Wrangell - St. Elias National Park
MAPS: USGS Quadrangle Maps - McCarthy B-4, C-4, C-3 1:62,260 and McCarthy 1:250,000
DISTANCE: Approximately 25 miles one-way or 50 miles round-trip
TIME: Five to eight days, depending on side trips planned and route to be taken
ELEVATION: From 4,500 ft. at Lower Skolai Lake to 5,800 ft. at Chitistone Pass to 2,340 ft. at Glacier Creek
ACCESS: From Gulkana, Chitina or McCarthy via local air taxi service to Lower Skolai Lake Airstrip and Glacier Creek Airstrip
From the Lower Skolai Lake Airstrip, it is a 1,300-ft. climb to Chitistone Pass. From the pass, the route follows a highly scenic and rugged alpine valley. Camping on the margin of the large lake at Chitistone Pass is not recommended so as to avoid disturbing fragile vegetation communities and breeding bird populations. The Goat Trail can be picked up on the northerly side of the valley, although the actual trail may not be apparent for some distance beyond the pass. The narrow Goat Trail crosses some difficult and steep scree slopes, and careful footing is of utmost importance. There are 2 parallel Goat Trail routes, an Upper and a Lower Goat Trail. While the Upper Goat trail must still be traversed with the utmost of care, it is generally less dangerous than the Lower Goat trail. The Lower Goat Trail has several rockslide areas that can be very dangerous to cross and thus an attempt should be made to locate the upper Goat Trail.
When hiking the Chitistone Trail south down the Chitistone Canyon, the Upper and Lower Goat trails diverge just past the midway point of the hike. After crossing an unnamed creek (McCarthy QuatC-4, Township 4S, Range 18E, Section 5), the trail ascends steeply up a dirt slide area that has a 45-degree slope, then continues zigzagging for a short ways up the slope. At the end of the zigzag portion, the trail winds around a bend and can be seen to be continuing across more scree slopes. While it may not be obvious, the divergence between the Upper and Lower Goat Trail is visible at this point. Approximately 30 ft. beyond this point, the upper trail traverses through an area of black volcanic rock. Once the Upper trail branches off, it passes through a red and sandy colored sediment layer above the black layer. The Lower Trail beyond this point is extremely dangerous due to the very steep slopes, narrow, unstable trail and rock slides that periodically obliterate the trail. The Upper and Lower trails eventually join again and travel around the head of the Chitistone Canyon.
The Chitistone Trail/Goat Trail then descends to the canyon floor along the north side of the Chitistone River. Here, one must cross to the south side of the Chitistone River. Generally, this is accomplished by crossing the creek that proceeds from the Chitistone Falls and then crossing the terminus of the Chitistone Glacier. Great care should be taken when traversing the glacier. The other option is to cross the Chitistone River during rare occasions when flow conditions permit. Once across the river, the route follows the Chitistone Canyon to the southwest, crossing a rockslide area and sections of dense brush before reaching Toby Creek. Toby Creek must be forded and it can be a fairly difficult crossing during periods of high water. Hiking upstream several miles to find a safer crossing may be necessary. From Toby Creek it is a 4-mile hike to the Glacier Creek Airstrip.
From Lower Skolai Lake Airstrip it is a 1,300-ft. climb to Chitistone Pass. From the east end of the airstrip, hike southeast towards the pass, staying between the brush and the hillside to your right. After approximately 1.5 miles you will cross a small stream below a waterfall coming off the pass. After crossing the stream, hike another few hundred yards before beginning to climb up to the pass. There is no discernible trail until you reach the first plateau above. The trail slowly diagonals back toward the stream you crossed below and then parallels it as you go through the pass. From the pass the trail goes along the right side of the lakes, staying along the hillside to avoid annually wet ground down lower. The trail will not be discernible until you approach the Falls glacier on your left. The trail leads through an area known as "The Mounds," a series of glacially formed hills called eskers. The trail goes through the mounds on the right side next to the hillside. Once through the mounds, the trail leads down to a group of large boulders and a small stream.
