This year’s hiking season has had a slow start. First I was distracted by all the skiing that I could do well into May, and then family obligations took precedence over recreation. When I was finally ready to get out on the trails and just hike, I couldn’t believe it was still snowing up in the mountains and raining hard below. On Saturday, the first of June, I decided enough was enough. I put on all of my rain gear and waterproof boots and headed up the Lake Creek trail. I had a great hike to Spaulding Meadows, stayed relatively dry, and was reassured that my hiking muscles were in working order. Sunday was much dryer, and Scott and I did an easy stroll up the Sheep Creek trail for some bird-watching while we made plans for a bigger adventure the next day.
Monday’s forecast was for partly cloudy in the morning, with rain developing by late afternoon. Partly cloudy in Juneau means a pretty nice day, so we started out early to hike the Juneau ridge, hoping to beat the clouds and the rain.
The first mile up Perseverance Trail is lovely – a wide well-maintained trail with beautiful views. But turn left on to the Mt. Juneau trail and suddenly you are picking your way up a narrow, rocky trail that climbs and climbs and then climbs some more. Trail crews have recently improved this route immensely, but no one can alter the fact that it still climbs about 3,000’ up a rocky mountainside in just 2 miles. It’s never easy, but I know I’ll feel better as soon as I reach the top. I find a pace I can maintain, and try not think about the fact that I didn’t get enough sleep the night before, or that my muscles ache, and my stomach is unsettled. I keep putting one foot in front of the other, look around to enjoy the views as we quickly gain elevation, and wait patiently until the steep climb is finished.
We saw only one other hiker on the Mt. Juneau trail, and very few footprints in the snow going to the top. And there was plenty of snow, starting about half way up the mountain. We picked our way across several steep snow gullies that are usually small streams in the summer, then found and lost the snow covered trail to the summit several times higher up.
When we finally popped out on the top of the ridge, we realized we had hiked past what is considered the top of Mt. Juneau and were already started along the ridge leading to Granite Creek Basin. We didn’t bother backtracking, especially since we knew that the ridge climbs higher in several places, making the summit of Mt. Juneau look smaller the further you go.
The pain of climbing straight uphill was over, and as far as I was concerned the real fun started. There is nothing I would rather do than stroll along a high mountain ridge. The partly cloudy skies were quickly turning to mostly cloudy, and looking over at Mt. Roberts we saw the ridge disappear into grayness. Even with clouds threatening in the distance and a few snow slopes ahead that looked steeper in places than I thought I might be able to handle in my light trail shoes, I felt I was exactly where I wanted to be.
The Juneau ridge never disappoints, no matter what the conditions. The snow was just right for a steady hiking pace, with short photo breaks for ptarmigan and mountain goats. The mountains in the distance looked wintry, still waiting to melt into their summer colors, and the view was stunning, as usual. The steeper snow turned out to be perfect for kicking steps, using our hiking poles for extra purchase. We moved as quickly as we could without actually running. We could see the faint footprints of two runners who had been on the ridge the day before. But we were moving plenty fast and we knew that once we started dropping down into Granite Creek we would move even faster.
The brisk wind along with the deep snow pack and gathering clouds prevented us from taking the usual mountainside nap on the highest part of the ridge. We would have to return on a sunny, summer day to enjoy that, but then we would probably have to share the ridge with many other hikers and runners. Today the ridge belonged to us alone.
The Juneau ridge is perfect for a first season hike. I know the route well, and even the snow and threatening clouds couldn’t hide the familiar contours. I’ve hiked the ridge in bright sunshine and in the rain, under clear skies and in misty fog, on warm fragrant heather and cold snow. The one constant any hiker has to keep in mind is to stay on top of the ridge for as long as possible, and to fight the urge to drop down too early, or you risk getting caught on impossibly steep grassy slopes that eventually turn into rock cliffs. Be patient, and you will find the cairn that leads to a faint route across the highest, rockiest section of the ridge, which then winds down into Granite Creek Basin.
We took one last look around at the high peaks in the distance, then with a whoop started running and glissading quickly down the snow to Granite Creek. As I mentioned earlier, we are not true mountain runners, but who can resist the urge to run and slide down a 2,000’ snow slope? Later in the summer, the route down will be all rock and dirt, with a few short sections of hard snow. But at this time of year it’s a big playground with an irresistibly fast descent. The best part is when you get down into Granite Creek Basin you don’t have to pick your way across the rocks, brush, and marshy meadows, but head straight across the snow and out. Even the trail lower down was covered in snow sufficiently deep to cover most of the alder brush, but firm enough to walk on without breaking through.
Before we knew it, we were down on the Perseverance Trail and back in “real world”. The gray clouds still covered most of the sky, but we were so warm we stripped off our layers down to our short sleeve shirts. We encountered a steady stream of afternoon hikers, runners, and mountain bikers. I gazed back up at the ridge now far above us and was seized with an urge to suddenly be finished with our hike. Much to Scott’s surprise, I broke into a light jog. “Are you running?” he asked with a grin. “Not really” I replied, “I just want to move a little faster than a walk.” He laughed at me as he took longer walking strides to match my speed. In less than a minute I was slightly ahead of him and he was eventually forced to run to catch up. We continued in this manner for the remaining two miles, with him leapfrogging me as he alternately walked and then ran to keep up. He finally agreed my easy jogging pace felt easier on the legs than hiking or running downhill, and we made quick progress to the end of the trail.
We were back at the car in a little over six hours, a good time for us “senior hikers”. Ripping off our wet shoes and socks and slipping on our sandals, then enjoying a cold drink while we ate the rest of our snacks felt like heaven. As we drove away, the first rain drops hit the windshield, and we started laughing. The first ridge hike of the season was a success and the hiking season officially off to a good start.
Mount Juneau, named “Gold Mountain” by the miners in 1881. It was also called Bald Mountain as late as 1896. The name “Juneau Mountain” was first used in the mining records by Pierre (“French Pete”) Erussard when he located mining claims on the mountain in 1888. (R. N. DeArmond, Some Names Around Juneau, 1957, p. 28; Donald J. Orth, Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, 1971, p. 480).
Juneau Ridge, local name reported by D. A. Brew and A. B. Ford, USGS, in 1965. (Donald J. Orth, Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, 1971, p. 481).