ALASKA PART THREE: CHUGACH
We spent the next five days of our trip exploring the Chugach National Forest. Most of this time was spent in and around Cordova. Cordova is a difficult place to get to. The roads in the area do not connect with the rest of the state. As a result, the town, which is located on a peninsula on the southeast edge of Prince William Sound, is only accessible by air or ferry. Despite that inconvenience, the more I read about the area, the more I became intrigued. Cordova is way off the beaten path, and its harbor is too small to handle large cruise ships. Outside of town is the vast Copper River Delta, which is world-famous for birding and salmon. A number of impressive glaciers are easily accessible from Cordova, and the national forest features some appealing trails. With all of this considered, Christy and I decided that it would be worth spending the extra money for the ferry to visit the area.
We slept in a bit on Monday morning before taking advantage of the hotel’s free breakfast and checking out. We still had two weeks of vacation left, but this would be our last hotel stay of the trip. I was looking forward to leaving “civilization” behind in favor of exploring the Alaskan wilderness.
Monday was a free day. After years of doing annual month-long expeditions, I’ve learned the value of including the occasional free day in our itinerary. We had reservations on the Alaskan State Ferry from Whittier to Cordova, departing on Tuesday afternoon. It would only take us a couple of hours to drive from Anchorage to Whittier, so we had quite a bit of time at our disposal.
Originally I had planned to dayhike to Crow Pass before we traveled to Katmai. We had skipped that one at the time, but we’d have to pass right by the trailhead near Girdwood to get to Whittier. The weather forecast looked great, so I suggested that hike for our free day.
Unfortunately, Christy was experiencing some swelling in her knee. It had started after our backpacking trip in Katmai, but it hadn’t really subsided. This wasn’t surprising, as it is something of a chronic injury. We were planning another backpacking trip in Denali National Park at the end of the trip, and she didn’t want to ruin that by further aggravating the injury.
Luckily for me, Christy is a good sport. She was willing to wait for me while I hiked to Crow Pass solo. Before we left the hotel, we spent a few minutes researching the Girdwood area to see how she could spend the day. We briefly considered a dog sledding tour, before we noticed how outrageous the price was. Ultimately she decided to do a little shopping in downtown Girdwood. Afterwards, she planned to visit the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. The Conservatory is essentially a shelter that cares for all sorts of rescued wild animals.
I was looking forward to hiking to Crow Pass for several reasons. The hike promised some fine scenery, including waterfalls, alpine lakes, and a couple of glaciers. It would also take me past the ruins of an old gold mine. Plus, the route to the pass follows the historic, original route of the Iditarod Trail.
The Iditarod Trail originally started near Seward, before climbing over Crow Pass, descending to Eagle River, and then traversing the Alaskan Wilderness all the way to Nome. The Iditarod Trail race was originally designed to commemorate an emergency run to Nome in 1925 to deliver serum to combat a diphtheria epidemic. The first full race was in 1973, but in 1983 the beginning of the race was moved to Anchorage (despite the fact that Anchorage wasn’t on the original trail route). Because of this change, the race no longer includes Crow Pass.
We drove towards Girdwood, and made a brief stop at the Chugach National Forest Visitor’s Center. I was hoping to find some current information on the trails near Cordova, as there is very little available online. The rangers at the Visitor’s Center were very helpful, but they didn’t really have what I was looking for. They suggested that we try the Visitor’s Center in Cordova after we arrived.
Christy dropped me off at the trailhead at 11am, with plans to pick me up later that afternoon. Unfortunately, she didn’t let me get away without taking bear spray. It was probably a good idea, as the area I was headed is notorious for bears. She drove back towards town, while I started up the trail. I switchbacked up through scrubby trees and shrubs, and passed the occasional open slope covered in pink Fireweed. It wasn’t long before I reached treeline, and the views really began to open up. Tall waterfalls cascaded down the surrounding slopes as I enjoyed the views back down the valley. In the distance I could see the peaks surrounding Portage Valley, although smoke from a nearby forest fire obscured the view.
A steady climb brought me to a junction. Here I continued on the trail ahead, which leads to the remains of the Monarch Gold Mine. I reached the ruins a few minutes later, which include many remnants from the former mine. The actual mine itself has been filled in though. A short distance beyond is Crow Creek Cascades, which is actually a pretty significant waterfall. I had lunch there, where I could enjoy the sound of rushing water while taking in views of soaring peaks towering over the verdant green valley.
