Hike Location: Tongass National Forest, Starrigavan Recreation Area
Geographic Location: north of Sitka, AK (57.13297, -135.36621)
Length: 3.6 miles
Difficulty: 5/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: July 2011
Overview: A double loop hike through all 4 ecosystems in southeast Alaska.
Area Information: http://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/tongass/recreation/hiking/recarea/?recid=79137&actid=50
Hike Route Map: https://www.mappedometer.com/?maproute=723726
Directions to the trailhead: Sitka, AK is accessible only by boat or seaplane. The parking area for this hike is located at a national forest campground 7.5 miles west of downtown Sitka at the end of Halibut Point Road.
The hike: Located on Baranov Island and separated from mainland southeast Alaska by the famed Inner Passage, Sitka represents a unique point where Russian, Tlingit Indian, and American cultures converge. The first inhabitants of the region were the Tlingits who migrated to Alaska from northeast Asia on an ancient land bridge. The Tlingits are responsible for the totem poles you see throughout southeast Alaska (but not on this hike).
In the early 1800’s, the Russians arrived. Seeking Alaska’s abundant forest resources, the Russian colonists forced the Tlingits from their homes. The decisive battle in this conflict was fought at present-day Sitka National Historical Park, which is featured elsewhere in this blog.
In 1867, having clear-cut most of Alaska and exhausted the forest resources, Russia sold Alaska to the United States for $7.2 million. With the discovery of gold a few years later, Americans began migrating into Alaska, leaving their own mark on towns such as Juneau and Ketchikan. The forest was allowed to re-grow, and the resulting mature second-growth forest today is protected as part of the Tongass National Forest.
Unlike the woodlands of the eastern United States, Tongass National Forest is a temperate rain forest characterized by a mild, wet climate. On the morning that I hiked these trails, the temperature held steady in the mid 50’s, and a light rain fell during the entire hike. Fortunately, I had come prepared with a rain coat and good hiking shoes, and I had a fabulous hiking experience. The route described here is the most popular with hikers because it passes through all four of southeast Alaska’s ecosystems.
|Starting down Mosquito Cove Trail|
The gravel trail undulates slightly as it hugs Alaska’s Inner Passage on the left. Snow-covered Mount Edgecumbe, an ancient volcano, can be seen across the Inner Passage through some gaps in the trees. The mountain looks peaceful now, but volcanic ash from Mount Edgecumbe lies underfoot for this entire hike. The acidic soil produced from this ash makes it difficult for trees and other plants to grow. Most of the Sitka spruce and hemlock trees in this forest measure the size of 70-80 year old trees in the eastern United States, but in fact they are nearly twice that age. Goat’s beard grows on many of the trees, a sign of the area’s excellent air quality.
|Mount Edgecumbe across the Inner Passage|
|Trail passing under tree roots|
To reach the trailhead for the Estuary Life Trail, walk back through the campground to the main road, turn right, and then turn left on a gravel road at a yellow and brown sign that says “Bird Viewing Shelter: Estuary Life Trail.” Upon reaching the parking area, angle right to begin the boardwalk that is the Estuary Life Trail.
|Estuary Life Trail approaching wildlife viewing shelter|
|Looking across the estuary from the shelter|
|Stream at head of estuary|
At 2.6 miles, the gravel turns into wooden boardwalk as you arrive at the muskeg bog, the last of the four ecosystems on this hike. Muskeg bogs form on flat areas of hillsides where water collects. The bog’s shallow, wet soil does not allow trees to grow tall here as they do on the sloped mountainside. Potholes left by uprooted trees fill with water, and some of the muddy-bottomed potholes can become many feet deep. The treeless bog also gives nice views uphill to the mountains and downhill to the ocean.