TOP 10 Alaska hikes
Columnist lists his favorite outdoor jaunts
Harding Ice Fields hike, number two on the top 10 list, ascends almost 4,000 feet into a “jaw-dropping vista.”
FRANK E. BAKER
For those who have perused my ‘Mountain Echoes’ column over the years, it’s probably quite evident what my favorite hikes are. But there’s nothing wrong with a review. What I hope is to peak your interest in trying a few out yourself. I’ll start with my absolute favorite and work down the list, with the caveat that even number 10, at the bottom of the list, is stellar in my opinion.
You can start this fantastic Kenai Peninsula hike from two locations -- either at the Primrose Campground on Kenai Lake, accessed at Mile 17 of the Seward Highway, or from Mile 5 of the Seward Highway. If you leave cars at both ends and complete the entire hike, it’s 14 miles on a good trail. A clever way to do the hike is to have people start from each end, exchange car keys when they meet, and later join up in Seward or Summit Lake Lodge for dinner. When you’ve hiked seven gradual miles, you’ll reach the green rolling tundra surrounding beautiful Lost Lake, set like a jewel amidst the rugged Kenai Mountains.
Exit Glacier/Harding Ice Field
As I’ve mentioned in previous columns, this eight-mile (round trip) hike is like entering a time machine. On one of the best-built trails in Alaska, you ascend almost 4,000 feet in four miles to reach the edge of the Harding Ice Field, where you’ll behold a jaw-dropping vista of what much of Alaska looked like 10,000 years ago. To reach the trail turn on the Exit Glacier Road at Mile 3.7 of the Seward Highway, drive nine miles to the parking area, then follow the paved trail toward the glacier face. The marked Harding Ice Field trail turns off to the right and you’re on your way. If you sign the register, be sure to sign out when you leave. Snow doesn’t often clear until mid-July, so it’s best to wait awhile for this hike. Bring clothing layers because weather changes quickly near the glacier.
“Epic” is probably an overused expression, but I can’t think of a better term to describe this fabulous hike, which is best in early autumn. At this location, early autumn can be late August-early September. There are several ways to complete a Kesugi Ridge hike. If you hike the entire 36.2-mile route, you begin at Troublesome Creek at Mile 137.6 of the Parks Highway and end up on the Little Coal Creek Trail at Mile 163.9 of the Parks. Troublesome Creek is just that -- troublesome, with about 12 miles of slogging through dense, bear-infested woods and numerous stream crossings. The best way is to do a day hike up Little Coal Creek (northernmost Kesugi trail) to the top and back (about 6-1/2 miles round trip with a 1,700-foot elevation gain), or do a 29-mile trip from Little Coal Creek over to Byers Lake, which requires one or two overnights. These hikes keep you in the alpine zone most of the time where views are spectacular. Both Little Coal Creek and Byers Lake trails have been rehabilitated and are in great shape. On a clear day, with the tundra blazing red and big Denali looming to the west, you might feel inclined to say you’ve experienced a glimpse of heaven.
I agree with veteran Alaskan hiker Shawn Lyons on this one -- it’s a premier hike to a relatively high summit--6,441 feet -- so pick your weather carefully. The top can become shrouded in clouds quickly, making route-finding difficult. The most direct route up the mountain begins from the big gravel pit at Mile 113.5 on the Glenn Highway, just past Sheep Mountain Lodge and Glacier Fan Creek bridge. The trail is a bit hard to find, but at the far end of the gravel pit (west) walk uphill (north) toward the closest ridge, and you’ll find it. The trail is steep up that ridge at the beginning and will generally head in a northerly direction, angling to the right (east) as you move beyond a broad plateau at about 1-1/2 miles.You then angle up toward the south ridge for another mile, which gets you to the top. A more gradual but longer route (about 7 miles round trip) begins from Mile 118.4 of the Glenn Highway. From Gunsight’s south summit adventurous hikers can descendinto the notch, for which this mountain is named. On a clear day views are awesome -- from Matanuska Glacier in the southeast and Chugach granddaddy Mt. Marcus Baker (13,176 feet); to giants far to the east, including Mt. Drum and Mt. Blackburn.
This 24-mile hike (distance estimations vary significantly) is almost a rite of passage for Southcentral folks. When you learn that racers complete the transit -- from Girdwood to the Nature Center in Eagle River Valley -- in a little over three hours, you’re quite humbled. For first-timers, I advocate simply hiking up from Girdwood side to Raven Glacier and back -- that’s by far the most scenic part of the trip. Then, if one has a taste for more, I recommend making a long day hike out of the entire trail with a light pack-- instead of camping overnight with heavy pack. But that’s just my preference. I like descending from the Crow Pass summit down into green Eagle River Valley because for a moment I feel like I’m retracing the journey of early pioneers, some of whom delivered mail over the trail--part of the Iditarod--from Seward all the way north to the community of Knik.
