From only halfway up Skyline Trail, Jean Lake (foreground) can already be seen easily, while Skilak Lake (background) is just starting to become visible. Both lakes can be seen very well from the summit.
Photo by Joseph Robertia
Fall’s here, and for many that means that it’s the best hiking season of all.
The temperatures are cooler and more comfortable for tackling tough terrain. The bugs are mostly gone. And the forest is vibrant with shimmering colors of red, orange and gold.
For those looking to take in some of the autumnal splendor while also getting a good workout, Skyline Trail in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge is definitely easy on the eyes, hard on the thighs.
“It’s a nice hike. It’s challenging, but it’s not a killer by any means,” said Bob Summer of Soldotna, who hikes Skyline at least once a week.
As a teacher, he often hikes for the solitude clearing his mind to focus on upcoming lessons he will teach. He’s also recently acquired a hiking buddy from the Kenai Animal Shelter a young lab-mix named Bana, who he’s been taking to the top to exercise the pup. Summer also uses Skyline to train for more rugged hikes and mountaineering expeditions.
“It’s a good workout. When you’re done, your body really feels like you’ve done something,” he said.
Starting on the north side of the Sterling Highway just east of Mile 61, the trail begins to climb almost immediately from the trailhead at 450 feet of elevation, and then it just keeps going up.
Most guide books, such as Helen Nienhueser and Nancy Simmerman’s book “55 Ways to the Wilderness in SouthCentral Alaska” list the trail as moderate to strenuous. The trail is listed at roughly 1.5 miles long and gains over 1,800 feet of elevation in that distance.
“Take plenty of water and take your time, maybe make a day of it,” Summer recommended for those interested in tackling Skyline, but who don’t hike regularly.
The trail winds through forests largely made up of cottonwood, spruce and a bit of birch. The understory is also alive with colors as highbush cranberry and currant bushes are ripe with fruit. Even lower on the forest floor, dogwood bushes are as bright red as the berries they bore during the summer months.
“It’s tough to beat (the views of fall foliage). I recently took pictures to send to my daughter in Virginia,” he said.
Looking back over the shoulder can also yield some impressive views of Jean Lake to the south, and further in the distance, smoke can be seen from the still smoldering Fox Creek Fire on the south side of Skilak Lake.
Bob Summer of Soldotna heads down from the summit into golden foliage. Summer said he hikes Skyline at least once a week.
Photo by Joseph Robertia
Don’t fret if you forget, the views will still be there on the hike down.
Skyline can also offer some impressive views of wildlife, particularly in fall when bears are busy eating blueberries on adjacent hills in the vicinity.
“I’ve seen bears, grouse, ptarmigan, hare, hawks, ravens. I’ve seen eagles buzz by at eye level up on top,” Summer said.
Roughly half way up the trail, hikers will encounter what has become know as the “mud band.” This is a very steep section with exposed dirt and little else to get a foothold on.
The trail is wide here from people continuously walking to the edge of the trail to get better footing. However, over time this kills the vegetation and causes the trail to grow even wider. In some sections the trail is close to eight feet wide.
This section is also tricky after heavy rains when the mud becomes even more slippery. Although hiking poles would be a benefit for this hike anyway, this mud section makes them particularly warranted.
“I think it’s good to use poles. They help with stability if you lose your footing in the slick spots,” Summer said.
As the trail continuous to climb, the tall trees begin to thin out, and upon reaching the saddle the elevation begins to level out briefly.
Large thickets of willow and mountain hemlock take over as the primary foliage.
This is also a windy area where a light coat or sweater may be necessary to avoid exhaustion hypothermia, since most hikers will have worked up a sweat on the way to this point.
After crossing the saddle, the trail becomes more rocky and again begins to ascend. Place each foot carefully in this section as it would be easy to roll an ankle an injury that would greatly compromise safety at that height and would certainly complicate the descent.
Up this high in the alpine zone it’s mostly grasses, sedges, lichen and lime-colored moss for flora. There is also an occasionally misshapen mountain hemlock growing out wider, rather than taller effects from the harsh area it where lives.
From here the summit is in sight, evident by a small cairn with a wand sticking out of the top.
At the base of the cairn is a bright orange, plastic tool box which holds the sign-in registry for the hike, and occasionally a bit of “trail magic” a piece of fruit, candy bar or other snack left by the last hiker for the next one up.
The registry can also make for some interesting reading as other hikers will often tell their tale of what it took to get to the top, what they saw along the way, and, occasionally, artistic hikers will doodle a picture of the view through their eyes.
When it’s not too windy, the top can be a great place to enjoy lunch while taking in views of Skilak Lake to the south, the long, winding Sterling Highway leading to Cook Inlet to the west, the Kenai Mountains to the east, and on an extremely clear day Anchorage can be seen to the north.
“I like looking down on airplanes flying by,” said Summer.
For more information on hiking Skyline Trail, consult USGS maps quads Kenai B-1 and C-1, or call the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge at 262-7021.
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