Copper River Record October 2016
By Robin Mayo
One of the most fun and unique hikes in the Copper Valley can be found in a very unlikely place. Fourteen miles East of Glennallen on the Glenn Highway, down a gravel road to the idyllic Tolsona Wilderness Campground, and a mile on foot through a black spruce forest is a surreal landscape, the Tolsona Mud Volcanoes. If you are expecting a classic cone and dramatic fiery eruptions you’ll be disappointed, but if you are looking for an educational and adventurous outing with kids or visitors this is a sure winner.
Mud Volcanoes are formed when gasses bubble up through layers of the earth, picking up water and mud as they rise. The Tolsona group consists of 3 cones, two of which are connected to the campground trail. The cones are large rounded hills, with vegetation on the lower slopes, and the active vents located at the top. The vents look like mud puddles, but are actually very deep, and bubble constantly with methane gases and fine, slimy clay. There are only a couple of hundred mud volcanoes in the entire world.
The trailhead is located at Tolsona Wilderness Campground, and the proprietors ask visitors to check in and pay a very reasonable fee for parking. They can direct you to the beginning of the trail, which is marked with old CD’s tacked to the trees. It is about a mile meandering through the muskeg before you start to climb up the slight incline, noticing the changes in the vegetation as you get closer to the active cones. The trail is marshy in many places, but you’ll definitely be wearing rubber boots, so try to go straight through instead of making new trails around the wet spots.
The vents offer plenty of fun, whether probing for the bottom, playing in the mud, or admiring the tracks of the many animals that frequent the place. Please be careful, especially with children, as the vents are deep, and the mud around the edges treacherously sticky. There are long poles nearby which could be used for rescue in an emergency.
A favorite occupation is trying to capture the bubbling gases, then igniting them. We’ve tried it many times, and the most successful contraption has been a gallon ziplock bag taped to a forked stick. We left it there for about a half hour, then carefully sealed the bag, and pushed the gas out through a small hole. Having failed so many times, we were unprepared for success, and nearly lost our eyebrows when the concentrated gases burned with a dramatic whoosh.
It’s nearly impossible to visit the mud volcanoes without getting at least a little muddy, and many explorers end up coated from head to foot. On WISE hikes, no one is allowed back into the van until they have rinsed off in Tolsona Creek, which runs conveniently right next to the parking area. You may want to bring plastic bags to cover your vehicle seats and protect them from the inevitable water and slime. If an outing can be measured by how tired and dirty we are at the end, any trip to the Tolsona Mud Volcanoes is a sure success.
Tolsona Wilderness Campground can be reached at 822-3900
WISE summer intern Kiana Jenkins gets a facial at Tolsona Mud Volcano. Jamie Dawson Photo
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.