Crow Pass Crossing: Silence before the storm

A preview of the sights that race runners will be too busy to enjoy

The 22nd Crow Pass Crossing on July 16 pits runners against each other and against a 24-plus mile course that climbs to nearly 3,600 feet, past millions of wildflowers, mine ruins, alpine tundra, beautiful Crystal Lake, cascading and thundering waterfalls, imposing Raven Glacier and Eagle River.

Not that they’ll get to enjoy any of it. As runners do, they will have tunnel vision on the trail a few feet in front of them and be oblivious to everything except a chance encounter with a bear, and of Eagle River when they are forced to cross it in a thigh-deep bone-chilling ford.

I, on the other hand, thought I would check out the sights before race-day so I could stop and smell the flowers, and appreciate the great scenery this trail has to offer.

The fastest way to see the most sights is to head south to Girdwood and then take Crow Creek Road to the trail head. This approach is only 1,900 vertical feet and 3.5 miles to the pass as opposed to nearly 3,000 feet and 20 miles from the Eagle River side.

Western columbines and wild geraniums are prolific along the shrubs in the early stretches of the trail. These flowers have finished blooming at the lower elevations. Once you hit the scree slopes, Jacob’s ladder and dwarf fireweed are the dominant flowers. Common fireweed hasn’t started to bloom in the higher regions just yet. When up in this region, keep an eye out for rusting remnants of a mine that operated until the 1940s. The trail below the mine was the only area thick with bugs during my visit. Hike fast through this stretch of trail.

Once you reach the blooming yellow Ross’ avens, blue forget-me-nots and several waterfalls you have just a bit more steep climbing before reaching the pass. The pass will be obvious as you see the Forest Service cabin (prior reservations required) resting above partially-frozen Crystal Lake. Many snow fields are pink with algae.

Crow Glacier, which appears on the current United States Geological Survey map which was last updated in 1960, has receded around the corner and is no longer visible from the cabin, but you can catch a glimpse of the remaining glacier as you continue north several hundred yards. Never mind. Continue another half-mile north of the cabin until you reach the trail sign for Crow Pass and rewarding views of Raven Glacier. Keep an eye out for the occasional moss campion and mountain harebell blooming close to the ground.

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The glacier and surrounding snowfields have receded in comparison with my previous photos in 2002, but the views are still impressive and the glacier is still very dangerous. Stay away unless you have the proper equipment and training for glacier travel.

This is the turn-around point for most people, unless you wish to do some exploring on some of the smaller peaks in the region. I reached this point in two hours, including stops to take photos. Race runners have 60 minutes to reach the pass or be dropped from the race. They will also be dropped from the official results if they don’t cross the finish line within six hours.

On the way back, you may notice a second trail splitting off to the left. Both trails converge below the mine ruins. The day I hiked to Crow Pass, there were many other hikers and no signs of bears. As the summer turns to fall and the berries ripen, make plenty of noise and carry your spray, as I’ve seen piles of bear scat a foot in diameter on the trail below the mine.

If you’re running the race on the 16th, good luck. You may want to hike the trail again to see what you missed.