Like most plans, this year’s backpacking trip didn’t quite come to fruition as anticipated. This trip was motivated by a combo of wanting to visit our friend, Claire, in Anchorage and see some glaciers before they melt. I scoured a map of Chugach State Park, the fourth largest in the United States, and found a point-to-point route from Crow Pass Trailhead to Prospect Heights Trailhead with the first half of the trip inspired by the Paradise Pass-Grizzly Bear Lake-The Wing route taken by Winter Bear. After last year’s perfect weather trip in the North Winds in Wyoming, I imagined only cloudless blue skies for this year’s August adventure.
Alas, I should’ve used the same logic we took for the Brook’s Range and gone earlier in the summer. As our trip approached, the 10 day weather forecast called for near constant rain and temps in the 45-55 degree range. Naturally, we were discouraged.
This year we brought two backpacking rookies with us- Ben and Starr, a married couple we know from cross-country skiing who have a love for hard ultras. While they hadn’t backpacked before, they had done the Marji Gesick in the past and were training for this year’s edition. I explained that our route might be as hard as the Marji, but divided up over 6 days.
We flew from Minneapolis to Anchorage late on Friday night and spent Saturday running with Claire and exploring the mud/tidal flats before embarking on our backpacking trip on Sunday.
Day One: Sunday 8/21/22: Seward Highway to Crow Pass
To save drive time and catch better ocean views, we started our trip from the first Seward Highway Bore Tide Viewing Area. Claire was gracious enough to give us a ride. Unfortunately the weather was “shitty” from the very beginning.
We began walking down the Seward Highway but quickly the boys headed over to the Bird-to-Gird bike trail on the other side of the tracks. This was a quieter walk than the road but didn’t offer many views until we came out into the Alyeska Valley.
Soon we turned north and continued on the bike trail until the Crow Pass Trailhead road parted ways with the Alyeska road. It was kind of a long road walk but mostly had good views that would’ve been better had there not been so many clouds.
By the time we reached the trailhead, we’d already had first lunch and used the picnic tables for second lunch. Then it was time to get on trail and hike up to Crow Pass. We found the trail well maintained with a few switchbacks, gradual grade, and expansive views that we made the most of before the clouds came in.
The area up by Crow Pass is largely flat and climbs ever so slightly. First we came to Crystal Lake where there’s a small cabin (the Crow Pass Cabin) that’s maintained by the forest service and available for reservations. There’s a nearby camping area but a creek crossing to get there so we kept on hiking up the pass. Conditions were windy and cloudy/rainy.
A little while later, just after a group passed us with cross-country skis strapped to their packs, there was a post with an arrow marked towards camping to the east. I’d eyed this area on the map where there’s a small lake up a 100 feet or so but the view wasn’t great and so we weren’t too inclined to climb into that small bowl.
So we returned to the trail and tried to keep our feet dry crossing the wide shallow stream. Eventually we found a rock crossing that happens to be above Erik’s head in the above photo. We looked for camping near the small lakes but the ground was wet and there wasn’t much wind protection.
Fortunately the clouds lifted for awhile and Erik scouted around for a tent site that was protected but not too rocky. I had proposed we camp on the flattest section of a snowfield that was down in a gully, but Erik found a couple small grassy spots nestled into a small re-entrant that were dry. And, the view of the Raven Glacier was amazing!!!
Just as we finished dinner, it began raining. We dove inside our tents but the rain was short-lived and so I proposed we go exploring, targeting the close ridge that I purported would be “the money view.” As we left camp, our tents looking so small amidst all the tundra and the clouds low on the horizon, I realized I should mark our camp location on our Gaia app just in case we ended up in a white-out.
First we went to Crow Pass for a photo. Ben went to bed really early while the rest of us marveled at the scenery.
By the time we got back to camp, the clouds were coming in again, releasing their precipitation. Bed time.
Day Two: Monday 8/22/22: Crow Pass to Paradise Valley
We woke to more wind/cloudy skies/intermittent rain. Despite this, we got going after our breakfast of granola with extra fruit, nuts, and whole powdered milk. Our route for the day began with a mile on trail descending the Crow Pass Trail. On the way we had great views back up to Raven Glacier.
Usually I’m pretty bummed when it’s raining. Or, really when I have to play the “rain gear games” which means taking on and off the rain gear. This day it was cold enough that I could hike in my rain gear without getting sweaty and appreciated the warmth so I didn’t mind the intermittent precip as much. Also, it never rained, just more like occasional drizzle or cloud precip.
