Sunrise Mountain

Sunrise Mountain

Backpacking Sunrise Mountain, in the Kenai Mountains of Alaska

June 18-19, 2023

Growing up, my family spent time in Hope, Alaska almost every summer. We skipped beach rocks on the ocean and watched brown bears fish from the the mud flats, but the place that left the deepest impression on me was a cluster of tundra-clad peaks, tarns, and mysterious mining ruins high in the mountains. It wasn’t until decades later that I figured out that the place from my childhood memories was the end of Palmer Creek Road. I was eager to rediscover this area as an adult, and it looked like a perfect destination for a sunny summer weekend.

From June 18-19, 2023, Tony Lewkowski, his dog Daisy, my dog Taiga and I completed a short backcountry loop up Sunrise Mountain, starting and ending at the Coeur d’Alene campground on Palmer Creek Road. We’d originally intended to drive further up the road, but it was closed past the campground due to avalanche debris that were stubbornly refusing to melt out. We decided we’d drive as high as needed till we found a good place to cut up onto the ridges, and work with what we had.

Sunrise Mountain backpacking trip map

Map of our Sunrise Mountain backpacking route. To view or download a GPS track of the route, click here.

Day 1

We left Anchorage on the morning of June 18, drove around the head of Turnagain Arm to Hope, and then cut up into the mountains on Palmer Creek Road. The road was gorgeous, finely graded and trimmed with cheery (if invasive) dandelions.

Driving Palmer Creek Road

Driving Palmer Creek Road

We parked at the Coeur d’Alene Campground, a small cluster of picturesque campsites nestled around a fast-flowing creek. We figured that foot traffic from the campground might have been enough to punch an informal trail through the woods toward treeline, and a gate blocked further vehicle travel up the road anyway.

Sure enough, we found a promising trail running along the north side of the creek. But it quickly petered out, and soon we found ourselves bushwhacking through alder and brittle downed spruce. Daisy found our route highly suspect, and tried to convince Tony to turn around. Meanwhile, Taiga bounded and crashed through through the brush, engaged in one small and mysterious mission after another.

Taiga in the brush

Taiga running through alder near the Coeur d’Alene Campground

Before long, we broke out of the denser brush by the creek and started ascending the hillside, which was covered in a blotchy coat of grassy meadows and alder patches.

Tony hiking though the brush

Bushwhacking up meadows near treeline

Backpacking in the age of GPS and global satellite imagery means that we now have a lot of opportunity to Monday-morning-quarterback backcountry routes. After our trip, I loaded my GPS track into Google Earth to see how we’d done in this section. Verdict: not bad! There may have been a couple better lines through the brush, but it would’ve been hard to suss them out from ground level.

We’ve come a long way since the age of trekking into the backcountry with tattered paper USGS topo maps and vague written descriptions of routes (if that). Overall, I’ve found that the abundance of data available now both during and after trips can be valuable, provided it doesn’t become too much of a crutch and doesn’t excessively turn outdoor time into screen time.

In this case, it was helpful to get post-trip feedback and insight on our navigation, but I was glad we’d figured out our route with our eyes, brains, and feet. That’s part of what makes backcountry travel fun.

GPS track of our hike through the brush

Our GPS track loaded into Google Earth, showing a portion of our route through the brush. Note that the imagery itself is Google’s default imagery and was not created at the same time as our trip.

After about a mile of bushwhacking, we broke out into the open tundra on a spur arcing gently up to the main ridge. From here we could see all the way up the Palmer Creek drainage, and back out the mouth of the drainage toward the low rolling ridges to the west of the Resurrection Pass trail. I’d wanted to tackle these ridges for years. Next summer… maybe.

The author and Taiga

Taiga and the author, looking out toward the mouth of the Palmer Creek drainage Photo: Tony Lewkowski

We hit the crest of the ridge at an elevation of just under 3,800 feet. From here we could see the sprawling, snow-streaked summit of Sunrise, rising above the scattered clouds and baking in the afternoon sun.

