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Mountain trail open windows to the wilderness

Posted: Sunday, June 01, 2003

Budget deficit and high gas prices aside, Alaskans have it good. This is one of the few places in the country where tourists from around the world come to ogle at the sights we see out our car windows as part of our daily commutes.

But if the closest you ever get to those sights is through a window, then you're missing out. The central Kenai Peninsula has a wealth of accessible and maintained trails for people of all ages and physical fitness levels to enjoy.

 

Teresa Wierzbianska basks in sunny solitude on a rocks with a view on the Lost Lake Trail.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

An hour's drive from the "Y" in Soldotna can bring hikers into the Kenai Mountains, which offer a multitude of trails to explore. There's trails to secluded alpine lakes, thundering waterfalls and mountain summits that provide views so spectacular they're almost ridiculously beautiful. Taking in the sights along the trails can leave one feeling like they somehow stepped into a carefully crafted Disney film, where at any moment a moose could poke its head out of the woods beside you and burst into song.

But it's not all rainbows and sunbeams up in the mountains. It's bears, mud and mosquitoes as well. Anyone wanting to get out and experience the wilderness firsthand needs to remember the key to that word "wild" and prepare accordingly.

Listed in this section are descriptions of 10 popular hiking trails in the Kenai Mountains. Many of the trails can be used for biking, horseback riding, camping and fishing as well. They are all part of either the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge of the Chugach National Forest. Contact the refuge at 262-7021 or the Seward Ranger District at 224-3374, for more information on the trails listed here.

 

The Russian Lakes Trail is handicap-accessible.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Russian Lakes Trail to Lower Russian Lake

If you're new to hiking and are looking for an easy starter trail that won't create shinsplints or a need to invest in a case of "Icy Hot," then this is the trail to do. The popular portion of the trail is short, wheel-chair accessible and has relatively little elevation gain (about 50 feet). This trail is great for kids, the elderly or anybody who feels like just getting outside and taking a stroll, rather than conquering a mountain.

But just because it's easy doesn't mean it isn't well worth doing. One of the most popular elements of this trail is the viewing platform overlooking the Russian River Falls.

This is a great spot to rest in the shade and enjoy the sight of the falls below, especially later in the summer when the salmon are running. A short but slippery trail spur to the left of the platform leads down to a rock cavern at the head of the falls. From here, hikers are close enough to almost reach out and touch the fish as they fight their way up the falls.

 

A red salmon jumps in the Russian River Falls last summer. The location is a favorite stop on the Russian Lakes Trail.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

The Russian Lakes trail head is accessed from the Russian River Campground at Mile 52.5 of the Sterling Highway. There is a fee charged for parking, camping and fishing from mid-June through August, and the area can become crowded with anglers during this time.

The trail meanders along for about a mile and a half before it branches at Rendezvous Creek. The right branch leads to the falls and viewing platform in another half mile. The left branch crosses the creek via a bridge, leads through an old burn area and branches again.

This time the right branch leads to the shore of Lower Russian Lake, about a 2-mile walk from the Rendezvous Creek crossing. The lake is a great spot for fishing, picnicking or watching the beavers and other animals that live in the area.

For the more ambitious hikers, the left fork of the trail leading out of Rendezvous Creek leads to Upper Russian Lake, a 12-mile walk from the trail head. The trail becomes narrow and rocky, but is still passable.

This trail is in the Chugach National Forest and has received maintenance this spring, so it's free of deadfall.

 

Juneau Falls is located on the Resurrection Pass Trail.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Resurrection Pass Trail to Juneau Creek Falls

This hike begins on the north side of the Sterling Highway less than a mile before the Russian River Campground, at Mile 53.1, and is part of the Chugach National Forest. For beginning hikers, this trek would be a good one to follow the Russian Lakes Trail.

At four miles to the falls it is a little longer than the trip to Lower Russian Lake, and there is more elevation gain, but it is still a fairly easy hike.

Much of the trail hugs the side of a mountain, which makes for some great views of the Kenai River and Cooper Landing at the beginning of the trail, but also means there are some steep dropoffs at the edge of the trail in some spots that warrant caution.

Another thing to be aware of is the trail winds along the mountain in a series of blind corners that could set the scene for startling a bear. It's a good idea to clap your hands or make some kind of noise as you approach these turns, just in case there's something on the other side.

The trail has received maintenance this year and is clear of deadfall. There are a few drainage spots without bridges that hikers will have to cross along the way. While the rocks can be slippery, the water is not usually deep.

