Hanging Valley Trail

Preparing to hike Hanging Valley Trail

This trip was a lesson on paying closer attention to the map before heading out on the trail. Last year, I hiked the trail to Symphony and Eagle lakes and was intrigued by a side trail that wound uphill to Hanging Valley.

Iʼd read of a tarn with beautiful camping spots, so I loaded up on a Friday after work. I was camping for the night, but it would make a good day hike for the 12 miles roundtrip.

The trailhead lies near the end of Hiland Road, up the south fork of Eagle River. The first few miles of the trail are easy walking because crews have carved a new wide (albeit controversial) trail to the bridge over the south fork of Eagle River. It narrows after that and about a half mile past the bridge, the trail splits and leads uphill. Not horribly steep, but consistent with a few rocks for you to sit on, rest and view the valley.

I thought I could summit the lip and the tarn would magically appear at my feet soon after. Not so, and a simple look at the map handily posted in the parking lot would have cleared that right up. Still, I discovered a lush, broad, bowl of a valley, indicative of the past glacial action that formed it. Like most of these Chugach Mountain valleys, a rushing stream runs down the middle like a seam on a jacket.

A couple of miles, and a small pond appeared. I stirred up a young bull moose, with a tremendous rack and so wary he never took his eyes off of me. Further down the trail were two more tarns that were mostly dry. They didnʼt match what I thought Iʼd seen on the map. A final spirit-crushing uphill on just a scratch of a trail and I reached the end of the valley and the base of Hurdygurdy Mountain. I set up my tent in a boulder field covered with so much lichen it looked like snow. I crawled into my tent and collapsed into my sleep bag, the night dead still, the only sound was the distant creek draining the valley.

Early in the night I heard what I thought was a large animal bounding down a scree slope near the camp. My dog growled and pawed to get out of the tent. Then I realized with relief that it was rocks crashing down the nearby slope. It took three small avalanches before he figured out there was no threat and we slept fitfully until morning.

Next morning the clouds were down to the deck and I was disappointed because I knew this valley was another instance of dramatic steep rock walls leading to the tops of 5,000-foot high peaks. Instead it felt like camping inside a ball of wool. Still, I love this wilderness tucked in the outskirts of the city, a treasure waiting to be discovered and explored. I was the sole human in that valley, feeling small, but feeling grand, too at the idea of being there. Itʼs a feature that makes Anchorage such a great city to live.

A Cliff Bar for breakfast and I packed up while the dog wandered between squirrel holes, digging like he was going to China. On the hike out, I spotted the same bull moose browsing on the far side of the valley. He clearly was the boss here. As I crossed a small ravine filled with a gushing stream, I dismissed a flashing thought that maybe this stream led to the missing tarn. Something had to be feeding that stream. On either side of the ravine, small trails snaked up and over the edge of another small hanging valley. You know what happened; Iʼd found the tarn. I didnʼt have the energy right then to climb up and see, but Iʼm going back and camp there.

Although itʼs getting late in the year, plenty of wildflowers were still in bloom including monkshood, wild geranium, a few forget-me-nots and, a new flower to me, kings crown also called roseroot, growing low to the ground, with near succulent-looking leaves.

At the trailhead kiosk was a map and it confirmed what I figured out, that the tarn was right where I thought: up the small ravine with the rushing stream coming down.

You have six to eight weeks left to explore Hanging Valley and then snow will blanket the landscape. With the steep walls on either side, avalanches will be a threat there. Until that time, the fall colors will be magnificent.

DIRECTIONS: Drive to the Eagle River Loop/Hiland Road exit off the Glenn Highway. Turn right at the traffic light at Hiland Road. Continue 7.3 miles on Hiland Road and turn right at a Chugach State Park sign on South Creek Road. In another 0.3 mile turn right onto West River Drive, and about 0.1 miles farther turn into the trailhead parking.

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