“Let’s play hide and seek,” chimed my nine-year-old daughter, Emily, as we rested atop Lion Head, a 3,185-foot promontory about 100 miles northeast of Anchorage that overlooks the sprawling Matanuska Glacier.
With sheer cliffs on three sides, one of them dropping about 800 feet to the churning Matanuska River, I was not about to let her leave my sight.
“I’m sorry, ‘Em,’ but you’ve got to stay right here with me. Have some cookies.”
That was 20 years ago, and since then I’ve made several trips up this unique piece of rock in the Chugach mountains. I’ve even camped up there.
During the Pleistocene glacial period some 10,000 years ago when the Matanuska glacier was part of a larger glacier that filled the entire valley all the way to Anchorage, this feature might have jutted up above that ocean of ice and been called a “nunatak,” (from Inuit nunataq).
Check out this dramatic time-lapse video taken by photographer Kevan Dee in 2015:
Lion Head is located on AT&T property at Mile 106 of the Glenn Highway, just before the big downhill, left-hand turn leading to Caribou Creek. A sharp right-hand turn on the Glenn takes you down a gravel road to a gate where there is a small parking area. AT&T permission is required before entering the property, which can be obtained by calling a number that’s on a sign. Cell phone coverage is excellent in the area. It is a communications site. AT&T always answers the telephone because it is an operations number. You provide your name, how long you plan to be on the property, and then you call them back before leaving the property. Do not try to enter any of the buildings at the site.
Finding the trail
The route is intuitive – it goes up the only gradual slope on Lion Head. Follow the road past the gate about 1/10th of a mile and when the road splits, go to the right. At the point, you’ll be walking directly toward Lion Head. A small rock cairn marks the beginning of the trail as it enters the trees. The trail quickly breaks out of the trees and soon becomes steep in places, but there are plenty of bushes and hand holds as you wind your way up in a general easterly direction to access the ridge. The trail is a little harder to stay on when snow is on the ground, but once you attain the ridge, you gradually turn left, or north, on the final push toward the top. Total distance is about 1.5 miles one way and elevation gain is only about 1,000 feet. It takes about an hour to reach the top.
On November 23 of this year – the day before Thanksgiving – I made the hike under crystal clear skies, with the temperature about 10 degrees F. Starting out about 11 a.m., a chilling 10 mile-per-hour wind from the east almost sent me back into my warm car. But I removed my glasses and donned my balaclava (face mask) and forged on. When I pull it up over my nose, my glasses fog up. Yet, I’d rather hike with reduced vision than a frozen nose.
Normal winter snow would make this hike nearly impossible since it would be very difficult to ascend the steep slope with snowshoes. But with the dearth of snow this year – and perhaps only days away from the first big dump – I knew it wouldn’t be that difficult to negotiate the trail.
With Kahtoola micro-spikes over my boots, I followed a set of tracks about halfway up the mountain. The tracks stopped at a boulder field. The tops of the smooth, slanted boulders had a thin layer of snow, which made them slippery. I had to move carefully because the snow concealed large cracks between the boulders.
Looking up to the ridge, I could see the sun’s rays glancing off the spruce trees.
“There is sun in my future today,” I mused.
Into the sunshine
Once atop the ridge and in glorious sunshine, I thought I might rejoin the tracks I had followed earlier. But aside from the occasional track of a Snowshoe hare and small bird tracks, snow on the trail was smooth. Once on top, it wasn’t hard to find refuge from the wind behind a large rock, where the sun had definitely warmed things up.
While resting in the sun, I thought I heard the sharp cry of a hawk – but I didn’t see anything to confirm that. After a brief lunch and a few photos, I started down—and with the thin layer of snow, it was harder than the ascent. But taking my time in the mid-day light, there were no slips or falls. I managed to find a safer route around the boulders. Roundtrip, including a half-hour rest stop, was just over three hours.
If you want to take a rest from an epic expedition and share a great hike with the family, Lion Head is a great destination – spring, summer, fall and sometimes early winter, if we’ve had a year like this and hardly any snow. But if you have hardy children who can make it to the top, I’d strongly advise against the game hide n’ seek.
Editor’s Note: Frank E. Baker is a member of The ECHO News team, an avid and highly experienced outdoorsman and a freelance writer living in Eagle River. Reach Frank E. Baker at firstname.lastname@example.org.