Four miles up the trail, a branch on the right leads to an overlook clearing that faces Juneau Creek Falls. Don't let the word "creek" fool you; this is an impressive waterfall both because of the amount of water spilling over it and the steep, rocky chasm it plummets into. The overlook area is surrounded by the same steep dropoffs, so caution is advised.

Hikers can follow the main trail a little farther to a bridge that crosses Juneau Creek and leads to a tent camping area. A narrow trail leads from the bridge back down the creek to the falls, this time coming out at an overlook spot directly above the top of the falls.

 

A rainbow graces a hike to Fuller Lakes.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Fuller Lakes Trail

At Mile 57.2 of the Sterling Highway on the north side of the road is a parking lot and the trail head for Fuller Lakes Trail.

The trail begins with a set of stairs, then climbs for 2.9 miles and about 1,400 feet through woods and meadows to Fuller Lakes.

This trail is much more of a climb than the two previous trails listed, but aside from two or three short steep stretches, the grade is fairly consistent, and there are switchbacks installed to make it more manageable.

Though the Mystery Hills looming above the trail and the stream that the trail occasionally parallels are more than enough to capture a hiker's attention, don't forget to look behind you on the way up to catch a glimpse of Skilak Lake to the southeast and the snow-capped Kenai Mountains surrounding it.

The trail crosses a footbridge at the edge of the tree line that leads to Lower Fuller Lake. The lake has been dammed by some industrious beavers and is home to several types of waterfowl in the summer. The trail continues past Lower Fuller Lake and on to nearby Fuller Lake.

From there, hikers can choose to sit and rest in the tent camping site along the trail or continue up one of several knobs and ridges that ring the lake for an overlook view.

For people who like to impress their companions with random pieces of information, here's a tidbit to throw out while enjoying the alpine view: Lower Fuller and Fuller lakes, though within a five-minute walk of each other, are in completely different drainage systems. Lower Fuller Lake drains south into the Kenai River while Fuller Lake drains north into Mystery Creek.

The ridge line rising to the west of Fuller Lake is the beginning of a traverse that leads to Skyline Trail to the west. Though the route is scenic, it is only advised for well-prepared, experienced hikers.

Fuller Lakes is part of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

According to Scott Slavik, backcountry ranger with the refuge, work crews have just begun their summer trail maintenance work and expect to have Fuller Lakes Trail cleared of deadfall this week.

Skyline Trail

This trail begins at Mile 61.3 of the Sterling Highway and also is part of the refuge. The parking lot is on the south side of the highway and the trail begins across the road and over the guardrail on the north side. In terms of difficulty levels, Skyline is the antitheses of the Russian Lakes Trail. The trail is short about a mile and three-quarters one way and climbs about 2,300 feet.

According to Slavic, the trail received some significant maintenance in 1999 that rerouted the trail to make it less muddy and installed some switchbacks to help reduce the grade. This year it already has been cleared of deadfall. There are some rocky spots and exposed tree roots that can trip up hikers if they're not careful, however, and a good rainfall can turn the otherwise dry trail into a slippery mudslide.

Doesn't sound worth the effort? Just keep in mind that this is a popular trail. Do you think many people would bother huffing up this slope if there wasn't something spectacular to see at the top? Maybe, but you should try it before you decide for good.

Let's just say if you're looking for those Disney-esque views, this trail would be a good choice.

"It's the shortest, quickest way to get up above tree line, then when you get up there you've got gorgeous panoramic views, for almost 360 degrees." Slavik said.

The trail breaks from tree line about a mile and a half up. At that point there's an amazing view everywhere you look, whether it's Jean Lake and Skilak Lake to the south, the Kenai Mountains to the east or the Sterling flats to the west. Once you make it to the summit of the trail, it's even possible to catch a glimpse of Cook Inlet on the horizon to the north and the lights of Anchorage at night.

 

Tim Fowler walks among wildfire-scorched trees on the Skilak Lookout Trail.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Skilak Lookout Trail

At Mile 58 of the Sterling Highway is the turnoff to the eastern end of Skilak Lake Road. This area, which is part of the refuge, is home to several fabulous trails that anyone interested in hiking should not miss.

The trail head for Skilak Lookout Trail, or "Overlook Trail," as it is sometimes called, is 5.4 miles down the east end of Skilak Lake Road. Parking is to the north of the road and the trail is to the south.

The trail begins in dense woods but soon emerges into a burned area that offers clear views of Skilak Lake to the left and a chance to spot animals wandering on the mountainsides to the right but be warned that charred tree stumps at a distance easily can be mistaken for black bears.

