September 24, 2016

Crow Pass Trail: Bears, Sheep, and a Summit in Chugach National Forest

Check out one of the best hikes in Alaska's Chugach National Forest. Complete with bears, glaciers and mountain goats, it never disappoints!

As we cruise down Seward Highway outside Anchorage, I stare out the passenger window torn between the familiar comfort of the open road and the pull of the Alaskan wilderness. Sure, we just bagged three days in Denali National Park and Preserve, but I can’t help feeling we’ve hardly skimmed the surface.

Seward Highway

Every inch of this place is teeming with possibility. Waterfalls punch through forests on the horizon, eagles dart between trees, and a mystic fog rolls through the valley chasing the Alaska Railroad and the waters below.

It beckons us further into Chugach National Forest toward a trail called Crow Pass.

Crow Pass trail marker

There’s recent grizzly activity in the area from what we hear in Girdwood and signs in the forest confirm the rumors. We decide to ask the locals for advice.

“It’s when you surprise them that you get yourself in trouble,” one man tells us in the dirt lot as we put on our hiking boots and gather our backpacking gear. “It’s thick in there and they disappear quick. I had a stare down with one once. Had my headphones in, came around a corner and locked eyes with her.”

bear warning sign

He stares up with his husky-blue eyes. “Wish I could go with you all. I could use some mountain medicine,” he says as he surveys the land and walks away.

local in Girdwood giving hiking advice

“Make sure they know you’re coming,” he says again over his shoulder. And with that, the 6-foot, gristly, grizzly of a man enters his car and heads off down the hill to begin his night shift.

It’s one thing to fear things that go bump in the nightin the dark of nightbut it’s bright and we’re all a little nervous. It’s 8 p.m. by the time we start up the hill and begin our “hey bears.”

Near Wonder Lake Campground a few days earlier on our Alaskan tour, we could see miles in any direction and took every opportunity to scout for animals. Out there we’d have a little time to adjust course or fall back if a big mammal came our way. But this is different. Way different.

hiker in Alaska

A few switchbacks in and the forest swallows us whole. Temperatures drop and dew drips along the brim of our hats from the limbs and leaves above. Scott leads the way (hand on his bear spray like a Wild West gunslinger expecting a duel), I follow with our pack and water, and Jon snaps photos behind us. We stop to admire a patch of plants clearly squashed by a creature larger than man.

We break through the canopy and relish the view below. This looks more like Jurassic Park than a portion of the Iditarod. Green hills and crystal clear rivers weave toward the sea, past the tiny cars near the trailhead. We breathe a sigh of relief, no longer bunkered in by unknown corners. We’ve reached the scree fields and a panorama of peaks with snow that clings to their summits. Our pace slows as we hop from rock to rock, careful not to send them tumbling from their final resting spots.

hikers in scree field

And like that, we conquer the hill that separates us from the true peak. We’ve entered another valley. There’s runoff to our left and a series of trails like jagged black veins cut up and to our right, just wide enough to hike single file onward to our final destination. We put our heads down and traverse green, then black, then whitepatches of summer growth and rock that fight back the ice.

Crow Pass hiking trail

We no longer ponder bears. Instead, it’s the storm that’s coming in over the ridge that demands our focus. A drizzle at first, as rain beads off our shells and down our pants, then a curtain of fog and sleet blasts at our side. At first it’s entertaining, but our cold hands serve to remind us this is Alaska; this is wild. A thunderous roar of water billows within the heart of the mountain and two sister falls breach the surface to our left as they feed the valleys below.

hiker in Alaska

We pass hiking poles back and forth as we dig in and scale the last few stretches of snow, taking caution not slip any closer to the sisters.

Rain leaps off of the lips of rock above and trickles into a series of streams that snake through scree. I kneel down and splash my face. We’re nearly there. We filter some water, freeze our insides with its nourishment, then punch it to the top as the storm chases our every move.

ranger's cabin in Alaska

A tiny wooden roof pierces the horizon at 3,500 feet, a ranger’s cabin. Then Raven Glacier tumbles off an adjacent peak and etches its way into Crystal Lake, a basin at its foot. Then a crimson thread on pure white snow that stops us in our tracks. Blood spiders like a cracked windshield every which direction. No sign of prey, but every sign of the kill.

We squint through the storm expecting a monster.

But nothing. Only silence, smiles, and three friends at the top of a mountain. And to think we’d  just skimmed the surface. No, this Alaska blood and its wild adventures will run deep everywhere we go.

We retrace our steps in the company of sheep, a reminder that adventure is every bit tender as it is wild.

sheep in Alaska

Learn more about bears and other big mammals you might encounter in Alaska.

Learn more about the birds you might spot while hiking in Alaska.

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