The heat has come to the Alaska Interior. We’ve now had about a week with the temperature hitting the mid to high 80s F, and it’s been humid to boot. The near-constant, low angle of the Sun at this latitude really makes the heat unbearable because the Sun is constantly hitting your whole body.
The animals feel it too. On the drive along Chena Hot Springs Road encountered two moose in back-to-back ponds munching on water plants and staying cool in the water.
Despite the heat, I headed out to Angel Rocks in the Chena River State Recreation Area on Sunday afternoon. I planned on hiking the loop with at least some additional extension out the Angel Rocks to Chena Hot Springs Trail. Once again, I was looking for new species to add to my Alaska Wildflower guide, and I haven’t done any hiking here since before the snow melted.
I typically try to avoid Angel Rocks on weekends in the summer since it’s such a popular trail. That’s part of the reason I went later in the day (also hoping the air would cool down entering the evening hours).
I arrived at 4:45 pm, and the parking lot was still relatively full. It looked like there were a lot of people swimming and fishing. Starting out on the trail along the North Fork of the Chena River, there was nearly a constant stream of people heading the other way. Around the time I hit the loop turn-off, the crowd thinned immensely, and I only saw about four people for the rest of the hike.
As I neared the top of the loop and the turn-off for the trail that heads to Chena Hot Springs, I did encounter some American thorow wax (Bupleurum americanum – guide forthcoming) that I had not previously photographed. It was near another flower that I still don’t know and was well past its bloom, so there wasn’t much left of the flowers for identification, unfortunately. I’ll have to return a few weeks earlier next year to catch it.
I was hoping to hike to the highpoint along the Angel Rocks to Chena Hot Springs Trail before completing the loop, adding about a 3-mile out-and-back section (with over 1000 feet of elevation gain) to the loop trail.
I think this is a great extension to the short 3.5-mile standard loop trail. You get some really great views of the Chena River Valley that you don’t get from Angel Rocks, yet you don’t have to commit to the full 8.7-mile hike to the Hot Springs and find your way back to the trailhead.
After hiking about 3/4 of a mile, I heard a distant rumbling. There were potential thunderstorms in the forecast, but I didn’t see many clouds in the sky, although it was difficult to see much over the hills to my east. Trees become sparse on the ridge, and I didn’t want to get caught out here in a thunderstorm. I checked my phone and saw I was just starting to get a bar on my 4G signal, so I sent a message to Cat to ask her to check the Doppler and see if there were any storms nearby. By the time I made it a little over a mile into the trail, I was barely a quarter mile from the top when I heard a lot more rumbling. Cat had just messaged me back, saying there were storms moving directly toward me. Of course, by then, I had my full signal and checked for myself and saw that I, at best, had a few minutes.
It was then that I saw the clouds moving in from the east, although it still looked distant enough that I could probably make it back into the lower forest before hitting. Deciding it wasn’t worth it to go the extra distance to the top, I turned back down the trail, trying to make double time on the way down.
Not ten minutes into the return, maybe 20-30 feet in front of me, a spot in the talus and dirt exploded in powder as a bolt of lightning tore into the hillside. It was a stark reminder that lightning can, in fact, strike well ahead of the leading edge of these storms, as the Sun was still shining and the clouds still seemed quite far away. I wasted no time in trying to get off the open ridge and below the tree line and ran most of the way back to the loop trail.
Right as I approached the loop, a bit of small hail fell before the large raindrops. Despite the close call, there didn’t seem to be a lot of close lightning, but there was quite a bit of distant rumbling. By the time I made it back into the cover of the thick spruce forest, it was really pouring. Not wanting to stop out in the open with all the lighting to put on rain gear, I got soaked, but it wasn’t a bother with it still being in the 80s and only 1.5 miles to the car. Frankly, it felt pretty refreshing in the heat.
By the time the trail leveled out, the rain had already stopped, and the skies were clearing quickly. Unfortunately, the storm didn’t cool the air at all, and now the trapped moisture in the forest just made it more muggy.
A beaver was hard at work in a pond along the trail, doing some maintenance on its dam.
Almost as soon as the rain stopped, I heard a helicopter flying low over the trees. Once I saw it, it was most definitely a fire service helicopter, and I figured there were more than a couple of detected lightning strikes in the area. (Later on the drive out, I passed two forestry service vehicles heading in the direction of the trailhead). The next day the AK Wildland Fire Information Map showed a small, 0.1-acre fire right near Angel Rocks that was quickly contained.
By the time I was back at the car, I had covered 6.24 miles and 2030 feet of elevation gain in just under 2.5 hours moving (3 hours 15 minutes total time). It was a great hike despite the heat and the scare near the top. The trail conditions were otherwise great; even the back part of the trail was relatively dry.
As I’ve said in previous posts, I’m way behind on editing photos, but what I have so far is posted in my gallery here: https://photos.lwpetersen.com/Date/2023/July/2023-07-23/.
For more info on hiking Angel Rocks, here’s my Alaska Trail Guide to Angel Rocks.