Experts share tips on how to hike Crow Pass Trail

Tuesday, July 4, 2017 - 23:47
  • Star file photo/Matt Tunseth Raven Glacier near Crow Pass.
  • A sign marks the terminus of the Crow Pass Trail at the Eagle River Nature Center June 4, 2017. The 23-plus-mile route is a popular trek for hikers and packrafters. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)
  • Star file photo/Matt Tunseth

A standing-room-only crowd packed the Eagle River Nature Center June 4 for crash course in one of Southcentral Alaska’s most popular backcountry routes: The Crow Pass Trail.

Roughly 23 miles long, the trail cuts a winding course through Chugach State Park between Girdwood and Eagle River, across streams and snowpack and scree-covered mountainsides, luring hundreds of hikers every year. For the uninitiated, it offers a unique set of challenges – from dangerous wildlife and sporadic trail closures to unpredictable weather and untamed terrain.

Although both ends of the trail are easily accessed from Anchorage, trekking its length is far from a walk in the park.

“We can’t stress enough that you’re in the backcountry,” said Eagle River Nature Center Operations Manager Laura Kruger, addressing the full house Sunday afternoon.

Tackling the trail requires proper preparation. Kruger, a veteran hiker, joined Eagle River outdoorsman and former Chugach State Parks superintendent Pete Panarese for the 90-minute presentation, which covered everything from packing lists to trail conditions.

Traveling the Crow Pass Trail can take anywhere from hours to days. The fastest competitors in the iconic Crow Pass Crossing mountain running race have run the trail in under three hours, though recreational hikers cover the distance in either one long day or as a two-to-three day trip, Kruger said.

For a multi-day trip, the experts advised plan on packing a tent, sleeping bag, cook stove, extra warm clothing and rain gear, as well as sturdy footwear.

To navigate the sometimes-hard-to-find trail, Kruger and Panarese advised bringing a map, compass and GPS. Campers should plan on bringing extra food and a bear barrel to store it in, Kruger said (both black and brown bears are common) and pack bear spray for self-defense. Also, a hiking pole and an extra pair of shoes can help hikers traverse steep slopes and stream crossings; other basics, according to the experts:

— Bring a trowel for burying human waste and a large plastic bag for packing out non-human waste.

— Bring another heavy plastic bag or dry bag to protect gear during river crossings.

— Pack a water filter and a first aid kit. In an emergency, help can be hours away, Kruger said.

Hikers can begin the trip at either the Eagle River Nature Center or at the Crow Creek Trailhead in Girdwood. Hiking from the Eagle River side makes for a more gradual, prolonged uphill climb to Crow Pass while coming from the Girdwood side requires a short, sharp climb followed by a long descent into the Eagle River Valley. There is no shuttle service between the trailheads, so arranging transportation prior to setting out on a through hike is a must.

Some hikers prefer to start in Eagle River, though most start at a trailhead near Girdwood, where the trail climbs 2,000 feet over about three miles to Crystal Lake and Crow Pass where hikers can catch a spectacular view of Raven Glacier. The trip to the pass can be completed in one to two hours, and passes through the remains of an old mining operation; many day hikers stop at the pass and return the way they came.

From Crow Pass, the trail begins a long descent toward the Eagle River Valley. This section can require snow crossings. Travelers coming off the trail in early June reported plenty of snow remained at the trail’s upper elevations, Kruger and Panarese said.

Checking trail conditions before heading out is always a good idea, the experts said. In recent years, the trail has seen several closures due to bears killing moose along the route and remaining near the kill site.

Heading north out of the pass, the shallow, rocky Clear Creek is the first real water crossing on the trail hikers encounter. Avoid steep embankments and gurgling pockets of deep water and submerged boulders, Panarese advised. Watch for ropes, rocks and fallen logs to aid the crossing, and pay attention so as not to miss the trail connection on the other side, Kruger said.

The big ford takes place about halfway through, when hikers go toe-to-toe with Eagle River itself. More than 150 feet wide, cold and fast, the river crossing is “a serious undertaking,” Kruger said.

Panarese, an experienced hiker and board member for the nonprofit Friends of the Eagle River Nature Center, demonstrated the two most common water crossing techniques – solo crossing with the aid of a walking stick, or crossing in groups with interlocked arms.

Avoid traveling after a heavy rain, he said, and aim to cross earlier in the day, when the glacier-fed river runs at its lowest.

“Crossing in the evening? Get ready to swim,” Panarese said.

With planning, know-how and the right conditions, the Eagle River crossing usually causes no more trouble than cold legs. Without those things, it can be deadly. In 2007, an Irish tourist drowned after slipping while attempting to cross the ice-cold, silt-filled river. Other hikers have lost packs, pants and more, Panarese said.

For safety, hikers should unbuckle their backpacks before entering the water and aim to travel in a group, Kruger said. For comfort, she advised packing dry shoes and socks to wear on the other side.

Hikers often discard their shoes on the other side (piles of used shoes are a common sight on the Eagle River side of the crossing), but that’s not allowed and strongly discouraged.

After crossing the chilly river, hikers should try to eat something and keep hiking to stay warm, Kruger said. There’s another water crossing at Thunder Gorge and an established campsite at Twin Falls. Open fires are prohibited in Chugach State Park except in in designated, metal fire rings or on the gravel bars of the Eagle River, and a camp stove is advised for cooking.

The hike from the ford site roughly parallels the Eagle River and can be muddy. Between Twin Falls and Icicle Creek, ropes and ladders connect steep sections of the trail, Kruger said. Around mile 18 is Heritage Falls and another established campsite. The final miles of the trail include landmarks such as The Perch (a rocky outcropping that provides a picturesque view of the valley), Echo Bend, Rapids Camp and – finally – the Eagle River Nature Center.

The wilderness trail has seen a surge in popularity over the past few years, Kruger said, and packrafting is becoming more popular. The extra traffic has its pitfalls.

“Trash has become a huge problem on this trail,” Kruger said.

A trail crew recently removed three 30-gallon bags of trash from the course, she said. Everything from energy drink containers to discarded shoes litter the trail. It’s a relatively easy problem to solve, Panarese said: A plastic trash bag can help you pack out everything you pack in, preserving the trail for generations of hikers to come.

“We have to take a new attitude about this,” Panarese said. “Nobody’s going to come and clean it up but us.”

For more information about the trail — including updated trail conditions — visit the Crow Pass Trail Facebook page. Alaska State Parks also has a hiking basics brochure available at dnr.alaska.gov.

Contact reporter Kirsten Swann at kirsten.swann@alaskastar.com

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