Reaching new heights on Austin-Helmers Pioneer Ridge trail
Branches of trees and bushes leaned down over the trail, bent by the weight of recent snows. Even after I had tapped the snow off the branches with my hiking stick, they still drooped low, blocking the trail and making me crawl on my belly like I was passing through a gauntlet.
There was already one set of tracks on the trail, so I wasn’t the only person crazy enough to hike it in the winter.
“Are we having fun yet?” I asked myself, snow clinging to my neck, melting and dripping down my back.
This is the Austin-Helmers Pioneer Ridge Trail, which begins at Mile 4 on the Knik River Road. From sea level it rises up 4.5-miles through boreal forest to alpine tundra, and following a ridge at 5,300 feet, connects with a non-technical route up Pioneer’s south peak, at 6,398 feet.
I returned in mid-June and found the trail was much easier to negotiate and — for the most part — reasonably well maintained. Guide books recommend summer to fall, and I can understand why. Wallowing and thrashing through deep snow and snow-laden branches is not my kind of fun.
It’s recommended that those climbing beyond the ridge trail to the south summit of Pioneer Peak should be experienced and equipped for rock climbing. Weather can change quickly in this area, often bringing fog and low visibility. Appropriate clothing, food and extra water are recommended, as are a map and compass. Hiking to the south summit (Pioneer Peak) adds a couple of miles to the overall trip.
I have a friend who made the round trip to the south peak in nine hours, but he is a highly conditioned athlete. For the average hiker, about 12 hours is required.
Accessing Pioneer’s slightly higher north peak should only be attempted by highly skilled and fully equipped mountaineers.
Unique amenity: Above the tree line at about 2,500 feet you’ll spot the first of three picnic tables that were carried in pieces to their locations by volunteers with the Colony High School Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps. By this time, if the weather cooperates, you’ll have a breathtaking view of Knik Glacier and the towering mountains to the east. No water is available beyond this point, so it’s recommended that you fill up at one of the streams on the way. I often add snow to my water bottle to create more water. At 4,500 feet you’ll come across a second table, and the third — at 5,300 feet — is probably the highest picnic table in Alaska!
The trail seems steep and long when you first hike it, but if you take your time and rest, you’ll find that it eventually gets more gradual and easier. And as you gain elevation the views just keep getting better and better! Trail markers guide you all the way.
Trail pioneer: The trail was pioneered back in the 1980s by longtime Alaska resident Austin Helmers, a lifelong outdoorsman and public trails advocate who retired after a 40-year career with the U.S. Forest Service. He worked on the trail project for about 25 years. Although assisted by volunteers with local Mat-Su organizations, such as the Mat-Su Trails Council and Student Conservation Association, as well as the State Forestry Division, he did much of the trail work himself.
In 2004, the Mat-Su Borough formally dedicated the Austin Helmers Pioneer Ridge Trail, naming it after its founder. That same year he was among 17 recipients of the National Trail Awards for outstanding contributions and consistent support for trail planning, development and maintenance.
In addition to establishing the Pioneer Ridge Trail, Helmers also mapped and secured the Matanuska Peak Trail, the Morgan Horse Trail on Lazy Mountain, and the Crevasse Moraine trail system as well as other trails in the Mat-Su.
Helmers passed away in 2010 at the Palmer Veteran’s and Pioneer’s Home at the age of 93.
Today the trail is managed by the Mat-Su Borough Parks and Outdoor Recreation Division. A $3 parking fee is required. If you’d like to volunteer for trail work, contact Mark Gronewald at 745-2856 or Warren Templin at 745-9690.
I’ve been to Pioneer Peak’s south summit a few times, but on my most recent hike, I only attained the 5,300-foot ridge. However, it in itself is a highly rewarding destination, opening up views to the south that include Goat Creek Valley, East and West Twin Peaks, Bold Peak and parts of Eklutna and Whiteout Glaciers. Views to the east are incredible. If it’s a clear day you’ll see 13,176-foot Mt. Marcus Baker, the highest mountain in the Chugach Range, towering above other glacier-caked mountains that loom above the massive Knik Glacier.
Every time I hike the trail, I try to take a moment and give silent thanks to Austin Helmers, who back in the day decided to carve out a route to Pioneer Peak that the public could travel — a trail that would be enjoyed by generations long after he was gone.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.