Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Pioneer Ridge-Austin Helmers Trail in Palmer

A few years ago I was driving around exploring and found the trailhead for the Pioneer Ridge-Austin Helmers Trail near Palmer, off the Knik River Road. A flyer said it was a 5000 foot climb, which immediately piqued my interest, along with the part that said, "experienced climbers with gear only for the final ascent."  Sounded good and knarly to me, and I've wanted to go back ever since.  A weekend of sports in Palmer (state track and baseball regionals) meant I was in the area, and my daughter was fresh back from Colorado and itching for some uber hikes. The weather for the day we were shoot for said partly cloudy and 50's, which is about as perfect as it's going to get.

View of the Knik River from a few thousand feet up the Pioneer Ridge Trail
In my mind, over the years, the trail has gained mythic porportions--there aren't a lot of trails that are 5000 foot climbs! But really, it was just another typical Alaskan mountain trail. It was a nice single track, with sections that were muddy. A couple of picnic tables marked distinctive alpine meadows with amazing views of the Knik River and Knik Glacier. I made it to about the snow line, which I'm guessing was about 2500 or 3000 feet, judging by the other mountains across the valley.  The grade of the trail was a steady uphill from the very first step, so that was two hours of solid climbing! But it didn't seem too steep and it was never a scramble, and the trail was fairly smooth, making for sure footing.  It only took an hour to get back down to the two up, making for a good three hour mountain workout. 

We were entertained by the simplicity, and unhelpfulness, of the trail map

A few walkway systems helped avoid muddy sections of trail

Before I did this climb I didn't even realize there was a Knik Glacier

Most sections of trail were hard-packed dirt.
Trees were quite leafed out at the bottom but not further up.

I would go back to this trail again if I was in the area, not necessarily with the expectation of making it all the way up. Aurora went an hour further than I did, and got two ridges further up than me to the serious snow that involved post-holing, which isn't fun. From her spot the knife edge of a ridge and the peak were visible, and it was clear why climbing equipment was necessary!

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