), a seasonally staffed ranger station, a shallow creek for fresh water, the trailhead for hike to Fort McGilvray, and an outhouse.