Just before winter sets in, workers finish work on popular Anchorage hiking trail

Workers, donors, officials and hikers pose for a photo on Friday, Oct. 16 2020 at the inauguration of the new O’Malley Gully trail. The new trail is seen zigzagging up the mountainside in the background. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

For all of its distinctions, 2020 hasn’t been the greatest year for getting things done. 

That’s what made the inauguration of a new trail at one of Anchorage’s most popular hiking spots on Friday especially meaningful. 

“With all this craziness going on, it’s nice to see an opportunity out here. And this is a place where folks can get away from it and have a good connection with the environment,” said Kurt Hensel, superintendent of Chugach State Park. 

He was speaking to a crowd of about two dozen trail workers, officials, hikers, and donors on a sunny Friday afternoon. 

The trail was designed to fix a heavily eroding trail up from the Glen Alps parking lot to the “Ball Fields” below O’Malley Peak. It wouldn’t have been possible with Chugach park’s meager capital budget. But thanks to citizen donations to the park fund — as well as a boost from the CARES Act — they got the trail with its many switchbacks completed just before the first snow fall. 

Trails Technician Kristen Mrozowski of Alaska Trails said designers worked to make sure hikers wouldn’t cut through switchbacks, which might lead to further erosion.

Two hikers near the top of a snow covered trail with teh sun setting in the background
Two hikers near the end of the new O’Malley Gully Trail on Friday, Oct. 16, 2020 (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

“We really put a lot of work into hiding those turns in thick alder to discourage people from cutting them. We wanted to do the best service to the mountain with this design,” she said. 

It’s also less steep, ranging from about 10% to 20% grades, and better marked, which will hopefully reduce the number of rescues required on the trail. As it is now, the trail sees many rescues, according to the chief park ranger, Ben Corwin. With a staff of just eight rangers for the entire Chugach State Park, every rescue avoided saves scarce resources. 

“I’m really excited to see what this next season next summer brings as far as search and rescue is — or the lack of search and rescues,” he said. 

Worker Ginger Pajak was one of about a dozen workers hired with the CARES Act money. She was there for the first shovelful of dirt that was moved this spring. It wasn’t exactly the easiest job, especially once the fall time rains hit. 

“I’m not gonna lie, the rain that – we did get rained on a lot. Hot soup and hot tea that will get you going, for sure,” she said.

Two people in jackets walk up a trail under a snow covered mountain. A ginger dog is walking in front.
Trail workers Andrew Barbose (in blue) and Ginger Majak walk up towards the new O’Malley Gully Trail on Friday, Oct. 16, 2020 (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Physical labor with a face mask wasn’t exactly easy either, said Andrew Barbosa, another worker. 

“You can definitely feel like a little bit more condensation, if you will, on your face, but working in it: not much different. It’s not all that bad,” he said. 

While getting the section of trail done was a rare victory for 2020, it was also just Phase 1 of a two-phase project. The second portion of trail will bypass a steeper and worse-eroding final pitch of trail up to the Ball Fields. Barring any unforeseen catastrophe and with the continued funding, organizers hope that Phase 2 can be completed in 2021. 

And Hensel said he hopes that more projects like this follow. 

“Alaska is a little bit behind as far as modern trail design and sustainability. So when we look around and see trails built like this, I think it’s gonna say a lot of things about the park and where we’re headed to and into the future,” said Hensel.