Hiking Alaska: Hanging Valley Trail offers a peek at winter

Daily News correspondentOctober 14, 2013 

The mud on the trail, the yellow leaves over the trail and the chilly air moving across the trail indicated that autumn still lingered in the lowlands.

So it seemed upon leaving the car and starting up South Fork Eagle River Trail. So it seemed upon crossing the bridge over the full banks of South Fork Eagle River. So it still seemed when turning off the main trail and turning up Hanging Valley Trail.

Autumn continued to linger all around on the way up the long, quiet valley. Even when turning off that trail about two-thirds of the way up and climbing steeply toward the large tarn nestled in the broad basin at above the upper right end of the valley, I still moved through an autumn landscape of green and red tundra and yellow-leaved bushes.

Following the tarn's outlet stream up the grassy slope, I soon looked out over the surprisingly wide and long tarn extending across its broad basin. A thin, silent veneer of ice lay over the tarn as I approached. But such ice often shines from autumn-chilled lakes and puddles.

Circling around the front of the tarn, I started up the slope leading to the ridge above. The slope's angle increased to the point where I held to rocks and clumps of tundra while looking down between my legs for footholds.

Not yet frozen, the ground gave way under my kicked steps as I grabbed at clumps of graying grass and rocks to pull myself upward. As the ridge rounded upward, I could once again stand upright. Then I climbed into the snow.

It suddenly began to feel like winter.

A foot-stopping wind gusted over the ridge as I reached the 4,641-foot summit overlooking the west end of the tarn. Above the tarn's far side loomed the higher continuation of the ridge. Precipitous gullies and open faces looked like they had already spent more than a few weeks in winter's weather.

Turning away from that cold and forbidding end of the ridge, I started down the opposite way.

The ridge proved harder than I had imagined. Knife-edged in spots with hard-packed snow draping the slopes, I spent a few careful moments kicking steps through the crust with the heels of my running shoes around two or three short spires that crowned the ridge. Far below, at the bottom of long runouts, lay the autumn landscape of the South Fork Eagle River valley.

Before long the ridge widened enough to make the going more leisurely. The snow became less firm and more sporadic. Then I came up relatively fresh footprints in the patches of snow draping the ridge. I found a faint trail leading down the last of the ridge. Maybe more people climbed this end of the ridge than I thought, or maybe two people happened to climb the same seldom-frequented ridge on the same day.

No wind blew and the silence enveloped the ridgetop as I picked my way down the lower backbone of the ridge. Only the sound of my rustling windbreaker and my feet creaking in the snow or pattering against the rocks disturbed the solitude.

As I descended the end of the ridge, the sound of running water rose to greet me. The creek emptying out of Hanging Valley on my right and South Fork Eagle River on my left let me know I had returned to autumn.

Twenty minutes later, after bushwhacking across the mouth of the valley, I turned onto Hanging Valley Trail. Ten minutes, later I turned on South Fork Eagle River Trail. The colors of autumn -- olive, amber, maroon and silver -- once again surrounded me.

Far up-valley, though, the snow-laden heights of Cantata, Triangle and Calliope peaks served as harbingers of the season to come. Hesitant now, the winter in those heights would eventually begin moving down the valley. Maybe it would begin the next day, maybe next week, maybe even next month.

It would begin, though. Then this autumn, like all the autumns of yesteryear, would come to pass under the muffling snows of winter.

How to get there

South Fork Eagle River Trail begins at a parking lot in the Hiland Road subdivision of Eagle River. Take the Eagle River Loop Road/Hiland Road exit on the Glenn Highway and at the end of the exit ramp, turn right onto Eagle River Loop Road. In less than 100 yards turn right again at the traffic light on 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.

Hanging Valley Trail diverges from South Fork Eagle River Trail about half a mile past the bridge over South Fork Eagle River. There, where the main trail turns right to continue up valley, unmarked Hanging Valley Trail turns left and climbs the slope leading into the hanging valley above. Once over the crest of the slope it continues straight up that valley to a tarn at its uppermost end. The tarn mentioned in the article lies in a yet higher hanging valley that one can reach by following the first major stream approximately two-thirds of the way up valley and following that upward.

 

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