Crossing Southcentral Alaska’s Crow Pass

AKontheGO correspondent Mariah Brashar recently hiked the Crow Pass Trail with her mom. If you’ve not had the opportunity to travel this historic trail, Mariah’s post provides a click-by-click description of the experience. 

Crow Pass National Historic Trail — have you heard of it? I hadn’t, despite my status as a lifelong Alaskan, until just a few years ago. Making up a 21-mile stretch of the Historic Iditarod Trail, Crow Pass is one of the most beautiful hikes within enormous Chugach State Park.

I’m thrilled to say I had the adventure of hiking the pass with my mom, and our four furry hiking companions, on a rainy weekend in June. It isn’t strictly speaking “the season” to hike the pass until July and August. My mother, a 67-year-old woodswoman, with the tenacity of a badger (but the nerves of a chickadee) told me she’s wanted to do the hike for more than a quarter century.

Hikers descend the trail after climbing Crow Pass' summit. [image courtesy Emily Helland]

Hikers descend the trail after climbing Crow Pass’ summit. [Image courtesy Emily Helland]

The Trail

The Crow Pass trail spans distance between Girdwood (45 miles south of Anchorage) and the Eagle River Nature Center (26 miles northeast). Hiking from the Girdwood side, as is recommended, the elevation gain is about 2,100 feet, most of which is covered in the first three miles. The trailhead in Girdwood is located up Crow Creek Mine Road — when my ears popped on the drive, I realized just how much elevation we were gaining while still in the car. The road is a bit rough and windy, so be prepared for a few pot holes.

As we drove up to the trailhead, it just so happened to be pouring rain, even though we had planned our trip in the midst of a stretch of beautiful sunny, warm, days in early June. Our lovely and accommodating chauffeur, Kim, kindly offered to drive us back to Anchorage to wait for nicer weather, “if you wanna bail,” she said. Despite my mom’s worry-prone mind having already turned to thoughts of flash floods, we assured Kim that we would be just fine, rain and wind and all, and she dropped us off at the trailhead ready for whatever might come our way.

Since the trail is for most a one-way route, it’s necessary to park a car at both the Eagle River Nature Center and the Crow Creek Mine trailhead (parking is $5/day), or arrange for a ride to the trailhead and leave a car at the Nature Center. Bonus: From Crow Creek Mine, the trail starts up a wide, well-maintained path with ample switchbacks. Views, even from the parking area, are a spectacular shot of Turnagain Arm.

As we traversed up this portion of the trail, we met the single other person that we would see until the last six miles of the hike. As he passed us in the rain, he stopped to warn of us: “It’s brutal up there.” Whether it was the “brutal” weather or the time of year, Crow Pass trail was surprisingly empty when we ventured across it. Crow Pass is a very popular hikes in the area and hikers can usually expect to share the trail with a number of other travelers.

As the trail proceeds upwards towards the pass, it narrows and straightens out. About a mile in, it passes mine ruins from the late 1800s. As we discovered, if you think you might be seeing the ruins, you are! They’re easy to walk right past without noticing, but are totally worth hiking over to and taking a closer look.

Remnants from gold mining days gone by line the trail of Crow Pass. [Image courtesy Emily Helland]

Remnants from gold mining days gone by line the trail of Crow Pass. [Image courtesy Emily Helland]

After the mine, the trail proceeds up over some rocky and fairly steep terrain and past two beautiful waterfalls. The trail skirts the edge of a ravine, which was a little nerve-wracking to traverse. When we crossed this area of the trail, the wind was gusting and buffeting us around a bit. Given the steep drop off and rocky terrain, I was nervous about the dogs footing. If hiking with children, a discussion of the importance of caution in steep areas would be a must.

From there, the trail continues to climb into the pass, finally emerging next to tiny, beautiful, clear Crystal Lake. Just past the lake is a the summit sign, which indicated that yes, somehow, we’d managed to make it to the top! On the shore of Crystal Lake sits a quaint little public use cabin. We had been acceding in a drizzle and strong wind, but upon reaching the cabin, we found ourselves in nearly white-out conditions, and we found out, firsthand, that flurries are common in the pass, even during the recommended hiking months of July and August.

Use of the cabin is restricted to those who have reserved it and it books quickly. I would definitely consider booking the cabin in the future. It’s quite charming and could be the turn-around point if one’s intent was to hike to the pass and then return to Girdwood.

