Copper River Record October 2017
By Robin Mayo
Armchair hikers, are you ready for another season? Until the snow flies the hiking is still great, but after a busy summer I’m ready to relax a little, explore some maps and dream about next summer.
For sheer challenge and drama, you just can’t beat a hike up Willow Mountain. The trail is steep but easy to find and follow, and the views from the top are unsurpassed. With the base at about 1500 feet elevation and the summit at 3300 feet, the approximately 2 ½ mile trail is wide, smooth, and solid. Folks in great shape can get to the top in 2 hours or less, and descend in about an hour, but for the rest of us plan on a full day of hiking, with lots of breaks to catch your breath and enjoy the breathtaking vistas.
Willow Mountain is located near Mile 88 Richardson Highway, the pullout at Willow Lake is a good place to park and access the trail. The land is owned by Ahtna, Inc. who welcomes people using the resource with the purchase of a land use permit. One day or season-long use permits can be obtained by contacting the office in Glennallen at 822-3476.
Hikers should carry extra water, food, and warm, windproof layers. Even on a hot day, the summit can be quite chilly and windy, and you will want to linger. Sturdy footwear is recommended, as the trail is steep enough to have the gravel rolling under your feet, and turn your legs to jelly. I’ve heard some locals refer to Willow Mountain as “Bear Mountain,” and we often see bear sign, so plenty of noise and protection are recommended.
From the north end of the Willow Lake Pullout, cross the Richardson Highway and get on the Alyeska Pipeline Right-of-Way. Alyeska allows use of the ROW for short stretches, but asks that large groups give them a heads up so they know what is going on. Turn left to head south on the pipeline, and follow the right-of-way for about a mile. Shortly after a yellow and black sign that says 7-11, start looking to the right for a 4-wheeler trail heading up into the woods. It will go around a gate and onto the powerline, follow the powerline for a while, then head up the mountain. There are no other major trails in the area, so it should be easy to find your way.
This first section of the trail goes through an unusual forest for the Copper Basin. The dominant trees are large paper birch, which only grow in a few small patches elsewhere in the Southern Valley. I’ve often wondered what conditions led to this isolated but very robust birch grove.
After several very steep stretches going up the eastern face of the mountain, the trail curves around the shoulder, and completes the climb up the southern side of the mountain. Steep sections alternate with not-quite-so-steep stretches, and great vistas abound. Right before the summit there is a level saddle with a nice alpine meadow, then the trail leads up to the communications towers at the summit. The hum of the equipment is a bit of a distraction, but the convenience of the well-built and maintained double track trail is worth putting up with a little civilization.
As well as the Wrangell Mountains and surrounding lakes and rivers, great views of the Alaska Range, Chugach, and beyond can be seen from the summit. On the long gentle slope north of Mount Drum, look for the distinctive bumps of the Klawasi Mud Volcanoes. This is also a great place to ponder the fact that a huge lake called Lake Ahtna used to fill the Copper River Valley. Glaciers blocked the gap where Woods Canyon now lets the Copper River flow through the Chugach Mountains, and the top of Willow Mountain was an island!
Once I thought I got a glimpse of Russia, but was quickly corrected, as I was looking east. So I reckon it must have been Greenland.
Copper River Stewardship Program students and staff celebrate a climb up Willow Mountain in 2015. CRSP 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.