This is my second post from Southeast Alaska, almost 1,000 miles up the Northwest coast on the northern edge of the same temperate rainforest ecosystem that historically stretched all the way south into northern California.
“If we’re going to hike up Mt. Riley, we should go today,” says Marilyn, mindful of the ever-changing Southeast Alaska weather. This late June morning has blessed us with clear blue skies and eye-popping views of Inside Passage mountains top heavy with glaciers, some tumbling down to the sea.
“Let’s go for it,” I reply. Good thing we do because this turns out to be the only sunny day during a week here.
After a filling breakfast of pancakes drizzled with homemade spruce tip syrup (thank you Ron!) on the deck at Chilkat State Park’s campground host cabin, we drive a few miles toward Haines. When we park across the street from the trailhead off Mud Bay Road, just one other vehicle is there this morning.
We start in dense forest void of underbrush, but within 15 minutes hit marshy bogs. The lush green flora that line the boardwalk portions of the trail resemble that of a tropical jungle. I remind myself that the Tongass is a temperate rainforest. Huge devil’s club with leaves the size of large platters, massive shiny skunk cabbage, and horsetails on steroids sprout tall from the muddy soil and brush against our arms and legs as we walk past.
This far north, the trail traverses from nearly sea level up through a few different plant zones to a subalpine meadow and scrubby little pine trees at the 1,760-foot Mt. Riley summit. (In the Cascades of Oregon and Washington we don’t see subalpine plants until about 3,000 feet above sea level.)
After an hour of hiking up the sometimes steep and narrow trail, a distinctive sound resonates through the forest, like a big South American-style wind pipe blowing in short bursts. “Tree frog? Toad?” we both guess.
At the trailhead, we passed a weathered gray wood sign that said 2.1 miles to the summit. When we finally reach the edge of the forest near the top, we see another sign that says it’s 2.8 miles down to the trailhead and another quarter mile to the summit. So this must be a 6+-mile hike instead of a 4.2-mile hike. But more mileage makes for more exercise, so it’s fine by me.
With craggy, glacier-covered mountains peeking above the trees in every direction around the open meadow, our pace picks up as we scramble the last short stretch to the top.
Up here on this glorious Alaska day, the 360-degree view reveals narrow fingers of turquoise sea ringed by jagged peak after peak thrusting skyward. It’s incredible, stunning, spectacular, magnificent, amazing, awesome, and all the superlatives I know. So what do I blurt out?
“Oh my gosh, it’s so f**cking beautiful!” I shout after reaching the rounded rocky summit. (But hey, it’s Alaska!)
I’m so grateful to be on this mountain top today when the sky is blue, the sun is shining, and it’s tank-top warm.
Now this is a peak experience.
When You Go
The parking and trailhead to Mt. Riley on Mud Bay Road just outside Haines is easy to miss, so click here for better directions and a map. Bring water, a bear spray cannister (this is grizzly/brown bear country), and insect repellent. My campground host/friend Marilyn recommends Skin-so-Soft, which is nontoxic and worked well for us. We took our time so I wouldn’t reinjure my ankle tripping over one of the many roots on the trail, stopped for water breaks, and lingered on the summit, so up and back took us about 5.5 hours.