For some, skiing the Arctic to Indian traverse through western Chugach State Park is a bucket-list accomplishment. For others, it’s an annual tradition. Either way this 21-mile tour across ice bridges, through serene cottonwood groves, up tundra valleys between shining snow-laced peaks, and down a hair-raising luge to Turnagain Arm is bound to be an adventure.
When to Go
A few skiers brave the traverse in January and February but sparse snow cover, short daylight hours and the near-guarantee that you’ll be breaking trail make midwinter trips challenging. Most skiers aim for a golden window in March when the snow is deep but compact, snow bridges across Ship Creek are still sturdy, and the long, warmer days allow you to slow down (if just a bit) and enjoy the scenery. While skiable snow may linger on the ground well into April, snow bridges break up as soon as warm weather hits and the creek can become challenging to cross. Snow also tends to melt out quickly along Turnagain Arm, so latecomers may find themselves carrying skis for the last couple miles into Indian.
Of course, the ideal window to make the trip can vary based on snowfall and weather. During the low-snowfall winters of 2014-15 and 2015-16, many considered the traverse unskiable. If in doubt, check with local backcountry skiing groups, such as the Alaska Backcountry Ski Addiction group on Facebook.
What Skis to Use
The Arctic to Indian traverse is surprisingly amenable to different ski setups. The ideal setup varies with the user, quality of the gear, and conditions, and no one type of setup is clearly best for the whole traverse. The route includes two relatively steep descents (from the Arctic Valley trailhead to Ship Creek, and from Indian Creek Pass to Indian) separated by a gradual, twelve-mile-long uphill in the middle. As long as the snow is firm enough to support them, skinny XC race skis can make the middle section a breeze–but depending on the skill of the skier, the descents will be somewhere between thrilling and impossible. Many a strong skier has broken their old race skis here.
Some skiers (the author included) complete the traverse on heavy metal-edged alpine touring (AT) gear and use skins for the long tour in the middle. Wide alpine skis have excellent flotation over rotten snow, and the harrowing downhills become speedy, safe, and potentially laugh-out-loud fun. But twelve miles is a long distance to tour in heavy plastic boots, so make sure your footwear fit well and address hot spots promptly. And be prepared to break trail for your skinny-skied friends.
The standard advice for Arctic to Indian is to use metal-edged nordic touring skis with fishscales on the kick zone. These skis are relatively light, wide enough for good flotation, and much more stable on the descents than nordic race gear. Nordic touring boots are typically more comfortable than plastic alpine touring boots. Just make sure that your gear fits–many skiers borrow this setup just for the traverse, and end up with poorly-fitting boots or skis.
In extraordinary circumstances, it may be possible to crust ski the entire route with skate skis.
Traverse times vary wildly based on fitness levels, snow conditions, the type of skis being used, and how long you spend ogling the scenery. Competitive skiers on race gear who nail perfect crust-ski conditions might finish the traverse in as little as three to four hours. Fit recreational skiers making steady progress in average March conditions might expect to be out for eight to twelve hours. Collapsing snow bridges, broken gear, rotten spring snow, navigation errors, fatigue and innumerable other factors can cause the trip to last longer than expected.
Start the traverse as early in the morning as possible–even if that means putting your skis on in the dark. Strong skiers will appreciate the firmer morning snow, and slower skiers will appreciate the extra time.
On a sunny mid-March weekend there can be so many people on the traverse that it almost feels like a party. But other days, it is utterly deserted and the track can quickly disappear under drifts of blowing snow. The traverse’s remoteness is part of its appeal, but also presents safety considerations. There are no sensible bail-out points and there is little to no cell-phone coverage. Skiers must be prepared for self-sufficiency in alpine winter conditions. A good rule of thumb is that on a trip like this, you should at least have enough gear to make it through a night if something goes wrong. That means extra insulation, shell tops and bottoms, and probably an ultralight emergency bivvy sack/space blanket. Some groups may elect to carry an emergency stove or other equipment.
