PUBLISHED: 2:47 PM on Thursday, October 26, 2006
Granite Creek Basin in the fall

Barbara Turley photo
  Hoping the fog would lift, the climbers kept moving above Granite Creek Basin toward Clark Peak.
The Granite Creek Trail forks off Perseverance Trail behind Juneau and goes up toward the Mt. Juneau Ridge. It provides easy access to the sub-alpine zone and several mountain peaks.

Granite Creek Basin is a beautiful summer hike with a great array of flowers on the hillsides and marmots and Blue Grouse among the rocks. Continuing into fall and early winter, it still provides access to the peaks as well as being a good hike itself.

Later in the winter and on into spring, hikers must be cautious of the avalanche danger. Over the years, the Juneau Alpine Club has used the Granite Creek Basin Trail as an approach or an exit for trips to Mt. Juneau, Mt. Clark, and Mt. Olds.

My husband, Kim, and I made our first visit to the Granite Creek Trail on a December day. Our 19-year-old son, John, was with us.

One of the objectives was to find someplace that we could use our snowshoes. Snowflakes softly falling that morning lured us into dressing for snow, not rain. We didn't take rain gear.

A light mist was falling as we left the car. If it hadn't gotten any worse than that, we'd have been all right with our layers of wool and polypropylene. But it did get worse. We had to gain nearly 2,000 feet of elevation before the precipitation finally turned to snow.

Barbara Turley photo
  Even without a view, a summit can be satisfying. There'll be another day to look around from the top of Clark Peak.
The Perseverance Trail was lightly snow covered, but not deeply enough to require snowshoes. Fresh tracks in the snow made us aware of squirrels, porcupines, mice and mink along the way.

We stopped awhile on one of the bridges across Gold Creek to watch a Dipper, a little black bird in the water. Even though ice lined the stream and was piled up in clear stalactites where the riffles splashed on the rocks, the dipper was jumping into the water, diving to the bottom of the stream in search of food, then popping out on an icy rock. Now and then it would trill a snatch of song before it hopped back into the water. The winter conditions didn't appear to bothering it in the least.

As the Granite Creek Trail gained elevation, the snow finally got deep enough that putting on our snowshoes was a reasonable thing to do.

The snowshoes that we used in those days didn't have the claws that they do now. It was hard to get any traction on the steep side-hill. John worked even harder than Kim and I as he tried to kick steps for us. We managed to reach a level basin floor with no one having slid into the boulder strewn stream below.

About a half mile across the basin, we started up a ridge that separated this basin from another larger one at a higher elevation. When the angle became too steep to use snowshoes, we took them off.

Barbara Turley photo
  We didn't have gaiters to keep the snow out of our boots on our first winter visit to Granite Creek Basin.
The snow had an icy layer near the top, so sinking in wasn't a problem. It was on this ridge that the precipitation finally began to be more snow than rain.

Crossing the ridge, we entered the Granite Creek Basin. Ringed by mountains on all sides, some very steep and tall, the half-mile-wide, circular center caught avalanches from every side.

Banks of snow and ice from last winter's avalanches still lay underneath this year's snow. Granite Creek cut across the basin in a straight-sided, deep channel. Beside the spot where Granite Creek cascades into the basin a white, chicken-like bird lit on the snow.

We were able to approach closely enough to determine that there were no black markings in its tail. This identified it as a White-tailed Ptarmigan. This was the first time we had ever seen this species so it was a highlight of the trip for us.

If we'd turned around there, we'd have had a much more comfortable day, but we still had half an hour before we had to turn around in order to get back to the car before dark. We decided to hike up the mountainside for a few minutes. Our legs were already wet, but our wool pants had been keeping us warm enough. On this steep mountainside, it was inevitable that lumps of snow got into the tops of our 16-inch high rubber boots every now and then. The snow melted there. By the time we'd gained the summit of the ridge, our feet were soaking in boots completely full of ice water. If we turned down the tops of the boots a little, water would run out. Though we'd dump the water out, they kept filling again during the remainder of the time that we were outside, even when we weren't walking in deep snow. Apparently, our saturated clothing was wicking the heavy rain into our boots where it collected. (If we'd been wearing gaiters, as we now would be, that wouldn't have happened. Live and learn!) Since the boots were full to overflowing, the water didn't warm up at all. We were well chilled from the strong mountain winds, but hurrying to complete our 8-mile trek prevented getting seriously cold. By the time we got back to the car, we were very thankful for the shortness of winter days. We'd had about all the outdoor fun we could stand for one day.

In the ensuring years, after the Juneau Alpine Club got started, we have occasionally visited Granite Creek Basin in the fall. Several times the Alpine Club has used the Granite Creek Trail as an access to Clark Peak. One October day we hiked to the top of Mt. Juneau, then along the ridge top all the way to Mt. Olds. We then backtracked a ways on the ridge and dropped down into Granite Creek Basin and down to Perseverance Trail.

Sometimes Granite Creek Basin is the easy part of a hike. The "Four-peak Traverse" was the name of Juneau Alpine Club's activity posted for one late November Saturday, with Kim and I listed as the leaders. The four peaks, located just east of downtown Juneau, were Clark Peak, Sheep Mountain, Mt. Roberts, and Gastineau Peak. With the limited daylight, we knew we'd need to move right along to cover this ten-mile round trip, but we knew we'd successfully done it at this season with Alpine Club a few years previously. Since the first few miles of the hike would be on the Perseverance and Granite Creek Trails where daylight wouldn't be necessary, we started hiking about 6:00 a.m. We could see the stars as we started up the trail, but sometime in the next hour and a half, as darkness turned to daylight, the clear sky disappeared. We didn't get into snow until we left the Granite Creek Trail at tree line. At the 4,050' summit of Clark Peak, we could see nothing but fog. We waited twenty minutes or so on top of the peak, hoping that the visibility might improve. By then, we were too chilled to wait any longer. Rather than attempt to go on blindly to the next peak, we headed back down the way we'd come up. By the time we were back to the Granite Creek Basin trail we were below the clouds. Dressed for the weather, we all enjoyed the wintry day.

Granite Creek in the fall is a good destination. The key to enjoying it is to realize that weather conditions there are likely to be much colder than in Juneau.