Question: When is a rerouted trail more than a simple reroute?
Here’s one answer: When that trail has been so dramatically reshaped that people who’ve walked and skied the trail for years, even decades, no longer recognize it—and in some cases feel they’ve lost an old friend.
Some might argue that my assessment of Chugach State Park’s newly rerouted and reconstructed South Fork Rim Trail is overly dramatic. Sure, it’s been redesigned. But transformed into something unrecognizable?
Many of my friends insist that’s so. And my own observations suggest it’s true. The redesigned trail’s character has been fundamentally changed, especially along its lower section. Once appealing—or “friendly”—to skiers, walkers, and mountain-biking types alike, that lower section is now a biker’s dream, with a series of tight 180-degree (or more) bends on sloped sections of trail, plus many exaggerated bumps, followed closely by dips, a combination that some call “jumps.” Many bikers enjoy such structures.
It can be reasonably argued that the same section of rebuilt trail has become something of a skier’s nightmare, especially if you’re a cross-country skier of beginning to moderate ability who doesn’t like to negotiate sharp, twisting bends on slick, hard-packed snow. Or even fresh powder.
Though park staff and biking enthusiasts might not consider the newly constructed curves to be hairpin turns, I would argue they’ll be exactly that for many skiers, intimidating enough to keep some away. And that’s a big change.
Let me back up a bit. The South Fork Rim Trail is part of Chugach State Park’s Hillside Trails System, most easily accessible from the Prospect Heights Trailhead. The trail is largely flat in places and mildly to moderately steep in other sections, with an elevation gain of about 600 feet from bottom to top. Because it intersects with several other Hillside trails, it’s possible to do loops of various lengths. The one most commonly done (combining the South Fork Rim and Powerline Trails) is close to four miles around.
The trail’s easy access, along with a variety of forested and subalpine terrain, moderate uphills (and downs), connections to other trails, and sweeping views of the Chugach Front Range and Anchorage Bowl, along with the opportunity to experience peaceful solitude (especially in its more wooded sections) has long made the South Fork Rim among the most popular Chugach trails for people who want to get out and walk or ski or bike for an hour or two (or more, if the spirit moves).
I hiked the trail many times year-round, and skied it occasionally during the 13 years I lived on Anchorage’s Hillside, so I understand its allure. Over the past dozen years, now a resident of West Anchorage, I’ve only rarely returned to it. That’s likely one reason I didn’t know that major changes were planned—though several friends who frequent the trail were still shocked to discover this spring that big changes were afoot.
Local wildlife and wildlands activist Rick Steiner has been among the most flabbergasted—and irate—of those who’ve felt blindsided by the rerouting project and he’s been openly critical of both the rebuilt trail and the public process—or lack of it—to inform people changes were coming. In a recent letter to Alaska State Parks Director Ricky Gease, Steiner commented, “Many of us who use this trail regularly didn’t know a thing about the proposed trail work until we saw the flagging [marking the new route] this spring. It was obvious from the flagging that this would not be a simple upgrade or maintenance of the existing trail, but rather a new mountain biking trail. . .
“With respect, CSP staff misrepresented the project to many of us. Indeed, there may have been some minor issues with the existing trail, all of which could have been easily resolved (short boardwalks, ditching, etc.). There was absolutely no need to build an entirely new trail and upgrade it to single track mountain bike standards. . . . some skiers in certain conditions (hard-pack snow, icy, etc.) will almost certainly not use the new trail. I suspect there will be skiing injuries on hard pack/ice trail conditions on the new trail. I am a mountain biker as well, but certainly object to this project.”
Others have been more quietly dismayed. As one friend wrote to me in an email, “Have you seen the recent re-do of the South Fork Rim Trail? The old trail, which was pretty skiable, is now filled in with debris, etc. The re-do is definitely built for bikers and not skiers. Was there ever a public hearing [about] this major reconstruction project?”
Another close friend who has skied and walked the trail for many years could only shake her head and sigh, “This is pretty bad for skiers. It definitely makes biking the priority now.”
