Chugach State Park and National Forest offer seemingly limitless paths to their lofty ridge lines countered by even greater unfathomable acreage of unmarked and trail-free routes. Situated in a somewhat treacherous and inaccessible glacial valley, these natural barriers have protected the forest, leaving roughly 85% of old growth forest untouched by the timber industry with little plans to change that (and what has been harvested has been carefully monitored and cared for to ensure the greatest pristine new growth). Thick with black spruce, paper birch, cottonwood, and other beautiful trees, the short canopy offers an incredible glimpse to a wild world (for a refreshing outlook on the delicate balance between logging and conservation and how the two thrive off each other, check out Alaska Forest Facts) for those willing to venture in it.
The easiest access lies in the Portage Valley (and you can read my write ups here and here). But should one desire to ascend, they must find a vein up to the pinnacles where goats dance and eagles soar.
At the trailhead, the creek succumbs to gravity and spills over a smooth bed of rocks before funneling into a metal pipe under the road and out to the Turnagain Arm. Here, one is
greeted accosted almost immediately by an extremely vocal American Dipper bird whose laid claim to the creek’s bounty (on a side note, the Portage Valley Dipper population is of special interest to birders in that, despite unforgivable and frozen winters, they do not migrate to fairer territories). The trail rises up and to the right, when facing the creek.
And then it continues up: the entire way.
I cannot stress enough that this trail is not beginner friendly, nor is it friendly to those not in fittest shape. As a chubby kid with asthma and a history of respiratory infections, and as an adult with knee and ankle injuries left unchecked, elevation gain has never been my strong point. This bloody trail tests what my body is willing to tolerate and my lungs verbally protested. Frequent pauses were needed, water was consumed, and my ego was bruised. But I love this trail.
The lower portion is filled with stands of young growth forests, and in the summer the under growth is bombarded with bane berry and devil’s club, two important plants to know and avoid (one will kill you, the other will hurt you). In the fall, plump, broad mushrooms spill over every moist surface, and bear’s bread shelf mushrooms stoutly observe their forest. Fly agarics are a striking contrast of vibrant red to the litter of decaying leaves. Keep in mind, many locals warn of their dogs eating all the plants above, often with fatal outcomes, so keep your eyes on your furry friends should they accompany you.
Quickly, this fades to water loving alders, willows, and cottonwoods, and if he’s still standing you may notice an impressive cottonwood along the early trail whose heartwood has rotted out. He’s an absolute beast of a tree, but sadly, as do all cottonwoods, he has begun his final stages before collapse. Around this point, the canopy lowers as the tree line approaches and you have ascended only a mediocre distance that seems much greater than it actually is solely due to its constant upward nature. The strong aroma of high bush cranberry fills the air, and if you’re lucky you may even snack along the way. Play your cards right and venture after the first frost for these delicious berries to sweeten up.
You also join back up with the creek, closely following it. Sometimes you’re in it. Mind your steps as the path may erode with little advanced notice. And you are going to get wet. Sorry, that’s just the facts of life. This creek does what it wants, and that often means that it changes course randomly, flooding parts of the trail.
The trail opens to the highest biome. In the fall, nearly ever square inch of soil off trail is covered in crowberry and one can feast on the simple black fruit. While they’re certainly not the most flavorful or sought, they are a refreshing taste and consistency. My dog refused dinner that night as he was full of berries (and it made for some interesting potty moments later as well). A massive rock face looms in the distance, and mountain goats frequently roam this open tundra-like height, enjoying crowberries and willows before the icy grip of winter removes all delectable morsels. Should one peer down the valley, they may find themselves at eye level with an eagle in search of food below.
At this point, we were forced to turn back solely due to the setting sun. But the trail continues onward and eventually connects to Bird Ridge and beyond. It offers access to pristine backcountry. One can make the trail as long or as short as they prefer. And yes, it’s a one way trail but the views up and down contrast so differently that it doesn’t quite feel like you’re tracing your steps.