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Ski Trips:

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by: Tim Kelley

Late April 2021: Paxson Area Crust Skiing

I hadn't been crust skiing in the Paxson / Isabel Pass area for about 40 years.  So, I figured it was time for a re-visit.  We found some crust skiing ... but the conditions were not great.  Record cold and windy winters don't deliver the high moisture content snow that is needed for smooth and solid spring crust snow formation.  This is definitely a nice area for late season crust skiing.  We'll likely try skiing here again next year.  The signature crust skiing trip in this area is the ski to the Gulkana Glacier.  The best skiing conditions we found were on the southern part of Paxson Lake, accessed from the Paxson Lake Campground.

Approaching the Gulkana Glacier Suspension bridge over the Gulkana River.  No need to use it, as there were solid snow bridges. At the Gulkana Glacier, looking back
Paxson Lake
Bonnie Lake Road, Chickaloon, Alaska
Mid April 2021: Broad Pass

Crust skiing on the west side of Broad Pass was good again this year.  For last year's photos, click here.  Here are pictures from a 19 mile crust-a-bout starting at a small pullout at Milepost 200 of the Parks Highway.

Lots of open terrain a few miles from the road. Otter slide track.
  GPS track: 19 miles.
Crust was better down low.  Up high it was okay, but tenuous.  Here I took my skis off and quickly was thigh deep in snow. Nice smooth crust snow. Not a fancy setup ... but it is nice to have waxed skis each crust skiing day.
Mid April 2021: Jack River Canyon Loop

I had skied the sections of this loop in the past.  But figured I'd link them together to make a loop.  The Jack River Canyon Loop.  The canyon is pretty cool.  And this loop is not very long.  So this is a good option for a quick alternative ski trip if you are in Cantwell for crust skiing at Broad Pass.  Of course, this loop is only good if there are adequate snow bridges on the Jack River.

Start of the river section. A "caribou yard".

Start of the canyon.

Small slide across trail.

Exiting the canyon.

At the pass GPS track: 12 miles.
Mid April 2021: River Crust Skiing, Out Of Talkeetna

From main street Talkeetna you can head out onto the Big Susitna flood plain and find good crust skiing when it is in season.  BUT ... you need to be careful here.  Three big rivers converge here ... the Big Susitna, Talkeetna and Chulitna rivers.  So there is fast moving water here all winter long, whether it is covered by ice or not.  It would be easy to get in trouble here be breaking through the ice of a river channel.  Best is to ski here with other people.  And the best people to go skiing here with would likely be the Denali Ski Club folks of Talkeetna that ski here regularly.  I recently did a long crust ski here by myself.  And I found a lot of sketchy areas that I definitely avoided.

I apparently passed by this makeshift sign while I was heading out, and didn't notice it.  I noticed on my way back in.  The sign had some good advice:
"This river is not safe for any form of travel (at this time).  Don't be a victim."
Early April 2021: Hidden Lake Again, This Time For Crust Skiing

Earlier this year my wife Tammy and I were skiing on Hidden Lake (see previous post on this web page).  I had never skied on this lake and I figured it would be worthy crust skiing venue.  So I would later go back down to do some crust skiing in this area (see GPS track).  I found good conditions in a beautiful area that morphs into a stark, post-apocalypse area, where the massive Swan Lake fire raged not long ago.

Cliffy shoreline   Heading to Engineer Lake
  Engineer Lake cabin Trail from Engineer Lake
Heading towards Hikers Lake Kelly Lake cabin Kelley at Kelly
Following trail through burn back to Hidden Lake Soot from skiing through the fire zone GPS track: ~20 miles
West end of Hidden Lake, looking east.
Late March 2021: Skiing The Nelchina Glacier Ice Tunnel

This year there is an impressive ice tunnel at the terminus of the Nelchina Glacier.  It's about 100 yards long and you can walk, snowmobile or cross country ski through it.  This ice tunnel used to be a channel for water running under the glacier.  We went to the Nelchina and found the ice tunnel.  Damn cool, figuratively and literally.  And ... it had to be cross country skied!

