MOUNTAIN ECHOES: Spencer Lake cabin is an idyllic getaway

Wednesday, August 3, 2016 - 14:22
  • Completed by the U.S. Forest Service in 2015, the cabin has one of the finest views in Alaska. But it is an arduous, three-mile uphill trudge to get there. Like many glaciers in Alaska, the Spencer Glacier is receding, with ice bergs breaking off its face as it retreats. Photos by Frank E. Baker for the Star

Some of the most spectacular scenery in the world can be found on the Kenai Peninsula, and a great way to see it is via the Alaska Railroad “Whistlestop Train,” which runs from mid-May through mid-September.

After about a four-hour train ride July 20 from Anchorage, which included a side trip into Whittier, the Alaska Railroad dropped my friend Carl Portman and I off at “Spencer Whistlestop,” which has a spacious shelter for waiting passengers.

We then hiked on a wide, flat trail for about 2½  miles to the shores of Spencer Lake, left by the receding glacier.

Along this trail we saw a dozen or more people who were about to take a guided raft trip across the lake. After lazily paddling around the huge calved icebergs, they rafted to the lake’s outlet, the Placer River, and floated downriver to a pull-out point.

At this point they were picked up by the train on its return from Grandview, farther south, and taken north to either Portage or Anchorage.

Aiming high

Since we had cabin reservations, our hike was only half complete. After about a quarter of a mile the trail narrowed and headed uphill. Well designed with switchbacks, the pathway gains about 1,800 feet over roughly three miles.

Located on a bench high above Spencer Glacier and its lake, the view from the 15-foot by 17-foot cabin is stunning.  It seems we spent a lot of time on the cabin’s deck gawking at the sprawling glacier and surrounding mountains, caked with blue hanging glaciers.

Equipped with a kerosene stove (which requires visitors packing in their own quart cans of kerosene), the cabin sleeps six and has a nearby outhouse. 

A bridged stream about 200 yards from the cabin provides excellent drinking water. The U.S. Forest Service advises purifying the water, but I didn’t and had no problems.

To help pass the time on a rainy day, we wagered on the arrival and return of the Whistlestop train that each day during summer goes another 10 miles south, to Grandview, where it drops off hikers and campers.

Bear, moose, wolves, coyotes, marmots, ptarmigan and eagles are known to inhabit the area, and sometimes on the mountain slopes goats can be spotted. However, during our recent trip (July 20-22) none were seen. I suspect that when berries are ripe on the alpine tundra, bears will be there.

Alpine Shangrila

Aside from the commodious cabin and its breathtaking views, the big payoff came a few hundred feet above and about a quarter of a mile to the southeast. We crested over the ridge and suddenly the terrain opened to verdant, alpine meadows studded with clumps of dwarf hemlock trees.

We only hiked about a mile in the area but the rolling hills, sprinkled with wildflowers, seemed to go on forever and beckon us onward.

It struck me that if one allowed their imagination to wander, they might actually think they could hear Julie Andrews over the next hill singing: “The hills are alive with the sound of music.”

Located so close to the Gulf of Alaska, weather can change quickly. So even during the warmer summer months it’s advisable to bring a couple of layers of clothing, an extra pair of socks and definitely, rain gear. Snow seal your boots because wet brush — even a day after a rain stops — will soak them through quickly.

Cabin reservations at $85 per night can be made through the Alaska Railroad website. The cabin is available via the ARR Whistlestop train from May 28 through Sept. 19.
For reservations and more information about the cabin and Whistlestop program, go to:

Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.



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