Sunday, September 13, 2020

Perfect Timing on the Petersville Road


Oh. My. Gosh.  Can you believe this? Absolutely amazing!  

These and other superlatives kept coming this weekend as we biked and hiked along the Petersville Road

Neither Eric nor I in all of our years in Alaska had ever been down this road, though we had considered it many times.  Well, it’s definitely not to be missed, especially if you have a few days like we did.  Sunny skies, minimal winds, no bugs, and fall colors at their prime.  It was jaw-dropping spectacular.  (Another superlative!)

I had a few days off from work as I was supposed to be racing the Dirty Kanza Extra Large, a gravel bike race that was rescheduled from May and rescheduled again until next year due to Covid. The weather forecast for Fairbanks was grim with rain likely most days.  But it looked like it might be nice south of the range.  I was having a hard time motivating due to the weather, but then I remembered that Lael Wilcox had just ridden the Petersville Road.  It looked interesting and was somewhere new to explore. After an internet search I found the Gate Creek Cabins, which are just at the end of the paved part of the road, 10 miles in. The cabins are fully furnished, with electricity and running water.  I called and they had availability.  I must be getting soft in my old age, but it was just the nudge I needed to motivate to get out of town.  Whatever it takes.  As always, Eric was right on board and ready to see some new country. (The cabins were wonderfully run. A great place to stay!)

It rained the whole way down from Fairbanks, so we were really happy we had a dry, warm cabin waiting.  By the time we went to bed, the skies had started clearing. 


The next morning was cool and sunny. We were ready for some adventuring! I wanted to bike to the Cache Creek crossing (about 35 miles from the Parks highway) but also wanted to explore some of the side ATV trails if possible.  Eric wasn’t sure how much biking he wanted to do, so we drove to just past the Forks Roadhouse (now closed), at about 20 miles in, and started from there.  On the drive, the views started immediately with Denali and the surrounding peaks all out in their glory. Several open areas across swampy meadows offered outstanding views.  We also noted that almost every pullout had at least one truck, ATV or RV. Some had several. Hunting season was definitely on.  Even so, the traffic was minimal. We guessed that most hunters were out on the many trails that took off from the road. 

Dawn sunlight on Denali and surrounding mountains

RV's and trucks at every pullout

The road was a lot of fun to bike. Fairly short uphills with nice grades.  Fun, swoopy downhills going in and out of drainages.  Mostly good gravel with lots of potholes, though easily avoided on bike.  The scenery kept changing between woods and meadows, with the big mountains and nearby hills providing a backdrop.  It was such a glorious day that we kept stopping to take photos.  The fall colors were absolutely stunning.  Our cameras just couldn’t capture the glowing yellows and reds, but we kept trying.

Just before the “community” of Petersville, we followed a side road for a bit until it ended at what appeared to be a private mine with a family and their RVs.  Back on the main road we passed through Petersville, a collection of about four or five buildings, obviously lived in and well taken care of. We followed the road through a very scenic canyon and then bombed down the other side, crossing Peters Creek on a bridge.  As the day wore on, the big mountains became shrouded in clouds, but the fall colors and hillsides were still amazing.  We kept stopping to take photos and look around. 

Getting close to the metropolis of Petersville

Looking down on Petersville

North side of the canyon

After the bridge we saw a side road to the right going way back up into the Dutch Hills just north of the Peters Hills.  (These “hills” would be mountains in other places, but when you’re right next to Denali you become a hill.) We could see some buildings and vehicles way up there. It looked intriguing so we followed it. We had to ride through some puddles but then came to another crossing of Peters Creek, this time without a bridge.  We easily crossed the first braid, but the main channel was over knee deep. We weren’t sure we wanted to get that wet.  The air temperature was only around 45F.  Plus, a few minutes before, a guy on an ATV warned Eric that he had seen a wounded black bear a couple of miles up the road. That all was enough to get us to give up on that route, especially since we still hadn’t been to the end of the main road. We wistfully looked at the continuing side road then let common sense prevail and turned back.

Eric crosses the easy braid of Peters Creek

The main road climbed out of the Peters Creek drainage and became rougher, though still passable by 2-wheel drive.  After about 20 miles of biking we came to the Cache Creek crossing, which had no bridge. We could have waded it, but we had read that private property not far on the other side would block our path.  Plus, we had to bike back nearly 20 miles and we still hadn’t eaten our lunch.  So, we turned around, leaving that exploring for another day.

Contemplating whether to go on or turn around

We biked up a steep narrow side road and were surprised to find a large RV at the top. Miners get those things in some incredible places. We started on a side trail from that road, but after having to cross some tricky puddles, we stopped for lunch. We decided that side trail was more “exploring for another day.”

Not a bad lunch spot

Heading back down to the main road

The bike back on the main road was just as much fun as on the way in. We had to climb to get through the canyon, but then it was rolling hills, mostly trending downhill.  When we got back to the car, I decided to bike the last 10 miles back to our cabin while Eric drove the car. 


The next morning, we got up early to hike into Peters Hills.  We wanted to be up high to see the mountains before the afternoon clouds covered them up.  (Little did we know that the mountains would be out all day!)  We drove back to about a mile past Petersville and started hiking on a steep ATV trail.  (Read about this hike in “55 Ways to the Wilderness in Southcentral Alaska.”) 

The first part of the trail was rutted and muddy

The morning was cool and crisp, right around freezing, but we warmed up as we headed uphill.  We followed some bear tracks on an often-muddy ATV trail and after a couple of miles broke out into tundra.

Bear tracks!

Tundra hiking

At about mile 3 we hit a high point (2840’) and the view opened up.  OMG! It was absolutely jaw-dropping, amazingly spectacular.  Denali, Mt. Hunter, Mt. Foraker, and all the surrounding peaks were in view with the morning sunlight on them. The sky was crystal clear blue.  Small lakes dotted the nearby tundra, aglow in reds.  We just couldn’t believe our luck.  We must have picked the best day of the year to be up there.  

We continued hiking off-trail across a valley and then up a steep climb to a higher overlook (3600’). The views just kept getting better. Here, about 7 miles in, signs told us we had crossed into Denali State Park. But we weren’t done. An even higher point, farther east, beckoned. 

We headed down and passed what has to be one of the world’s most glorious camping spot – a flat soft surface on a mountain lake with a full view of Denali.  We mourned leaving our tent and sleeping bags behind! 

Primo backcountry camp site.  Too bad we didn't have our overnight gear.

We continued up until we finally topped out at Longs Point (3929’), 9 miles from the trailhead.  Sydney Laurence painted many canvases of Denali near here.  No mystery as to why.  The entire range of mountains rises up before you.  Glaciers spill off the mountains.  River valleys spread out where the glaciers end. Incredible!  We stopped for lunch and more photo opportunities before heading back.

Amazing lunch spot!

For the most part hiking in Peters Hills was great.  Nice tundra walking, brushy in places but mostly easy to avoid.  A couple of stream crossings that were easily navigated. Tons of blueberries, although they were past their prime.  The fall colors were amazing. (Have I said that already?)

Foraging for overripe blueberries

We passed many wonderful little lakes that would make great campsites.  We really wished we had brought our overnight gear.  In our opinion, the Peters Hills views are even more spectacular than at Wonder Lake or on Kesugi Ridge.  

And there were NO people. On our way back, we saw only one person off in the distance with her dogs. We saw her tent at the first lake with nice views of the mountains, a fairly easy 3-mile hike in.  That was the only person we saw all day.  Granted it was a Friday, but still.  (The next day, on the drive north we saw that two of the Kesugi Ridge parking lots were crammed full.)  Easy access to incredible views and we had it all to ourselves.  Where else can you say that? 

Even though it took us more than 30 years, to explore Petersville Road, it was worth the wait.  But don’t wait that long before you visit this incredibly scenic and less traveled area. 

(We really mean don't wait. If the South Denali Visitor area ever happens, it will really change this area. It would be a nice asset, but you wouldn't have it to yourself anymore.)

Packrafters: Here's a trip you can do that includes Peters Hills

Petersville Road bike

Peters Hills hike to Longs Point

Friday, September 4, 2020

Taking the Path Revealed off the Nabesna Road

Decisions, decisions. Take the main path? Take the path less traveled? Or maybe take the path where there is no path. 

Ned Rozell had a few free days and invited me to do a trip. We hadn’t done one together since I joined him for 10 days on his 2017 Trans-Alaska Pipeline hike. Like that trip, he would be bringing his dog Cora. We all traveled well together then, so I was up for it. 

After discussing possibilities, we settled on a backpack trip in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. We chose the trip to Soda Lake off the Nabesna Road. It looked interesting and might provide fodder for the Alaska Science Forum column Ned writes.

We headed down Saturday morning, taking my 4WD truck because of two sometimes vigorous stream crossings required to get to the start. However, when we stopped at the Slana Visitor Center for trail updates, we were told the road was considered “impassable” due to high water: large trucks getting stuck, three feet deep in places, more rain in the forecast. We decided to change plans. 

Ned can do intense things. Besides his pipeline hikes, he has done several Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classics. But at times Ned can be kind of Zen, letting his path reveal itself rather than setting a goal and beelining toward it. Ned was in a Zen frame of mind and I was amenable. We discussed other possibilities, maybe hiking off-trail east or west. We finally just decided to hike up Caribou Creek Trail a couple of miles and camp. We’d figure out something in the morning.

Ned and Cora follow an NPS trail crew up the Caribou Creek Trail. 

On the trail we ran into a National Park Service trail crew and talked to crew leader Tim George. We told him we might hike to the east. Tim said there might be a flag-line in the hills, the route of a possible trail to connect Caribou Creek Trail to Trail Creek Trail, several miles to the east. The possibility of finding the flag-line intrigued me. We hiked on and made camp at the first creek crossing.

Our first night's camp.

Sunday morning, we decided to head east for some off-trail adventure. Maybe we’d shoot for Trail Creek. Maybe we’d follow its trail back to the Nabesna Road and walk/hitchhike back. Maybe we’d explore upper Trail Creek and hike back the way we came. Maybe we’d just let a path reveal itself. 

We followed the trail to where it ends at Caribou Creek Cabin. Sheep hunters had left a note saying they had reserved it as a bail-out option. We filled up on water and continued.

Ned purifies water at the Caribou Creek Cabin.

We hiked up, up, up a ridge to the east, a stiff climb for a dayhike, even tougher with a full backpack. But we finally crested it, taking in the tremendous vistas. To the south the higher Wrangell Mountains were in clouds, but the lake-filled plains were in full view. The rocky ridges of the Mentasta Mountains, which we had just entered, shot up behind us to the north. 

Ned hikes up the ridge from the Caribou Creek Cabin.

From our perch we could easily see to the east. The path that revealed itself required a hike down into the next drainage – Rock Creek -- losing all that elevation gain. But we saw a clear way down, so we shouldered our packs and descended. 

We planned to hike up Rock Creek and then over a low ridge into the Little Jack Creek, only one drainage over from Trail Creek. While ascending Rock Creek, Ned started to check his maps and GPS device more carefully and discovered that Caribou Creek Trail and Cabin are not in the Caribou Creek drainage. Say what? Silly us for making that assumption! We studied the maps and device, trying to make sense of things. I even disagreed with Ned, trying to force the surrounding landscape into the topo map. But Ned was right. Caribou Creek Trail actually goes up the Natal Creek drainage, just to the west of Caribou Creek. 

Fortunately, when you let the path reveal itself, little things like that are not a big deal. We hiked up the drainage we were in – Caribou Creek – toward the low ridge – which actually led to Rock Creek, two drainages from Trail Creek. 

Our path led us to the low ridge in the middle of the photo. 

On the way we crossed paths with one of the sheep hunters who had reserved the cabin. He planned to spend the night in the cabin but then would be heading out. He had it reserved for two more days and offered it to us. We thanked him and said we’d consider it. After all, maybe our path lay back to the cabin.

We headed over the ridge and into Rock Creek. Ned suggested we camp in the alpine tundra rather than descending into the brush. I agreed. We had covered more than six steep, off-trail miles. I was ready to eat and rest. Besides, it was a gorgeous place to camp. I was liking this path. 

Our camp site in the Rock Creek drainage.

At dinner we discussed our next day. We were still a ways from Trail Creek. Plus, its trail crosses the creek several times. How deep would those crossings be? And then it was 11 miles back on the road. One of my other ideas had been to head back west, staying in alpine country but a little lower than the route we had just taken. Maybe we could find the mysterious flag-line. Ned liked that idea. He saw a small plateau on the topo map in that direction. We both thought that was worth exploring.

