I seldom rush on any hike, unless the mosquitoes are driving me crazy, or there’s a delicious meal waiting for me when I get home.
But on this September evening a few years ago as I scrambled up the trail to Bear Mountain that looms above Mirror Lake, I was in a race with light.
I could see the clouds were arraying for a beautiful sunset and I was determined to make it in time.
The three-mile (round trip) hike to Bear Mountain is one of those trips that doesn’t really stand out from the others, but it’s actually quite a rewarding jaunt for the amount of time and effort required – and it’s close to home. I think late August-early September is a really nice time to take this hike.
Getting there: The driving route to the trailhead on the mountain above Peters Creek involves a lot of twists and turns, but it’s quite intuitive once you get started. Following the Glenn Highway north from Eagle River, take the Peters Creek exit, turning right onto Ski Road. After about a mile, turn right on Whaley. Stay on Whaley as it becomes Chugach Park Road, and then turn left on Kullberg. Follow Kullberg through several switchbacks then turn right on Malcolm Drive. After about ½ mile, just before the road bears left, you’ll spot a trailhead straight ahead. Park in the cleared space along the right side of the road.
Hiking along the old roadbed, you’ll only need to go about 1/4th of a mile before coming to the Bear Mountain turn off, at left. The trail winds up through the forest and dense brush before reaching the alpine tundra. If you hike north over to Bear Mountain point, overlooking Mirror Lake, you’ll be at an elevation of 3,160 feet.
From the large plateau, you will quickly spot a trail that turns east toward 4,110-foot Mount Eklutna, which adds a couple of miles to the hike. Another trail to Mount Eklutna branches left off the old Peters Creek road from about Mile 2. Farther to the east, about another mile beyond Mount Eklutna lies what I call “Flag Mountain,” at 4,040 feet. Over the years I have placed small flags there, and a Birchwood Airport ultralight pilot once told me he often used it to gauge wind direction.
The area’s expansive tundra is coated with lichen moss, a primary food source for caribou. Biologists say that as late as the early 20th century, some caribou roamed in the alpine tundra of the Chugach Mountains, some even close to Anchorage. There are a few Den’aina Athabaskan references to Chugach Mountain caribou in the book Shem Pete’s Alaska.
Racing the light: Breathing heavily and sweating more than usual, I reached that big plateau just before sunset. Not even stopping for a drink of water, I snapped a few photos. The spectacular views to the east, toward the Pioneer Peaks, and south-southeast, into Peters Creek Valley, were reward enough for the hurried ascent.
I didn’t hike over to the high point of Bear Mountain that overlooks Mirror and Edmonds lakes but recalled an earlier trip from my younger, wilder days.
From the top, I descended straight down a steep gully directly for Mirror Lake. Thrashing and bashing my way through brush, I finally reached the bottom and found myself staring almost face to face with a horse in someone’s back yard! I made a swift exit to the side before I was noticed by residents.
Sunset magic: Salmon pink in the setting sun, the clouds were so close that I almost felt I could reach out and touch them, and the tundra was ablaze in crimson hues. A few ravens disturbed the silence as I gulped down some water and readied my pack for the downhill return hike, which was uneventful except for a few slips in muddy portions of the trail.
I made it to the car just before dark, a little weary from the accelerated pace; but thankful to have such a great mountain destinations so close to home.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River with his wife Rebekah, a retired Birchwood ABC school teacher. To reach Frank, email: firstname.lastname@example.org