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Hiking Alaska: Rain doesn't counter rewards of Winner Creek Trail

Shawn Lyons
Photo by Shawn Lyons Starting down the ridge toward Mount Alyeska with Winner Creek below to the left.
Shawn Lyons
Photo by Shawn LyonsLooking from the top of Berry Pass across the valley to the ridge we would follow out. Winner Creek trail out of Girdwood.
Shawn Lyons
Photo by Shawn LyonsExamining the skiers\u2019 hut at the top of the cat trail near Winner Creek trail out of Girdwood.
Shawn Lyons

On a normal autumn day, crossing this stream should have been a dry-footed hop across four or five boulders. Instead, we waded through a knee-deep torrent while braided runnels of overflow spilled through the surrounding woods on both sides.

We could blame the last few weeks of rain for transforming this creek, like most creeks and streams all over Southcentral Alaska, into an overflowing flood of gray and dirty water -- and turning most trails into muddy puddled trenches.

No drops, however, fell from the sky when Parker Quimby and I first hiked into the woods below the tram at Alyeska. We had no illusions, though. We expected it to rain -- and it did. Less than one mile after turning onto Upper Winner Creek Trail, it started to rain. It continued to drizzle as we rounded the big curve in the valley and began to climb toward the Winner Creek Pass.

The rain made the landscape lush. Very green and very thick grew the life around us as we crossed above tree-line and we passed through deep carpets of emerald and flower. Though the trail proved less muddy and flooded this high up, it did not matter much. Our sopping shoes squished and squirted water with every step.

After contouring up the right side of the valley for another few miles, with the rushing waters of Winner Creek below to the right and a line of rock- and ice-draped peaks above to the left, we eventually turned up and into Berry Pass leading down to the headwaters of Twentymile River.

Here we went over our choices. Hiking down the far-side pass meant we'd only have to hike back up again, whereas turning around and returning the way we had come seemed boring. In better weather, we might have followed the ridge on our right back to Mount Alyeska. We might have also traversed over to Eagle Glacier, but we could not depend on good visibility in such weather.

We finally chose to cross the top of Winner Creek valley and follow the opposite ridge back to where we would hopefully find the cat trail used in the winter to ferry skiers into the back country. If we did not find the cat trail, we would have some serious bushwhacking to do.

Though we crossed the headwaters of Winner Creek easily, once we began to climb the opposite ridge, we found the tundra slick as slime. Avoiding any vegetation possible, we clambered up any rocks within reach.

Once on the ridge crest the hiking became decidedly easier over firm snowfields and loose shale. The clouds moving in did not help us find our way easily, though. Snowfields and rock faces came and went through the shifting mists. Still, as long as we could feel our way down the ridgecrest, we'd find our way. As the rain continued to drip from above, we followed the ridge as it turned to follow the valley back down toward Winner Creek Gorge. Soon after that we dropped below tree line.

Now we had to find the hut. We knew it sat atop the ridge. So we only had to make sure we did not pass it as we pushed through the low spruce that now topped the ridge. Sitting atop high stilts to keep it above the snow, we eventually spotted finally in the trees. Then after a cursory examination of it, we turned down the cat trail. Sporadic at first -- resulting in some nasty bushwhacking -- the trail eventually became more continuous as we followed it into the Glacier Creek valley below. More an opening through the trees than a trail, we did not find the hiking easy. Deadwood, brush, mud, and rivulets made it obvious that this functioned more as a winter route than a summer trail. We knew we only had to follow it to find our way back.

Once on the valley, the wide trail turned down toward the deeper, wider Winner Creek valley. And still the rain fell.

Eventually, dripping wet and draped in mud and mulch, we reached the bridge over Winner Creek. Two miles later we arrived back at the car. Happy to have gone, and happy to return, we looked forward to a possible sunny day on that trail.

How to get there

Upper Winner Creek begins approximately 1.7 miles from the Alyeska Prince Hotel in Alyeska. After parking at the daytime parking area, hike up to the tramway. Once there, follow the cables from the lower tramway terminal at the hotel uphill for 100 yards until one reaches the Chugach National Forest sign for Winner Creek Trail on the edge of the woods to the left (north). Then follow Winner Creek Trail out to a 'T' intersection that this trail forms with Upper Winner Creek Trail. Turn right (up valley) on Upper Winner Creek Trail. If one persists, after approximately 6 miles of hiking the trail reaches the Berry Pass (approximately 2,500 feet) between Winner Creek valley and Twentymile River valley. Once there, one can continue down to the upper end of Twentymile River. climb Kelly's Knob and Mystery Mountain (just above the pass to the left), or return the way they had come.


By SHAWN LYONS
Hiking Alaska