Originally I thought I’d have to backtrack to the main trail to resume the climb. Instead, there is an assortment of paths leading up towards Crystal Lake. The main trail follows the high route, while a lower trail ascends from the mine. Meanwhile, there is a maze of trails along the hillside connecting the two routes. It was impossible to tell which route was the “correct” one, so I picked one with a reasonable grade and resumed the climb. This took me past several more waterfalls before I reached a sizeable stream. I rock hopped carefully before continuing upstream to rejoin the high route. From there, it was a pretty easy hike up to a bench and lovely Crystal Lake.
Just before the lake, I passed a backcountry hut that can be reserved through the forest service. There was a large group camped here, as well as quite a few dayhikers exploring the area. Crow Pass is a popular hike, and justifiably so. The scenery is excellent, and the trailhead is an easy drive from Anchorage.
I walked over to Crystal Lake, which is milky from all of the surrounding glaciers. From there, I navigated through fields of wildflowers and small snowfields to rejoin the main trail leading to the pass. The rest of the climb was brief and gentle. I finally reached the pass at 2:20, where I was treated to an excellent view of the Raven glacier tumbling down from the mountains above. The pass marks the boundary with Chugach State Park, which is one of the largest state parks in the country. From here, the trail continues all the way to the community of Eagle River, northeast of Anchorage. Although the entire trail can be hiked in single marathon day, I didn’t have anywhere near that kind of time. Instead, I spent about 30 minutes exploring among the rocks, snow, and wildflowers surrounding the pass.
I made the return hike at double-speed, as I didn’t want to keep Christy waiting any longer than necessary. I galloped down the mountain, taking the high route above the mine as it seemed a bit more direct. I reached the parking lot at 4:30, a few minutes after Christy arrived.
Christy enjoyed her visit to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. Highlights of her trip included seeing moose, bear, and caribou in various states of rehabilitation. More information on the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center can be found here:
On the way back to Girdwood we made a brief stop at the Crow Creek Mine. The mine is privately owned, and admission is $5. Unfortunately they close at 5pm, and we couldn’t really justify spending $10 for a 15 minute visit. We skipped it, and headed on for our second visit to the Portage Valley.
We made a couple of photo stops on the way. The first came as we were driving parallel to the tracks of the Alaskan Railroad. A train was coming, and I spotted an irresistible photo op with mountains and glaciers in the distance. That was cool, even though the train turned out to be a Princess Cruise connection between Anchorage and the port in Whittier. Farther down the road, we stopped a couple of times to check out the glaciers towering over the valley. Once at the end of the valley, we reached the portal of the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel.
The tunnel was built in the 1940’s so the Alaskan Railroad could be extended to the port town of Whittier. Whittier started as a military base, and during World War II connecting it to the rest of the state became critical. In 2000, construction of the 2.5 mile tunnel was completed, expanding it to allow a single lane of automobile traffic in addition to trains. Here is some additional information on the tunnel:
Today, cars and trains share the tunnel on an alternating schedule. The toll is $12, so at this point, we had a decision to make.
We could’ve doubled-back to one of the campgrounds in Portage Valley. However, we had to be at the port by 11:30 on Tuesday to catch the ferry to Cordova. Since I wanted to do the hike from Whittier to Portage Pass, we elected to head on to Whittier. My research had revealed a cheap public campground there on the edge of town. We’d only be there for one night, so how bad could it be?
STUCK WHERE THE SUN DON’T SHINE
Whittier was once dubbed “the strangest town in Alaska”. National Geographic once printed an article that claimed that the town’s unofficial motto was “Everything’s shittier in Whittier”. I’m sure that the local chamber of commerce was thrilled with that publicity. Most of what I’d read about Whittier revolved around its decrepit military buildings and its notoriously bad weather. After reading all of this, I’ll admit to a certain degree of morbid curiosity. Surely it couldn’t be that bad.
When we reached the tunnel, we found the Princess Cruise train waiting there. I thought we’d have to wait for the train, but we paid our toll and were waived on through. Passing through the tunnel was creepy. The tunnel itself is hacked right out of the rock of Maynard Mountain. The walls are unfinished, and the passage wasn’t much wider than our car. As we bounced our way down that long, damp, dark tunnel, it was easy to imagine that we really were driving down the highway to hell.
Reaching the end of the tunnel seemed to take an eternity. When we finally emerged, our initial relief was tempered by dismay as we saw the heavy, dark clouds hanging over us. The weather on the other side of Maynard Mountain had been gorgeous. What had happened? For the first time (but not the last), I wondered if we should’ve spent the night on the other side of the tunnel.
After a short distance we turned off the main road in search of the Portage Pass trailhead. We found it without much difficulty, at the end of a dirt road. There I started my second hike of the day. Christy debated joining me, but decided to continue resting her knee. She found a book to read while I tackled the 1-mile trail to the pass.
