Story last updated at 6/19/2014 - 2:31 pm
Summer in Southeast Alaska is a buffet of opportunity. With an extensive road system, Prince of Wales Island is one of the featured destinations for visitors with wheels. It has no tourist hub, center, dock, strip or district, which is what locals like most about it. What it does have is roads. At the ends or just off these roads are some outstanding trails.
It's tough making lists, because revealing bests means there's a chance you're going to ruin the best part about it. My favorite two hikes are routes to great hunting spots. The August version of myself would want to break my laptop if he discovered a printed copy of this column with directions to my favorite trail because August Jeff will be hunting deer there. However, another great thing about POW is that the hikes aren't all about elevation, difficulty or views. Just because the trail undulates into a rough circle and never escapes the forest doesn't make it a bad hike.
Anyway, for anyone who visits the island and is looking for some places to walk around, here are five good ones, some of which you can do in the same day. In fact, if you really want to earn a deliciously greasy pizza in Craig, you could knock out three (20-mile spur, Harris Interpretive Trail and One Duck) in the same day.
20-Mile Spur Trail
The 20-mile spur trail, roughly halfway between Klawock and Hollis, is a great starting point to get some serious access to some of the tallest peaks on the island. However, the 1.3-mile trail stops before you gain more than 100 feet. The canopy created by alders that line the road-turned-trail make for a pretty venture into second growth forest and toward the headwaters of the fresh Harris River. It's only after the trail ends and you start following trail tape and a river wash do you get to the base of the mountains. From that point it's all on your own, pretty much straight up. If you are sticking to the trail, it is pretty, but don't expect views unless you continue past the maintained section. Follow the trail tape, but make sure you see the next marker before you leave the previous one because the woods are thick and it's easy to get disoriented.
Harris River Interpretive Trail
My youth was spent following game trails to the river or to the top of alpine peaks. Prince of Wales is now loaded with official trails taking visitors deep into the woods and educating them. The Harris River Interpretive Trail is a half mile loop through a restored river and forest area. Much of the area in the Harris drainage is second growth and it was this logging that damaged habitat. The river was far from devastated, as there are still quality runs of salmon, but the project was aimed at improving tributaries and spawning grounds for salmon and trout. There is also an on-going study in different types of tree-thinning to encourage forest health which is explained on one of the small trail kiosks. Bears also like the trail. During the 45-minute meander all around the area, I found eight piles of bear scat - some buggy fresh, others a couple days old.
One Duck is a 1.25 mile trail which gains 1,100 feet before reaching a shelter and a muskeg surrounded by the Klawock Mountains. The trailhead is a few miles down the Hydaburg road and composed completely of gravel and wooden steps. The elevation is gained quickly with switchbacks. Before poking above the treeline there are fantastic views.
The forest service rates the hike "most strenuous" and recommends at least 90 minutes to get up it. I get up and down in 75, but I like to run down. The key to this trail is to not leave your water bottle in the car, especially when hamstrings burn and dehydration sets in.
Salt Chuck Mine
I hesitate to call this a hike, because it's just a walk down a gravel road, but the old trail is still there if you feel like getting horribly muddy. The new trail is still east from the Goose Creek turnoff by Thorne Bay, but you continue on the road until you reach the obvious pull-out. That's not all that's changed.
The rail carts, equipment and debris at Salt Chuck mine used to have the look of sudden stoppage, like there had been an abduction, or disaster. Eerie.
The trail through the woods is terribly sloppy - which is appreciated by my inner 4-year old - then opens up at the shore. You really got the feeling that something happened here.
With views of the city of Craig and island separating protected waters from the Gulf of Alaska, the hike up Sunnahae is one of the most popular on the island. The hike can be divided into four unequal sections - steps and switchbacks, muskeg #1, muskeg #2 and the ridge. The first is up the face behind Craig and takes you through second growth forest which occasional bucolic views. On the first part of the lower section, the muddy trail and steps have been replaced by gravel switchbacks which are still strenuous. There is little relief so within fifteen minutes you can hear your pulse and that of your companions. The construction ends maybe halfway up the first section of the mountain and the old trail and steps resume.
Wooden planks take you across the first muskeg to another short jaunt up and through a section of forest before the second muskeg. The trail then becomes less obvious. There are no planks on the second muskeg so it can be difficult figuring out exactly where the trail down is. Little bits of trail tape mark points that makes sense to some and confuse others. If you continue up, you hit the last section of the hike which takes a little over an hour.
Reduced traffic on this last section makes the hiking trail look like nothing more than a game trail at this point. Look for the notecard-sized signs that say Sunnahae Trail.
The trail traces the ridgeline above the treeline and the views once again become spectacular. Weather can descend quickly and turn the alpine to a confusing mess with almost no visibility. There aren't any sheer cliffs, but there are plenty of very, very steep slopes over which a tumble would be more than a bummer.
Upon reaching the top, you'll see that you're not alone. There is a station up there with a little helipad and weather instruments, but if you ignore all that, and look down at the soaring eagles, you won't mind.