Mile High a great all-season hiking destination

Tuesday, October 30, 2018 - 11:13
  • Eagle River Valley in winter white, from Mile Hi (east hump, accessed from Mile High Saddle. (Photo by Frank Baker)

Despite recent rains, the trail up to Mile High Saddle was in good condition on Friday, October 26. Taking advantage of the mid-afternoon sun that wasn’t forecast by weather experts, I made this short hike (one-way) above Eagle River Valley in less than an hour. (Round trip is about 3.4 miles).

Every year in October I like to squeeze the most out of autumn by hiking just under the snow line that inexorably creeps down the Chugach Mountains. In a strange way it feels as if I’m defiantly cheating winter’s relentless advance.

This year, as we all know, we were treated by an exceptionally long autumn that has allowed ample time for pre-winter hiking, biking, fishing and other activities. Winter always wins, of course, and by the time this story appears I’m sure there will be a thin layer of snow on the ground.

(Editor’s note: There is. The first measurable snowfall of the season arrived in Eagle River on Oct. 29, with as much as 10 inches of snow reported at higher elevations.)

Along the trail I met a guy with an exceptionally large pack and asked if he were in training.

“Not really,” he said. “I’m a paraglider.”

“Have a nice flight,” I said, concealing my jealously. “Maybe if I were a younger guy,” I thought wistfully, moving up the trail.

Part of my mission on this day was to take photos of the trail for Chugach State Park, which is reviewing possible improvements. Parts of the trail are eroding, and foot traffic is widening and creating alternate tread ways similar to what occurred on Baldy before it received some much-needed rehabilitation.

I don’t live very far from Mile High so it’s generally a regular destination. I have a neighbor who ambitiously climbs up there almost every day. He’s a doctor, and for him it’s a great way to maintain good physical condition.

From the saddle it’s a nice trip extension to hike up and over the hump to one’s right, or east, and follow the ridge out toward Mt. Magnificent. Also from the saddle, one can turn left, or west, and hike up that hump that overlooks Eagle River, Knik Arm and on clear days, the Alaska Range. There are identifiable trails in both directions.

Either way, these side hikes are not that strenuous and the views are great, which include the length of Meadow Creek Valley leading to the base of 4,987-foot Mt. Vista, the flat-topped peak to the north of 4,272-foot Mt. Magnificent.

On different hikes in this area over the years, I’ve seen Dall sheep, coyotes, a wolverine (near Vista peak) ptarmigan, eagles, hawks and the occasional grizzly bear. I haven’t yet seen a wolf, but have come across their unmistakably large tracks.

I’ve winter-camped on top of the west hump, and on a few occasions during my younger and wilder days, climbed up there on Christmas Eve to place a battery-powered light that could be seen from quite a distance. The downside, of course, was having to return to retrieve the light and spent batteries.

I recall my wife asking “why” I did the light thing.

“I don’t know,” was my feeble reply. “Sometimes I just do things.”

For both young and old, Mile High is a rewarding hiking destination throughout the year — even on the short winter days that are soon approaching. At mid-day in winter, it’s a great place to catch some brilliant sunshine when our homes in Eagle River are deep in shadow.

In winter I carry extra clothing in my pack so I can sit down, sip hot coffee from the thermos and enjoy the view without getting cold. A part of these outings is to simply let all thoughts fade away and stare vacantly into space.

It might very well be the best part of the hike.

Getting there: Turn left off Eagle River Road at Mile 3 (Hylencrest Subdivision sign) across from P&M Gardens. Proceed up switchbacks on streets named Stewart, Wilson Way, Upper Canyon Dr., Sheppard Dr., Lynx Way until you see a small turn off/parking area to the right, with a gate, where the trail begins. Hike east past the AT&T communication installation/tower and take trail to left, or north.

A lifelong Alaskan, Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River with his wife Rebekah, a retired elementary school teacher. He is currently serving a three-year term on the Chugach State Park Citizens Advisory Board.

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