"Thunder Mountain - you mean like that ride at Disneyland?" my sister asked when I told her about the latest hike I was scheming. "You know, the one with the mountain goat and the collapsing mine?"
"No, it's not like that," I said, and paused. "Actually, it's a lot like that."
Thunder Mountain, the foreboding ridge that rises over the Mendenhall Valley, is said to have earned its name from the frequent rumblings down its many avalanche chutes. The precipitous cliffs loom over its namesake high school, casting morning shadows across the bustling suburbs. From this vantage point, one would never guess that the top of the 2,800-foot mountain is a rolling, grassy meadow, more like a Midwestern prairie than a peak, albeit a prairie with mountain goats. And from well-earned perch at the edge of this rolling meadowland, hikers can look over the neat rows of streets and houses with the satisfaction that a good climb affords.
Thunder Mountain can be accessed from the Heintzleman Ridge trailhead, located at about mile 7 of the Glacier Highway, on the west side of the street. The trail, on the east side of the highway, has been rerouted around a construction area. Follow the signs leading around a temporary fence and into the woods on a narrow wooden plank.
The trail begins climbing into the rainforest, and quickly the loud rumble of traffic is replaced by the soothing gurgle of the many streams pouring down Heintzleman Ridge. Even in the late fall, old-growth Sitka spruce tower over a tangle of dark-green moss and brush, enhancing the impression that you have just stepped out of Lemon Creek and into a prehistoric jungle. The trail is very muddy - rubber boots are a must, unless you don't mind wet feet - and can be a little difficult to follow in the beginning, as a number of survey and animal trails veer off the main route.
To stick to the main trail, look for blue and orange tape tied to branches and blueberry bushes. The markers are not quite frequent enough to remove all guesswork, but they do help. About a half mile from the trailhead, near 400 feet elevation, the trail meanders laterally along the mountain through a series of swamps and shallow drainages. This is the trickiest section, and it's important not to veer left too soon. Before you renew the climb, the trail will take you about 30 feet down a steep drainage on a slope choked in roots. It crosses a small stream and begins climbing steeply back up the other side. If you're more than a half mile from the trailhead and you haven't crossed this prominent drainage, you're probably going the wrong way.
About a mile and a half from the trailhead, near 1,300 feet elevation, the trail crosses an open meadow. Black bears frequent the area, as do grouse and deer. After leaving the meadow, the steep, muddy climb begins anew.
Just beyond mile two is a trail junction marked by a wooden sign propped up against a tree. The upper trail continues toward Thunder Mountain; the lower trail drops down to the Mendenhall Valley via the Thunder Mountain trail. Make a mental note of this junction and don't miss it on the way back, or you may wind up on Mendenhall Loop Road, several miles from your car.
After the trail leaves treeline, at about 2,300 feet elevation, you'll be able to take in incredible views of Auke Bay, the Mendenhall Valley, and Thunder Mountain's north face. Another 500 feet of very steep, strenuous climbing will release you onto the ridge - a broad, open expanse of colorful muskeg.
Turn left to traverse the "summit" of Thunder Mountain, which meanders through tussocks as it slowly drops down to an overlook of the Mendenhall Glacier. You also have the option of turning right on Heintzleman Ridge, skimming the edge of sheer cliffs that run alongside the Glacier Highway below. Once Henizelman Ridge begins to climb, the route becomes more technical, with class 3-plus scrambling and some exposure. It's not recommended without a partner, and probably not this late in the season.
Stay alert for blue and orange flagging on the way down, as it remains easy to wander off the trail even on return. But the ambiguous routefinding is worth it. With its vibrant vegetation, alpine meadows and real-life mountain goats, this Thunder Mountain is much more wild and rewarding than a theme park ride.
Jill Homer is a local outdoor enthusiast, winter mountain biker and deputy managing editor at the Juneau Empire. She can be reached at 523-2266 or email@example.com
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