Others, too, have expressed some combination of surprise and disappointment. What’s notable is that all belong to the over-50 crowd (most, I’d say, are 60 or older). And all have a long-running—or better put, long-skiing—relationship with the South Fork Rim Trail.
Not everyone is unhappy, of course. Mountain bikers (especially those who haven’t yet reached late middle-age) seem to love the redesign. As word has spread, a growing number have come to ride the “rerouted” trail. On a recent mid-week afternoon I crossed paths with more than a dozen bikers and met only two other walkers.
Anchorage’s Single Track Advocates (STA) have been excited enough to organize a work party to assist park staff. The group’s enthusiasm was expressed by president Lee Bolling in an email exchange with Steiner: “We do support the project. It is a great upgrade for all trail users.”
Chugach State Park trail specialist Joe Hall is another who maintains that the rebuilt trail is intended to better serve all of the trail’s primary user groups—hikers, bikers, and yes, skiers—while eliminating sections that presented ongoing problems: mudholes in summer, icy overflow in winter. While Hall agrees it’s more appealing now to bikers, he adds that the reconstructed trail will also be “a great ski trail.”
Whatever a person’s response—disgust, concern, or elation—there’s little doubt that the character of the South Fork Rim Trail’s lower section has been substantially, even radically, changed.
What’s ironic to me is that the South Fork Rim’s new upper trail, which replaces the section that suffered most from drainage problems and mudholes, seems more like a general multi-purpose trail, without the “structures”—sharp turns and bumps/jumps—that characterize the lower section.
As one close friend has wondered, “Why didn’t they simply redo the upper section and leave the lower part alone instead of making it more of a bike trail?”
The STA’s volunteer participation in the rebuild, along with their hugely successful and high-profile biking advocacy over the past decade or so—and the proliferation of single-track trails from the Hillside to Kincaid Park—prompted some (including Steiner and myself) to assume that the group had a central role in the South Fork Rim Trail’s rebuild. But it just ain’t so.
Hall instead credited the group Alaska Trails. He noted that for several years, park staff has wanted to enhance Chugach’s Hillside Trail System. When Alaska Trails executive director Steve Clearly asked if there were any trail-improvement projects his group might assist, staff suggested the South Fork Rim Trail.
Cleary put together a grant proposal, which included a redesign that Alaska Trails helped to prepare. With letters of support from both park staff and Chugach State Park’s citizens advisory board (which according to Hall gave its unanimous endorsement), Clearly applied for funding.
When the grant request was approved last fall, park staff placed notices about the rerouting project at nearby trailheads, including Prospect Heights, Upper Huffman, and Glen Alps. Alaska Trails helped spread the word through its newsletter and social media.
Was that enough? Given the controversy the reroute-and-rebuild project has generated, Hall agrees that park staff will likely do greater public outreach in the future when starting major trail-reconstruction projects. “We want an educated public,” he told me. “We want to make sure the public knows what’s going on.”
As to whether skiers will ultimately benefit from the reshaped South Fork Rim Trail, only time—and winter’s snowfall—will tell.
Though much of the old trail has been blocked from future use, Steiner argues that skiers should have the option of using either the original or reworked trail, at least along the lower section: “Agreed, the two trails crisscross several times on the lower part, but they can still keep both open. . . . At this point, this seems the only reasonable solution to me.” Of course what’s reasonable to one person—or one group—often seems unworkable to another.
I continue to have my own questions and concerns. For instance: because the South Fork Rim Trail is a two-way path, I worry about conflicts between bikers zooming downhill and more slowly moving walkers and skiers “blocking” their path, especially if headed uphill. And consider this: the nearby Middle Fork Loop has shown that in low-snow winters, the deep grooves made by frequent fat-bike use make some sections of that loop nearly impossible to ski. The same is likely along the South Fork Rim Trail.
As a dedicated walker who rarely recreates along this trail anymore, I don’t have a personal stake in how things play out. But I suspect there will be winners and losers on this transformed trail. And older skiers who don’t want to dodge fast-moving cyclists are the ones most likely to get bumped from a trail they’ve long enjoyed, even loved.
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at firstname.lastname@example.org.