From here down to the start of "the Goat Trail," the trail is not easily followed. It fades in and out, but generally stays near the hillside on your right. After about 1 mile, you will cross a swift, glacial stream. From here to the Goat Trail, the trail follows the old stream channel of the Falls River. In less than a mile the Falls River will cut a deep gorge and you will be forced to hike up the steep bank to your right. The trail can be found paralleling the Falls River at the top of the bank. The trail follows the river for several hundred yards. After crossing a clear stream, the trail begins to switchback up a grassy hillside. This is the start of the Goat Trail. The trail meanders in and out along the scree slopes before cresting out at 5,000 ft., above the Chitistone Falls. Be extremely careful not to follow one of the many sheep trails leading through the treacherous bluffs. (See NPS rangers for a photo of the end of the Goat Trail. In past years, several groups have created a dangerous, false trail that should be avoided.)
From the Goat Trail crest, go to the northwest to get down and around a narrow gorge and waterfall that blocks your path. The trail can be seen across this stream leading down the slopes toward Chitistone Gorge. The trail leads down to a beautiful, green bench above Chitistone Gorge. A good viewpoint for Chitistone Falls is a prominent point at the northeast end of this bench. The trail stays along the right side of this bench near the hillside. When you reach the southwest end of the bench, the trail heads down through short alders, which eventually become heavier brush. (Stay on the switchbacks, do not cut straight down the hill, which causes erosion.) The trail will end at a gravel outwash plain for a small stream. Walk out to the west to reach the stream. The trail follows the right side of the stream down to a large outwash fan in the valley floor. The trail cuts sharply to your left and follows between the bottom of the bluff and the brush northeast towards the Falls River. It is approximately 1 mile up to the Falls River, which is usually easiest to cross approximately 400 yards upstream from where it enters the Chitistone River. Once across the Falls River, there are two possibilities for getting across the Chitistone River. One, the river cut a new channel in 1990 (part of the river went underground) and allowed crossing the river approximately 0.5 miles upstream from the Falls River. Crossing the Chitistone River is also a possibility either late in the year or after extended periods of cloudy weather when the river volumes are low.
Two, you can hike up and around the river on the glacier, which is rock covered. This option adds approximately 2 hours of hiking but is safer than dealing with the Chitistone River at high water levels. Once across the Chitistone River, the trail follows the left side of the river wherever it is easiest to walk. The actual trail is not discernible, but you may find tracks if you look carefully. The trail trends toward the hillside after about 1 mile. You cross a glacial stream, which may be just a gravel outwash area. After crossing the stream, the trail stays next to the hillside and eventually leads through high brush before breaking out onto a dry lake bed. Walk around the lake bed on the right side and out onto the huge outwash plain of a glacial stream. Cross the outwash plain heading towards where the plain narrows down next to the hillside on your left. The trail heads down to the right over an embankment and follows the old River Channel along its left hand side.
After a while, you will reach a rubble field that was created in a 1985 landslide. This area can best be crossed by starting at a large rock on the right hand side of the Chitistone River and following the sandy stretches through the rubble. The trail on the other side follows the old river channel on the left side. Eventually the Chitistone River cuts in against this bank and you will find the trail leading up to your left through the brush where the river meets the hillside. It takes an hour or so to hike this section along the river. The trail will again take you from the brush onto the old river channel, which you will follow for about 500 yards. There will be a six-foot-high bank to your left that the trail crosses (a good landmark is a 30-foot bank directly across the Chitistone River on its west side).
The trail parallels the river through the brush and eventually brings you to the outwash plain of Toby Creek. Toby Creek is usually best crossed about 300 yards upstream from where it dumps into the Chitistone River. This depends on water levels and the constantly changing river channels. Once across Toby Creek walk down towards the Chitistone River, skirting the brush to the right and walking down the old river channel. Follow the old channel until you are about 500 yards past Contact Gulch (the stream on the West side of the Chitistone River from Toby Creek). The trail will be on top of the low bank to your left and runs through the short brush, once again paralleling the river.
It is approximately 4 miles from Toby Creek to the landing strip at Glacier Creek. The trail will eventually break out of the brush and you will probably not be able to follow it any longer. Continue to hike parallel to the Chitistone River for about 300 yards before turning and hiking in a diagonal direction to your left and away from it. The Glacier Creek Airstrip is approximately 900 feet long and has a small shack and truck trailer at the southeast end.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication