Outdoors & Recreation

Lost in Peters Hills


“Where is the trail?”

Thirty minutes into our Peters Hills backcountry camping adventure found the three of us at a fork in the trail, unsure of which path to take. The directions in our guide book were vague so after some discussion we all agreed to choose the most obvious path and headed uphill. Out of shape and carrying heavy packs, we were all quite discouraged when it became clear that we made the wrong choice and were forced to head back downhill to the fork. By now the sun was warming the crisp fall air and we were uncomfortably hot and a bit irritated. After some more discussion and group dissension we proceeded on the main ATV trail even though it went in the wrong direction and downhill. We knew we eventually wanted to go uphill. In fact we could actually see where we needed to go from the fork, but there was a large ravine with heavy brush and a creek running between us and the inviting alpine path. According to instructions we read in 55 Ways to the Wilderness in Southcentral Alaska 2nd Edition for hike #47 we should not have to bushwhack. The “easy” two mile trail had to be here somewhere.

After about forty minutes, our feet slipping on the muddy and rutted ATV trail, we came to a creek covered in brush and swarming with mosquitoes. If we had crossed the creek we would have found the trail to the left going uphill, but our guide book said the trail was about 50 feet before the creek. There was nothing but thick brush along the trail in that location and there were actually two creeks (one of them was a dry creek bed). A lot of things can change from when our guide book was published to when we found ourselves looking for the same route 31 years later in 2009. Part of our confusion was we were hiking on an ATV trail that we weren’t sure was around when the 1st edition of the book was originally written in 1972. So, a good four to five hours into our hike found us back at the fork in the trail again, thirty minutes from our truck.

One of our group members, my husband Ralph, by this time was ready to call it quits. Two of us were not. Ralph is one of the most safety conscious hikers you will ever come across and he was against our option of bushwhacking to the other side of the ravine in bear country. Democracy ruled and we headed through the brush, talking and making noise-shotgun, bear spray and flare gun all on the ready. We made it through and our discouragement swiftly dissipated as the fall colors of the alpine tundra and fresh breezes blew the mosquitoes away and soothed our senses.

Totally worth it! The elation we felt was even better because we worked so hard to get to this alpine paradise. Kevin Wesser, my brother-in-law, was the instigator of this particular adventure. His goal was to experience the majestic views of Denali (Mt. McKinley) that would “dominate” our hike once we crested Peters Hills. As an artist he wanted to see for himself the view of Denali that inspired the famous Alaskan painter, Sydney Laurence.

With the warm sun on our backs as we climbed, we were unconcerned about the dark clouds looming ahead. These clouds contrasted nicely with the autumn colors and the patches of blue sky creating a beautiful scene. The kind of scenery that takes your breath away. We weren’t dismayed when we crested the last hill and Denali was not in view. After all, Denali is hidden more days than it is seen in the summer months. We felt very lucky to have seen it’s full panorama from Petersville Road earlier that morning. And we still felt confident that the weather would eventually clear to allow us at least one more peek at the mountain sometime later in the evening or the next day.


We set up our tent on a knoll above a pristine alpine lake, facing toward the spectacular view that would surely open up-eventually. A resident beaver emerged from the opposite shore cutting a sharp wake as it swam across the lake’s mirror surface. We wondered where it managed to get food and wood for its home in this alpine terrain with no trees nearby. Ralph surrounded our tent with his new safety acquisition, an electric bear fence, to help us sleep better in the middle of grizzly country. It was reassuring for all of us to have that extra protection. Our meal was enjoyed and our food safely stored at a high point 200 yards or so away from our campsite. Another precaution in case there were bears in the area.

We would have all enjoyed hiking along the beckoning ridge above the lake if we had not lost our way earlier. Kevin was the only one of us with energy to spare so while Ralph and I relaxed around camp, he went off for more exploring. We were all hoping for better weather to enjoy views the next day. The first drops of rain began to fall and the clouds that were far away earlier in the day encroached closer and closer. By the time we turned in for the night we could no longer see the river in the valley floor below.

In the night we heard the scattered patter of rain hitting our tent and by the time we woke up in the morning it was raining steadily. Still hoping to get a glimpse of Denali, we unzipped the tent fly only to see we were now within the clouds, with only a few feet of visibility.

After breakfast in the steady rain we held another democratic council and agreed, unanimously, to break camp and head home. If you ever plan on hiking in the mountains, or really anywhere in Alaska, don’t forget your compass. And you should know how to use it. Ralph’s compass came in handy that morning as we made our way through the cloud shrouded hills back to our truck. Even so, there was one point when the three of us each had different opinions on the direction we should go. And even though Ralph was the one with the compass, Kevin and I were certain that we needed to veer in a slightly different direction, but this time Ralph and his compass prevailed.

The hike home went much faster even though we were trekking through pouring rain, thick clouds and deep mud. We followed the foot path that flanked the left side of the main creek down to where the ATV trail crossed it and turned right. On the previous day, if we had crossed the 2nd creek and turned left we would have saved a lot of time and not ended up bushwhacking. On our way back there was no backtracking. We were all happy to get back to the truck quickly in that wet weather, but at the same time we were a little sad to have our adventure come to an end. We cleaned off the mud as best we could and headed for the Forks Roadhouse for coffee and beer. The Forks Roadhouse was a must stop on Petersville Road, and I am so glad we stopped there when we had the chance, before it burned down in 2012. It is sad to see many of the old roadhouses and the history with them disappearing. If you get a chance to stop at any historical roadhouse in Alaska, even if it is just for a meal, do it! You may not have another chance. Some may be smoky and somewhat rundown at first glance, but they all are brimming with character and hospitality.

Peters Hills was not the first hike I’ve done where the goal or view from the top remained elusive, and it won’t be my last. Beauty is truly in the “eye of the beholder” and can be found, rain or shine.


Story by Wendy Wesser

Categories: Outdoors & Recreation

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