Adventures on the Hatcher Pass hiking trails
Note: Be alert when hiking in the Willow Creek Mining District as active mining is still present. Be aware and respectful of private property posted with ‘no trespassing’ signs.
Our family moved from Palmer, Alaska, to a neighborhood near the entrance to Hatcher Pass when I was 11 years old. My husband and I have lived and raised a family on Palmer-Fishhook Road for the last 17 years, and now run a business there. I consider these mountains, valleys and trails my backyard and have had many adventures in this area rich with mining history and artifacts.
The terrain above the treeline is tundra-like with boulders and rocks left by the ice age strewn over the entire area. Water running under boulder fields and in mossy rivulets everywhere make it feel similar to being in the Alps.
I am sharing with you a sampling of the many hiking options in the Hatcher Pass area. All of these are day hikes but the opportunity exists to make them overnight trips by connecting two trails for through hikes or just by spending the night to have more time to roam around.
Craigie Creek Trail to Dogsled Pass: This trail is lesser known than the ones on the Palmer side of Hatcher Pass. In the summer of 2014, my husband, David, and I were preparing for a hike across the Grand Canyon so we were doing as many short and long hikes as we could during our short summer and this was a new one for us. The first three miles of this hike are on an old mining road and the views across the valley where Craigie Creek runs through are beautiful on a summer day. There are deep clear pools behind beaver dams, wildflowers of all colors, and views all the way down toward Willow. The trail then steepens some, narrows, and passes a dilapidated miner’s cabin on its way to Dogsled Pass, which is about four and a half miles from the trailhead.
Schroff Lake. Photo Credit: Diane Rose
There were lots of birds in the brush and, my favorites, arctic ground squirrels, playing everywhere. An occasional marmot would pop out on a rock to check out its visitors and often sound a high-pitched whistle to warn others of our arrival. Even though it is not a hard climb, the pass is a welcome place for a rest. Schroff Lake, a small glacial tarn, is just to the right of the pass and the view beyond our stopping point was intriguing. There are several other routes one could take from (or to) Dogsled Pass that sound like good adventures I hope to try one day. We explored around the lake and had our lunch. Before heading back, we stopped to peek inside the cabin and tried to imagine life here in this place, looking for gold 80 years or so earlier. The sun and clouds were trading places as we took our time returning to the car.
Upper Willow Creek Trail to Gold Bullion Mine: This route is a pretty good workout but the views from the top are stunning and worth taking the time for a long respite. Several years ago David and I, along with our terrier, Piper, set out for the ridge where this mine is. I had been there previously with other friends and wanted to share it with my husband. The first mile is along a narrow mining road, much like Craigie Creek Trail. Then to meet up with the Gold Bullion Trail we had to strike out to the east across the green rock-strewn valley to a series of switchbacks built by a bulldozer many years ago to get supplies to the mine. This is a steep incline and switchbacks are welcome here!
When the ridge is reached, it feels as if you are on the spine of a dragon in many places as it is narrow and rocky. We could look down the back side to the entire Craigie Creek Valley and all the way to the Summit Lake Recreation Area in front of us and many other mountain ridges near and far all around us. We explored the small hut which was in bad shape. It appeared as though it was the top terminus for the cable tram system as heavy cables are still strung from the building and disappear down the hillside below. We never did locate the actual shaft of the Gold Bullion Mine, I think it might be down over the other side a bit. This is an enjoyable day trip, but camping along the creek is possible.
Lane Hut Trail: At the end of the Archangel Road, there are multiple trails to explore—Fairangel Lakes Trail to the right and the short Fern Mine straight ahead. On this particular day, we were looking for Lane Hut*. It is an easy hike, only four miles round trip. Reaching the parking lot at the end of Archangel Road can take a while as the road is rough; a truck or other high clearance vehicle is recommended to reach this area. The path to the hut skirts the Fern Mine and climbs gradually up to the valley beyond. It winds past small ponds and creeks so clear they reflect the blue sky and clouds and magnify their blue green depths simultaneously. The jagged rocky gray mountains rise sharply on both sides of this relatively flat valley. The birds and ground squirrels were busy in the sun and our terrier got her exercise trying to make friends with all of them!
Soon more mining relics began to appear and the hut could be seen at the end of the valley. The hut itself is often used for weekend parties and as a shelter for campers, and it is strewn with remnants of this use. Its walls are a guestbook of sorts. We concluded we would prefer a tent. Looking down the valley, the views from the hut site are striking, and the climb beyond the hut looks intriguing. This hike can be extended with a climb over two passes to the Snowbird Glacier overlook, but we have not attempted that yet. On the return, we stopped at some of the many sandbars along the creek to sit in the sun and enjoy the views. We saw other groups playing and even swimming in the water. This hike is a good family day activity.
Reed Lakes to Bomber Glacier Overlook: The Reed Lakes Trail, also off of Archangel Road, is a popular recreation area and the parking lot is usually full and overflowing. We have been there multiple times, but on this trip David, our friend, Amy, and I had our packs loaded for an overnight stay. We planned to set up camp at Upper Reed Lake and take a trip up to the Bomber Glacier overlook as an evening activity. The first mile and a half of the trail is mostly wide, level, and in and out of brush. Once past an old mine camp and across a few bridges, the trail becomes a climb up and around a buttress and onto a boulder field that warrants using both hands and feet to traverse across it. The path then crosses a small stream that runs in and out of boulders as it continues up the valley. Just over a rise Lower Reed Lake appears, a deep turquoise pool off to the right. About another half mile ahead we could see (and hear) a waterfall cascading over a rock face. On this day the sky was overcast and dull, but the scenery doesn’t disappoint in any weather. We reached the waterfall and took a break while taking photos of Lower Reed Lake below us.
