EAGLE RIVER — The Crow Pass trail isn’t for the faint of heart.
At 24 miles, the trail — which runs from just north of Girdwood all the way to the Eagle River Nature center — is at the limits of what most folks can do in a single day. That’s “most folks” because there’s some intrepid souls who manage to run the length of the trail in 3-4 hours in the Crow Pass Crossing Marathon.
But for more pedestrian hikers, the trail offers either a very long day hike or an Alaskan outback camping trip complete with glaciers, wildlife and spectacular mountain views.
The trail begins with a climb from the trailhead (located at the end of Crow Creek Road in Girdwood) up into Crow Pass itself, an ascent that can take anywhere from a half hour (for the marathoners) to two hours or more for a casual day hiker. Many people only go up this far, preferring to stop in the pass before returning to the trailhead for the day.
That may not be a bad idea. The views at the top of the pass are spectacular, with glaciers, ice and snow visible in nearly every direction. It can get chilly up there, as the wind has a tendency to whip over the pass and down the other side. Hikers should make sure they’re dressed for all types of weather. On a recent trip, freezing rain and heavy winds made conditions in the pass distinctly Autumn-like.
From the pass, however, the trail heads downhill into Raven Valley, providing striking views of Raven Glacier and the valley hike that lies ahead.
For those planning to tackle the trip in more than one day, camping here can be a good idea because it allows for exploring the alpine areas above the valley. However, those heading through to the end of the trail can continue on and across a couple breathtaking gorges that plunge down the valley and give the first taste of the hike’s many water crossings.
The hike down Raven Valley crosses berry patches and thick vegetation, and this is often where the first signs of bears — a constant presence on the hike. With scat plentiful, it’s a great idea to make as much noise as possible in order to let the area’s year-round residents know you are visiting.
The Raven Valley spills out into the Eagle River Valley, at which point hikers face their biggest obstacle, the Eagle River. Crossing the river isn’t particularly difficult, but hikers should know what they’re getting into. Sturdy shoes and a good walking stick are a must, as is the ability to withstand the icy waters flowing from the Eagle Glacier, which sits just a mile or so from the crossing. Keep in mind that the river height fluctuates with the day’s rainfall and temperature, and those considering traveling with children should bear in mind that the river is usually between 2 and 3 feet deep.
After the river, the trail continues down the long — and for those on a day hike, very long — valley, slicing through mountains and peaks dotted with sheep, bear and goats. Moose are also plentiful in the area, so anyone traveling in the area should be constantly aware of their surroundings.
From the river crossing it’s another 5-6 hours to the Eagle River Nature Center. There are campsites along the route for those who decide to break the hike up even more. But if you plan to press on to the center, the benches just outside the familiar Eagle River landmark will come as a welcome site indeed.
For a day hike, expect to take anywhere between 10 and 14 hours to make the entire traverse. Some people do the trip in 2-4 days, but that entails packing camping gear. Although it may seem like an easier trip to camp, making the trip with just a light pack may be a better option.
Either way, prepare to be sore the next day!