It is a 23 mile snowmobile trail to the glacier.  And a good part of the trail is a section of snowmobile bumps and nastiness.  Not fun to ski or snowmobile.  We took a snowmobile to the glacier, and I skied back.  Snow conditions seemed more appropriate for early February than late March.  Cold, loose powder with some wind ... made for slow going.

Note: The Nelchina Glacier doesn't have a terminus with massive ice formations like the Knik, Matanuska, Twentymile, Spencer, Skookum and Portage glaciers have.  Pretty much this ice tunnel is the only stand-out feature of the glacier terminus (that I know of).  But for one feature ... it sure packs the wow-factor.

Tunnel entrance         Tunnel exit
For most of the day it was flat light and cloudy with snow showers. The snowmobile trail from Eureka Lodge to the glacier was soft and slow.  Skating on classic skis, they float a little better in soft snow.
Wreckage of a plane near the Nelchina Glacier. GPS track: ~23 miles one way to or from the ice tunnel.
Mid March 2021: Checking Out The Cooper Landing Bypass Progress ... On Skis

The construction of the Cooper Landing Bypass has started.  So I wanted to see how much of the route had been cleared (on the east end).  I started skiing from milepost 46.5 of the Sterling Highway.  Soon I would find out that not much had been cleared.  Only 2.5 miles.  A year from now the entire 10 miles of new road is scheduled to be cleared.  So that may open up a short-lived ski route.

Why ski this route?  For the novelty of it.  Then you will have skied a new road before you drove it.  I did this for Phases 1 and 2 of the Trunk Road extensions in Palmer.  And to some degree, with the Mat-Su Railroad to Nowhere.  For some people, like me, it's fun to check out stuff before it's open to the masses.

Notes:  There was a sign at the start of this route that said "Construction Traffic Only".  But I saw another skier, a family out hiking and plenty of footprints on the trail when I was here.  So, this trail is being used for recreation.  There are a few steep hills, so it's best to do this with adequate snow cover.

Heading west, after the hilly section. At the end of the cleared section, a narrow trail leads to the Bean Creek Road/Trail and good snowmobile trail skiing. At the end of the cleared section, looking back east.
Mid March 2021: Skiing The Historic Herning Trail, Grubstake Gulch to Knik

In 1900 the Herning Trail was built for winter freighting of mining supplies from Knik to Grubstake Gulch on Willow Creek, in the area west of Hatcher Pass.  Once the Alaska Railroad was built in 1916, this trail was abandoned.  In recent years the Matanuska-Susitna Borough (MSB) has been working on reestablishing a public multi-use trail along the general route of the Historic Herning Trail (link to PFD file).

I figured it would be fun to ski the Historic Herning Trail.  I had skied some sections of this route before, but wanted to link everything together for a one day adventure.  I used the proposed route that the MSB is planning between Knik and Houston as a starting point.  But during a couple of recon trips I altered the route a bit based on trail usage that I discovered.

The end result was a 37 mile ski that followed this route: Grubstake Gulch - Willow-Fishook Road - Dave Churchill Trail - Herning Trail - Zero Lake - Houston - bike trail and power lines along the Parks Highway - Hawk Lane - power line to Big Lake Road and on to Hollywood Road and beyond - musher trail to swamps north of Three Mile Lake - Three Mile Lake - power line to Old Iditarod Trail - Knik.

I'd like to think that miners skied this route back in the early decades of last century.  Perhaps some of them traveled on skis along with freight dog teams. So who knows ... maybe this was the first time the Historic Herning Trail route has been skied in the last 100 years.

GPS track: 37 miles Grubstake Gulch Old map of the Herning Trail, once called the Double Ender Trail.
Dave Churchill Trail Trying to find the Willow Sled Trail / Herning Trail Willow Sled Trail / Herning Trail
When snowmobiles fan out to play in swamps, the route you are trying to follow can get vague.  Good to have a GPS or knowledge from previous ski trips. Willow Creek Sled Trail sign This entire trip was classic skiing on cold powder.
Plowed roads near Zero Lake when 10 years ago there were none.  Makes trail navigation a little confusing. Nearing Zero Lake area. Skiing along the Parks Highway.
Along the Parks Highway. Power line leading to Hollywood Road. Hollywood Road.  Near where the 2018 earthquake hit hard.
Three Mile Lake.  Snowstorm moving in. Powerline to Old Iditarod Trail. Mile 1 of Old Iditarod Trail
Old Iditarod Trail in Knik. Knik Museum Done.  The Knik Bar has old, and mostly forgotten, links to long distance skiing.  Formerly the start and finish of the 200 mile Iditaski races in the 1980s.


I did a couple of recon trips to figure out this route.  Even with that, I had to wing it a couple of times.  Using racing skis to do routes like this means you commit to the randomness of snowmobile traffic for your trail.  I think it is best to do trips like this one on days soon after a weekend when conditions were good for snowmobile riding.  Then hope that all the sections that you want to ski had traffic.  I had a snowmobile trail to follow for 99% of this route.  Yet, I didn't encounter a single person while doing this ski.

During my recon trips, I found that some of the route that the MSB had documented for the Historic Herning Trail had no snowmobile traffic at all.  So I found an alternative route that was close by.  The areas between Three Mile Lake and the Big Lake Road had situations like this ... local snowmobile traffic not matching the MSB proposed route.

At this time, the MSB is working on reestablishing the Historic Herning Trail between Knik and Hawk Lane near Big Lake.  So, they have yet to publish a route through Houston.  Between Houston and the Zero Lake area the connection to the Willow Sled Trail / Herning Trail is confusing due to recent subdivision roads near Zero Lake.

Early March 2021: Hatcher Pass To Willow

I had skied from Hatcher Pass to Willow before.  But I ended up skiing a round-about route that time, as there were some Haessler-Norris Trail System trails that were not yet established.  And some H-N trails I didn't know about.

Now that I know the Haessler-Norris trail system better, I wanted to ski a 'direct' route from Hatcher Pass to Willow.  So, this 36 mile route is what I came up with and skied.  This route could be a couple miles shorter if you can find the northern Deception Swamp to Capital Trail connector (that I missed, see jog in route).  So pretty much, this is the most direct and clearly signed winter route between Hatcher Pass and Willow that I know of, that maximizes trail use, that you can ski, bike, mush or snowmobile.

But before you go: There are variables in this route that can make or break the fun factor.  The plowed section of the Willow-Fishook Road that ends at Craigie Creek is good when it's good.  But with melting in late winter it can quickly become an unskiable dirt road.  Also, the trails leading to Willow can either be nicely groomed mushing trails.  Or the same trails can be bumpy and torn up by snowmobiles.  Or the trail sections that cross open swamp areas can be drifted over and gone.  It's a crap shoot if you just go for it without checking conditions on the Willow side first.

So if you want to ski, bike or snowmobile from Hatcher Pass to Willow ... this route is for you!

Route description: Hatcher Pass Lodge - Willow-Fishhook Road - Dave Churchill Trail - Herning Trail - Kyzer Way - Gocke Trail - Spain Lane - Nike Trail - Capital Trail - Deception Swamp - Tuxedo Drive MSB trailhead in Willow.  Distance: 36 miles.

Heading out. Climbing. At the pass.
Willow is that way ... Beginning of plowed section of the Willow-Fishhook Road. Fast but slippery skiing on the plowed road.
Better road skiing at lower elevation. In the upland Haessler-Norris Trail System. Capital Trail.
Plenty of snow.  Cold powder, not fast skiing conditions. Skiing under the finish arch! GPS track: 36 miles.
Late February 2021: Hoks To The Rescue ... When It Won't Stop Snowing

There's been plenty of snow in Southcentral Alaska this winter.  But the catch is, it seems to snow every 3 or 4 days and snowmobile trails don't have time to get packed down and firm up.  Not the greatest conditions for using xc racing skis on backcountry trails.  But that's no problem if you have a pair of  'Hoks', made by Altai Skis.  Just clip them on and go tromping through the new snow and explore some backcountry.

