Hiking Alaska: A better way to Eska Falls

Hiking AlaskaSeptember 30, 2013 

We thought we had only found a shortcut avoiding the muddy ATV trail. But at the top of the embankment of bent grass we came to a foot trail, and it led in the right direction. So we turned to follow it up the valley.

One hundred feet below to our right rumbled the waters of Eska Creek. Far below and behind us, down by Seventeen Mile Lake, echoed the continuing gunshots that had followed us up through the woods from the beginning of our hike.

"Maybe we found the trail you looked for a few weeks ago?" I asked Molly, who walked in front of me.

"Maybe," she answered.

If so, it did not prove easy to find -- though once found, the trail proved easy to follow, and a welcome relief from the mud-holed and slimy ATV trail we had followed for the last mile.

Under a spitting sky, we started our hike up the Jonesville Road out of Sutton with the intention of reaching Eska Falls, a magnificent but little-known stream that tumbles out of the Talkeetna Mountains in the next drainage east of Moose Creek.

A few weeks before Molly had told me how she had looked for a way to the falls via a supposed new trail. But because of the maze of dirt roads and ATV trails -- and no foot path -- she didn't find the way to the falls. So we took the route I knew led there.

Starting our hike on Jonesville Road, we followed a rutted, rocky and wet gravel road up into the woods. Passing numerous intersections, we eventually reached the ATV trail that led up to the falls. Rutted and muddy, with many brown puddles to wiggle around through the brush, we slowly climbed into the foothills. Then we came upon what looked like a shortcut recently made by ATVs. Following it up a steep embankment we reached another trail -- one not wide enough for ATVs.

Because it went the direction we wanted to go, we decided to follow it. As it contoured upward along the slope of the Eska Creek gorge, we noted how well-built it seemed -- wide and well-graded. When it crossed a short wooden bridge, we decided we had found Molly's lost trail. It proved an excellent alternative to the ATV trails as it climbed gently through the woods into the open, cloud-covered country above.

At the top of the trail we looked down the entire length of a mist-draped hanging valley to Eska Falls. Framed by Eska Peak on the left and Granite Peak on the right, the falls stopped us in our tracks. We stood to simply gaze for a few minutes. Flakes of snow began to drop lazily from the sky as we took a break to graze on blueberries and revel in the view.

As we followed the last ATV trail up the flank of the valley, the clouds descended. Soon we could only hear Eska Creek below us to the left. As we neared the falls, we could hear them too. We did not see them, though, until we stood on the top of the last hill dropping to shore of the creek by the falls.

Framed by clouds, the falls tumbled over a rock shelf 100 feet overhead. Even that limited view was spectacular, and I wondered how the scene would appear on a clear day. When the snow began to fall more thickly, we hoisted our packs and turned back the way we had come.

"Now we'll find out where it begins," I said as we started down the footpath we had luckily found on the way up.

It came out to unmarked trail beginning approximately half a mile farther up the gravel road where we had turned onto the muddy ATV trail. Only by the chance, looking for a dry shortcut, did we find this new trail -- but now we would know where to look for it the next time we came this way.

HOW TO GET THERE

At milepost 61 on the Glenn Highway, turn north (left if coming from Anchorage) onto Jonesville Road and follow it for approximately 2.25 miles, passing the road to Eska Mine on the way, to a grass and gravel turnout on the left (west) side of the road. The trail begins by continuing up the main road for a quarter of a mile. Just past the end of the maintained road there is a fork; bear left (northwest) and head uphill. 

Follow this road straight past five other roads leading off to the right (northeast) until you reach a dead-end at a turn-around. Here, look for a trail leading off the upper right-hand (northwest) side of the turn-around. 

Turning right on this trail, follow it up along the edge of the Eska Creek gorge. At the top of a series of switchbacks, the trail climbs above tree line where it ends at a T-intersection with an ATV trail. Turn right on the ATV trail. Then turn left at the next intersection with another ATV trail. Follow this last trail to where it ends at the foot of Eska Falls.

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

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