During prime conditions there are many strong ice and snow bridges spanning Ship Creek, and the creek itself is only a few inches deep in most places. But later in the season, or after a stretch of warm weather, bridges collapse and Ship Creek swells with snowmelt. Cross snow bridges mindfully, especially when the creek is running high, and consider carrying extra insulation in an ultralight dry bag.
The traverse itself sticks to relatively low-angle terrain, and most competent skiers don’t carry avalanche safety gear. Nevertheless, the route does travel below several slopes that are steep enough to potentially slide.
From Arctic Valley to the confluence of North Fork Ship Creek and Ship Creek, the trail stays in the middle of a broad valley with almost no avalanche risk. But as it rounds the mountains east of Koktoya and Williwaw Peaks, the route climbs out of the creekbed and can hug the base of the mountains, sometimes a little too tightly for comfort. If you are uncomfortable with where the track is set, swing away from the mountainside a few hundred feet–though be prepared to stomp through occasional stands of dwarf trees or alders.
Avoid rollovers near Indian Creek Pass; the terrain is generally low-angle but the track can meander onto needlessly steep terrain. The most high-consequence avalanche risk of the trip, however, is actually beyond the pass, on the wooded Indian Creek Trail. Though most of the trail is well-protected, it does cross runout zones from several huge west-facing bowls on Bird Ridge. When these bowls slide, they can bury the trail under ten or twenty feet of debris. Cross these runout zones quickly and don’t linger.
The Arctic to Indian traverse starts at the Arctic trailhead about a quarter-mile below the Arctic Valley/Alpenglow ski area. Unfortunately, the first ~2.2 miles of the trip (basically encompassing the entire downhill section to Ship Creek) crosses land controlled by Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER) and is often subject to restrictions. At minimum JBER requires all trail users to have a Recreation Permit. Moreover, JBER often closes this section of their land for spring training. Some skiers ignore closures, noting that there is no signage or barrier at the trailhead itself indicating the closure and reasoning that the military probably wouldn’t do anything too dangerous next to the downhill ski area. However, others have argued that it is unwise to trespass on military land during training exercises that may involve paradrops, artillery and live fire exercises, and that the military generally does not take kindly to trespass. The skiing community is currently working with military to resolve access issues, particularly as the Arctic to Indian traverse has become more popular.
Those wishing to follow the rules during a closure and comfortable assessing avalanche risk can skirt military land entirely by starting at the public South Fork Eagle River trailhead, climbing over Hunter Pass directly above the South Fork trailhead, and alder-stomping down into the Ship Creek drainage.
Once leaving JBER land, skiers spend the rest of the traverse in Chugach State Park and finish at the park’s Indian Valley Trailhead. Many groups leave a car at the Indian Valley trailhead the night before undertaking the traverse. Theft is rare but does happen, so don’t leave anything in your car (except maybe a few cold victory beers in the trunk).
For those running a shuttle, it takes just under an hour to drive between the Indian trailhead and the Arctic Valley dropoff location.
The traditional Arctic to Indian route can be divided into four sections: the initial downhill from the Arctic Valley road to Ship Creek, touring up lower Ship Creek through the woods, the alpine meadows and valleys of upper Ship Creek, and the legendary downhill to Indian. Note that while the majority of skiers choose to start at Arctic Valley and end at Indian, fit skiers with a passion for uphills can do the trip in reverse.
Part One: To the Creek (~2.2 miles)
This part of the route follows an established trail through dense spruce forest and birch glades to the edge of Ship Creek, dropping 1,100 feet in just over two miles. Aside from a bench at approximately mile 1.4, the grade is consistently downward and the trail is relatively narrow. Those on free-heeled skis may struggle to keep their speed in check, and resort to snowplowing (or controlled crashes into snowdrifts). Some skiers walk or jog this section.
