Dan Moller a good pick for non-ski local treks

Posted: Friday, November 27, 2009

Eaglecrest Ski Area is likely opening this weekend.

If it does, it could be 38 degrees with the visibility of a dirty shower curtain and a sky pouring gray slush, but I'm guessing the place will be packed. Juneau residents love their skiing - which is a wonderful thing. The outdoors were meant to be adored.

But what about the rest of us? The quiet majority? The unskilled few? Those of us who would probably impale ourselves with the blunt end of a ski pole if we ever strapped on a pair of skis? How do we continue to enjoy the outdoors now that winter is here to stay?

One place that is great for skiers and non-skiers alike is the Dan Moller Trail. Human-powered outdoor enthusiasts tend to shy away from this trail because of the presence of snowmachines. While the admittedly loud, smelly machines do use the trail, it's hardly overrun by them. It's rare to see more than a half dozen during a hike that takes several hours, and not uncommon to see none at all.

The few machines that do use the trail pack it down nicely, a luxury for hikers yearning for the backcountry during winter months. Except on the deepest of powder days or the warmest of slush days, the hardpacked Dan Moller Trail is great for running and even winter mountain biking, if conditions are just right.

The trail follows Kowee Creek up a gently inclining valley. It has two trailheads, one located off Pioneer Avenue and another at the top of Blueberry Hill, both in West Juneau. The lower, Pioneer Avenue trailhead is for non-motorized use only, and isn't always packed down. The upper trailhead is the snowmobile trailhead, where the packed trail begins.

This trail cuts a narrow corridor through a snow-covered hemlock forest, occasionally passing open meadows as it climbs 1,700 feet to the Dan Moller cabin, a U.S. Forest Service structure built in 1936 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. This year is the last year the original cabin will stand; the Forest Service plans to tear down the structurally damaged building and rebuild it next year. But it's supposedly still safe, and still a great place to stop and warm cold toes before either turning around or continuing higher.

The ridge behind the cabin can be easily accessed by following snowmobile tracks to the bowl. The main access is to the right, away from the cliff bands where snowmobilers tend to "high-mark." A 500-foot climb to the top of the ridge yields great views of Stephens Passage and Admiralty Island, not to mention (and very important this time of year) the sunny side of Douglas Island.

From the high point on the snowmobile trail, hikers with a good pair of snowshoes can continue to follow the ridge north all the way to Mount Troy, where they have the option of dropping into Eaglecrest Ski Area. The frequently used skin trail down from this peak emerges at the bottom of the Black Bear chairlift.

Although seldom used by skiers these days, the Dan Moller Trail was the "Eaglecrest" of the 1950s, and a popular place in Juneau to be during the winter. In 1951, the Juneau Ski Club opened a rope-tow operation in the Douglas Ski Bowl, a wide, sweeping bowl that encircles the upper portions of the trail. The ski club sponsored annual tournaments until 1974. Downhill races held there dropped 2,200 feet - several hundred feet more vertical relief than Eaglecrest offers its lift-served skiers.

Those 2,200 feet can make for a grunt of a climb for modern hikers, but the views are well worth it. And once you look down the bowl, with its untouched powder stashes and flowing descent toward West Juneau, you may even be inspired to return with skis.

• Jill Homer is the deputy managing editor for the Juneau Empire.

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