Hiking Alaska: South Fork Eagle River offers many grass-roots options

Hiking AlaskaSeptember 10, 2013 

Approaching the first summit along the ridge I chanced upon a man coming down. After exchanging niceties about the weather and the routes we had taken, we parted company. Not until reaching Symphony Lake more than five hours later would I see another person.

Considering the parking area overflowed with cars that Saturday mid-morning, the dearth of people I saw and spoke to throughout the day may seem surprising. Yet this often proves the norm in the South Fork Eagle River valley.

You don't have to look far to solve this conundrum: Though South Fork Eagle River Trail, which winds up the center of the valley to the isthmus between Eagle Lake and Symphony Lake, remains the only official trail in the valley, numerous other grass-roots trails can disperse people in every different direction up and down the valley.

These grass-roots trails, which branch off the main trail like limbs from a tree, were created by people walking the same route over a number of years. Of these, six receive particularly substantial use.

The first, which you could call Hunter Pass Trail, begins at a hiking post approximately a half-mile from the parking area. This trail, which climbs steeply into Hunter's Pass, the obvious notch on the ridge that one can see in the ridge above, offers a backdoor way to climb Rendezvous Peak.

The second, which climbs to Rendezvous Pass, begins approximately 1.5 miles from the parking area. There, where the main trail swings down and off a bench to cross South Fork Eagle River, the trail first bears right onto the old South Fork Eagle River Trail. Leaving that trail behind, the grass-roots trail narrows as it ascends into a wide cirque. Climbing steeply along the right side of the cirque, it eventually reaches a notch in the ridge proper.

Both of the above trails intersect with a sheep/human trail that follows the crest of the ridge that extends along the entire west side of the South Fork Eagle River valley. Going south, it eventually leads to Triangle Peak. Going north, it leads to Rendezvous Peak.

The next grass-roots trail, the well-known Hanging Valley Trail, begins approximately half a mile past the bridge over South Fork Eagle River. There, where the main trail turns directly up valley, this trail bears to the left. Climbing steeply at first, it levels out somewhat as it comes over the lip of the valley hanging above the left (east) side of the river valley. It then winds gradually all the way to a tarn tucked neatly into that valley's farthest corner. From here many people begin climbs of Eagle River Overlook, Hurdygurdy Mountain and the back side of Harp Mountain.

Another grass-roots trail leaves the main trail at the bridge over Eagle Lake's outlet. After skirting the eastern shore of the lake, it eventually peters in the braided flats beyond its far end. Many climbers find this trail invaluable for accessing Eagle Peak, Calliope Peak, Ewe Peak and Flute Glacier. Others might find it worthwhile for the waterfalls that plunge over the first step beyond Eagle.

The next popular grass-roots trail continues off the far end of the isthmus between Eagle Lake and Symphony Lake. Dropping off the right (west) end of the isthmus, it first crosses a beaver-busy creek. It then climbs gradually to the tarns nestled in the cirques above that side of the valley. From there it continues to the wide and broad plateau below Triangle Peak Trail. You can also follow the creek back up the valley to where behind Cantata Peak lies a secluded tarn.

The last grass-roots trail does not even begin on South Fork Eagle River Trail. It begins at the very end of Hiland Road. From there it winds up the circuitous west ridge of Harp Mountain to the summit of Harp Mountain. From this summit you can look down upon almost the entire complex of valleys and ridges that make up the South Fork Eagle River drainage.

You can also trace the routes of many of these aforementioned trails, along with other grass-root trails, that make for so many choices of so many places to go in this one river valley.

HOW TO GET THERE

South Fork Eagle River Trail begins at a parking area located in the Hiland Road subdivision of Eagle River. To get there, drive 12 miles north of Anchorage on the Glenn Highway. Just before Mile 12, turn right (northeast) onto the Eagle River Loop Road/Hiland Road exit. At the end of the exit ramp, turn right onto Eagle River Loop Road. Less than 100 yards later, turn right again at the traffic light onto Hiland Road.

Follow Hiland Road as it winds upward seven miles to the spot where, approximately 1.5 miles after it dips down into a deep trough to cross the South Fork Eagle River, it passes a sign giving directions to the trailhead. Just after the sign, turn right onto South Creek Road. Follow this road as it descends and re-crosses the river.

Just beyond the river, turn right onto the appropriately named West River Drive and follow this road to the parking area located 100 feet up on the left. The trail begins at the back left corner of the parking area.

Here's how to get to the new section the Historic Iditarod Trail near Turnagain Pass, the subject of last week's column:

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.

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Anchorage freelance writer and classical guitarist Shawn Lyons is the author of several area hiking and climbing books.

 

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