The trail is a little more than two miles one way, and has an elevation gain of 700 feet. Most of the trail is fairly level, with one moderately steep uphill push at the end. The climb brings hikers to a rocky knob overlooking Skilak Lake and offers views of the Kenai River, Hidden Creek and Skilak River as well as the Kenai Mountains. On warm summer days the spot is so pleasant it about takes another major forest fire to motivate hikers to leave. On blustery days, however, the lack of wind breaks on the bare knob becomes readily apparent.

Since it is in a burn area, the trail usually accumulates a good amount of deadfall during the winter. Exposed tree roots, rocks and some habitually muddy spots dot the trail as well, which can make for interesting walking conditions.

 

Young bear cubs browse on vegetation near the beginning of the Hideout Trail off Skilak Loop.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"I like it, it's kind of fun. It's like going through an obstacle course," said Debbie Weaver of Kenai, who was hiking the trail Memorial Day weekend with Tom Weaver, Casey Crowder and Richard Zifko, also of Kenai. "It's interesting. You can't say you're bored."

According to Slavik, the trail has been cleared of major deadfall, which gives hikers more time to concentrate on the world around them, instead of where they're putting their feet.

"I like the scenery," Weaver said. "I think it's beautiful. It's gorgeous out here peaceful and quiet."

Kenai River Trail

A little under a mile down Skilak Lake Road is a trail head for the Kenai River Trail. This trail has two entrances and offers a few options for hikers. There's an upper trail that winds through the Kenai River Canyon, down to the bank of the river and back up through a burn area to the road. The lower trail takes hikers down to the river as well. The upper trail canyon route offers the best views. This trail is about 2.8 miles and has an elevation gain of about 260 feet. The canyon is spectacular, and there's a nice spot to rest or camp right on the bank of the river.

"If you would want to get out and see the river and any kind of wildlife related to the river, that would be the trail to check out," Slavik said.

He said the lower river trail has been cleared of deadfall and the upper river trail will receive maintenance this week.

Hideout Trail

Just shy of two miles down Skilak Lake Road is Hideout Trail. Parking is to the south and the trail is to the north of the road. The trail is 1.5 miles one way and has an elevation gain of about 850 feet. The trail climbs through an old burn area up a series of switchbacks to a south-facing overlook point.

"It ends at a nifty rock outcropping and gives you views of the whole Kenai River drainage," Slavik said.

Since much of the Skilak area has burned at one time or another, the potential for deadfall on area trails is high, especially after as windy a winter as the central Kenai Peninsula experienced this year. Hideout Trail is no exception and had several large trees blocking the route during the winter. That deadfall has been removed and the trail is clear for pedestrians.

Tim Fowler of Kasilof made the climb over Memorial Day weekend.

"It's great," he said of the trail. "It was easy to follow, and a beautiful view all the way up. It's real clear and well-marked."

Crescent Creek Trail

At Mile 44.9 of the Sterling Highway, just before the Sunrise Inn in Cooper Landing (coming from Sterling), is a turnoff to Quartz Creek Road. Follow the road about three miles to the parking lot for Crescent Creek Trail, which is part of the Chugach National Forest. At 6.2 miles one way, this trail is longer than the others listed so far, but it is not steep and does not pass through difficult terrain. For the most part, the trail is free of rocks, roots and other "ankle busters" that can turn an even stride into a limp in no time. The elevation gain for the trail is 865 feet, which is spread out in an easy grade along the way.

Much of the trail follows Crescent Creek, which is the drainage for Crescent Lake. The trail meets avalanche chutes that can hold snow late into the summer, and caution is advised in crossing those. Two bridges cross the creek on the way to the lake, one about halfway along the trail, and the other right before the lake. The lake itself is as picture-perfect an example of a pristine mountain lake as you will find. It is, go figure, crescent-shaped, and curves enough around he mountains that you can't see the other side from the shore. It's hard not to stand at the end of the Crescent Creek Trail on the lake shore and wish for a way to go check out the other side. Well, you're in luck.

Carter Lake Trail

The Carter Lake Trail, also part of the Chugach National Forest, offers access to the other end of Crescent Lake. The trail head for this hike is at Mile 33.1 of the Seward Highway, a five- to 10-minute drive from the intersection of the Seward and Sterling highways at Tern Lake.

This trail, like Skyline Trail, is another "best bang for your buck" hike. It gets you away from civilization and up into gorgeous alpine areas in a short amount of time. The downside to that is that it does involve a steep climb. The trail to Carter Lake, which is on the way to Crescent Lake, is 2.3 miles and climbs about 955 feet in that distance. If you're looking for a short workout, this trail trail fits the bill.

"It feels good just to get out at the beginning of the summer and work off the winter fat," said Mary Thompson of Wasilla, another Memorial Day weekend hiker.