The trail continues around a bend and borders some unnamed ponds till Upper Reed Lake finally appears at the end of the valley—gray rocky slopes surround it on three sides. There were a few tents and people around. We found a spot for our two tents that was mostly rock free, flat, and dry; the mossy tundra is so moist here. We set up camp, stashed our packs, grabbed some water and snacks, and headed out for the climb to the overlook.
The guidebook says that the hike to Bomber Pass from here is one and a half miles with an elevation gain of 1,200 ft. It also gives directions on how to find the route, but it is tricky and we tried to follow the landmarks as best we could on a trail entirely uphill on scree and boulders. We met a couple hikers coming down, asked them about the route, and continued on. About halfway up the clouds came down below the mountain tops and pretty soon, we could hardly see five feet in front of us! Not wanting to give up, we kept climbing for another 20 plus minutes. Amy had gone ahead, keeping in touch by voice. David and I began to discuss giving up and going back for safety reasons and because we were no longer anticipating the view that we had come for. Just then, Amy said, “I found it, we are here!” David and I scrambled the last bit uphill and into the small notch known as Bomber Pass.
Incredibly, the view down the other side was cloud free and we could see the entire Bomber Glacier and the airplane wreckage that is its namesake. Again, the scenery got bonus points as we enjoyed our trail snacks and took it in for quite some time while discussing different options for someday reaching the bomb wreckage out on the glacier. We decided we could go by the route we were on or make it a multi-day trip and come in on Gold Mint Trail to reach the glacier and come out via the Reed Lakes Trail … oh the possibilities! We picked our way carefully back down to camp, ate a hot dinner and finally turned in. Sometime in the night, the rain began. In the morning even the lake was lost in the fog, so we broke camp right after breakfast. The trip out was wet, the trail was slippery mud and the boulder field was very slow going in the rain. Another satisfying adventure completed!
Gold Mint Trail: Because of its easy access, we have gone on quite a few adventures up the Gold Mint Trail, bordering the Little Susitna River. My friend, Amy, and I went in twice in November of a recent snowless winter, crossed the Little-Su around mile two and explored the slopes below Arkose Peak and the Lonesome Mine ruins. She and I also hiked in for an overnight at mile seven in June one year and found the trail wet with snow melt and even a few fresh bear tracks to keep us on our toes. But in all these years living so close, neither David nor I had reached Mint Hut, eight miles from the Gold Mint Trailhead. In late April of 2015, we, along with our daughter, Jessica, and her friend, decided to make an attempt at reaching the hut on a cloudless spring day.
We assumed the trail would still be hard-packed up at the higher elevations, but started out fairly early, knowing a 16-mile round trip would take all of our daylight hours. The trail was hard packed for the first several miles and walking was great, but as the sun rose higher above the peaks the snow softened making it much harder to walk on (hindsight says we should have chosen snowshoes or skis!). The scenery was fantastic, with all the white snow, and the weather was beautiful. But, by about mile six, we stopped to take a lunch break and discussed the reality of making it another twelve miles in soft punchy snow. I have arthritis in one of my feet and it was already getting sore and painful enough for me to know that I wasn’t up for 12 more miles—I was already fretting about the six miles back to the car. Our daughter’s friend, whose knees have issues, decided to join me in heading for the car, while David and Jessica opted to forge on toward the hut.
The trip back for us was awful! The snow was so soft that we were breaking through the trail crust about every fourth or fifth step, up to our knees or more. It took us way longer than our normal hiking pace and we were exhausted. David and Jessica encountered more of the same conditions until about mile seven where the trail significantly steepens, and they also realized they would not be able to make it the last mile in that soft snow. Their return trip to the parking lot was as frustrating, or more, than ours. A story to tell for sure, but no Mint Hut that day.
The desire to see Mint Hut for ourselves grew during our busy summer, and finally, on the second to last day of August last year, the weather and our schedules came together. Again, we set off early. The temperature at the parking lot near where Mother Lode Lodge used to be, was about 22 degrees. All the foliage was in full fall colors and covered with frost, the sky was clear and we were determined. We stopped as frequently as we thought possible on our time schedule, to photograph and admire the colors and views. The trail was clear and the walking easy this time, but with a 16-miler to do, we were happy that we could keep a good pace. Upon reaching mile seven, where the climbing begins, we were in new-to-us territory and finding the route over the rock slabs and boulders was a bit more confusing. There were some rock cairns to help and we kept heading in the direction we thought was correct. We were starting to doubt that we were going the right way as we could see no hut in front of us and the trail was very faint. Then suddenly we were there! Just like that, the path crested a ledge and the Mint Hut was only about 50 yards ahead, perched in its own little niche in the Talkeetna Mountains.
We had lunch, checked out the inside of the hut, and took in the amazing rugged mountains that surrounded us. Well worth the effort to get here. Just after leaving the hut behind, we came upon a covey of rock ptarmigan moving among the moss covered rocks. They are more gray and brown than the willow ptarmigan of the lower elevations. They didn’t move far and we were able to observe and photograph them for over ten minutes. We made much better time heading down hill and our quest to reach Mint Hut was complete in an awesome eight-hour day!
Hatcher Pass is a wonderful playground for many activities year round. I hope you find one to enjoy for yourself!
*Lane Hut has been removed since this article was originally published.