Rainy Day Chugach Traverse
27.5-mile traverse through the heart of central Chugach State Park
July 25-26, 2020
I looked at the forecast again.
“I don’t really feel like going,” I told my girlfriend.
“You need some outdoor time” she said. Her tone suggested that she was certain about this. But it was hard to get excited at the prospect of climbing chossy 4,800-foot passes above glaciers in blowing clouds and pouring rain.
It was true, though: I really needed some outdoor time. And my friends were still excited for the trip, or at least pretending to be. We all had experience with bad weather and we had the gear. Worst case scenario we could always change plans once we got out there, or even just turn around. Maybe it would be a “Learning Experience.” Who knows, maybe it’d even be fun.
On July 25, 2020, Tim Treuer, Tony Lewkowski and I set out on a 27.5-mile traverse across Chugach State Park, starting at the Crow Pass trailhead in Chugach National Park and ending at the trailhead in Indian. Our route would hop between recently-glaciated cirques, follow the North Ship Creek drainage through the heart of Chugach State Park, and wind through the small but exciting set of peaks off the north end of Bird Ridge. Forecast be damned, here we go!
Day 1: Crow Pass to Grizzly Bear Lake
After dropping two vehicles at the Indian trailhead, Tony, Tim and I “masked up” as a Covid precaution and climbed into my car for the drive to Girdwood. We parked at the Crow Creek Trailhead, pulled rain covers over our packs, and headed up the familiar, well-worn trail toward Crow Pass.
We scrambled up the gorge and crested Crow Pass, taking a few minutes to admire the scenery and comment on how much Raven Glacier has receded. I first saw Raven Glacier as a kid in Trailside Discovery Camp, when it was far more imposing than it is now.
By this point the rain was picking up, and we pulled on the rest of our rain gear before heading downvalley. A little way below the pass, a faint trail led off of the main Crow Pass trail and toward the Clear Creek drainage. The trail petered out at the mouth of the valley and we continued over open tundra till reaching the creek.
Crossing Clear Creek was a little more difficult than I’d expected, but after searching for ten or fifteen minutes we found a place where we could jump it. Looking at the map later, it may have been easier to go a little farther up the valley and just wade across. Jumping on wet rocks in the backcountry is a risky game.
After crossing Clear Creek we began the sidehill toward the drainage informally known as Paradise Valley. We tried to angle slightly low during the sidehill to avoid a black bear we’d spotted foraging on the higher slopes, and as we hiked we spotted another bear–maybe a mid-sized griz–far below us. Neither animal was a concern, but it felt a little odd shooting a gap between two bears.
The sidehilling wasn’t great on our feet but it was short, and soon we found ourselves at the (much more level) mouth of Paradise Valley. We stopped for lunch and then continued up the pleasant rolling terrain.
Before long the tundra petered out and we found ourselves stumble-stepping over moraines of loose rock. Luckily a snowfield in a ravine provided a nice sidewalk through the scree.
At the top of the valley we climbed past a glacier remnant and up the headwall toward Paradise Pass. Paradise Pass has a reputation for being difficult, but in my opinion the climb to the pass was a pretty ordinary Chugach scree ascent and wasn’t any harder than, say, scrambling up Ptarmigan Peak or the gullies on the Suicides.
The drop off of the other side of the pass looked a little steeper and looser. We scrambled along the ridge to see if we could jump onto snowfields and glissade to the bottom, but ultimately we decided to return to the low point on Paradise Pass and descend from there. By this time the wind was gusting through the pass, and we had to look away to avoid being sandblasted by rain.
The descent off of Paradise Pass turned out not to be especially bad, though it was steep. We worked our way down a headwall of loose scree, rocks and silt one at a time before traversing a late-summer snowfield and then glissading the rest of the way down. There was still a good amount of snow back here, even in late July.
Paradise Pass deposited us on top of appropriately-named Moraine Pass, an expanse of rocky glacial moraines that separate the North Fork Ship Creek and Camp Creek drainages. We picked our way across the haphazard landscape, jumping onto hard-packed summer snow patches wherever possible to avoid the wet, loose rock.
Eventually we came to the edge of the last rocky moraine and found Grizzly Bear Lake sprawled out below us like a picture-perfect green oasis.
We scrambled down the toe of the moraine, walked around the south edge of the lake and set up our tents on a bed of cloud lichen.
After dinner I took a solo walk around Grizzly Bear Lake. The lake was ringed with lush green tundra, patches of red sourdock and violet dwarf fireweed. On the north side I was surprised to find the overgrown ruins of a beaver dam. Near the southwest corner of the lake I drank from a spring exiting the base of a glacial moraine. Several people have told me that Grizzly Bear Lake is their favorite place to camp in the Chugach, and it’s not hard to see why.
Day 2: Grizzly Bear Lake to Indian
The night was calm, with just a few scattered showers, and I woke up to the sound of a small plane buzzing overhead. After breakfast and coffee we packed up and headed downvalley.
The upper portion of the North Fork Ship Creek drainage is beautiful, but it sits close to brush line. The trick here is to stay high on the south side of the valley and connect tundra benches and game trails. By doing this we made fast time and did almost no bushwhacking between Grizzly Bear Lake and Bird Creek Pass.
Below Bird Creek Pass the brush thickened. We swatted our way through stunted alder and followed moose tracks through patches of muck. It wasn’t the best hiking in the Chugach, but this section of the trip was short and we still made fairly steady progress.
Just before reaching thicker stands of trees in the lower North Fork Ship Creek drainage, we veered south into a hanging valley below Bird’s Eye Peak.
This alpine valley is one of my favorite in Chugach State Park. It’s filled with gently-rolling tundra glades, surrounded by dramatic crags, and tucked away just enough that it feels special.
From a distance the pass between Bird’s Eye Peak and the Wing looked almost impassible, but as we got closer the angle appeared to relax. The pass was mostly steep tundra with a few moments of scrambling just below the crest, and we were up it quickly enough.
From the pass we climbed another 500 feet up the east ridge of the Wing and then traversed across its broad southern face to its south ridge.
From the side of the Wing we made a steep tundra descent to the valley floor. We walked a tundra bench past the Beak, dropped down to a bluegreen lake below the north face of Bird Ridge Overlook, and finally stairstepped up a tundra ramp to the pass between Bird Ridge Overlook and Bidarka Peak. This set of smaller peaks and lake-dappled tundra valleys is a spectacular and strangely-ignored place in Chugach State Park. I suspect that if access were just a little easier it’d be dotted with tents every summer weekend.
From the pass between Bidarka Peak and Bird Ridge Overlook we could see blue sky and columns of sunlight rippling over Homicide Peak and Indianhouse Mountain. All we had left was one more descent down an alpine valley before connecting with the Indian Creek Trail.
After a few minutes of open tundra walking, the valley plunged down toward treeline. We probably should have followed the creek, but instead we crested a knoll and ended up in thick brush. We thrashed our way down near-vertical alder ravines and bushwhacked through head-high grasses, pushkie, and skunk cabbage until we reached the Indian Creek Trail.
I hadn’t been on the Indian Valley Trail in the summer in a long time, and I’d forgotten how marginal it can get. Parts of the trail were washed out and overgrown, and several bridges had fallen into disrepair. The trail almost felt abandoned. But it was easy to follow, and we quickly stomped out the final four-odd miles to the car.
Tony headed home, while Tim and I made improvised Covid masks and he drove me back to the Crow Pass Trailhead in his new electric car. On the way back to Anchorage, I rounded a corner to see a brilliant rainbow dipping into Turnagain Arm. It was like an exclamation point on the thought that some of the best things really do happen on rainy days.