All the elevation gain on this trail happens in the first two miles. The trail is switchbacked, which reduces the grade to a very manageable level, and there are plenty of spots to rest and watch for porcupines.

"It's steep uphill but there's a lot of shade," said Tom Austin of Eagle River, who was hiking the trail with his son, Thor, and wife, Rosa, on Memorial Day weekend. "You can stop and rest in the shade."

The switchbacks cross runoff streams in a few places, which can require some fancy footwork or high-topped waterproof boots to cross without getting wet feet. If you're serious about doing this trail, it is best not to be serious about keeping your feet totally clean and dry. Unless you can levitate or talk a companion into frequent piggyback rides, you will get your feet muddy. No matter how long it's been since it's rained, it seems like parts of this trail just never dry out completely.

The uphill push ends when the trail reaches a valley that cradles both Carter and Crescent lakes. The valley is dotted with stands of alder trees, some scrubby spruce trees and wildflowers, starting in June.

"I think it's beautiful," Thompson said. "It's been fun seeing the new growth before it gets all leafed out."

The trail leads to Carter Lake first a rather dinky puddle compared to Crescent Lake (keep in mind, however, that Crescent Lake is the author's favorite hiking destination out of all the trails listed here). Once at Carter Lake, it's another mile walk through a meadow to the eastern shore of Crescent Lake.

There is a primitive traverse trail along the southern shore of Crescent Lake that links Crescent Creek and Carter Lake trails in a total of about 18 miles, but keep in mind the word "primitive" is not an exaggeration. The trail is overgrown, not maintained and crosses a deep creek and several avalanche chutes that hold snow late into the summer. Although if you're up for the workout, the continuous view of Crescent Lake makes the travese worth the effort.

 

Hikers discover snow above the tree line during a trip down the Lost Lake Trail last June. The route offers spectacular views of the Kenai Mountains.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Lost Lake Trail

A few miles farther down the Seward Highway toward Seward, at Mile 17.1, is the north trail head of Lost Lake Trail at the Primrose Campground on Kenai Lake. The south trail head can be reached by driving to Mile 5.3 of the Seward Highway, turning right (if coming from Sterling) on Scott Way, turning left on Heather Lee Lane and right at Hayden Berlin Road. The trail starts at the end of the road.

The trail, in the Chugach National Forest, is about seven miles to Lost Lake from either end, at which point hikers can go back the way they came or continue on the traverse for about a 15-mile hike. The total elevation gain on the trail is in the 2,000-foot range. The uphill stretches are at the beginnings of both trail heads. Once hikers reach the alpine level, the trail evens out.

This trail is particularly popular for its sweeping views and the turquoise lakes that dot the flower-filled meadows. This trail has the interesting side effect of taking hikers on a type of time warp. Snow lasts much longer on the Lost Lake Trail well into June, usually than it does at sea level, and consequently the growing season starts later. So if you get nostalgic for lupine once it's bloomed out at sea level, head up to Lost Lake and see it again.

Pesky plants

The Kenai Mountains come to life in the summer months with lush vegetation. While all the plants that grow in the mountains may be beautiful for hikers to behold, not all should be held.

 

Ugly thorns stud the the beautiful devil's club.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Some, in fact, should not be touched at all.

Two such plants that grow in abundance along the trails mentioned here are devil's club and cow parsnip.

Devil's club grows throughout Southeast and Southcentral Alaska and the Alaska Peninsula. The plant has huge, multipointed green leaves that grow to the size of hubcaps.

Later in the summer they develop small white flowers that turn into bright red berries. The leaves are the most visible part of the plant, but aren't the part that needs to be feared.

The name devil's club refers to the plant's woody stems that are covered in sharp prickles and grow from 6 to 8 feet high. Even the lightest brush against these prickles can result in irritating scratches, if not blood loss. Summertime hikers wearing shorts and short sleeves need to be particularly wary of these plants.

 

Cow parsnip is a silent threat in the woods.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Cow parsnip, also called wild celery and Indian celery, is not as immediately painful upon contact, but can cause more serious damage than devil's club. Cow parsnip grows rampant below alpine levels from Southeast Alaska to the Aleutians. The plant also has hubcap-sized green, multipointed leaves. The distinguishing feature of this plant is the tall stalks that grow umbrella-shaped clusters of white flowers.

Skin contact with any part of this plant on sunny days is to be avoided. The plant has a sap that makes skin sensitive to sunlight and can cause extremely nasty, itchy blisters. If you know you have come in contact with this stuff, and the sun is shining overhead, rinse the affected areas with water as soon as possible. If the blisters already have formed, try aloe vera or soaking them in a mixture of vinegar, water and baking soda.



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