Taiga bounded and raced over the snow, rocks, and wind-swept tundra, jamming his snout into every questionable goopy puddle and marmot hole. Anyone who has been around Samoyeds knows that they made for winter. Their huge fluffy coats keep them warm, and they power serenely through the snow on giant, snowshoe-hare-like paws. But Taiga has always seemed happiest in spring, directing the reservoir of energy that fuels him during the dark, cold months toward frenetic play and exploration.

Taiga on the ridgeline below Sunrise Mountain
Taiga the Samoyed
Taiga taking a nap

Taiga in the mountains

Of course, Taiga’s adventurous spirit has downsides and risks, too. The Alaska outdoors can be a dangerous and unforgiving place for dogs. We have no shortage of wild animals, cliffs, crevasses, thin ice, and fast-moving water. When he was a puppy, Taiga once raced off into the woods chasing a moose. I thought I might never find him again, but he came trotting back, the trademark “Sammy smile” plastered across his face. Another time, at the end of a Nordic skating trip, he abruptly darted away and swan dived into the open water of a creek where it ran into and under an iced-over lake. He frantically swam to the edge of the creek (luckily it was very shallow) and pitifully threw his wet paws up onto the ice. I lay on my stomach on the thin ice and fished him out.

All-in-all, I think of myself as a careful dog owner. Taiga is pretty much always leashed around vehicles, unfamiliar people and dogs, and obvious outdoor hazards. Sometimes I’m jealous of people who have dogs that always stick close by, but Samoyeds just aren’t that kind of breed and Taiga just isn’t that kind of dog. Exploring and playing outdoors is in his blood. At this point I’ve accepted that keeping him perfectly safe and letting him be the creature he is are irreconcilable, to an extent.

Tony hiking the ridgeline
Taiga dog
Taiga dog

From the last point on the ridge before the summit of Sunrise we were able to see down the Bear Creek drainage. On the older USGS maps on my phone, the peak widely called Sunrise Mountain today was labeled “Bear Mountain.” In keeping with the theme, a lower point on the ridge, directly east of the Coeur d’Alene Campground, was marked “Cub.” It seems that “Sunrise Mountain” ultimately won out over “Bear,” though the “Bear” designation lives on in the name of the drainage west of the peak.

Duplicative and dueling names are annoyingly common in this part of Alaska. There is also a Bear Mountain (sometimes called Bear Point) above Mirror Lake, just north of Anchorage. Then there is another Mirror Lake nestled behind Cantata Peak, in Chugach State Park. The head of Turnagain Arm has both a Placer River (flowing into the Arm) and a Placer Creek (flowing into Portage Lake). And the name of the valley that Placer Creek flows through? Bear Valley, of course. And no, that Bear Valley is totally separate from the Bear Valley in Anchorage, and Bear Mountain just north of Anchorage, and the mountain we were on now, which was formerly Bear and now—thankfully, I think—called Sunrise.

The sourdoughs who named features while blasting and cutting modern Alaska into the hillsides were undoubtedly ambitious. But not, maybe, especially creative.

Taiga dog overlooking Turnagain Arm

Taiga overlooking the Bear Creek drainage

Just before the final climb to the top of Sunrise Mountain, the ridge flattened out and offered up a picture-perfect camping spot. We dropped our packs and set up in a slight depression just off the crest of the ridge. We had a bit of wind protection here, as well as sublime views down the Bear Creek drainage and out over Hope and the mouth of Turnagain Arm.

Tony and Daisy nearing our campsite
Taiga sleeping on the tundra
Hyperlite DuoMid tent
Camp on Sunrise Mountain

In the evening we made dinner, lay around, and watched the snow-capped mountaintops fade from yellow to light orange to peach.

