Crow Pass is famous for its incredible scenery and array of wildlife. Trail experts and beginners alike enjoy this hike, but that’s not to say it’s easy… It’s definitely considered moderately difficult with some scrambling, river fording, and encounters with wildlife. Whether or not you’re a beginner, it’s important to do your research and prepare accordingly.
- Difficulty: moderately difficult
- Location: Girdwood (roughly 45 minutes from Anchorage), Alaska
- Kid Friendly: yes (the first 3-4 miles)
- Dog Friendly: yes (bring adequate foot protection and water)
- Distance: roughly 23.1 miles one-way
- Elevation: 2100
- Season: early summer to early fall (spring and fall should be reserved for the first 4 miles – don’t cross the river in winter!). June through September is the best time to hike.
- Lat/Long: 61.0541667, -149.1144444
- Directions: If you have GPS look up “Crow Pass Trailhead.” You can start the hike in Eagle River, but it’s best and easiest to start in Girdwood. Drive on the Seward Highway heading south for roughly 45 minutes from Anchorage. At Mile 90 you’ll turn onto Alyeska Highway and drive for about two miles before taking a hard left onto Crow Creek Road. You’ll then drive for another five miles or so and turn right up the hill after crossing a bridge. You’ll find the trailhead a mile later.
For quick information, use the Alaska Gov’s convenient PDF: http://dnr.alaska.gov/Assets/uploads/DNRPublic/parks/brochures/crowpass.pdf
For those of you wondering if Crow Pass is worth all the hype, I’m here to say YES IT IS. Hills, mountains, gullies, scree, boulders, wildlife, a lake, river, glacier, and much more. This hike truly captures Alaska’s beauty without needing to venture too far from civilization.
Most beginners choose to take 3-4 days to hike Crow Pass, which honestly sounds amazing to me because there’s so much to see along the way. I could have sat and stared at my surroundings for hours on our backpacking trip, but sadly we only did an overnight so we had to push on.
You can hike Crow Pass from the Girdwood side or from Eagle River, but it’s definitely easier to go to the Girdwood side since it’s mostly downhill as compared to the other direction. You should plan to be dropped off and picked up since you’re going to end up in a different city, or you can choose to leave one car at the trailhead and another car waiting for you in the other lot. Just remember to bring cash for parking fees.
Kevin and I waited to hike Crow Pass when my cousin, Aspen, came to visit us at the end of July. This summer had been particularly rainy so we wanted to go when it was less likely to be wet and muddy. Especially since we had to cross a pretty hefty river.
Luckily our friend Raven was generous enough to drive us to the trailhead in Girdwood. We figured we’d be able to hitchhike or call someone for a ride when we reached the other end, so we planned the trip with that in mind. As we talked about the hike on the drive up, a black bear ran across the road and jumped into the trees. A perfect omen for an Alaskan adventure.
The first four miles of the hike were fairly easy, though we worked up a big sweat because the trail was exposed and mostly uphill. At one point the trail led up a massive hill of rocks and scree that left us breathless and dripping sweat everywhere. We stopped at a small waterfall to rest before ascending the final trail up to Crystal Lake. Up in the distance we noticed three mountain goats climbing down the hill. We wanted to hurry and reach them, but poor Zuko didn’t want to move.
Zuko is usually ready for anything. We’ve never heard him whine on a hike, limp from overexertion, or refuse to move. But after only three miles he seemed exhausted and limped slightly. I immediately poured water on him to cool him down, encouraged him to drink more, and checked his paws. He didn’t whine when I touched anything and his paws didn’t look worn, so we decided to gage his energy levels once we got to Crystal Lake.
As we hiked up the hill, we watched in awe as the mountain goats fearlessly walked closer to the trail. Kevin walked further ahead and gasped before ushering us over. To say we get excited about wildlife is a severe understatement. We turned the corner and maybe ten feet away was a small mountain goat family with a male, female, and baby. After spending 30 or so minutes watching the goats, they ran down the hill and we walked over to Crystal Lake. Zuko happily met other hikers who told us that there were more mountain goats around the bend. We decided to venture on since Zuko seemed well rested and excited to move, plus we didn’t want to lose too much time. Along the trail we happily watched the other two male goats drink some water and then took a few photos of nearby arctic ground squirrels.
A while later we made it to a great viewing spot of Raven Glacier. We took a few photos then quickly moved on since the katabatic wind didn’t feel too amazing on our old sweat.
I wish I could give you a beautiful and accurate account of what we saw on our way to the river crossing, but honestly there’s a certain zone your brain goes on backpacking trips that leaves little room for precise recollection. We climbed up and down rocky portions, walked through fields of grass taller than our heads, crossed muddy patches, and spotted several campsites along the way. We also spotted fresh bear scat all along the 23-mile excursion, as well as five bears in the distance.