Part Two: Lower Ship Creek (~7.6 miles)
Once the trail nears Ship Creek it abruptly flattens, turns southeast and traces the creek up into the mountains. A sign indicates that skiers are leaving military land and entering Chugach State Park.
Skiers quickly leave the quasi-official Ship Creek summer trail (likely without realizing it) and follow the ski track as it meanders up the creekbed, crossing and recrossing it dozens of times. This part of the Chugach is maligned in the summer for its bogs and bugs, but in the winter it is sublime. The wide creekbed provides many sightlines to surrounding ridges, and the trail weaves in and out of cottonwood meadows laced with lynx footprints and half-buried moose antlers. The grade is a remarkably consistent, gentle uphill but for all intents and purposes it feels flat.
Remember that the only trails here are those that previous skiers have decided to put in. Navigation along the entire Arctic to Indian traverse is fairly straightforward considering how much wilderness terrain it crosses, but make sure that you head up Ship Creek and not North Fork Ship Creek, which arcs east into the craggy heart of Chugach State Park.
Part Three: Upper Ship Creek (~4.9 miles)
The Ship Creek drainage chokes down into a narrow V-shaped gully as it passes east of Koktoya Peak. At this point, the route climbs out of the bottom of the drainage and follows a summer horsepacking trail to Indian Pass. As the route climbs onto the benches east of Koktoya it will likely pass an old sign that says “winter route” and you may spot a few camp chairs from a well-established horse camp peeking out from under the snow.
The route meanders through slightly-rolling brushy benches east of Koktoya and Williwaw Peaks before breaking out into a broad, flat expanse of alpine tundra. On a sunny day, this section treats the lucky to glorious views of Koktoya, Williwaw, Shaman Dome, Bird Ridge Overlook Peak, Avalanche Peak, the Ramp, and more.
Make sure you’re headed for Indian Pass: the pass is somewhat less prominent than the U-shaped valleys leading toward The Wedge or The Beak, but it’s the only nontechnical way through the mountains to Turnagain Arm. As it approaches the pass the ski track sometimes stays near the creek and sometimes follows the lightly-wooded glades just right/west of the creek. There are a few “false passes” but once you reach the real one you’ll know it.
Part Four: Indian Pass to Indian (~7 miles)
Any skiers craving downhills for the last twelve miles might want to remember the adage: be careful what you wish for–you just might get it. From Indian Pass to Indian, the Indian Creek Trail drops about 2,100 feet in seven roller-coaster miles. Skiers’ experiences on this portion of the trail depend heavily on skill, equipment, and conditions. Skiers on AT gear or skilled skiers on free-heel gear may be able to make it all the way to the Indian Trailhead without taking off their skis. Less confident skiers (or any skiers during icy conditions) may find themselves pulling their skis off and butt-sliding some of the steeper hills.
Starting from the pass, the first half of the Indian Creek Trail winds out of the mountains through steep, open glades. The winter ski track may not follow the summer trail exactly, but it should always be within about a hundred feet.
As the trail descends into the densely wooded base of the Indian Creek drainage it slowly flattens out, though it never actually becomes flat. Be prepared to scrape your bases against roots and the occasional rock. As noted above, do not linger in avalanche runout zones from the west-facing bowls on Bird Ridge.
Just before the parking lot, the trail reaches a utility road. Cross the road and pick up the trail immediately on the other side–following the road will lead you away form the trailhead.
Enjoy your victory beers or grab a burger at the Brown Bear Saloon. If you’ve made it this far, you’ve earned it.
Other Resources and Trip Reports
- “Arctic to Indian – Skiing in the Chugach Mountains,” Last Frontier article by Greg Latrelle
- “Arctic-to-Indian trek is spring escape,” ADN article by Craig Medred
- “Spring Sojourn: Arctic to Indian traverse a sky-high tradition,” short and funny trip report by Joe Stock in Coast Magazine