Caribou Creek: A Haven for Ice Climbers, But Also a Nice Winter Hike, Ski or Bike
A series of low-pitched hoots, probably those of a Great Horned Owl, greeted me as I entered the canyon. The snowy trail was packed down by snow machines and foot travel, and my Kahtoola micro-spikes worked great on ice that had glaciated on the valley floor from creek overflow.
I have made a few trips south on Caribou Creek from Mile 107 of the Glenn Highway, but this was only my second time going upstream – an area that historically drew considerable interest from gold miners, hunters and trappers.
In more recent times, Caribou Creek has become a hot spot for ice climbers who have identified about 20 ice falls that they have assigned evocative names such as, “The Abomination of Sublimation,” “Night Moves,” “Polar Shrimp,” “Ragtime” and “Barrel of Monkeys.”
There are still a few active mines in the area, however, and such property and equipment should always be respected.
The presence and size of the ice falls can vary considerably from year to year, depending upon climatic conditions. According to one of the websites, the best parts of the canyon to find good ice are from Mile 2 to Mile 5.
Thus, my goal for the day was to at least make it to Mile 2, where the main body of Caribou Creek forks off to the east. Snow and ice bridges over the stream were solid now, but in a few weeks going into April, with warming temperatures, that probably would not be the case.
On the drive to Caribou Creek from Eagle River a headwind jostled my car all the way after passing though Palmer. But here in the canyon, it was nearly calm.
There had been a few cars in the parking lot, but by the time I hiked nearly two miles there was no sign of anyone else in the canyon. I suspect the folks from those cars followed Caribou Creek downstream where it meets the south fork of the Matanuska River, right next to Lion Head.
Wall of blue ice
At the next bend on the left I could see a wall of blue ice. To the north rose a prominent feature named Fortress Ridge, rising up to about 5,000 feet. Resembling a gigantic wall, it did indeed look like a fortress guarding the lower canyons.
Approaching the blue ice fall, I was surprised that overflow had glaciated far into the canyon bottom, creating quite a wide area of glare ice. It made me glad I had the micro-spikes. (Contrary to popular belief, I do not own stock in micro-spike companies.)
Less than eight weeks after knee replacement surgery, I decided that a four-mile round trip was good enough for the day. I had a snack with some coffee and glanced ponderously at the ice fall, picturing climbers challenging its face.
Looking to the northeast, I wondered how far I could have gone into the canyon on this mellow March 24th day. I later learned that Caribou Creek itself has a waterfall at about Mile 5 that blocks hikers, skiers and bikers. Obviously, ice climbers did not find it much of an obstacle.
Getting past the waterfall would have been great, I thought, because it could connect with Squaw Creek, providing a route back out to the Glenn Highway at a more northern point.
There is always the inner drive to go farther, so as I prepared to head back to the car, I once again glanced upstream and promised myself that on my next hike in there, I would go as far as I could.
I think most of the time, no matter what our objective, that inner voice compels us to go farther than we have gone before.
Editor’s Note: Frank E. Baker is an Echo team member and freelance writer who is an avid outdoor recreationist. He lives in Eagle River with his wife Rebekah, a retired school teacher. Reach Frank at: firstname.lastname@example.org