We took a break from the comfort of our campervan and stayed at three mountain huts in the Hatcher Pass area, which totaled 4 days and 3 nights of adventure in the Talkeetna Mountains. We were amongst countless rivers, glaciers, boulder-y peaks, fauna, flora and mine ruins. The Bomber Traverse is a great start into extended backpacking trips and mountaineering with the comfort of having a place to stay each night out of the elements. Hatcher Pass will allow for overnight or several day parking of your van as long as you pay the nightly fee.
On day one, we departed from the Gold Mint Trailhead and our travel consisted of a mellow 9 mile trek with a final steep push up to the Mint Hut to make sure you’ve earned your stay. The trail starts out well maintained but after a few miles in it becomes un-maintained, although still easily navigable. It generally follows the glacially fed Little Susitna River the whole way and there are small creeks that come from every part of the nearby hillsides feeding into the river. When you reach the base of the shelf where the Mint Hut sits, you begin your trek upwards for about the last mile. If you follow the faint trail, you’ll end up rounding a corner into the front yard of the bright red Mint Hut.
The Mint Hut is perched high above the Gold Mint Valley and has beautiful views of the Mint Glacier and Montana Peak. It is owned by the Mountaineering Club of Alaska and is reserved for members only. Membership dues are nominal and help maintain these epic huts. This particular hut slept about 6 in the loft area upstairs and, if needed, another 4 can sleep on the floor downstairs. However, if you plan on showing up late, it would be in your best interest to bring a tent or Bivy sack in case the hut is full.
On day two, your first objective will be to climb up and over Backdoor Gap, which leads to the Penny Royal Glacier. This is a challenging aspect that involves steep boulder hopping up the whole portion of the climb. Once you reach the top of Backdoor Gap, there will be a steep descent down to Penny Royal Glacier. Luckily, some fixed rope has been left behind to help down-climb the first portion of the descent. Watch out for loose rock and scree on this portion. Our rope kicked several large rocks on top of us and we had to duck several times.
Because the glaciers shift and change each year, it’s not possible to recommend an annual route. In late summer of 2017, we found that staying towards the right was the best route. We didn’t find a need for crampons but we did bring our Kahtoola MICROspikes and would have not felt solid without them. At this time, there were only a few small crevasses on the glacier, easily passable to the valley below. At the end of the glacier, we charged into what looked to be dirt, however it was mucky, glacial silt. Beware of this hazard, especially if you’re coming off of the glacier near a water source.
Once in the valley, route finding was hit or miss. We would find a trail and then lose a trail but the travel across the tundra was not hard either way. You’ll want to veer left when you have the option and head down towards the next valley where the bright white Bomber hut sits on a glacial moraine. Once at the hut and after orientating yourself directly south of the hut you can look up at the valley that holds the Bomber Glacier.
In 1957, there was an airplane wreck of an old B-29 bomber that crashed into the glacier. Out of the ten total passengers, only four survived after being picked up by helicopter the next day. More recently, an Eagle Scout group went out to the glacier with wire and steel cord to hold the wreckage together to keep it from slowly spreading apart across the glacier. The wreckage is visible in the summer and fall months, before snow falls and covers it. We did not go this direction on this round, but it’s common for people to cut the traverse short and head towards the Reed Lake Trailhead via the Bomber Glacier or take a day trip to view the wreckage.
Because we opted out of the day trip to the wreckage, we spent some time cleaning and exploring the hut. In each of the huts there are logbooks that allow people who pass through to write entries about their trip so far or what they’ve done around the area. These entries can help travelers know the condition of the trail and the huts and whether or not there is anything out of the ordinary to be cautious for. If you search through some of the past entries, you’ll find instructions on how to access the hot springs and strategies to view the King Marmot. Lanterns are at each hut for use so it’s kind to bring extra fuel and the filaments for these so they are always ready to use.
Day three’s objective was to find the Snowbird hut a few valleys over. This day involved much bushwacking, route finding, bear scat, uphilling and river crossings. As we began to descend from the Bomber hut towards the Valley below, we stayed up on the northern ridge for as long as possible due to the many trees in the valley below. The valley will eventually hit a “T” at the river where you can head left or right and the route to the Snowbird is up the valley to the left. Make your way down to the valley and stay left of the river. In late August there was not much of a trail so we can’t confirm that we took the best route but it appeared that the best place to cross the river was at the “Y” and then to continue the creek bed up the hills to the right.
After leaving the river behind, you’ll spend the next hour or two headed in a general uphill direction. The route is not completely clear but as long as you’re headed up and to the right, you’ll be funneled to the spectacular Snowbird Lake, below the glacial moraine that the hut sits on. After pausing to take in the views, you’ll continue on and funnel into a steep boulder climb with a river raging through it. At the top of this section, you’ll see an unnamed lake that the glacier is forming and right past that, the toe of the Snowbird glacier.
The wood exterior of the Snowbird hut is not incredibly obvious due to its position on the moraine but there is fake mailbox in front of it to attempt to make it more obvious. You can either follow the left side of the glacier or continue on top of the glacial moraine until you see the hut. We elected to travel along the boulders, although I think that may have been more difficult than just following the glacier and swinging a left.
After a long day of hiking, the Snowbird hut is a very welcome place. It is the largest and nicest of the huts in Hatcher Pass because of its infrastructure, space and supplies. It’s owned and maintained by the American Alpine Club. It sleeps at least 10 in designated sleeping areas and another 8 or so on the floor. If you bring fuel, there is a heating system but with enough people, extra heat is unnecessary. When we arrived, there was a group of four NOLS ladies and another backcountry couple. We had a very nice evening together playing spoons and sharing snacks.
The next morning we had a final trek up and over the Snowbird glacier through Prospect Pass and then a steady hike down to the Reed Lakes trailhead. When we left that morning, we noticed that the glacier had developed a large Moulin that was easily seen without snow cover but could have been hidden with enough snow so it’s important to always keep those dangers in mind. Overall, the trail was easily marked with cairns and eventually a well established trail through mine ruins and finally down to the maintained Reed Lakes trail.
Once we got down to the Reed Lakes trail, we hitch hiked back down to the Gold Mint trailhead where the campervan full of clean clothes and snacks was a very exciting sight! Overall, the Bomber Traverse should be considered at the top of one’s Alaska hiking bucket list.