A new trail brings access to alpine wilderness, and controversy, to Chugach State Park in Eagle River

·8 min read

Aug. 10—Chugach State Park, Eagle River, Hunter Pass, South Fork, trails

The newly constructed Muktuk Marston/Hunter Pass trail in Chugach State Park will link Arctic Valley Ski Area with Eagle River's South Fork Valley via a gentle alpine path rich with mountain views, blueberries and cranberries.

But not everyone is happy. Some South Fork Valley residents are furious about the trail, which they say will draw more people to an already dangerously overcrowded neighborhood trailhead and scar the mountainside with zigzagging switchbacks.

Last Thursday, about 45 neighbors confronted Chugach State Park officials and Eagle River state Rep. Kelly Merrick at the South Fork trailhead parking lot, rimmed with spent fireweed and dwarf spruce bleeding into tundra.

In a heated and at times acrimonious meeting that went on for more than two hours, residents lambasted officials for what they called a failure to consider their wishes.

"The public process here has failed completely," said Erik Fredeen, who lives in the area. "And people are pissed off."

As the meeting unfolded, an excavator building the controversial trail chugged across the mountainside in the distance.

Chugach State Park, Eagle River, Hunter Pass, South Fork, trails

"It's not a trail, it is a road," said Meredith Richards, who was holding a sign that said "Kelly Failed Eagle River," referring to Rep. Merrick, who had supported the trail project.

For their part, Chugach State Park officials and advocates of the project say the Muktuk Marston and Hunter Pass trails have already been used informally for decades, and that professionally built routes will make them last well into the future.

Muktuk Marston and Hunter Pass trails

The new trails will also offer something in high demand in the Anchorage area: easy access to alpine terrain.

"Novice hikers and hikers with physical constraints will be able to reach magnificent scenic parts of Chugach State Park with vistas up and down Ship Creek and across the Anchorage Bowl," wrote Blythe Marston, an advocate for the trail.

But when it comes to Anchorage's beloved backyard wilderness, change is often contentious.

Muktuk Marston trail

The 3.25-mile Muktuk Marston trail will connect the Arctic Valley trailhead to Hunter Pass, a 1-mile trail that then connects to the South Fork trailhead on West River Drive in Eagle River. The new trail threads along the western flank of Rendezvous Ridge, opening up views of Ship Creek Valley.

The trail is named after Marvin "Muktuk" Marston, a pioneer known for his role in organizing the Alaska Territorial Guard. He was also one of the developers of Arctic Valley Ski Area, a delegate to the constitutional convention and an Anchorage real estate developer.

The trails have been used informally for many years and have been part of the Chugach State Park Trail Plan since 1986, wrote Blythe Marston, the granddaughter of Muktuk Marston and a leader of the trail development project.

Chugach State Park, Eagle River, Elliot Niemi, Hunter Pass, South Fork, trails

As far back as 2005, trail advocates walked the area between Arctic Valley and Hunter Pass to "scout a hiking route that would provide access past some of the old military remnants in the area and provide scenic vistas of the upper Ship Creek Valley, Anchorage, and the Alaska Range," Marston wrote. Funding secured by U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens led to a quarter-mile overlook trail built in 2006, and the rest of the trail was routed and approved by Alaska State Parks in 2008, she wrote. The most recent Chugach State Park trail management plan included the Muktuk Marston/Hunter Pass trails for future development.

But it wasn't until 2020 that the prospect of a professionally built Muktuk Marston/Hunter Pass trail advanced, when a group including Marston approached Chugach State Park superintendent Benjamin Corwin about creating the trail.

"They identified this proposed trail in the management plan and said, how can we make this happen?" Corwin said. "And I said well, you need to raise the funds."

The 495,000-acre Chugach State Park has more than 280 miles of managed trails but no budget for new trails or maintenance of existing trails, Corwin said. The park has relied on partnerships with nonprofits to improve existing trails, like a new alignment for the Little O'Malley trail, or build new ones.