Taiga wandered around a bit before bedding down near the tent. In November 2020, I flew down to Oregon to pick puppy Taiga up from one of North America’s most well-known Samoyed show dog kennels. I’m sure his brothers and sisters in show biz are pampered and happy too, but it’s hard to imagine a Samoyed more in the right place than on an alpine ridge at the end of a long day, legs weary, paws dirty, snout full of mountain air, unruly sunset-lit hair decorated with little flecks of tundra.

Sunrise Mountain sunset
Alpenglow Mountain
Taiga the dog

Sunset in the Kenai Mountains

Day 2

The next morning, Taiga and I ambled up to the top of Sunrise, about 500 vertical feet above our camp. A steel benchmark dating back to 1964 marked the summit. Many of the peaks around us were still draped in snow and large cornices, despite it only being couple days from summer solstice.

Sunrise Mountain summit marker
Kenai Mountains
Hope, Alaska

Views from Sunrise Mountain

Back at camp, we packed up and headed back down the ridge. Instead of retracing yesterday’s route, we decided to glissade down a large snowfield and try to more or less beeline toward the Palmer Creek Road. The brush looked lighter and my maps showed some kind of route zig-zagging partway up the mountainside from the road.

Tony descending a snowfield

Tony descending the snowfield

Toward the bottom of the snowfield, we were surprised to find the wedge-shaped entrance to a tunnel cut straight into a rocky outcropping. It turned out that we’d stumbled onto the remnants of the Nearhouse gold mine. Unlike most other operations in the region, the Nearhouse Mine (along with several others in Palmer Creek) had been attempts to recover gold at lodes high in the mountains, rather than by sifting it out of waterway sediment.

A 1987 evaluation of gold deposits in Chugach National Forest, commissioned by the Department of the Interior, provides some backstory:

“This property was discovered by I. Nearhouse in 1925. The first reference to this property in the literature was by Tuck in 1931. He reported that considerable prospecting of the vein had preceded his visit. J. D. Bazard optioned the property in 1935 and formed the Gold Mint Mining Co. Some development occurred over the next few years. The property was optioned by Dwight Whiting and Carl Beal in 1940 for $35,000. Roehm reported that a bunkhouse, shed, and 200 ft of drifting were constructed in 1941.”

It appears that the Nearhouse Mine, like many in Alaska, closed during World War II when the US Government forcibly redirected mining capacity to resources needed for the war effort.

Entrance to Nearhouse Mine
Inside Nearhouse Mine
Ruin at Nearhouse Mine
Building site at Nearhouse Mine

Nearhouse Mine

The switchbacking route I’d seen on my phone was the old road leading to the mine. We began following it, but, ironically, the road cut had created a welcoming environment for alder and was far more overgrown than the adjacent meadows. We quickly veered off the “road” and down a broad gully. Recent snow cover had prevented vegetation from retaking the gully, and the going was fast and easy.

Decent from Nearhouse Mine toward Palmer Creek Road
Taiga in a meadow
Nearing the Palmer Creek Road

Hiking down a gully and meadows to Palmer Creek Road

We were hoping to avoid bushwhacking again, and luck was on our side. With a little creative navigation we were able to string together meadows more or less all the way to Palmer Creek Road.

Once we were back on the road, I leashed Taiga and we stomped out the last half-mile back to the Coeur d’Alene Campground.

Palmer Creek Road
Palmer Creek Road
Palmer Creek Road

And just like that, we were back at the car, legs tired and faces covered in sweat, stubble, and sunscreen. Was this the most epic Alaskan adventure? Eh. But a heck of a good use of a beautiful summer weekend? Absolutely. And sometimes that’s enough.

I loaded Taiga into the car, piled our packs into the back seat with Tony, and we headed for home.

About the Author

Paxson Woelber

About the Author

Hi! My name is Paxson. I grew up in Alaska and currently live in Anchorage. For more about me and winterbear.com, click here.

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Tonja Woelber
Tonja Woelber
1 month ago

Great description of a creative route. Loved the dog photos!