We planned to leave the Crow Pass Trail where it loses significant elevation and contour from there, trying to follow Winter Bear’s track. Fortunately we stayed on the trail long enough to find a social trail that contoured into the Clear Creek Valley. This made the going easy on the side slope and as we crossed a couple small boulderfields. As we got nearer to Clear Creek, the social trail fizzled out. I was leading the group and contouring towards the Clear Creek gorge. I pointed to the others to head farther upstream. Winter Bear had crossed just above the gorge but this looked dangerous so we kept going upstream. I spotted a small island and figured we should aim there. It was a good place as it was only knee-deep.
Initially we had some disagreements about crossing the stream. Ben and Starr were looking for a jump-able place and were willing to go farther upstream but that would only mean walking farther in the opposition direction. After many dicey stream crossings in the Bighorns, I wasn’t about to balk at a short knee-deep crossing so in the photo below that’s me standing my ground that I’d found the best crossing.
I like dry feet so took off my shoes and socks to cross the creek. Yeah, it was painfully cold but it would be with shoes on as well. The rocks were small so the footing was easy and they weren’t slippery either- probably too cold and moving too fast for any moss buildup. After crossing Clear Creek, we went along down the creek to the big rock in the above photo, and then cut up higher on the slope.
While the side sloping eventually got annoying and our feet started to hurt, it was significantly easier than boulderfields with the exception of one brief bushy section where the roots posed significant fall/ankle twisting hazards.
As we neared Paradise Valley, we spotted a sheep trail a bit above us and decided to hike up towards that. I call it a sheep trail because earlier in the morning we had watched a herd of dall sheep on our same route. Just before we got to the trail, the slope got steeper due to the displacement of dirt from the trail. Erik and I gained the trail and immediately the going was easy. We cruised around a couple re-entrants until we came to the ridge line where we stopped to wait for Ben and Starr.
It was taking Ben and Starr a long time so we decided to have first lunch. As we were making the tortillas, Ben and Starr arrived, Ben awkwardly carrying Starr’s pack in addition to his own. It turned out that Starr didn’t reach the sheep trail on her first try. She had slipped out on some wet grass and slid 50 feet down the slope before stopping in a hole made by a previously dislodged rock. On the way her attempts to slow herself had been futile. Once she had collected herself, she could tell her 4th right finger didn’t feel quite right.
As we finished lunch (except Starr who had too much adrenaline to eat), Starr took off her hiking gloves and noted her 4th knuckle wasn’t in alignment with the others. We weren’t sure if it was broken or jammed. She slowly tried to put it back in place and just felt it pull out further.
We spent some time debating what to do- going back or continuing on our trip. After consulting the map and bail-out options along the route, we decided to continue on into Paradise Valley. From here the going got easier and we didn’t have to do as much side stepping.
The going was mostly easy as we stuck to the left side of the main creek on tundra grass. There were a bunch of dall sheep.
I had hopes that the pass was on the nice tundra slope but there was a steep ridge behind that. Once Ben and Starr saw the boulder/scree Paradise Pass they weren’t too interested, although Starr wasn’t jazzed about retracing our steps either. Again we debated our options as we looked at the largely melted out Paradise Glacier.
Paradise Pass looked intimidating to me. Had I not almost chickened out of Bonney Pass last year, I would’ve thought Paradise impossible, but I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be as crazy when we were actually on it. Despite this, Ben and Starr thought it looked too difficult. We had the option of splitting up our group with Ben and Starr heading back and Erik and I continuing on, but Erik said we should stay together.
I’d be lying to say I hadn’t been thinking about our options on the way up Paradise Valley and figured if we did bail on the route, we should camp in Paradise Valley rather than returning to our campsite from the night before or even hiking all the way out. This was partly to spend longer in the wilderness, but also because the day’s route wasn’t exactly easy and we were a bit tired and discouraged. So we decided to go down and camp at the base of the hanging valley and then get an early start in the morning to get back to Crow Pass Trailhead by early afternoon and catch a ridge into Anchorage where Starr could get medical attention.
As we hiked down the valley the wind picked up.
As we neared the base of the valley we stopped for second lunch in a depression where we were out of the wind. By now Starr’s hand was quite swollen suggesting a fracture. After lunch we spent considerable time trying to find a campsite out of the wind that also wasn’t on a puddle of water. We failed at the first but succeeded at the second. Once we had the tents up it began to rain so we crawled inside. The wind came in great gusts making such a ripping noise. I wasn’t sure the tent would survive the night. I thought more than once about packing up and continuing on back but I wasn’t interested in the side slope and it was raining. It was 3 pm when we got in the tents and we tried to kill time as best we could. Somehow we succeeded between dinner and a couple podcasts and looking at the map and such. The wind never died down and I was surprised our tent was still standing in the morning.
Day Three: Tuesday 8/23/22: Paradise Valley to Crow Pass Trailhead
My motivation to return on our route was definitely better in the morning. Starr moved slowly and carefully using one pole. She didn’t want to fall on her hand again. Usually I’m the slowest of the group but not today which meant extra time to take in the magnificent Raven Creek Valley. I have to say of any two-night backpack trip, this takes the cake in terms of scenery.
