Refuge Notebook: A hike a week challenege

Prickly saxifrage growing near the scenic top of Vista Trail, one of more than 30 trails on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

Lito Tejada-Flores, a world class mountaineer, once wrote “you never climb the same mountain twice, not even in memory. Memory rebuilds the mountain, changes the weather, retells the jokes, remakes all the moves.”


Inspired by this quote, I challenged myself to hike a new trail on the Kenai Peninsula each week this summer. With summer being such a crazy busy time, it hasn’t always been easy to follow through with this challenge, but every time I complete a trail, I am so happy that I did.

I also used my hiking goal as a healthy excuse to start a collection of my own wildflower photos. But everyone is different — your motivation may be to climb to the top of a scenic mountain or simply for a chance to see Alaskan wildlife. The great thing about hiking the Kenai Peninsula is that there is something for everybody.

In early June, when I hiked the Vista Trail on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, I enjoyed wildflowers, scenic views, wildlife and so much more. Vista Trail is located in the Upper Skilak Campground off the Skilak Lake Road. Built during the summers of 2000-04, it is one of the Refuge’s newest trails. It is a strenuous 3-mile (round-trip) hike with an elevation gain of 800 feet. This hike is beautiful and well worth the burn. Even though the bugs were bad, we had an awesome day that topped out at a hot 75 degrees. Lupine and wild geranium were just starting to bloom. I also found a new mystery flower I had never seen before and have yet to identify.  

About half way up, hearing some rustling in the brush, my first thought was BEAR! Standing still in shock, I thought to myself, “Is this happening, am I really going to have my first bear encounter?” The thoughts of my recent bear safety training were racing through my head. Then I noticed a bull moose standing right in the open. I haven’t seen many bull moose with large sized antlers, so I was excited to observe the moose (from a safe distance) for a full five minutes.

Another feature of this trail that all the rock hounds will appreciate are the many large, erratic boulders sporadically placed along the mountain side by glaciers tens of thousands years ago. It was exciting for me to use knowledge from a recent geology course at the Kenai Peninsula College to read the landscape and decipher the origin of those large boulders. 

Finally, I made it to the top and I was no longer tired or irritated by all the mosquito bites I had received along the way. I was simply in awe of the spectacular view of Skilak Lake and the Kenai Mountains. On such a clear day, I could even see the mountains across the Cook Inlet.

To my surprise, I received a text message while sitting at the top. A friend was telling me that Ashton Kutcher, one of my favorite actors, was at our local Fred Meyer and that I needed to get there ASAP! Yeah, it stung a little bit but I was so happy to be where I was that I didn’t really care. Instead I happily continued down the mountain. After a long and hot mosquito-bitten hike, nothing is more refreshing then jumping in the glacier-fed waters of Skilak Lake — a cool reward on a hot day!

Later this summer, when I asked my 8-year-old buddy, Ayla, what she thought about the hike we did together to Russian River Falls, she told me “it was fun to explore nature, and see things I have never seen before.” I was thrilled that she didn’t say something like “oh, the waterfall was cool” or something similar. Even though I think that waterfalls are really awesome, her comment revealed that she was really observing things on the way. She wasn’t solely focused on the destination but was enjoying the outdoors, and she wasn’t in a hurry to get it over with to get back to her electronics. Ayla was stopping and smelling the roses, and exploring her curiosity for nature.

As far as my personal goal of doing one hike a week all summer, I have completed five trails so far — Lower Russian Lakes Trail, Fuller Lakes Trail, Bean Creek Trail to Juneau Falls, Vista Trail, and Carter Lake Trail to Crescent Lake. All of these trails are surprisingly unique in their own way. This week I am looking forward to hiking Hideout Trail.

To find out more about my adventures, check out my trail reports on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Facebook page each Tuesday. Also, if you are interested in getting out on a trail, but don’t want to go alone, the Refuge has many opportunities for guided hikes. You can find out more information about our Discovery, Nature, and Fitness Hikes on our website under the “Featured” section at

Donna Handley is an administrative assistant at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.