Gastineau Peak P300
Mt. Roberts P300

Jul 8, 2018

With: Tom Becht
Jackie Burd

Story Photos / Slideshow Map GPX Profile

While dining one evening with our wives, the topic of cruises came up. Tom didn't seem to think much of them, but when I suggested an Alaska cruise could offer some good hiking opportunities, he seemed to perk up. More time passed and eventually we made plans for a cruise in July, a 10-day adventure out of San Francisco. There would only be three opportunities to hike so we planned to get our money's worth. The first would be when we docked in Juneau on day 3. The Mt. Roberts Tram goes from the cruise docks up about 1,800ft to the ridge above town. Alternately, one can take the Mt. Roberts Trail starting in town, about 2.5mi up to the top of the tram. Neither of these actually gets you Mt. Roberts, however. That lofty summit (ok, not so lofty at 3,800ft) is another 3mi. Fortunately the trail continues to Mt. Roberts, so there isn't anything technically difficult about it. Still, more than 4,000ft of gain (there's a nice drop between Gastineau and Roberts) and the boat doesn't get to Juneau until 1:30p in the afternoon. We would have plenty of time since we didn't have to be back on the boat until 9:30p and the sun doesn't set until after 10p. My daughter Jackie decided to join us, though a little worried she wouldn't be able to keep up with the old men. Turns out she had little to worry about. Yes, we were moving at a pretty good clip, but nothing she couldn't manage. The weather was overcast with predicted rain showers that never materialized. The clouds managed to stay just above the highest point we reached, giving us clear views and fine temperatures for hiking - about as good a day as we might have hoped, considering this is SE Alaska and rain is almost always on the menu.

Our group of five was among the first off the boat when they lowered the gangway a few minutes before the appointed time. We bade goodbye to the wives in town who planned to shop until joining us later at the top of the tram. I guessed it would take us two hours, but we were much faster than that. Having researched this one ahead of time, I knew exactly where to find the trail as we walked the main street through the shopping district to the north, finding the trailhead at the bottom of a set of stairs leading up from the last houses on the street. Other signs had tried to get us to start at the "new" trailhead off Basin Ave, but we used the old one, still in good shape even if no longer maintained. The trail climbs in switchbacks, stairs and over a great many roots as it makes its way through temperate rain forest, a rather lush environment that you might not expect to find in the frozen north (not so much is frozen in SE Alaska during the summer months). There were plenty of folks on the trail - locals taking their dogs for a walk, trail runners, and a boatload of cruise folks - ours was the fourth ship to tie up at the docks, so town was already pretty crowded when we arrived.

We took a little more than an hour to make our way to the top of the tram, Tom leading at a pretty steady clip that had Jackie nervous (and sweating pretty good, too). We took a break at the tram, and while Jackie ate her snack she'd brought with her, I sent a text to the wife letting them know we were earlier than expected. They were still in town, so their reply suggested we meet them when we get back from the hike to Mt. Roberts. The trail above the tram was busy with the cruise traffic but soon petered out after less than a mile. Most seemed to be doing the nature loop, or visiting a viewing platform above that. The forest ends almost abruptly as the trail passes into the next vegetation zone. Lots of flowers and leafy plants, but almost no trees. We passed by a cross planted on the hillside, a windsock, and after more steep climbing, reached the trail junction with Gold Ridge. There were only a handful of folks above this point, now about 3,500ft. Here the vegetation weakens, now mostly ankle high and lots of rock along the trail. Some snow patches lingered as well, though all of them were soft and easily crossed where needed.

Gastineau Peak was about half a mile above the Gold Ridge junction and Mt. Roberts was still out of view. It was growing windier and colder as we climbed higher and one by one we donned additional clothing from our packs to keep warm. The views overlook the Juneau Channel on one side, the Gold Creek drainage on the other, and only get more stunning the higher one climbs. There was another couple at the summit of Gastineau Peak where we first saw Mt. Roberts, still another mile away. There is a 400-foot drop between them, but the sight of the trail makes it seem easier. We weren't sure we were going to go further than Gastineau, but Jackie seemed eager and the snow didn't look to be an issue, so off we went. Half an hour later we reached Mt. Roberts and the end of the trail. With a full Alaskan summer day, it looks like it would make a very find outing to go completely around the Gold Creek drainage, maybe 20mi all told, ending on Mt. Juneau where another trail would take one back down to town. The next two peaks after Roberts, Sheep Mtn and Clark Peak, are both higher and enticing. Tom and I agreed that it would have been easily doable if we'd thought to ride the tram instead of taking the trail from town. Oh well, perhaps another time. We took a short break here to enjoy the views and rest just enough to keep from getting to cold.

On the way back we paused at the Gold Ridge trail junction to make a side trip to the top of that one for shameless stat padding. Jackie elected to wait for us at the junction. Though we walked to the end of the trail beyond the highpoint, perhaps 0.4mi, the views of Gold Creek Basin weren't appreciably different from those we'd had earlier. There were some nice flower gardens and a few fat marmots along the ridge, however, that we took a few moments to photograph with the few bits of sunlight that would sneak through the clouds all day.

When we got back to the tram we had little trouble finding the ladies inside the lodge, nearly finished with their drinks. They had purchased the full-fare rides from the bottom station, but three of us still needed to pay the $10 for the down-only ride. Nicely, there's an option to show a receipt for $10 from the restaurant/bar, so after a few more rounds of beer we had not only reached the needed bar tab, but we'd gotten ourselves a bit toasted too. All that was needed now was to ride the tram back down to the ship, shower, and replace all those lost calories. With two entrees, two mains, and two desserts, I outdid the rest of our table, feeling well satiated. Ah, this is cruising at its best...


Scott H. comments on 07/10/18:
If your cruise stops at Skagway, Ak there is a well known 33 mile trail nearby called the Chilkoot Trail from Dyea, Ak to Bennett, British Columbia. It was a route from the coast to the Yukon goldfields in the 1890's. Thirty years ago I planned to visit friends in Juneau and then move on to backpack the Chilkoot Trail. Sadly an untimely back injury foiled my plans that summer.
The cruise isn't stopping in Skagway, but I was able to backpack the Chilkoot Trail with a friend back in 1992. Great fun.
Shane Smith comments on 07/11/18:
Hmmm, Alaska.... You don't happen to be working your way towards Denali are you?
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