  Old food still on shelves in a remote and decaying cabin.  40 years ago the people that lived here just up and left and never came back.  I don't know why.  
Mid February 2021: Hidden Lake, On The Kenai Peninsula

If you like to avoid places that are swarming with people, then winter is a good time to visit the Kenai Peninsula.  It's a good time to go to popular K Pen summer spots and not be immersed in humanity.  One place that I had never been to before on the Kenai Peninsula, do to people avoidance, was Hidden Lake.  Now that I've been there, I've got to say ... it's pretty cool.  Ridges with glacial-buffed rocky outcrops on either side of this long lake.  Trails that connect to the west end of it.  Rocky islands.  Nice campground.  And besides a few ice fisherfolks, it's deserted in winter.

If you poke around on this web site, you will see that I have skied Kenai and Skilak Lakes a number of times.  But I had never skied Hidden Lake, which lies between these two lakes.  This place is now on my crust skiing list.  It would be fun if you were here with good crust skiing conditions and could skate the lake and the Seven Lakes Trail and the trail to Engineer Lake.

Location of Hidden Lake

A Kenai National Wildlife Refuge sign at the Engineer Lake campground gave me a few laughs.  Apparently the federal government has added to the list of freedoms they are taking away from Americans.  Now gone is the freedom to run on trails.  "NEVER run on trails" says the sign!  Though I might not agree with that, I definitely agree with the government mandate to call out "hey bear" in bear country. Of course, that's what the HeyBear! app does!

Early February 2021: Willow Uplands Loop

The upland trails of the Haessler-Norriis Trail System in Willow are quiet and scenic and mostly used by dog mushers.  They are groomed by local dog mushers, not by the Willow Trail Committee folks, and are well marked.  Recently I skied a loop here that started and ended at a parking turnoff at mile 13.5 of the Willow Fishhook Road (13.5 miles from the Parks Highway).  I skied a mile through swampland until I hit the Kyzer Way trail, and then skied Kyzer Way - Bullion Mountain Scenic Loop - Nike Trail - Spain Lane - Gocke and Kyzer Way trails to make a loop.  I skate skied the whole route.  Didn't see anyone else while I was skiing here.

These can be great trails to ski that normally don't make it on skiers' radars.  BUT ... there are factors that can make these trails less than fun.  Especially after a long drive from Anchorage.  The factors that have to line up to make these trails good are: grooming, wind and temperature.  After large snowfalls, it can be an unknown period of time before all of these trails are packed and dragged by local dog mushers.  If there are high north winds, the trails through the swamps on the east side of this area can get drifted in.  And ... temperature.  This is Williow.  It can get freakin' cold in Willow.  If it is 0F in Anchorage it will likely be -20F in Willow.  But if everything aligns ... these are some great trails for backcountry cross country skiing.

Kyzer Way crosses swamp land heading towards the moraine country of Bullion Mountain. Nike Trail.  Dragged by mushers.  Very nice skiing.
Approaching the high point of Bullion Mountain. The Gocke Trail that leads south to Kyzer Way.
Good signage on this loop:  Kyzer Way - Bullion Mountain Scenic Loop - Nike Trail - Spain Lane - Gocke Trail - Kyzer Way
Haessler-Norris Trail System GPS track: 18 miles.  Parked at a pullout at mile 13.5 of the Willow-Fishhook Road (13.5 miles from the Parks Highway).
I saw this on the way out of Anchorage.  A homemade RV toy hauler.  Some unique stuff here.  Like an early 1970's Skidoo Alpine, a vintage beast snowmobile that has a double track.  This was the xc ski track-setting machine of choice back in the day.  And ... an RV housing pod made out of a old "igloo", a container that was once used to haul freight in airplanes.  My wife said this is likely from the old 737 200 jets that hauled lots of cargo in Alaska.  And there is a chance she once flew this igloo to someplace in Alaska or to Seattle.
Late October: The New Hemlock Burn Trail

XC skiers in Anchorage should consider checking out the completed section of the new Hemlock Burn Trail (HBT).  This is a tame downhill mountain bike singletrack trail that is fun to ski.  The trail has a gradual descent gradient, so there are no wild downhills. But of course, if the trail was covered in ice ... then you wouldn't want to be on it with skis.  Recently the trail conditions have been cold powder ... so no problem with control in the corners.

