By Melissa DeVaughn
|A U.S. Forest Service and Alaska Railroad dream long in the making is one step closer to fruition this summer as Forest Service trail crew members work to connect two Whistle Stops via a hiking trial. The Spencer Glacier and Grandview whistle stops will be connected by an 8- to 10-mile trail, making it a doable day trip or overnight destination. Taking the train from the depot just outside of Girdwood is a convenient way to access this unique destination, and can add another level of fun to a Girdwood getaway.|
Spencer Glacier has been developed with hiking, tent and cabin camping and sightseeing options for nearly 10 years, but just south of there, the Grandview Whistle Stop has remained more quiet, said Graham Predeger with the U.S. Forest Service’s Glacier Ranger District. While Grandview has an outhouse, covered pavilion and short hiking path to a viewing platform, it tends to remain the Whistle Stop used by more experienced backpackers extending their treks into trail-less wilderness.
“Grandview offers an incredible jumping-off point for seasoned backcountry travelers who want to hike deeper into the wilds of Alaska and away from the road system,” he said. “Savvy backcountry travelers could put together a multiday trip from Grandview involving trails, bush whacking and pack rafting the Trail River into the community of Moose Pass.”
As work continues this summer to help connect the trails, Predeger said the Forest Service – and other participating organizations such as the Alaska Wilderness Huts Association and the Alaska Railroad – are keeping their eye on the ultimate goal: “In the future the Whistle Stops will be connected by 30 miles of trails,” he said.
For now, thru-access to the trails is not possible because two bridges still need to be constructed to make the path complete, Predeger said.
“Once the trail between Spencer Glacier and Grandview Whistle Stops is complete, an overnight (or multi-night) backpacking trip on the trail will be an option,” he said. “Probably the most popular egress option out of either Whistle Stop is via pack raft. From Spencer, it’s a mellow Class I-II float to the Seward Highway via the Placer River. From Grandview, the trail is a couple mile hike (bushwhack) to the Trail River and an overnight float out on the Trail River (class II-III) to Moose Pass.”
The Alaska Railroad’s Whistle Stop service has been popular for as long as the corporation has been offering it. The unique “ride a train to the wilderness and hop off” aspect of the Whistle Stop makes it a conversation starter for visitors and a once-in-a-lifetime activity. Three concessionaires with special-use permits through the Forest Service are set up at Spencer Glacier to offer activities such as rafting, ice climbing and guided hiking, and they stay booked during the tourist season.
For seasoned outdoorsy Alaskans, though, the added cost of accessing the backcountry via train can seem prohibitive. Predeger said don’t let the price tag (in the neighborhood of $125) deter you. Not only does the area offer some unparalleled views, but the train ride also takes away the long hike from a road system to reach some truly untouched land. The price also beats air or water taxis, which are the other modes of reaching backcountry easily.
“The Spencer Trail leads to the rugged Kenai Mountains and a spectacular view of the Spencer Glacier with an option to continue to the edge of the glacier,” he said. “This area is home to abundant birds, wildflowers, and wildlife including moose, and black and grizzly bears.
“The Spencer Glacier stop in particular is an easy first step folks can take to get a true remote backcountry experience without an air taxi or water taxi,” he said, adding that the flat, relatively easy trail, at just over 3 miles, is a great experience for families with kids. “Once the train leaves for the day it can feel quite remote.”
Alicia King, U.S. Forest Service Glacier ranger District spokeswoman, said the Spencer-Grandview connection is being funded through its long-term partnership with the Alaska Railroad, and trail work is being done by youth crews and volunteers. It’s a long-term project that is making progress, one mile at a time.
“As the trail crew actively builds trail north from the Grandview stop, several dispersed camping sites are being identified that will be developed between the two Whistle Stops,” she said. “These will be on a first- come, first-serve basis. Alaska Huts also has proposed building one to three cabins along this route.”
Even though trail work is not complete, Predeger said there is no reason to wait. Most visitors come for just a day trip, but his favorite way to enjoy the area is to spend two or three nights at the Spencer Glacier site to see everything there is to see.
“Once the train leaves for the day, campers are left in this vast valley virtually alone until the next train arrives the following day,” he said. “My personal favorite thing to do out there is to camp in the valley, do a day hike up to the Spencer Bench Cabin on day two for berries, mushrooms, wildflowers and spectacular views. Then return to the valley and for a mellow three- to four-hour float back to the Seward Highway. That would be a two- to three- day trip depending if you overnight halfway through your float down the Placer River.”