Hikes in Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan
When mountaineers think of cruising, they naturally contemplate loss of conditioning during a week or more at sea level along with consuming more calories than anyone cares to count. During a recent seven day inside passage cruise (my third) another potential result gradually became apparent. This approach to cruise/hiking is only feasible if your spouse also hikes or has family and friends available for the more standard tourist agendas.
Ketchikan Yacht club
On our first sea day, my wife and I attended a lecture by a naturalist hired by Princess cruise line to augment the Alaska experience. As luck would have it, Michael Modzelewski happens to be an athletic outdoorsman who has completed the Angeles Crest Challenge (100 miles through the mountains) in less than 24 hours. Since we were arriving at Juneau the next day, I asked for advice on finding a trail to the top of the Mt Roberts Tram. While most of the folks on a cruise are more inclined to spend $27 to ride up and back on the tram, I preferred the solitude of a trail through the thick forests with the added exercise to offset the 3 desserts I enjoyed the evening before.
As it generally does in Juneau, it was lightly raining as I set forth with my Goretex jacket toward town from our ship. Michael had suggested asking locals for directions to the trailhead which led to several false starts. Apparently, most of the retailers are recently arrived for the summer tourist business and have little or no knowledge of where one might start hiking to reach the top of the tram. As noted, after a couple aborted tries, I encountered a fit young male who directed me toward 6th street and had this confirmed by a mailman in the next block.
Gastineau Peak trailhead
Sure enough, at the top of 6th street, there was a series of steps heading to the highest level of housing and at that point I found a nice trailhead sign. Starting up the steep, muddy trail, I was soon in dense forest and enjoying the solitude when a large rumble began somewhere off to my left. At first I thought it might be a jet in the distance, then started guessing it was some off road behemouth in the forest. After 5 seconds, I realized that it was a large avalanche with the sounds of boulders and trees crashing into each other as the snow and ice tumbled down. I’ve heard rock fall before, but this was the Alaska version and continued for close to 30 seconds in my estimation. Due to the heavy tree canopy, try as I might, there was no way to see what had happened, but at least it was across the valley from me.
After another 30 minutes, I caught up with another hiker from Anchorage (who used to live in Juneau) and asked if she had heard the avalanche. Of course she had, and she asked if I thought it had reached the road? What road, I asked…I’m from Las Vegas and have no idea what is in this dense forest. At this point, she asked if I was going to Gastineau Peak
, which I had never heard of. As it turned out, when you reach the top of the tram, the trail continues another couple of miles and perhaps 1,900’ higher to the peak. If you are inclined, a mile further from the peak will put you near the top of Mt Roberts
I started revising my trip plan immediately and wondered how I would find the trail to Gastineau Peak when I reached the tram. Shortly before getting there, I met another hiker from Juneau who kindly took me around the tram and related buildings to the place the trail continues. He urged caution about my plan due to the clouds and was concerned that it would be easy to get lost among the many trail braids up there if the clouds got worse. Considering his advice, I proceeded carefully paying close attention to the trail turns and ready to back off if the weather worsened. Fortunately, the visibility stayed marginally OK and I proceeded to the top of the ridge where the trail headed off into the soup heading down to a saddle.
View of Juneau from the tram
snow along the trail to Gastineau Pk
Since I could not see Mt Roberts and had no idea where the trail might lead, I called it a day and returned to the top of the tram. Signs at the tram station indicate that a trip down can be had for $5, but noticing that the attendants were not checking for tickets, I kept my wallet tucked away. The ride down was quite beautiful as we broke out of the clouds revealing the four cruise ships docked below and the city of Juneau off to the right. The hike only required 4 hours even with the added time of the false starts.
With this hike accomplished, I returned to another lecture by Mike, and asked for suggestions for our port day in Skagway. He was ready with a hand drawn map of a hike to Lower and Upper Dewey Lakes and to the Devil’s Punchbowl
. Our ship docked right below the mountain that this trail climbs and it was less than a mile to walk to the trailhead from the gangway. The town has done a lot of work to improve the trail and there was plenty of signage to help locate the important trail junctions. The hike to Lower Dewey Lake was very easy…the next leg to Upper Dewey Lake will surely get your attention as it is steep and unyielding! After gaining some 3,100’ elevation over about 3 miles you top out near the lake with the trail winding through the muskeg following along Dewey Creek.
There are a couple of cabins up at the lake. One ancient one is free use to the first comers…the second is a much nicer rental that can be arranged through the Skagway Recreation Center (907-983-2679).
Cabin at Upper Dewey Lake
At this point, you might decide you have come far enough, but if so, you miss the best part of the trip. The Devil’s Punchbowl is reached by climbing another 600’ over a half mile through some nice boulders above tree line. Near the high point of the trail where you can look down into the tarn, you may find hoary marmots at play as I did.
The trail continues down to the tarn faintly and I went down a couple hundred feet to get a better picture due to the clouds. The tarn was about half way frozen over on June 30 when I was there with the open water on the outlet side which heads down a long series of waterfalls to Lower Dewey Lake.
Deciding not to wait to see if the clouds would burn off, I headed back for lunch in the dining room of the ship completing the hike in less than 4 ½ hours.
Our third and final port was Ketchikan and Mike once again provided a great suggestion. Deer Mountain
is clearly visible from the docks and easily found. Mike said turn right and hike 20 minutes to a grocery store (IGA) turning left and proceeding up the street to the trailhead. As I discovered, the street is named Deermount! As you reach the top some 400’ above the docks, there is a sign indicating the trailhead. (There were several signs along the way as well)
The trail is really enjoyable with moss, ferns and green being the main theme.
Start of Deer Mountain trail
There are many steps built into the mountain along with wooden bridges over perpetually damp areas. From the docks, it is about 8 miles roundtrip to the 3,001’ summit. There are some sections of the trail that cross steep snow banks most of the year and I found that others had left the trail near the top to avoid the steep snow hazards, climbing along the side of the snow. While the hillsides near the top are quite steep, the ground cover was not as slippery as I expected. (It was nothing like the greased lightning of bear grass on steep slopes in Glacier National Park!!) From the summit you would have magnificent views of the town and inside passage around it if the clouds decide to lift. I had to be content with nice views a few hundred feet lower the day I visited the summit. The hike only took 3 ½ hours, so it leaves plenty of time for shopping and sightseeing in Ketchikan before time to sail away. After returning home, I learned that the city dump is near the trailhead and that occasionally bears are encountered along the start of the trail. I spotted no signs of deer or bear the day I climbed it.
see also Hiking the Alaska Adventurer Cruise
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