The next morning, we headed west. Along the way we explored a couple of ridges that were good overlooks. As a science writer, Ned has spent time with archeologists on overlook points. Ancient hunters camped in such places, working on stone tools while looking for game in the valleys and flats below. We poked around but found nothing archeological. 

We continued on following game trails and breaks in the brush. I got all philosophical, declaring that our form of travel was like life: You moved forward and a path usually revealed itself. Occasionally, one didn’t, so you thrashed through the bushes for a bit. But if you put your head down and soldiered on, a new path would always reveal itself. Other traveling companions might have rolled their eyes, but Ned just nodded. 

Ned doing a bit of thrashing.

We hiked up a drainage to the plateau we had seen on the map. It had some pools of water, so we filled up and had lunch. While Ned took a nap, I explored the plateau with Cora. When we returned, Cora woke Ned with a nuzzle to the face. Ned didn’t seem to be in a hurry, so I asked if he wanted to spend the night. He did. We had only gone a couple of miles, but it was a great place to camp. Still, I wasn’t ready to stop moving. A steep hill rose above the plateau. Ned agreed we should climb it before dinner. The views from there were even more incredible. 

The plateau from the hill behind it. Our tents are just visible down there.

From the hill above the plateau.
Despite rain around us often, we got rain only on the first night while in our tents.

At dinner we discussed the next day. We knew we would descend into the Caribou Creek drainage. But then what? I thought it might be interesting to climb through a pass that had a lake and would then lead us to the Caribou Creek Trail. Maybe the flag-line would be there. Ned thought it might be interesting to follow Caribou Creek Trail to the road. From the plateau we could see where the creek had, eons earlier, broken through some geological barrier. I said once we passed that we might go into the spruce woods on the right. They looked drier than the left, which appeared swampy. Ned thought if we did that, we could meet up with the Caribou Creek Trail. The conversation ended without any specific plan, which seemed appropriate for the trip. The one thing we knew is that we would drive back to Fairbanks the next day.

The next morning, we rose and breakfasted at a leisurely pace. We packed up and headed down to Caribou Creek, where Ned pulled out his stove and treated me to a cup of Starbucks Via. A kind of goodbye to the mountains. 

On our way down to Caribou Creek we found this antler.

We started down Caribou Creek, trying to keep our feet dry for a bit, which was ridiculous in retrospect. We eventually waded that creek over a dozen times. We poked around and explored as we went. If you’re willing to slow down, nature has a lot to show you – patterned rocks, colorful hillsides and flowers, skulls and track of animals. But you have to slow enough to see it. 

We finally reached the geologic barrier: a massive wall of sedimentary rock, uplifted and bent. Somehow, over the eons, Caribou Creek had cut through it, revealing an impressive tapestry of patterned rock. Despite its monochrome color we just stood there for a while, taking in its beauty. 

After passing the barrier, I thought we would climb onto the right bank and head toward Caribou Creek Trail. But Ned continued to follow the creek. He saw a different path. I let Ned become my path and followed him following the creek. We crossed it multiple times. 

We came to a spot where debris had raised the creek bed enough so that the creek spilled out into the low forest to the east, pouring over moss and around trees. In another place, wide areas of dry gravel covered the forest floor, left behind by the overflowing creek. We guessed aufeis from winter blocked and diverted the creek in spring.

We found this old moose skull along the way.

The surprises continued. Most of the creek water that had spilled into the low forest seemed to disappear. Even the water in main channel seemed to lessen rather than increase. Had it all gone underground? We agreed that hydrology would have been an interesting field to study. 

A little later, we started to see tree stumps, cut straight. We looked for signs of a cabin. Instead we found several old engine blocks, ceramic spark plugs still intact, and several old boards, nails protruding. We pondered what we had stumbled across. An old mine or lumber mill? 

A short while later we stepped onto the Nabesna Road, our trip almost complete. The path ahead was now obvious. The path of our trip had not been the one we had planned, but it was interesting, enjoyable, and relaxing. Soon we would be back in town, pursuing definded goals and meeting deadlines. But for a while, we had enjoyed a different kind of life, letting the path reveal itself. 

Ned celebrates reaching the Nabesna Road.