We spent our time chatting off and on, but mostly exclaimed, “Hey, Bear!” frequently since the backcountry is their home and we didn’t want to surprise any bears along the way. After that got old we started to throw the word “bear” into popular songs. For example, Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl” turned into “I Kissed A Bear.”
There’s one creek crossing and bridge crossing around the area surrounded by the camping spots clumped together. We reached the creek crossing and decided to take a break and eat some lunch. When we were ready to move on, a couple with their two dogs showed up not too far behind us. The water was at our knees but not a big deal to cross. The couple behind us, on the other hand, seemed shaky and nervous about crossing. Kevin handed the guy one of his trekking poles to help out and he happily used it. However, he didn’t hand it to his girlfriend and instead watched her clumsily cross with both hands holding onto their dogs’ collars. We said our goodbyes and moved on, hoping they wouldn’t have to use the bear spray carelessly packed into a tight space on their backpack.
The bridge crossing was especially beautiful with a sizable waterfall rushing down below. We took a few photos then crossed, with Zuko being carried like a prince by Kevin to avoid hurting his paws on the metal spikes. We walked on just as that other couple showed up with their dogs.
Maybe 20 or so minutes passed with bear-themed song remakes as we walked through grass taller than our shoulders. Suddenly, I glanced up and saw a massive bull moose staring at us only a few feet away. We immediately ran in the opposite direction and waited until he decided to venture on.
We eventually made it to a group of campsites near the river, feeling utterly exhausted after a long and eventful day. We could hear the rushing water so we figured we were close enough to fill up some GRAYL filtering bottles. We dropped our packs, grabbed some dinner, and headed off toward the river. We walked 300 or so yards from our campsite and realized the river was further than we thought. We decided to stop and eat some food while we were far from camp and find the river the next morning.
After properly cleaning our dinner area and hiding the bear canister between some boulders off trail, we headed back to camp. But when we got there, that couple we had bumped into earlier were only a couple feet from our packs. They sat next to their tent eating beef jerky and freshly cooked dehydrated meals.
We were shocked. This backpacking trip is famous for bear encounters, so bear safety is the last thing that should be taken lightly. We informed them they should be eating at least 100 yards from camp, but the guy only replied with, “Huh, I guess that would be a good idea.”
The three of us decided to move on to a new site, even though moving was the last thing we wanted to do. As we threw our packs on we watched the couple throw their food supply and fresh trash into a Febreze garbage bag and carry it away. We walked past and noticed that they were only about 50 yards from their camp spot. They were trying to figure out how to tie the bag in a tree. We shook our heads and tried to help, but they didn’t seem interested or worried. We moved on and sighed as they gave up on tying the bag in the tree and opt for hiding it under some rocks. Fun Fact: bears know how to move rocks and tear open garbage bags.
As luck would have it, we ended up finding the river about a half-mile after our dinner spot and immediately set up camp so we could pass out. We just hoped the couple behind us didn’t have any visitors that night.
The next morning we packed up camp and found a spot by the water to eat a quick breakfast. We passed by fresh bear scat, but we were more troubled by the flies eating us alive. They kept biting Aspen and me and flew around Kevin relentlessly. We ate quickly and headed to the designated crossing area. To our dismay, the water level was exceptionally high even though it was morning. Since we had a rainy summer, the river rushed harder and higher than normal. We worried we wouldn’t be able to cross. But turning back would be even harder since the terrain steeped upwards most of the 13 miles back to the trailhead, so we decided to push on.
Kevin unbuckled his pack, grabbed the trekking poles, and began to wade across the water with a steady side shuffle. He followed the instructions posted on a sign and tried to reach the campers on the other side. The water rose to his stomach at the deepest point, which made us all nervous. Would Aspen and I be able to cross? Would Zuko be okay?
Kevin dropped off his pack and waded back to us. He told me that the campers were actually my friends from work and they had a towel and tequila waiting for us on the other side. He grabbed Zuko in his arms and slowly made his way across, followed by Aspen and me.
The water was excruciatingly cold thanks to glacial runoff, but the 100 or so feet made it even more unbearable. Our feet became numb almost instantly and each step felt uneasy and strained against the rough current and slippery rocks beneath. By the time we reached the deepest portion, our legs were shaking from the force. We leaned our entire weight into the current but still felt like we would tip back.
Kevin held Zuko by his Ruffwear harness at the deepest portion and helped steer him to the shore. He comforted Zuko and then for the fourth time jumped back into the freezing water, this time to make sure Aspen and I could make it across.
