Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Hatcher Pass, Vol. 1

"Falling Apart"
Mine shops along the upper trail around Independence Mine.
I've been enjoying the last of our beautiful summer season in nearby Hatcher Pass. It's a favorite spot for my me and my husband since it's so close and offers a lot of diverse photo opportunities. The lower elevation has the swift-flowing Little Susitna River, mid-elevation levels have a wonderful variety of subalpine plants and the upper elevations are alpine tundra with the Talkeetna Mountains  topped with dramatic rock faces. We almost always see some form of wildlife, be it large or small. There is plenty of parking along the road and numerous trails scattered throughout the 300,000 acres. The pavement ends at the Independence Mine State Historical Park. You can usually continue through to Willow from July to September, if the snow has melted enough to plow, or the snow hasn't yet fallen. The entire area has changing views around every corner, giving a little something for everyone.

At the entrance to the Pass on Palmer Fishhook Road, travelers are greeted by the white rushing water of the Little Su, as called by locals. You can park in the parking lot and get your photos of the river and wander around, but there area also a few more areas along the road where less-often photographed views are available. Some are hidden away with tiny trails and foliage. Please don't stop on the bridge or walk on the bridge for photographs. Pedestrian and vehicle traffic is generally busy here and accidents could easily happen. Gold panning is allowed in many areas, but it's important to check regulations before digging up someone's private claim. A ski and snowboard trail popular with local boarders is at the Fishhook Creek parking lot. In the winter, boarders hitch a ride from this lot, up to the trail's beginning at a large, upper elevation parking lot. Here, they wait their turn for a run back down where they do it all over again. Very busy during the winter with a few rude hitchhiking boarders who get angry when you pass them up. There's a couple of sledding hills that are also packed after a snowfall in the lower elevations.

"Red Edged"
A striking leaf from an unidentified plant in the subalpine level of Hatcher Pass.
Though the area is so close, I've been camping at the two campgrounds available in Hatcher Pass. The first campground, Palmer side, is Government Peak. It has one handicap parking spot for campers and the site for the Government Peak Campground says there are 8 camping sites, though I could swear there are more like 6. I think they are including the day use spots that require you to park in the lot and walk in for a tent site. The fees for the campgrounds are $10. They have outhouses and dumpsters which are bear-proofed. Good thing, since a black bear seems to have been hanging out in that area this summer. It killed a moose in the adjacent ski trail parking lot in early summer and I saw a large black bear foraging berries on the slope nearby in late August.

"Chef's Quarters"
Tim, my little Chef, stands reflecting on the balcony of the Cooks' Quarters at Independence Mine.
Traveling up past the Gold Mint Trail takes you to some breathtaking views of the Palmer area while suddenly climbing in elevation. The Archangel Road is a bumpy, terribly rough dirt road that I would recommend only be traversed by a good 4x4, bike or by foot in the summer. I have been back with a two-wheel drive truck, but my tires had a near-death experience when crossing a rusty culvert with jagged edges protruding. There's another day use parking lot with a trailhead and outhouses further along. This is a good trail to start searching for subalpine wildflowers if you are interested in wildflower identification or macro photography. There are also a number of cheerful birds in this area which might interest the wandering birder. The area becomes ripe with blueberries in late August.

"Rough Riding"
The Archangel Road when I last traveled that mess.
Independence Mine wraps up the paved portion of the Willow-Fishhook Road. There's no camping at the Mine and a $5 day use fee applies to anyone staying for over 30 minutes. I would recommend a day for exploring the area. There's a lot to see, especially if you decide to visit the Visitor Center, museum or bookstore and possibly engage in a tour for $6. Hiking Trails around the area can provide hours of entertainment, whether viewing pika on nearby boulders or examining the alpine tundra's plethora of miniature plants. There are still private mines and property up here, so respect the boundaries. I noticed a very large number of dog owners like to walk their furry friends around the park trails.

"The Chef's Staircase"
Tim appeases me by posing for my picture in the Escher-like staircase of the Cookhouse at Independence Mine.
I love, love, love dogs, so I do enjoy stopping for a moment and talking with the little guys and offering a quick pet before continuing. I usually never even see the owner because I'm so focused on the dogs. As much as I enjoy this, I did see evidence of some irresponsible ownership. Some people didn't clean up after their dogs along the trails, some let them wander too far on their leash, trampling delicate tundra that is posted as revegetation. On surrounding trails without leash requirements, some dogs wandered well off the trails, bothering the wildlife. One more important factor in letting a dog run loose is the fact that many bear attacks in Alaska occur because someone let their pet run ahead and encounter a bear. The dog ultimately freaks out and runs back to the owner, with the bear on its heels. Many bears are shot because of the irresponsibility of their owners. The barking also got frustrating and it disturbed the many small critters trying their hardest to prepare for winter. Dogs left in the vehicle seemed to all go crazy when their owner walked away.

"Siberian Aster"
A delicate and satin-petaled fading aster in the alpine tundra above Independence Mine along Gold Cord Lake Trail.
Just as frustrating as the irresponsible dog owners were the ill-behaved visitors who disrespected historic artifacts by throwing and playing with some of the objects. I observed group of people swinging on the aerial tram cable. One object had been laying in a meadow and my husband took a picture, which was nice, since on our next hike we discovered the object had been thrown into a beautiful little mossy stream.

"Left Behind"
An artifact Tim photographed, west of the main mine complex, which someone later threw in the creek.
If you have an adequate vehicle for rougher road travel, venture on up to Summit Lake or continue through to Willow. Most rental car companies do not allow travel on the gravel/dirt portions of the road and it can be muddy with jagged rocks. On our last visit, there was a Jeep owners meet-up happening. A 20 or so Jeep caravan passed us on their way over the Pass on the gorgeous September morning. There are more trails on this road and a chance to play in the snow in summer, which I've found appeals to many visitors.

"Dusty Drive"
The gravel portion of the twisting mountain road leading over the Pass toward Willow.
Despite its crowds on the weekends, it's still a fun place to spend the day and I always recommended a trip to the Pass for any Visitors. It's a very popular day-tripping spot for the Anchorage crowds, so I try to avoid weekend visits, when possible. The public restrooms get pretty iffy by the end of the weekend and could use more attention.

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