There were a couple awesome waterfalls along the Johnson Pass Trail.
We have been trying to get in one backpacking trip per summer. Last summer I did Crow Pass without the family, but this year we were determined to make Johnson Pass happen. It is only 23 miles long, from near Moose Pass at the south end to near Turnagin Pass on the north end. It is rated easy, with only 1000 feet elevation gain over the trail (that's total, not counting the ups and downs on the way). One of my cousins told me that the pushki (aka cows parsnip) and other vegetation grows up over the trail later in the summer, so we had decided that if we couldn't get the hike in before July 1 we would wait until next year. A small window of opportunity appeared the last week of June so we pulled out our backpacking equipment, bought a new water filter and made our plans.
Since it is a point to point hike, we had to have a vehicle at both ends. My cousin recommended starting at the south end and hiking north since it is a long, gradual uphill, while the north end of the pass has a couple of steep, rocky climbs. After dropping one vehicle at the trailhead by Granite Creek off the Seward Highway last Wednesday, we drove the 35 or so miles to the other end, parked and doped up (bug dope!). For other backpacking trips we'd built up to it by carrying loaded or partially loaded packs on walks for a few weeks or months before the hike. This year we didn't do that at all, so I was curious to see how our bodies held up. Leaving the house, my pack was 45 pounds, Douglas's was 35, Denver's 30 and Aurora's 20.
The first day was sunny and we, being cool weather lovers, were dying in the heat, especially as we traversed areas that were not shaded. We began at 12:30, and our goal was a campsite 6 miles in at a river. We took water breaks every 30 minutes or so, stopping for a minute or two for everyone to sip (gulp!), and every 1 1/2 hours we took a 10-15 minute sit-down break. The trail followed the edge of a large lake for the first couple hours. Besides occasional patches of pushki over the trail, conditions were super. The trail was a dry, packed single-track that was fairly smooth and free of rocks and roots. As clouds came in, we were happier and more comfortable as well.
By 4:00 we'd made our 6 mile goal and the developed campsite (basically, a sign that indicated there was a flat place to pitch a tent). None of us felt like setting up camp so early, particularly since the bugs were annoying as we sat and took a break by the river. We decided to push on and stop for dinner somewhere before we set up camp if we needed to. We did not have a good map and there were no mileage or other signs on the trail, so we really had no idea where we were. We knew there were 2 lakes at the summit, but besides that we were just guessing where we were. Two hours of hiking later, we had increased our elevation significantly and came upon a grove of spruce trees with a small stream next to it and a raging river nearby that we could hear but not see. We decided to make that camp, even though it didn't have a sign indicating it was a 'developed' campsite. It had a level spot for pitching a tent, a tree to hang our food in and non-glacial water nearby to pump and drink. Our basic needs were met.
Dinner was delicious: spaghetti with sauce and mashed potatoes with sausage and cheese. An hour after we'd arrived dinner was over, dishes washed, waterbottles filled, the tent up, food and smellies hanging from a tree, gear stowed under waterproof covers for the night and we were cozy in the tent playing a family cribbage tournament. It was a satisfying day. We figured we'd gone 8 miles that day, a pace of just under 2 mph.
The next morning we woke up at about 9 and began the process in reverse: let down the food from the tree, make breakfast (bagels with cream cheese and ramen noodles), pump more water, pack up sleeping bags, pads and tent, and repack packs. Aurora had complained that she wasn't tired at all the day before so we loaded her up, giving her heavier items from each of our packs. It took an hour from the time we woke up till we walked out of the campsite, moving about our tasks at a steady but not hurried pace.
Only one hour after we began, we arrived at the summit, marked by a sign: Johnson Pass, Elevation 1450 ft. There was a pile of snow nearby (it is barely visible above my shoulder in this picture), but besides that, it was not an exciting moment. We'd been expecting to get above treeline as we'd done on other passes we'd hiked, but there were still willow and alder bushes around us at the summit and higher above us too. It did open up a bit, though, so we weren't in the tall trees and we could finally see further ahead and where the trail led.
Between the two lakes at the summit, a section of stream had rerouted onto the trail so we had a bit of muck hopping and branch balancing to do. Other than that, it was good hiking, though the further down the north side of the pass we went the more encounters with pushki over the trail we had. Doug did end up with a blister on one arm after that day, which wasn't bad considering how much pushki we'd plowed through. Some Silvadine, a medication I'd gotten when I burned my hand a few months ago, made the blister disappear overnight--to us a miracle as pushki blisters tend to itch, ooze and be a real pain. Now that we know Silvadine works on pushki burns, it is going to be a staple in our first aid kit (Unfortunately, it is a prescription only medication).
We didn't have a plan for how long we were going to hike. We kept asking each other, "How far are we going to go today?" and we just didn't have an answer. About 2:00 we stopped for lunch along the trail (soup, bagels & mashed potatoes with sausage) and sometime around then someone mentioned pizza and Coldstone ice cream and how good that would be. I asked the kids if they were willing to hike out that day (estimated at 15 miles) for pizza and ice cream and they responded with firm "Yes!" Without mileage signs we didn't know for sure where we were at at any point so it was hard to say where to stop. Plus, we didn't want to pitch camp and sit around for hours and hours. Thus, it was not a difficult decision to press on to the end, though our bodies were getting very tired by that point. I had a blister on one heel (the moleskin rubbed off) but I was fine as long as I didn't have to go uphill. The mostly smooth, downhill trail was a blessing.
At 6 pm we walked into the north trailhead parking lot. We'd been on the trail since 10 am, and we think 15 miles is pretty close to what we hiked that day. We met at least 15 mountain bikers the first day on the trail, but only 2 the second day. From what I hear, this is a very popular mountain biking trail, and I would enjoy it--early in the season before the plants overgrow the trail.
The only bummer of this trip is that I lost my camera the first 3 or 4 miles of day 1 near the south trailhead. It was clipped to my backpack belt. When I noticed it was gone during a water break, I took off my pack and ran a half mile or more back on the trail looking for it but never did find it. I asked some southbound bikers to keep an eye out for it and mail it to me if they found it. Thus, the pictures you see are what we took on Douglas's iphone. I am still holding out hope that my camera will be found and returned.
We were all proud of ourselves for accomplishing this hike, especially in 2 days. It has been over 15 years since Douglas and I have backpacked that much in a day, and I know our kids never had, though they'd done 13 miles a day on their previous backpacking trips (Chilkoot Pass and Resurrection Pass). This was a milestone for our family as well: we have never gone for a backpacking trip with just our family ever before. We'd always gone with my aunt and uncle and cousins, so it was neat for us to do this on our own. Our confidence level of hiking in the backcountry of Alaska has increased a lot in 4 years of living here. It is a good feeling to have, and I am now plotting the next backpacking trip for the family!
Addendum: Stan and Lisa found my camera on the trail and mailed it to me, so I have my camera back!! I am going to add 3 more pictures I think you would all enjoy. And a note to the prepared among my readers: put your name and address on your camera and anything else you would want returned to you if you lost it. This is the second camera we'd lost in 3 years. The last one disappeared around the Kenai River, but we didn't have it labeled so even if someone had wanted to return it, it would have been difficult. We learned from our experience!
Aurora and Denver adjust the walking stick.
The trail followed the lake for the first couple hours. We didn't realize how big the lake was, but it kept going on and on!