Note: Be advised that the conditions at the trail head can be radically different than they are in the pass. Hypothermia is a very real concern, especially if conditions are wet. Packing warm clothes, even in the height of summer, is an absolute must. It’s crucially important to bring proper rain gear and to be aware of the dangers and signs of hypothermia.

After topping the pass, the trail begins its slow decent to Raven Creek. During this section, the trail can be a little hard to find at parts — but there are cairns to mark the way, though it requires a sharp eye to spot them. There are also fantastic views of Raven Glacier.

Continuing down out of the pass, the trail crosses several small snow fields. While I didn’t find this too challenging, my mom struggled to find decent footing on the somewhat slushy angled snow banks. For the most part, the downhill portion of the trail alternates between short uphills and downhills, with a fair bit of scrambling and creek crossing.

At this point in our trip, the rain was mostly abating. We crossed the “First Bridge” over truly magnificent and massive gorge and camped our first night in a grassy opening in the otherwise brushy terrain, or as Mom (with her chickadee nerves) consistently referred to it (much to my irritation): Bear Country.

Crow Pass truely is bear country. There are tons of bears in this area; hikers have reported seeing more than 20 bears on a single crossing. The importance of being Bear Aware is paramount. Bells, loud talking, and other ways of consistently making noise are good practices to make sure not to surprise a bear around a bend in the trail.

We saw three bears from our campsite: a mama and two baby black bears. They were far enough away to not cause us too much concern for our safety. One of the cubs came down closer to our campsite and gave us quite a little show of running around and playing in a little open field. Tip: Bring binoculars! The next morning, we caught a glimpse of another bear trundling along the ridgeline.

We were careful to store our food far from our tent and be on the alert. We didn’t bring bear-proof canisters, but I would strongly recommend doing so if possible. Until the trail drops down into the Eagle River Valley, there really aren’t trees big enough to string food up out of reach. Remember, never store food or fragrant products (like toothpaste) in or near a tent.

 

Hiking Crow Pass' meadows and highlands is great and fun, but don't forget about the Eagle River Crossing. [Image courtesy Emily Helland]

Hiking Crow Pass’ meadows and highlands is great and fun, but don’t forget about the Eagle River Crossing. [Image courtesy Emily Helland]

Crossing Eagle River

We’d spent most of day two discussing the dangers of river crossing and what we might do if the water was too high.

Looking into safe river fording techniques is a priority. There are signs posted giving instructions at the crossing, as well as poles that mark where hikers should enter and exit the river.

After resting and reorganizing on the river bank, we got our bearings, linked arms, and stepped into the ice cold water. In the first moments, the cold was piercing, but after the initial shock wore off, it was bearable. At its deepest point, the river came to just below our hips. The dogs merrily swam across the river like the thought of it hadn’t even been bothering them (which, I guess, it hadn’t), with me shlepping their doggie-backpacks on my own back.

After the river, the trail curves along the northern bank, climbing and dropping steeply in some places to accommodate the terrain. As the trail gradually widens and signage indicating several public use cabins and a yurt becomes more common, it feels like the finish line could be around every bend. At this point, Mom and I were both pretty tired.

We traveled the final section of the trail in dusky visibility of midnight, which lent a certain spooky quality to the woods that I’m not sure I’d recommend. While the trail isn’t exactly smooth sailing after the pass, the varying terrain wasn’t too strenuous for active hikers.

Around each bend, we found surprising beauty. It was a hike that my mom and I will never forget. It had it’s challenging moments, and it was physically strenuous at times, but it was so incredibly rewarding, and not too difficult for determined people of all ages and walks of life.

If you go: 

The Crow Pass Trail is extremely popular during the summer months, and can be crowded. Carry a trail map and be prepared for plenty of people, rain or shine. Chugach State Park provides an informative pdf of the trail HERE.

Best practice? Have someone drop you off at the trailhead, and pick you up (or leave a vehicle) at the end. There is a $5 parking fee at either end, or purchase a yearly pass for $50 at REI or the Alaska Public Lands Information Center in Anchorage.

Bring backpacking gear consisting of a tent, sleeping pad, sturdy and comfortable pack, boots, trekking poles, bear spray, and insect repellant. Camp only in designated sites, and store food well away from sleeping areas. Always carry layers of clothing that will accommodate snow, rain, sleet, wind, and sun, sometimes all at once.

Be aware of creek and river crossings, and heed Chugach State Park information and warnings, found in the information sheet. Do not cross alone!

Crow Pass is recommended for families familiar with backpacking, and have children hardy enough to walk 21 miles over several days, AND, who can follow directions when it comes to water, bear, and trail safety.

Mariah Brashar ~MB

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