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Hiking Alaska: Finding Fresno Creek Trail is half the fun

Shawn Lyons
Approaching tree line below Fresno Peak
Shawn Lyons
Looking across the Fresno Creek valley from the ridge below Fresno Peak
Shawn Lyons
Looking north up the Seward Highway toward the Hope Cut-off from the ridge of Fresno Peak.
Shawn Lyons
A weather monitoring station just below the summit of Fresno Peak.
Shawn Lyons
Looking up the ridge from the summit of Fresno Peak.
Shawn Lyons
Looking back to the summit of Fresno Peak from further up the ridge.
Shawn Lyons
The upper end of the Fresno Creek valley.
Shawn Lyons
Some flags of ribbon leading through the brush.
Shawn Lyons
Looking down Fresno Creek valley from the upper end of Fresno Creek Trail.
Shawn Lyons
Swans on Lower Summit Lake.
Shawn Lyons
Approaching tree line below Fresno Peak
Shawn Lyons
Looking across the Fresno Creek valley from the ridge below Fresno Peak
Shawn Lyons
Looking north up the Seward Highway toward the Hope Cut-off from the ridge of Fresno Peak.
Shawn Lyons
A weather monitoring station just below the summit of Fresno Peak.
Shawn Lyons
Looking up the ridge from the summit of Fresno Peak.
Shawn Lyons
Looking back to the summit of Fresno Peak from further up the ridge.
Shawn Lyons
The upper end of the Fresno Creek valley.
Shawn Lyons
Some flags of ribbon leading through the brush.
Shawn Lyons
Looking down Fresno Creek valley from the upper end of Fresno Creek Trail.
Shawn Lyons
Swans on Lower Summit Lake.
Shawn Lyons

A friend told me that Fresno Creek Trail started along Fresno Creek -- and finding no other trail by the creek but one, I began hiking.

Initially a wide, dirt mining road, the trail started by climbing steeply away from the north side of the Seward Highway. With such an auspicious beginning it certainly seemed the right trail. But when it petered out after less than a half mile, doubt began to grow. Little did I know that I would climb a mountain before finding the trail.

Maybe it will reappear out of the brush further up the slope, I thought. It follows the power lines for a short way before turning again uphill, my friend had told me. Furthermore, I thought I had seen the remnants of an old mine high on this slope a few weeks ago. So maybe the trail would appear yet higher up.

But no trail appeared under the power lines. Maybe the mine would appear yet higher up. Maybe the trail continues closer to the valley floor before climbing to the mine. If so, then I had simply taken a more direct route. But no mine appeared either. Instead I saw a slope of rocks that I had probably mistaken for a heap of talus.

Now, though, I could clearly see the trail -- almost 2,000 feet below and to the left, on the slope above the far shore of Fresno Creek.After bee-lining straight up valley along the slope along the base of the opposite ridge, the trail turned up a tributary valley. After climbing a short way up the valley, it turned abruptly to the right and zigzagged up the valley wall to a mine precariously perched on the ridge top.

"The trail I should have followed," I said out loud. By this time the summit marked as "Fresno" on USGS maps loomed just up the ridge. With the sun coming and going and the views extensive, it seemed a worthwhile consolation prize.

Hiking through the uppermost stunted spruce, I soon reached the open tundra. Patches of snow littered the ground as I worked my way up the broad-shouldered ridge. The higher I climbed, the narrower the ridge and the deeper the snow. A cornice -- already hardened by the cold nights and stiff winds -- draped the last 100 yards to the summit.

Having come this far, I thought about continuing up the ridge another mile to a 4,500-foot summit. But my mind would not abandon its initial goal of hiking Fresno Creek Trail. After some musing I decided to descend to the trail. Whether or not I could ford Fresno Creek and how difficult the bushwhacking would prove, I didn't know. The worst scenario involved retracing my steps back up the ridge the way I'd come.

After a long, steep descent down a rock- and grass-draped couloir, I stood at the creek's edge. Despite the noise it made, it was not wide. I stood on the opposite shore after a calf-high crossing of 20 feet.

Clambering onto the shelf above, I started downstream. Three walls of spruce and willow grew between me and the trail. Halfway through the first wall of spruce, I discovered red ribbons marking a route. They looked new. Whether a hunter's route or the route of a new trail, I followed them gladly. After 20 minutes of connecting the ribbons through the next walls of spruce and willow, I crossed the tributary creek and stood on the trail.

Fresh boot prints indicated people had been there recently. That meant it probably wasn't too overgrown. Two miles later I stood on the highway by the shore of Lower Trail Lake, upon which two trumpeter swans floated in majestic isolation on the still, evening-colored waters.

Though I didn't find the trail going in, now I knew where it came out. Though I did it in a roundabout fashion, I eventually found the trail I first set out to find -- and climbed a mountain along the way.

HOW TO GET THERE

Fresno Creek Trail begins on the west side of the Seward Highway just north of Lower Summit Lake. To get there, drive to milepost 48 on the Seward Highway. There one reaches two turnouts approximately 100 yards on the left (east) side of the highway. Pull into the second of two parking areas on the east side of the highway. The trail begins in an opening marked by a sign prohibiting ATVs across the highway at the far end of the parking area.

Climbing steadily, but not steeply, the trail continues up Fresno Creek valley to the first tributary valley. There it crosses the creek and turns abruptly left up the valley. Though faint here, the trail becomes more pronounced as it climbs. Two-thirds up the valley it turns right (east) and begins switch-backing up the valley wall. At the top of the valley, it reaches the old Shell Mine, where the trail ends.


By SHAWN LYONS