Once back on Crow Pass Trail we made good time to the pass. It drizzled as we walked across the long pass. We thought about hitching a ride back to Anchorage from a fellow hiker and met one by Crystal Lake who was gracious enough to take us back to Anchorage.
Back in Anchorage, Starr went to an Ortho Walk-in clinic where she got an xray that confirmed a broken 4th metacarpal. It was displaced and rotated so they recommended surgery. Ultimately with insurance this was best done back in Minnesota. Ben and Starr debated their options. Starr was able to get an appointment for Friday in Minnesota and they changed their flight for $14 a piece to Thursday. I had already said I planned to go back out despite the crappy weather and Starr decided to give one more night a try now that she had a cast.
Day Four: Wednesday 8/24/22: Potter Creek Trailhead almost to McHugh Lake
I’d spent a lot of time looking at the map but eventually got the bright idea that if we were Ubering, we didn’t have to start and end from the same trailhead. So I found a point-to-point route whereby Ben and Starr could do one night with us and then Erik and I could keep going for a second night. We caught an Uber to the Potter Creek Trailhead and began hiking the Turnagain Arm Trail which parallels the Seward Highway but up a couple hundred feet. The trail had much road noise and few views but at least we were outside.
Soon enough we turned onto the mostly overgrown McHugh Lake Trail. After a couple switchbacks we gained good views of the Turnagain Arm but we were still in the trees and then we saw a moose!
As we climbed higher and out of the trees we thought the overgrown trail would be behind us but as we contoured into McHugh Valley, we went through the bushes in every re-entrant/creek crossing.
When we were finally done with all the bushes, the trail got really really wet on the tundra bog. Up until this point we had dry feet, but alas no more as everywhere our footing was squishy.
The going had been slow with the overgrown trail and it was past 6 pm when Erik eyed a cluster of trees that would make a good windbreak for our tents. We hadn’t quite made it to our goal of either McHugh or Rabbit Lake but after our last night out, Erik didn’t want to chance the wind. As we set up the tents it began to rain but only briefly and we were able to enjoy the view for dinner.
After dinner it briefly got sunny and this meant a rainbow!
After the rainbow and teeth brushing everyone retreated into the tents but seeing as it wasn’t raining, I ventured up to the south McHugh Lake. As I got farther away from camp, I realized I was out by myself in bear land without any bear spray. This kept me vigilant but I still enjoyed feeling so small amidst the big mountains and tundra around me.
Upon returning to camp I was glad to see the others were enjoying the view as well. Erik was outside the tent and Starr had unzipped their tent and was sticking her head out, snug in her sleeping bag. She kept marveling at the view.
As the clouds cleared up over the ocean, we could make out Mount Redoubt, a 10,000 foot volcano some 125 miles away!
“I can’t believe we Ubered to this,” said Ben.
Rhianna’s song This is what you came for echoed in my head. I was glad we’d come back out and that at least for now, the weather was cooperating. We stayed out until it got dark.
Day Five: Thursday 8/25/22: McHugh Lake to Williwaw Lakes
We got an early start as Ben and Starr had a plane to catch. The weather teased us with some blue sky.
As we got going, we found the trail hard to follow to Rabbit Lake as there were trails everywhere. It’s obvious this area is well used unlike the McHugh Lake Trail. The tundra was easy enough to walk on without a trail. Soon enough we were to Rabbit Lake. It was windy and cold so we didn’t dawdle.
The Rabbit Lake Trail was like a highway compared to the McHugh Lake Trail. No overgrown trail. At the junction to Ptargmigan Pass we parted ways with Ben and Starr who hiked out to the Rabbit Lake Trailhead while Erik and I kept going, up and over Ptarmigan Pass.
While we had started on a well defined trail up Ptarmigan Pass, this quickly ended and we just hiked straight up. It was a bit steep but not scary.
As we started heading down towards the Powerline we found the trail. It was steep on the way down. We down-climbed a couple bouldering moves and briefly slid on scree, but mostly the footing was stable. Definitely not a trail for horses. We stopped on the way down on a rock outcropping for first lunch and took in the scenery.
Looking down at the Powerline Valley I was a bit concerned the trail would be super wet but instead it was more like a road. There were of course a few big puddles. As we got near the trail to Little O’Malley we saw a big bull moose!
Don’t get me wrong, owing to my childhood I have a few things I’m afraid of like having a gun pulled on me and drive-byes, but little fear of being charged by a moose. Hence after five minutes we skirted by this guy on the far side of the trail.
While the sun shone for a bit and we saw our shadows (perhaps more exciting than seeing the moose), most of the time it was cloudy.