[Move over, Flattop: Little O'Malley Peak may now be the most accessible hike in Chugach State Park]

Frontcountry alpine trails are seeing "exponential" increase in use, Corwin said. Ricky Gease, the director of Alaska State Parks, estimated a 60% increase in park use statewide from 2019 to 2021.

Advocates for the trail formed a group that raised money for construction, including a $175,000 legislative grant and what Marston said amounted to $38,000 in donations from individuals and foundations. The trail is being funded through the Alaska Community Foundation.

When neighbors in the South Fork Valley got wind of the change to the trail, they quickly raised concerns to the Chugach State Park Citizen Advisory Board.

Carla Slatonbarker, Chugach State Park, Eagle River, Hunter Pass, South Fork, trails

South Fork

The South Fork Valley of Eagle River is accessible only through Hiland Road, which was blocked by an avalanche for more than a week this winter. Residents near the end of the road live where houses meet a mountain wilderness. The South Fork trailhead is the jumping-off spot for an increasingly popular hike to Eagle and Symphony Lakes.

Neighbors say they aren't NIMBYs — the trailhead's surging popularity poses a safety risk. Neighbors report that on sunny summer weekends, 100 or more cars already park up and down the road leading to the parking lot, cutting off access for emergency vehicles to turn around and clogging the road for locals.

Other issues have have left residents wary: Overuse of the trail has led to other problems like dog and human waste and noise. A small wildfire erupted near the trailhead in 2019, spooking residents. And a disastrous trail project in 2012 transformed part of the South Fork trail into something that looked and felt more like a road. The neighbors are concerned that the trail is being built to accommodate pack animals, and that eventually bikes will be allowed.

The neighbors say they heard about the new trail and jumped to participate in a long process of feedback via a half dozen Zoom meetings over the winter and spring, only to learn at the last minute that a trail design option they opposed — flatter grade and more switchbacks — was going forward.

"You just reneged on the agreement," said neighbor Suzanne Marcy at the parking lot meeting. "Poof."

Some said they only learned of the trail construction when they saw earthmoving equipment climbing over the ridge of Hunter Pass, churning earth for the trail in August.

"This is just going to be unbelievably ugly," said Patrick Fort. The steep, eroded trail will continue to be used, "and now we'll have this awful zig-zag," he said.

Chugach State Park, Eagle River, Hunter Pass, South Fork, trails

Marston said the trail design was presented at multiple public meetings and that South Fork residents had a chance to give feedback before the final decision was made. She said concerns seemed to center on two issues: the visual effect of the mountainside switchbacks and the parking lot use issue.

"The face of the existing hillside that holds the Hunter Pass Trail is already scarred by the existing deteriorating social route; making the route sustainable will limit further future damage and visual scarring," she wrote. "The (South Fork trailhead) parking lot is currently overtaxed but it is not clear that making the existing trail sustainable will necessarily increase use from the South Fork Eagle River trailhead."

Hikers coming from Anchorage will now be able to reach the South Fork valley via Arctic Valley, which has "multiple attractions in addition to hiking, and ample parking," Marston wrote.

Corwin says he ultimately picked an option that was less expensive and would hold up longer without much maintenance. The trail design is "sustainable," Corwin told the group, in part because it's a lower grade that won't erode or take as much maintenance over the years.

The meetings with the South Fork neighbors were purely consultation and the park ultimately had no obligation to follow the recommendations, Corwin said.

Corwin has been on the new trail lately. It's magnificent, he says: blueberries and cranberries everywhere, with "epically beautiful" views. Chugach State Park is special, and that's part of why people hold so tightly to it.

"If we don't manage (the park) in sustainable ways, and make facilities that can accommodate increased levels of use, in certain areas people are going to destroy the resource," Corwin said in an interview. "But it means change. Many of these people have been up in that area, in that valley for a long time. And this is change in their backyard."

Ben Corwin, Chugach State Park, Eagle River, Hunter Pass, Ricky Gease, South Fork, trails