Backpacking Alaska: Resurrection Pass

Alaskan summers have to be (and are) pretty &#£ing spectacular, or the residents would have fled south a long time ago.

I’m stretching the hours late into the night under a midnight sun to squeeze in every minute of summer fun possible.

Resurrection Pass Trail is a great beginner backpacker point to point trail. 39 well-marked miles between Hope and Sterling Hwy, summit in Resurrection Pass at a forgiving 2200 ft elevation gain, stay at any one of six great Forest Service cabins or another 8 designated campsites with bear safes. That’s right, no need to pick up an Ursack or BV 500 bear canister.  Late June and July, the pass is clear of snow and filled with wildflowers.  August through September, expect a 4 mile swath of berries and potentially some ursine company.

My friend Sam and I, and her little white dog too (Tiko, not Toto), dropped her car at the Resurrection Pass South trailhead on the Sterling Hwy 52 miles from Seward,  (Damn, I forgot the Moose is Loose bakery was just a mile or two away at this point.  Don’t make my mistake!) and drove up to the north trailhead, another 55 miles to the town of Hope.    The sun was shining, I subjected Sam to my latest Spotify playlist, Tico slept atop our hiking bags in the back window of my respectably aged Ford Focus, and Hope has cellphone reception which enabled Sam to find us a good hole in the wall coffee shop for my last fix.

The Resurrection Pass North trailhead is utterly beautiful.  The parking lot is at the edge of Palmer Creek, used for white water kayaking and packrafting drop-ins and pullouts.  A footbridge over the creek (more of a small river, really) leads to the trail, and the trail itself meanders a mile or so along the creek before beginning to climb.

Good thing, because no matter how much time I put into packing, I still tear apart my pack and redo everything at the beginning of every trail.  This time-consuming process has helped me more than once, but it must be pretty irritating to my companions.  Fortunately, Sam is an experienced outdoorswoman, but short on appropriate backpacking gear at the moment, and had to do her own repacking. Her bag was a full 20L smaller than mine, no hipbelt, she had heavier gear…I lifted it and grunted.  I have a respectable power clean–I should NOT be grunting lifting the pack of a jockey-sized woman some 85 pounds lighter than me.  That 45L pack was as dense as a neutron star.  Wasn’t much we could do about it, though I did have her try on my pack, and she grunted herself, in surprise at the comfort level.

I wasn’t worried about her.  Her pack may have been verging on painfully heavy, but though she be little, Sam be made of adamantium.  If she said she’d be fine, trust me, she’d be fine.  Plus, I’d been exceptionally lazy all winter, gained thirty pounds while Honey was dying, and knew inclines were going to require frequent stops.

We left the trailhead around  noon only after I closed and reopened every bit of my bag and car twenty times.

Resurrection Pass is approximately 18 miles of gradual up, a few flattish miles in the pass, then 18 miles gradual down with some roller coaster stuff near the end.  So the first day was an uphill hiking day to one of the designated campsites at mile 12.6.  No worries about water–you never go more than three miles without passing a stream, and there will be at least a puddle every mile or so.

First rule of camp:  set up the tents and lay out the sleeping stuff first.  Second rule of camp:  roast marshmallows.  Third rule of camp (Alaska edition): go to sleep while there is still warm sunlight.  Good thing we followed the unwritten camp rules and got some hours of sleep in before the coldest part of the night, because the predicted nighttime temperatures were off by a good 15 degrees and we froze our asses off.  Even with a hot water bottle, I was up at 4am, heating more water for hot beverages, and putting my freezing feet as close to the ultralight wood-fired cook stove as I dared.   When Sam came out of her tent, she straightened, stretched with a groan as Tico careened like a stray rocket through the woods, and said, “Let’s hike out today.”

Um.  I agreed to try, but we had 27 miles left.  Physically, ankles up, no problem.  The soles of the feet though, are not so forgiving on a first longer trip of the year.  We’d planned on 13 mile days to spare our feet.  To spare MY feet!  Like any avid hiker, I enjoy the good pain of pushing through miles, but I really hate the hiker hobble.

But what the hell. Why not try?

We felt strong and fresh at the high point of the trail five miles later, and looked at each other full of confidence.  From this point on, we’d traverse Resurrection Pass, then begin the descent, and if we felt great after the uphill, we should be fine!  We can do this!  We were so confident we immediately took a 45 minute sunshine nap.

Around this time, just so you know, is the start of prime black bear territory.  We’d passed fresh (only a few hours old) bear scat and paw prints about a mile before.  Still, we were full of confidence and equipped with Tico Alarm.