Next up was Little O’Malley with some great walking thanks to a new trail with switchbacks. How novel.
By the time we got to the top of Little O’Malley it was cloudy again and windy. We ducked down to some grass behind some rocks that provided a windbreak for second lunch. I didn’t take any photos because we were mostly looking at a big cloud over Anchorage. After lunch it was time to keep moving up The Ballpark.
At the top of The Ballpark it was time to descend to Black Lake. We’d heard this trail was precipitous and that was no joke. I would describe it more as a social trail/route that takes the fall line down although there was a newer trail of eroded tundra.
Our intent was to camp at Walrus Lake near Williwaw Pass but Erik was concerned about the wind if we camped higher and he was adamant we stay lower by the Williwaw Lakes. Again the tundra was spongy and wet. We struggled to find somewhere sheltered but dry to set up our tent and it was borderline wet. Given we got to camp around 3 pm we killed time until it was late enough to have dinner. As we started making dinner it started to rain. It wasn’t raining too hard so we stayed outside to eat.
After dinner it continued to intermittently rain/drizzle but seeing as I was warm with all my clothes on I did some exploring. I hiked a ways up Mount Elliot on easy going tundra and thought about following this route up the next day. Again I was out by myself without any bear spray (or my phone so no photos) but it was nice that the weather was good enough that I could enjoy being out in the wilderness.
Day Six: Friday 8/26/22: Williwaw Lakes to Prospect Heights Trailhead
Around 4 am I woke to rain. Bummer. I rolled over and fell back asleep for three more hours. At 7 am it was still raining. Erik and I dawdled in the tent. Of course I still wanted to go up on the ridge behind Wolverine but Erik reasoned that would be cold and stupid in the rain and wind, so we decided to hike out staying down in the valley.
After eating breakfast in the tent, it was finally time to get going. By now it was almost 9 am. We retraced out steps until we got back to the Ballpark Trail but this time we continued on the Williwaw Lakes Trail. And it was wet, wet, wet.
As we hiked down the Williwaw Lakes Trail I wasn’t having it with almost continuous water puddles. We kept trying to walk around them but this often required a lot of off-camber balance on rocks or side vegetation. Poorly maintained trails are one of my big pet peeves. Some of the areas were more muddy and wet. The mud literally stunk and all the particles oozed into my shoes and socks. The worst! It reminded me of the trails in the Adirondacks- so so wet.
I wouldn’t hike the AT for 10 million dollars, I thought.
Near the end of the Williwaw Lakes Trail we actually got to some boardwalk. How sophisticated.
We decided to take the Middle Fork Trail to Prospect Heights Trailhead and mistakenly thought this would be better maintained. It was for the first half mile and then conditions quickly deteriorated to a muddy single track with high grass on either side. When I walked my feet kept slipping into the deep trail groove. I got frustrated and slowed down, trying to minimize slipping out. And then I turtled on a completely flat section.
Alas, the Chugach is probably best done off-trail.
After what seemed like a long time we came to the much wider trail that goes to Wolverine and eventually to the Powerline. As we got to the Prospect Heights Trailhead it started to seriously rain.
Erik’s phone died when we turned it off airplane mode and he has Uber. Mine held at 3% long enough to call a taxi. We hung out in the outhouse to stay dry while we waited.
Saturday 8/27/22: Back in Anchorage
I was convinced the weather was going to be great but it wasn’t. Thanks to the Glen Alps parking lot webcam we could tell it was socked it. This was our day for an adventure with Claire. She was game to appease me for a frolic in the mountains but didn’t want to venture beyond Near Point. There just wasn’t any point to do anything harder because it all would’ve looked the same.
Sunday 8/28/22: Brief Redemption
We didn’t have to be to the airport until 11:30 am and I was again convinced we’d have some clear weather in the morning so we headed off to do Flattop. As we drove to Glen Alps Trailhead we could clearly see the mountains so things were looking good.
The trail description says Flattop has some scrambling near the top. That was definitely for real. I took a more exposed route where I used my hands but didn’t exactly boulder. It was kind of a choose-your-own-adventure near the top.
The summit of Flattop is of course flat. As we took a loop around the top, the clouds circled us and kept building on the way back to the parking lot.
As we drove to the airport, the mountains disappeared behind us in the clouds. I guess we got a bit lucky to catch some views, albeit brief.
We had two major snafus on this trip: the weather and Starr’s broken hand. It kinda makes me want to go back and do Paradise Pass and camp at Grizzly Bear Lake and go through The Bird area. The views in the Raven Creek Valley would certainly be worth it.
The super crazy unique thing about Anchorage is it just might be the only place where you can fly to the airport and Uber to a trailhead that will bring you to a vast wilderness. And if you want to hike point-to-point, it’s definitely Uber-able.
A huge thanks to Claire and her family for their hospitality!