Back before the tunnel was built, the only reasonable way to travel from the Portage Valley to Whittier was over Portage Pass. To this day, it’s traditional for residents of the Portage Valley to ski over the pass on Super Bowl Sunday to watch the game in town. I was looking forward to checking out this historical spot along with the views of Portage Lake and Portage Glacier.
The hike to the pass was a bit of a trudge. The trail is basically a narrow gravel road, and the climb is steady if not steep. Wildflowers added appeal though, and I reached the pass in less than 30 minutes. There, I was treated to a fine view across Portage Lake to the glacier. Portage Glacier has receded quite a bit over the years, but it’s still impressive. Back in the other direction, I had an interesting view of the town of Whittier, which is nestled below high mountains at the head of a fjord. Glaciers and waterfalls spilled down from the surrounding peaks, and the view was impressive despite the overcast sky. In contrast, bright sun was shining on Portage Lake. I was standing right at the point where the weather changed, which was an unusual experience.
I hung out for a bit, and ran into a couple from California that had hiked up from town. They were scheduled to leave on a cruise ship that evening, bound for Glacier Bay National Park and ultimately Vancouver. They were avid hikers, and were looking forward to doing several dayhikes along the way.
We chatted for a bit before I started back down. I hiked fast, despite tired feet. I found Christy waiting in the car. We headed into town, looking forward to checking it out.
Whittier is an odd place. “Downtown” features an assortment of shops offering glacier cruises and chartered fishing trips. The far side of town features the abandoned Buckner Building. It’s an old, ugly grey military barracks that were damaged in a severe earthquake in the 1960’s. Back in the 50’s, the Buckner Building included hundreds of dorms, a hospital, a bowling alley, a theater, a library, a gymnasium, and a swimming pool. We drove over there to get a better look, and regretted it. The Buckner Building hasn’t aged well. The place is spooky, featuring dozens of broken windows and abundant graffiti. My initial reaction was that it looked like a place where Freddy Krueger might hang out.
From there, we drove past the Begich Towers. The tower is another former barracks, which has been converted into a 14-story condominium complex. Practically all of the residents of Whittier live in the tower, which looks completely out of place among the surrounding peaks. In fact, that kind of sums up Whittier. It’s like a pimple on the face of a supermodel – an ugly little town surrounded by overwhelming natural beauty.
We found the public campground just up the street from the Towers, right on the banks of Glacier Creek. The creek was nice, but the campground didn’t have much else going for it. It’s pretty much just a big rocky parking area. Finding a comfortable place to pitch our tent was a challenge, but we eventually located a passable spot. The campground was about half-full, and was largely occupied by various sorts of RVs.
Our site wasn’t graced with a picnic table, so we drove over to the campground’s picnic shelter and cooked there. We made stir fry for dinner before settling in to absorb the local culture. This consisted mainly of watching small groups of children walking up and down the road. The whole town was downright creepy, but the kids really were the icing on the cake. They leant the place a real “Children of the Corn” feel that was undeniable. By the time we cleaned up from dinner, it was getting chilly and buggy. I slept surprisingly well that night, despite the sensation that we had somehow wandered into an episode of “The Twilight Zone”.
We slept in until 8:30 the next morning. Then we broke camp, visited the porta-potty and made a breakfast of eggs and bagels at the picnic shelter. Afterwards, we drove downtown and parked. For the next hour, Christy poked around town while I went for a run. From the waterfront, I followed a paved bike path out to the tunnel and on to kayaking launch point at the head of the fjord. The run was scenic, as I followed the fjord below soaring peaks and under tumbling waterfalls. Unfortunately the overcast weather persisted, which detracted a bit from the morning’s beauty.
I ran back to town and met Christy. From there, we drove around the outskirts of town, hunting for the trailhead for Horsetail Falls. We didn’t have any luck with that, although we did check out a cascading waterfall on Glacier Creek just upstream from the campground. By 11:30 it was time to head to the ferry terminal to check in. On our way there, we drove down an alley that was crowded with Asian looking men wearing white lab coats. They looked like employees of the Dharma Initiative. This was yet another instance where we felt like we were in an episode of “Lost”.
After checking in at the ferry terminal, we spent a few minutes organizing the car and loading a small pack. We needed to pack everything we’d need for the 3+ hour journey, as we wouldn’t be able to access the car once the boat was in motion.
The ferry left on time at 1:15 under overcast skies. The ride was smooth and scenic, despite the clouds. We enjoyed distant views of glaciers, spotted sea otters, and got a brief glimpse of either a whale or a porpoise. The ride went fast, and before long we found ourselves approaching the small fishing community of Cordova. We were looking forward to spending several days there doing dayhikes and visiting the glaciers in the area.
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