Deep inside I felt scared about my footing and thought I might fall, but I remained calm and confident for Aspen. She started to panic slightly and look back, saying, “I want to go back. I can’t do it. I can’t do it!”
“You can do it!” I yelled over the roaring water. “Just one step at a time. We’ll do it together, okay? One. Two. One Two.” I chanted instructions and encouragement continuously, knowing that the only thing harder than making it across would be turning back around. Kevin jumped behind her with his arms outstretched, offering extra support in case her pack tipped her backwards.
We began our crossing at 10am and all made it safely to the other side by 10:45am. We huffed, shivered, and forcefully dried ourselves off in an attempt to bring back some warmth. Tequila helped.
When our bodies felt relaxed again, we talked to my friends Britney and Brian. Running into each other on the trail felt serendipitous and we were happy to see familiar faces. We swapped stories about the wildlife we encountered and the long stretches of hiking. They told us about how they only drank water along the way from a filtered straw while we held gallons on our packs. Their method definitely shaved off some pounds, but it also meant they went long stretches without water.
Though their best story was about a mama black bear and her cub. Britney and Brian found a place to camp near the river the night before but stumbled across the bears. They gave the bears space and made a ton of noise, but the mom and cub didn’t show any signs of leaving. In fact, they made a point to stand their ground. At this point the sun was dipping into the horizon and they didn’t want to hike back, so they decided to cross the freezing river at night. After a long and cold battle across the rocks, they finally made it to the other side and set up camp. They used body heat and whiskey to warm up and fell right to sleep.
But the best part of the story was where they pointed. Turns out the bears were wandering around in the exact spot we chose to camp that night, just two hours before we walked into the area. We laughed and felt lucky that the bears left the area before we rolled into camp.
Just then, we saw the couple from the night before and their two dogs walk up to the shore across the river. Our stomachs dropped. Their inability to cross a simple creek the day before made us wary that they’d be able to cross a strong river, let alone with two large dogs.
Instead of testing the waters first like Kevin did, the guy kept his pack strapped on and grabbed one of his dogs. He faced the wrong direction, didn’t have a trekking pole or walking stick for balance, and took a step into a current instead of the shallow beginning section. He immediately slipped, using his dog as leverage to get up. His poor dog kept getting his head dunked under water until the guy’s girlfriend came to their rescue.
We yelled as loudly as we could over the rushing river, urging them to read the instructions posted on the sign. Luckily they read the board, but we weren’t so sure it’d help. The guy tried again, this time facing the right direction. But he kept slipping, falling, and shoving his dog’s face into the water. After watching him try to cross the river a few more times, the three of us decided to say goodbye to Britney and Brian and head on. We didn’t want to watch that couple try anymore.
We walked another one to two miles through marsh-like land, trying to find a trail through the flooded trees. When we made it to tall grass we noticed a trigger guard from a bear spray can. Since you only pull those off when you’re using bear spray, we were on high alert. We bellowed out “bear” continuously and kept a steady pace. Suddenly, we heard a loud rustling in the brush. We held our bear spray cans at the ready, called out to any bears, and briskly walked down the trail.
We stayed ready for action over the next two miles until we ran into a hiker. He told us that he met some other hikers about 20 minutes ahead of us, and they told him that they sprayed a charging bear that morning. We thought about the trigger guard we found and realized that rustling sound could have been the same bear coming back to the territory he tried protecting earlier that morning.
Just like before, we zoned out the rest of our hike in a happy blur. We ended up running back into Britney and Brian again around lunchtime where they told us that the inexperienced couple ended up turning back around after trying to cross a few more times. We said our goodbyes again, hiked for hours, and then ran into them again. We figured why not hike as a larger group and spent the rest of the day hiking together. A large portion of the hike was pretty flooded so we ended up hiking around the main trail, roughly an extra four to five miles.
We were insanely exhausted near the end, but it didn’t matter. We felt happy about our incredible adventure and all the sights we got to see along the way. We even got offered a ride back home from Britney and Brian, who we thanked with some craft beers.
The only downfall to this trip was once we got home, our poor limping dog couldn’t walk. We looked at his paws and felt our hearts drop. They were rubbed raw! Luckily they didn’t bleed, but we definitely had to clean them up, add some ointment to the wounds, and wrap them up. Kevin even had to carry him up and down the stairs to help him go outside to pee, though that was mainly due to his sore legs. We made sure to pamper him with treats, pets, massages, and tuna-flavored water. He was fine again in a week but his pain was a good lesson to us. Next time we take him on such a strenuous journey, we’ll make sure he wears Ruffwear booties on the rocky sections, has pad wax for the rest, and has enough breaks to rest his tired legs.
All in all, Crow Pass is the best backpacking trip we’ve done so far. We can’t wait to go back and try it again!