Five miles down the valley shone a small patch of Turnagain Arm in the early afternoon sun. Beyond it towered the snow-patched mass of Blueberry Peak. Though the 2-mile-wide flats of the Twentymile River valley to Blueberry Peak's right was half-hidden by a nearer ridge, we could clearly see the glacier-hung peaks rising into the blue sky above and behind its distant headwaters. Behind those peaks stretched more peaks, many white-capped and glacier-girted, extending to the misty afternoon horizon.
"This trail has some astounding views," I said, stating the obvious.
Of the more than 180 miles of the Historic Iditarod Trail that the Forest Service intends to construct from Seward to Girdwood, we -- Armin Abdihodzic, Leif Robinson, the dog Burma and I -- had started up the few new miles that start on the east side of Turnagain Pass.
Approximately five miles in length from Turnagain Pass and halfway down the north side of the pass, this new section of the Historic Iditarod Trail contours around the west bases of three mountains before crossing Ingram Creek and climbing back out to the highway.
Though still missing two bridges across key creeks, the trail makes for a very pleasant hike. But besides making for a pleasant hike, this new piece of trail also offers easier access to the mountains above.
Just a year ago, reaching the open west ridge of Kickstep Mountain above the east side of Turnagain Pass required some serious bushwhacking through spruce forests, across bogs and through alder to reach the wide-open country above. Now the new Iditarod trail carries you up through most of that brush.
After following the trail for about 21/2 miles up from the highway, we stood alongside a low-grassed meadow. From there we scanned the slopes for a route up to the west ridge of Kickstep Mountain -- the first mountain the trail contours around.
Above us hung a maze of spruce stands, willow, high-grassed meadows and stream gullies. Out of this maze of terrain we picked a route leading first into a first spruce stand, then up some high-grassed meadow, then weaving up through some last willow stands to the open tundra above. Then we stepped off the trail.
The bushwhack proved surprisingly different than most. Though steep, the forest floor among the spruce had little brush. The open slopes proved far more difficult. Wet from then previous night's frost, they proved treacherously slippery. But after grabbing and grunting our way upward for 10 or 15 minutes, we rounded onto more gentle and dry terrain.
Ten minutes later we reached the base of the west ridge, leading like a wide and airy grand staircase upward. Leading us first to the left for 100 yards toward Turnagain Arm, the ridge turned 90 degrees to the right and upward into the face of the mid-morning sun.
Reaching the top of the first wide buttress in the ridge, we continued onward. At times the ridge narrowed and steepened dramatically. More than once we had to climb hand-over-hand to clamber up a steep face. But these sections stalled our climb only sporadically.
After one last narrow notch and a steep scramble, we reached the first wide rocky summit on the ridge at approximately 3,550 feet. Ahead of us we could see the wall of glacier-smeared mountains rising above the head of the valleys to the right and left.
In between these two valleys the ridge we stood upon dropped steeply down the far side of the summit, climbed over three rock towers and then dropped into one final glacier-filled gorge before rising up a rock spine to the true summit Kickstep Mountain. We lacked the equipment to reach that summit this time.
Choosing a different route down, we bore right off the first buttress below the summit and started down the northwest ridge. Staying on the ridge crest, we eventually descended into the brush below. After trudging through long grass, traipsing around bogs and stepping through a wind-blasted stand of spruce, we stumbled out onto the trail.
The trail made for leisurely hiking back to the car.
"One could bike this trail," Leif said.
Having bushwhacked here without a trail, I remained content just to have it for walking.
Shawn Lyons is a freelance writer and classical guitarist who has written several books about area hiking. He will perform at a photo show from 5-8 p.m. Friday at Namaste North Yoga Studio at 508 Second Ave., Suite 102.
HOW TO GET THERE
The upper, southern terminus of the Historic Iditarod Trail in Turnagain Pass begins at the Mile 68.5 rest area on the east side of the Seward Highway just over the crest of the pass.
Begin by hiking the main trail off the backside of the parking area past the picnic tables just behind the outhouses. In less than 200 feet the Historic Iditarod Trail swings up and to the left (north) off the main trail. Though narrow for the first few feet, it quickly broadens into a superb trail.
The lower terminus of the trail begins halfway down the north side of the pass in the new pullout located at Mile 72.5. The trail drops off the embankment at the lower end of the pull-out. It continues for approximately one mile to the west shore of Ingram Creek. You can see the trail continuing on the far side of the creek, but the lack of a bridge means you must ford the creek to go any farther.