After.  Um.  Snow.  Not much, but it obscured the trail through the pass for four horrible post-holing miles over alpine tundra knolls.  Those hummocks.  I hate those moss hummocks.  The snow atop is flat, and once you break through, you MAY be atop a hummock, or you MAY drop another foot into running melt water in between the hummocks.  I’m chubby.  With small feet.  I sink through even moderately packed snow.  I postholed nearly every step I took, while Sam floated across.  I had the comfort of watching her have to carry Tico, since he is a ground sausage who can’t traverse snow either, but it was a very small comfort.

The only people I felt had it worse than me were three miserable college-aged men biking up from the Devil’s Creek trail.  They had just pushed their bikes across the same terrain, but where I had trekking poles and the option of long pants and a jacket, they were in shorts, bike shoes, and tshirts.  Their legs were scratched, their clothes and shoes were wet and dirty, and they wore matching expressions of existential despair.

You know what can dull the pain of a rough section of trail?  A good number two. Devil’s Pass (so accurately named regarding how I felt about this stretch at this point) Cabin, 21.6 miles in, had an epic outhouse view.  Sam and I each took a good 15 minutes in the outhouse, with the door open for our landscape viewing pleasure.

Afterwards, we both felt mightily refreshed.  Optimism restored, we started downhill towards Swan Lake.  Only to encounter another mile of snow.  Nooo! But other than a mildly tricky descent using kicksteps into a section of snow that lasted about 200 feet, this seemed easier because it was atop packed trail so I had firm footing somewhere down there.   Things got a little harder once we got done with the snow, because now the trail was soaking wet, so we leapfrogged hummocks on either side.  By this time, my ankles were screaming for mercy.  I hated it–my body felt great, but my ankles were aching horribly–and it was because of my extra poundage.  The laws of physics will out.  No matter how strong I make my body, my joints and connective tissue have functional limits.  If I was all strong, no fluffy useless fat, I’d be fine, but no, no, no, that useless fat was ruining me.  I had the grim feeling that I’d be the one to say “Sam, let’s stop for the night.”

Bless Tico.  He’d been chasing marmots all over the exposed portions of Resurrection Pass, and he’d been on the trail just as long as us.  He started expressing his exhaustion around mile 25 near Swan Lake.  When we came to the edge of Juneau Lake, while I hung over my trekking poles trying to take weight off my ankles, he waded into the lake and stopped, letting the icy water wash over his legs and paws.  He refused to budge for five minutes.  HE told us we needed to stop.

The designated campsites were free, but the cabins are a stupendously priced $75/night.  We passed two campsites, but they were an uphill climb and buggy as hell.  Juneau Cabin was occupied.  But ROMIG Cabin at about mile 30, just as nice but without the hillside view, was empty.  We walked in, prepped for the next morning, started a fire, laid out our bedrolls, ate dinner quickly, and passed out.

The next morning, we restocked everything we had used, cleaned the cabin until it was cleaner than before we arrived, donated a few useful items from our kits for the next users, and hit the trail.  Those 9 miles, we felt great.  Tico felt like shit.  The poor boy would lay down every chance he got, and Sam carried him as much as she could.

My last three miles went as they always do–my body realizes the trail is almost done, and starts signalling for a celebratory bowel movement.  Awkward, but definitely motivating.  I practically ran the last bit of trail, surprising us all.

Also as always, as soon as I exited the outhouse, my body had utterly forgotten the last two days and was ready to go again.

We loaded our sweaty dirty gear in the van and drove off sedately.  Sam immediately knew where we should go:  Sackett’s Kenai Grill.  Mmm.  Brisket.  Mmm.  Root beer.

Spending even 48 hours on the trail (as we had, noon to noon) makes civilization seem wondrous and a little invasive.  Hot water coming from the faucet of the bathroom of Sackett’s is vaguely astounding.  Slow-cooked soft, warm brisket is a revelation.  Driving a car at the 65 mph speed limit seems like demon speed.

We were mostly quiet on the drive back to Hope.  The sunlight was too wonderful, and neither of us quite wanted to let go of the trip–so we dangled our feet in Palmer Creek at the northern trailhead for a while, before Sam resigned herself to going back to work in Seward.  I hugged her goodbye, and after she drove off, I got in my own car and drove to Fairbanks.  That night, 458 miles later, I hugged my husband and told him I loved him.

Trail Notes: Download the Resurrection Pass Trail North and Resurrection Pass Trail South Recreation Opportunity Guide pdfs from the USDA Forest Service website.  The trail is well-marked, and best done in late June through early August to avoid snow.  Insects peak in late July and August, but that may be worth it to berry pick in the pass August and September.

This is a popular mountain biking destination, and may also be accessed via Devil’s Creek Trail.  Make it longer by crossing the Sterling Highway through the Russian Lakes campground to continue on the Russian Lakes Trail, which can be used to access the Resurrection RIVER Trail which comes out on the road to Exit Glacier within five miles of Seward.  Be aware that the Resurrection River Trail is a known bear corridor and is more akin to bushwacking than casual backpacking.  Have fun!

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