ANCHORAGE - The sun is peeking behind morning clouds, and a handful of vehicles line a narrow stretch of gravel that passes for a road beyond Upper DeArmoun Road. Pat Pourchot and Chugach State Park chief ranger Matt Wedeking prepare to leave the trail head. They put snacks in their day packs and double check to make sure their doors are locked.
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The destination is popular Rabbit Lake, some 4.5 miles into Chugach State Park. Later, the "crack of nooners" will arrive, Pourchot jokes, but at this time of day, when most people are just getting up to enjoy their morning coffee, Pourchot and Wedeking have the trail to themselves.
It's been two months now since this trail - long the subject of a battle between private landowners and the state over park access - has finally become a valid and legal trail. For nearly 20 years, those landowners fought to keep hikers off the trail because it passed through their 320 acres of private land.
In June, though, a group of nonprofit organizations, private donors and state funds advocated by Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, finally came together to purchase the land. They turned it over to Chugach State Park, creating a wholly public trail. Hikers were relieved, knowing this access to the park will no longer be blocked.
But visit the Rabbit Lake trail head today and you'll see little has changed as a result of the purchase.
And that is where the debate over this trail continues. While it's now legal to enjoy Rabbit Lake Trail, the trail's future remains in question.
The issues are many, Wedeking said as he walked along a wide, mostly gravel section at the beginning of the trail. Among them:
Parking and public facilities are sorely needed at the trail head.
Improvements will require more ranger patrols, and man power will be costly.
Narrow Canyon Road, which leads to the trail, must be improved.
Conflicts among nearby residents and visitors must be minimized.
"The locals definitely need to be involved in the trail," Wedeking said.
Parking, Wedeking said, is the top issue - as a matter of both convenience and safety.
At 11:30 a.m., when Wedeking returned to the parking lot after his hike, more than 30 cars lined both sides of Canyon Road, making turnarounds nearly impossible. The logjam created dangerous blind corners, too.
It happens almost every weekend and on sunny evenings. Sometimes as many as 60 vehicles will be crammed along the road, he said.
Pourchot said vehicles often park right in front of the trail head gate, creating a barrier. In the event of an emergency, rescue vehicles might be blocked.
"We need other trail heads," said Pourchot, former Department of Natural Resources commissioner and a longtime trail advocate. "But they have to be maintained too."
Anchorage assemblywoman and Chugach State Park Advisory Board chairwoman Jennifer Johnston said Canyon Road is really not a road at all.
"Canyon Road is not platted, so technically it doesn't exist now," Johnston said. "That's an issue, something I'm working hard on trying to do in partnership with the residents. We want to do it right."
Trail improvements will be minimal this year, Wedeking said. Patrols will be stepped up, and there are plans to add a sign that indicates users are entering park land.
Next year, Wedeking hopes to add a laser vehicle counter to help planners determine how many people use the area.
For now though it's hard to tell the Rabbit Lake trail head is a park access point, not someone's driveway. There are no signs indicating Chugach State Park boundaries. The big metal gate crossing the gravel road that is the beginning of the trail acts as a natural deterrent.
Local guidebooks rarely list Canyon Road as an access point. A high-profile court case in the late 1980s ruled in favor of land owners Bob and Jo Ann Miller, making the trail head illegal access.
Still, hikers, berry pickers, trail runners and anglers came. The pristine 3,085-square-foot Rabbit Lake is stunningly beautiful, flanked by some of Anchorage's most popular and well-hiked peaks. Besides the Suicide Peaks, there are other destinations, including Ptarmigan Pass to the north and McHugh Peak to the southwest.
Windy Gap, a high saddle connecting the Suicide Peaks, can be an exhilarating destination for experienced climbers. And campers come to the area because the relatively easy grade of the trail is gentle enough for young people.
Snowboarders use the trail, too, because snow can stick around as late as June.
The 1980 Chugach State Park Master Plan 2 called for a 50-to-60-car parking lot for Rabbit Lake Trail, although it did not specify the location. Wedeking said that is unrealistic for Canyon Road.
The 1986 Chugach State Park Trails Plan 3 downsized the parking plan to a 15-to-20-vehicle lot with improved visitor facilities, including toilets, bulletin boards and a trail head sign.
That plan is a little more realistic, he said.
The 2002 Chugach State Park Access Inventory program mentions a small parking area at Canyon Road but with improved monitoring to keep local residents happy.
Lisa Eyler, executive director of the nonprofit The Great Land Trust, which helped facilitate the purchase of the 320 acres with such organizations as The Conservation Fund and the Rasmuson Foundation, said the bottom line is making sure land use is in line with the growing development bordering the park.
In December 2006, Great Land Trust launched its Pathways to the Chugach campaign to create more park access.
"There's always negotiations," she said. "Some of these places are going to need parking lots -- even though people are frightened by the word 'parking,' sometimes it is for safety."
Johnston and others involved in the Rabbit Lake Trail purchase think they have a solution that will satisfy everyone - an idea other popular trail heads could adopt.
Spread the usership out, Johnston said.
"I feel the best approach is to have smaller access," she said, noting that one of the Chugach's best assets is its meandering ridges that can allow users to climb high and wander wherever they please.
The Rabbit Lake Trail, for instance, can be reached from the Glen Alps trail head, the Canyon Road access, the McHugh Lake Trail, and now - after work completed this summer - a bona fide trail head off of Clarks Road in Bear Valley.
"That was a traditional trail access, and when the developer went in there, he made an agreement to put that kind of trail head (parking) there so people would not be blocked off by new homes," Johnston said. "That's the kind of trail head that we need."
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