The completed section of the Hemlock Burn Trail, as of late October 2020, goes from near the lower Glen Alps parking lot to the intersection of the Prospect Heights Trail with the Gasline Trail.  The Hemlock Burn Trail crosses the Gasline Trail at that point and continues towards Prospect Heights.  This section of the HBT, though cleared, is still in various stages of construction.  But with enough snow and traffic it will probably come to life this winter.

The start of this trail has not yet been tied into the Glen Alps trailhead system.  So it's a little hard to find.  But the picture below should guide you were to go.  Unless it snowed recently, there should be tracks leading from near the lower parking lot to the trail start.

Note: As of late October this trail was not officially open.  There are signs on the trail that say it is still under construction.  But ... you will likely see a lot of ski, bike, snowshoe, foot and paw tracks on this trail.

The magenta line is the start of the Hemlock Burn Trail singletrack.  The start of the trail is not far from the lower parking lot at Glen Alps.

Mid October 2020: Kalifornsky Beach Sand Rolling

Sand rolling!?  Wait!  What?!

Yeah.  Sand rolling.  Roller skiing on a beach using roller skis with monster-tires.

Roller skiing on a beach?  Monster-tires?  Huh?

OK, here is the story, in chronological order:

1)  20 years ago I made some monster-tire roller skis for skiing the flatter xc skiing trails, like the Mize Loop, at Kincaid Park.  I used them off and on.  Basically they were clunky … but they were entertaining and I got a good workout using them.  But then I stopped masters ski racing and focused on backcountry cross country skiing.  And my monster-tire roller skis got lost in our garage.

2)  July of 2019. I was at Kalifornsky Beach on the Kenai Penninsula.  I had a really fun time riding my mountain bike on this beach of hard-packed sand.

3)  June of 2020. I was reorganizing our garage and I found my old monster-tire roller skis.  I then remembered how much fun mountain biking on Kalifornsky Beach was the previous year.  And I wondered if these all-terrain roller skis would work on that beach.

4)  October of 2020.  I brought my monster-tire roller skis to Kalifornsky Beach.  Skiing sand on these roller skis worked out ok.  But I would rank it as a 6 out of 10.  Doable, but not high on the fun factor. Speed was a bit slow, though it seems like sand rolling would be a valid training option for ski racing.

But training for xc ski racing is not my thing these days.  So I skied on them for a while, then put them away and went beach riding on mountain bikes with Tammy, my wife.  Much more fun.  Always neat to try new stuff.  Now I can add sand rolling, or sand roller skiing, to my life’s skiing experiences.

My homemade roller skis, that I made a long time ago, that utilize off-road skateboard wheels.
Wheel size comparisons:  Off-road skateboard wheels on left.  V2 150 pneumatic wheels in center.  Solid rubber V2 98 wheels on right.
February 1982: Blast From The Past ... Skiing The Length of Lake Champlain

I was cleaning out our attic recently and happened across this old picture.  It was taken in 1982 during a 125 mile ski I did that traversed the length of Lake Champlain (between Vermont and New York).  I started at the Canadian Border and skied the east coast of the lake.  I skied under the Crown Point bridge, that would later be blown up and rebuilt.  A short and fun side trip was skiing up to, and into, Fort Ticonderoga, an 18th century fort that has been well preserved.  I finished the ski at the boat locks in Whitehall, NY.  A fun skiing adventure ... ~40 years ago.


Alaska Backcountry XC Skiing