This 33-mile trail qualifies because even though it travels through Canada’s Yukon Territory and ends at Lake Bennett, it begins in Southeast Alaska, at Dyea, near Skagway. Interpretive signs with photos along the way give you a glimpse into what it looked like for gold seekers in the small settlements that sprung up along the route. Finally, you begin the Golden Staircase that ascends 3,500 feet to Chilkoot Pass. Because of residual snows up high, wait until mid-to-late July for this one. Permits are required from June through September and cost about $50 (varies by year). You can get information about permits at the National Park Service website at: http://www.nps.gov/klgo/planyourvisit/chilkoottrail.htm. Returning to Skagway from Lake Bennett via the White Pass railroad is a real treat.
Pioneer Ridge Trail
The trip from the trailhead at Mile 4 on the Knik River Road to the summit of Pioneer Peak (South), at 6,350 feet, and back is 12 miles-- a quite lengthy and arduous day hike. But the trail is well marked and when you reach the upper Pioneer ridge at 5,200 feet, don’t let the jagged ridge leading up to the south peak intimidate you. It’s doable on a non-technical level simply by going where others have gone before, generally remaining on and just to the right side of the ridge. It’s best to hike this one on a long summer day and in fairly predictable weather, because route finding off the summit can be troublesome if the clouds come in. As part of the view from the summit, the Knik Glacier sprawls out to the east ramping up to magnificent Mt. Marcus Baker, at 13,176 feet. To the south, Bold Peak, Bashful and Baleful peaks huddle in front of Eklutna and Whiteout Glaciers.
Eagle River South Fork to Triangle Peak
I’ve done this 17-mile roundtrip hike as a day trip twice but highly recommend making it an overnight, camping somewhere around Eagle and/or Symphony Lakes. You begin from the South Fork trailhead and after reaching Eagle Lake at five miles and crossing the boulder field, continue southeast along the ridge dividing Eagle and Symphony Lakes past the old shelter. Near the end of this ridge angle right and traverse (you should find a rough trail) to the end of Symphony Lake. Then go up the valley less than ½ mile, where you’ll cross the stream and head up the western valley wall. You will find a rough trail but just follow the most gradual terrain and it will take you past some beautiful tarns to Triangle Pass. From there the way to Triangle will be obvious. Dall sheep are a common sight on this trip and once on Triangle’s 5,455-foot summit, you’ll have a great views in every direction, with a stunning view of Eagle and Symphony Lakes and the complete South Fork Valley.
Compared to other hikes on my list, this one is a shorty, but it’s a goody. To get to the Portage Pass trailhead, drive through the tunnel (after you’ve figured out the schedule) and take a small gravel road right less than ¼ mile after coming out at Whittier. As you face west, Portage Pass is an obvious landmark. The trail begins at its base where there is a small parking area. The trail to the summit of the pass is gradual and amounts to a 750-foot elevation gain. You’ll see hanging glaciers, waterfalls and have a great view back over your shoulder at Prince William Sound. Coming over the pass, the incredible mass of Portage Glacier fills your vision. From the top of the pass it’s about ½-mile down to the beach. The U.S. Forest Service has significantly improved this portion of the trail.
This one is also a shorty, and it’s doubtful you’ll see anyone. I rarely have, and I’ve been up there about nine or 10 times. At Mile 103 of the Glenn Highway, just before Caribou Creek, turn right sharply onto a small gravel road. The obvious landmark is AT&T’s communication tower. Park to the side of the road by a gate that will have AT&T’s telephone number. Call the number (they always answer) and request permission to cross their property, telling them approximately how long you plan to be there. Proceed up the gravel road and take the right fork that leads you directly toward Lion’s Head. A pile of rocks will mark the beginning of the 1-1/2 mile trail that gains about 1,000 feet to the summit, which is at about 3,100 feet. The sweeping view of Matanuska Glacier makes you feel like you’re in an airplane. Hawks and eagles are a common sight.
Over more than half a century, venturing to these places and finding out about others has in some ways made me wish I could live 300 years. For people who say they have no time for the longer hikes, I appreciate that in view of the fact they are involved in careers and supporting families. But I always urge folks to try and make the time. These journeys are memory-treasures that will last a lifetime, to be cherished forever.