By Marc Donadieu
Glacier City Gazette
Whittier’s Emerald Cove Trail is a bit of a mystery that offers pleasant surprises to those willing to endure its challenges. Along the way are fine views of Billings Glacier, which sits across Passage Canal. The surrounding peaks and stretch of Passage Canal dominate the view.
There is very little online information describing this worthwhile hike, but the trailhead is easy to find and the trail itself reasonable to follow. From Whittier, go just past the decayed, fenced Buckner Building and make a right up Shotgun Cove Road. Follow to its end. If you park on the right, an unmarked trailhead will be straight ahead behind a cement barrier.
The trail begins as a gravel path that quickly shifts to series of boards to minimize damage in the wettest areas, particularly through meadows. There is a bit of up and down in the forested parts, but nothing for any real length. The variety keeps the trail interesting because the terrain is always changing.
However, the trail did have many places that were soupy mud, and that was after days of good weather. Careful foot placement still yielded a number of slips and falls. Trail maintenance is scheduled in the near future, which will improve its condition, but I returned with boots covered in mud to the ankles.
Expect trail conditions to deteriorate during and after rain. There are also a number of streams to be crossed, and their levels depend on rainfall. On this sunny day, streams were easy to walk across without getting boots wet. That may not always be the case, so consider your crossing options. I would have been comfortable crossing in bare feet if needed.
After walking through a combination of forest and meadow for 1.5 miles, Stairstep Beach emerged on the left. A short descent led to a beach covered with flat, circular rocks ground down by the changing tides. Stairstep Beach has a solid view of Billings Glacier directly across Passage Canal and Whittier a few miles away in the distance.
After some photos, it was time to further explore. The trail, which became thinner, more rugged and less maintained, continued toward Emerald Cove. There were a number of small ravines to descend and cross. There was even something like a raft of logs lashed together to make one crossing with a steep, slippery pitch easier.
Then there was an obviously larger ravine to go across, and it required a bit more caution. Shortly after, there was a large meadow with a boardwalk overlooking Passage Canal and a small, shallow pond casting interesting reflections. Just past this scenic spot is a special, unnamed cove. It took another half hour and about 1.5 miles to reach.
The unexpected scene was a photographer’s dream. A small lagoon forms during low tide. The gentle wind created broad, textured ripples on the water’s surface while long, green grass waved underneath. Beyond the lagoon were three slowly crumbling shale formations covered with moss and small trees.
At the base of these formations was an incredibly textured jumble of shale that had split, fallen and slowly eroding. There is even a large slab of shattered shale delicately suspended by a bleached out old tree. One can easily lose track of time gazing at these features and photographing their lively details.
While wandering around the lagoon, there were the loud, sharp cries of three black oystercatchers. These medium sized shorebirds are known for their all black plumage; a long, bright orange beak; and thin orange rings around their eyes. Oystercatchers reside at upper part of the intertidal zone, and they eat nearby mussels, limpets and a variety of invertebrates.
Had I known Emerald Cove was just a bit further up the trail, I would have hiked there. Without signs or a map, it’s tricky to identify the natural features in an unfamiliar area. Fortunately, I knew where I was and how to return.
The hike back was the same muddy slog, only in reverse. It was essential to pay attention to every step of trail or risk a slip. Even then, my boots occasionally got sucked in ankle deep or the incline of the mud caused a slip.
It took about an hour to return to the trailhead. All told, the hike was about six miles round trip and took two hours and 40 minutes, which includes time for photography breaks and simply staring at the scenery. Be sure to bring plenty of water or a water filter. There was cell phone service at the time.
Emerald Cove Trail rewards adventurous hikers and photographers willing to embrace its muddy charms. I hope to reach Emerald Cove next time now that I have a better idea of what to expect.