• Mineshaft Grinder August 11thSIGN UP

Renegade Trails of the Kenai Mountains

By Erik Johnson

This is the Chugach National Forest. So of course, there is a gate without any sign marking a trail that leads off into the wilderness. Maybe it’s a historic mining route, or a prime backcountry ski access in the winter? All over the Kenai there are unmarked trails to get you into the heart of the Chugach.

When I worked at the Chugach National Forest as a Backcountry trail ranger, my supervisor used the term Renegade trails for all the unofficial routes that the community uses and creates. I feel like the official trails tend to travel through a corridor moving towards a destination like a lake or a cabin. Renegade routes go up mountains or connect places that aren’t accessible within the confines of existing trails.  

Made of earth and rock and people’s urge to move through the corridor, some of these trails get destroyed by beavers, or fall floods, avalanches, or disuse. Sometimes we use trails in some places so much that a second or third trail springs up. Yet the more remote trails are, the more they require the attention of people with tools. Without the will of a community to pound out the encroaching army of mother nature these trails will recede to memories.  Some places demand to be seen and used, with or without a sign, or an organized crew with tools, because people and wild animals need to flow towards an area.

Bears, moose and furry critters, along with the tall grassiness. You think – who was here before me? An ancient wonder makes us feel as though we are the nomadic early human hunters, or Pioneers, mountain men, instead of adventurers with GPS access. Mushroom spores wafting through the rich, earthy smells of animal scat and wild berry bushes. Mist and clouds smothering the light. Soggy wet leaves and recent prints in mud reminding you that you are not alone.

The Thought occurs – I wonder how I get out on that ridge.  And you’re hooked. The Land has you in its dip net. The Landscapes have the power to transport me from the domestic concerns to magically alive corridors of peace and presence. I have several times wondered if I should keep going or turn back knowing I would surely die and be missing for days if I didn’t turn around. The Lure of nature calls even more profoundly on the unmarked user trails when you have intentionally used the proverbial road less taken.

The guidebook’s 10 best hikes on the Kenai are must-do destinations. The book will recommend Lost Lake trail rather than the obscure Bear Hayden trail at mile 7 in the Old Mill subdivision in Seward. What I love about the unadvertised user-maintained route, like Bear Hayden, is the ability to transport into the heart of the wilderness. That is a Renegade trail’s main objective.

Backcountry routes stir the imagination while late spring blooms, and I dream of what might be possible each summer. Lists emerge with the far-fetched ideas of discovering ridge tops. Palmer Creek to Bear Creek? A new Loop from Alyeska, Russian Gap to Slaughter Gulch, or that route by No Name Creek in Seward.

 How do you find the route up that one? You might get an answer from an acquaintance.

– “Take a left after the 4th giant muddy puddle then follow the trampled blueberry bushes.”

– “Park at the pull out, cross the road and look for a USFS sign nailed to a tree.”  

– “Park behind a gate on a 20% grade single lane road and hike past the 3 active mining claims, then just follow the game trail up to the saddle.”

Many of Seward’s mountains have renegade routes. Bear Mountain, Tie Hacker, Alice Ridge, Spruce Ridge, Mt. Eva. These trails don’t have an end point. You can keep going until you reach a point where you must use your sense of adventure and tolerance for exposure to decide how to proceed. I can keep going, I have energy. Or I am not ready to climb like a mountain goat today. Few and far between are the loops where you aren’t doubling back. I prefer the rarer routes that take me on an adventure and bring me back in a circle in the sky.

When trails aren’t marked with a sign or listed in guidebooks, like Colorado Creek, who decides to use them? I would argue that these routes are there for the pioneer spirit in all of us. To appease the glimmer in our eye and the hunt for epic gems and memories of discovering the rare place. The collectors of the Chugach.

You can get to where Colorado Creek goes to by using the Summit Creek trail. You can discover a mountain ridge line from Palmer Creek in Hope or from East Creek cabin, yet why use the trail? Taking a renegade route provides an experience with less people, in a more wilderness terrain. Beyond Fresno Creek lies access to Mountain ridges and adventures beyond. To love the Kenai Mountains, I need to know it all to find its nuanced history and secrets.

The Spaceship route was named after a cool spaceship sign that was the attention-grabbing waypoint marking the spot to leave the Hope Point trail to take a ramshackle user-made connector. To descend back to the start on a different ridge is a fantastic adventure. It takes us beyond the realm of the familiar signed trail system just long enough to bring the tour  back to an intergalactic experience that staying on a built trail can hide. Bring me to the unknown, out of the comfort zone so I can find the edge of practicing self-reliance and risking uncertainty.

I saw more goats than humans, the Bears bigger than Volkswagen buses. Sometimes as you talk with like-minded acquaintances, the laugh arises as you remember how alive you felt as you were out exploring. 

I’m in a Government rig.

”We were up Cecil Rhode Mountain this weekend,” my coworker says. “Haven’t you done that one?

”I never found my way over there,” I say. “Just across the bridge there was a dandy ridge climb, Slaughter Gulch, with its stereotypical turnaround. I heard Cecil can be a loop. Just don’t try to descend to Cooper Lake. Stay on the ridge and stay left.”

Cecil Rhode Mountain is the king of loops. You climb a route that most people turn around on but instead keep going because  the user made egress on the eastern side of the ridge line allows a traveler to circle back to near their starting place. I know many great goat ridges in the Seward area. Many of them require a rather ambitious fitness and experience level. Spending long periods of time in such places it would be hard to get help. 

The Cecil Rhode Mountain loop is never dangerous. Unless you need water, or the snow seems a bit slick near the high point. So, compare it to Girdwood’s 16-mile Penguin Ridge traverse, which is likely to take double the time due to less formal user route on the eastern side and more severe ridge scrambling. On Cecil you get a slice of remote ridge line without the all-day exhaustion. When views open upon both Kenai and Cooper Lakes, you might wonder if there is a way down to them. You realize that you could perhaps trudge off to the south, but it would not be fun to crawl through dense alders. So you enjoy the renegade trail workers’ path and accept the ridge line back to the trees.

Maybe it’s not my place to drop names in the renegade trail builders association. I have been out there into the dusk of late summer, in a rainstorm, trying to beat in the trail I love. I get how private and special it is to work with the land. To feel its beating heart and to be caught like a netted salmon in the fever of a special place.

Find me a route that comes out behind that mountain. Let me see what is on the other side of that ridge. Get me back before exhaustion and weakness make me food for the mosquitos, bears and coyotes.


-Erik Johnson

Erik Johnson is a parent, athlete, artist and public lands worker who would love to explore more of the Chugach on foot.