High in the Chugach Mountains, just east of Anchorage, Alaska, lies a U.S. military relic. Activated in May 1959, the Nike Site Summit is one of the most complete Cold War-era Nike Hercules missile-launch sites in the country today and serves as a historic representation of that era’s military air-defense strategy.
One of just two sites in the U.S. that tested live missiles, and the only one of eight launch sites still standing in Alaska, the Nike Site is accessible by tour atop Mount Gordon Lyon, on the eastern edge of present-day Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER).
In the years following World War II, mounting tensions between the Soviet Union and the west posed the threat of nuclear war. The U.S. Army responded by implementing an anti-aircraft missile defense system to intercept bomber attacks. Because of its proximity to mainland Russia, Alaska was of significant threat, compared to the lower 48 states.
On November 20, 1960, the U.S. launched its first test Nike Hercules missile, Celebrity. Residents took work breaks and school children were dismissed from class to attend the live exercises, which created a sense of awe and community pride.
Today, the site still plays a role in community traditions. The famed “Christmas star,” or “Star on the Mountain,” which shines in the hilly outskirts of Anchorage from Thanksgiving through the middle of March, was made first by a site soldier in 1958.
The star has evolved over the years into the larger mountainside beacon that it is today. Every September 11, the community also lights the star, and it stays lit until the final musher finishes the famed Iditarod Sled Dog Race.
In 1996, the Nike Site Summit took its place on the National Registry of Historic Places as “an exceptionally well preserved example of a Cold War-era Nike Hercules missile installation.” A decade later, however, the site sat vacant, facing disrepair and vandalism.
The Friends of the Nike Site Summit (FONSS) formed in 2007 and teamed up with the National Park Service, JBER, and state historic preservation organizations to clean up and restore the site. Today, the FONSS offers Nike Site seasonal bus and hiking tours. You can see the site from the hiking area, while taking in spectacular nature and wildlife. Tours feature oral histories and accounts from military police and other veterans from the era, plus remaining missile boosters, storage bunkers, and, most recently, an actual Nike Hercules missile, acquired from the Museum of Alaska Transportation and Industry.
Know Before You Go
Public access to the Nike Site Summit is prohibited. In summer months, the Friends of the Nike Site Summit organization leads bus tours, which leave from the Arctic Valley Ski Area parking lot. Tours last 2.5 hours and are limited to 40 people.
In 2023, tours cost $80 for adults and $75 for students (ages 12-17), veterans, seniors, and military personnel. Hiking tours are also available for $40-$45.
For more information about tours, contact the FONSS at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 907-717-0177. Tours must be booked three days in advance.