Improved Chugach Forest trail an alpine adventure

Posted: Sunday, August 05, 2007

WINNER CREEK PASS - Positively Alpine is probably the best way to describe the new Chugach National Forest trail that climbs into this high-mountain notch south and east of Girdwood.

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Alpine as in the Swiss, Austrian or French Alps. Alpine as in Old World civilized versus Alaska brutal. Alpine as in 2 ½ hours of pleasant, scenic hiking to the pass in the shadow of stunning, glacier-covered peaks - instead of six hours of brushy route finding, alder bashing, willow wallowing, mosquito swatting, creek wading and slippery slope scrambling.

The trek up valley, through the pass, down to the Twentymile River and then out to the Seward Highway by packraft has been an Alaska classic for years now, but it used to be a seriously challenging one. More than a couple people found the quote-unquote "trail" to the pass so brushy and hard to find they never made it over and instead turned back to Girdwood.

Others saw a trip that began pleasantly on a boardwalk trail not far from the tram station at the Alyeska Prince Hotel turn into a challenging, long day's struggle into night.

Victims of a relatively short hike that could end up taking a long time, some ended the loop suffering into howling headwinds and a rising tide in the dark on the lower Twentymile.

The potential for suffering is lower now, though the adventure remains.

The pass, once a tough six hours from the resort, is now (depending on one's fitness level, of course) a relatively easy two and a half hours. There are boardwalks where the trail is wet, steps where the hillsides are muddy, bridges or stepping stones across most creeks.

Consider this a $380,000 gift from the U.S. Forest Service to Alaskans and the many who visit each summer in search of so-called soft adventure only to find a lot of challenging bushwhacking.

Even some of the state popular trails - including the brush-and-grass choked stretch of the Crow Pass Trail leading up from Eagle River past Raven Glacier - might be considered bushwhacking by Outside hikers and backpackers. There is a trail there. It's just that it's hidden so well beneath shoulder high grass and brush you have to get down on all fours to find it.

That is the way it used to be here only worse. No more. Now there's a trail that climbs steadily through the forest along the south side of the valley, nicely sidecut and switch-backed into the steeps.

On a recent cruise through to the Twentymile, we were shocked to nearly make it to the pass with dry feet. We'd never gone more than a few miles that way before. And only a unbridgeable gusher of a snowmelt creek tumbling down a series of waterfalls about a mile from the top required wading.

Alison Rein of the Glacier Creek Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service said the Winner Creek Trail, though now considered complete for nine miles to the top of the pass and beyond, remains a work in progress. Long-range plans call for a connecting link down the north side of the Twentymile River to the Seward Highway, which would be certain to make this trail a rival for the Resurrection Pass Trail as the premier Kenai Peninsula hiking destination.

As it stands now, the trail ends about two miles beyond the pass. Boardwalk crosses an alpine marsh just before the trail runs out near treeline above the Twentymile.

Beyond this point, there is flagging in the woods marking the proposed route for the rest of the trail, but the hiking is better if you just ignore it and pick up the old bear trail.

The bear trail is steep in places and muddy in others, but it has long been the easy route to follow. Eons of bruin traffic has pounded this trail into ground so well, it's hard to miss. Just stay alert for the bears.

The one we chased out of the trail west of the pass on a recent trip was a black bear, but you're just as likely to meet a grizzly in the woods on the Twentymile side. Bring friends, keep up a good chatter in the thick and you're unlikely to see anything.

The lush, trail-encroaching swarm of alder and grass presents an interesting, wild contrast to the groomed, civilized trail on the opposite side of the pass.

A push on to the Twentymile and a packraft float out to the highway is the ideal end to this trip, but one doesn't need to go that far to enjoy the new trail.

Once above tree line at the pass, there are all sort of off-trail hiking possibilities to explore.

The downhill hike back from the pass along Winner Creek to the Alyeska Prince is only faster and easier than the hike up to the pass.

For those with a raft in their pack and a desire to push on, however, new adventures await, though you need to know something about paddling. The put-in for the float back to the highway is the small, fast-flowing, splashy and turbid West Fork Twentymile.

The water here is only Class I and Class II, but the sweepers along the banks and occasional logs across the river can present dangers, as can high water levels.

Fortunately, the National Weather Service's Alaska River Forecast Center monitors Twentymile flows. You can check them online at Checking before going is the smart thing to do as the weather in the mountains above Girdwood often differs from that in Anchorage, and rain can bring West Fork up fast.

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