By Joseph Robertia
From the burgundy of berry bushes to the gold hues of devil’s club and deciduous trees, the colors of fall are upon the Kenai Peninsula. But the peak has yet to be reached, leaving time for autumnal color seekers to take in the foliage before the winds of change whip them away.
“I think we’re coming up on peak weekend. Things are still vibrant green in some places, but there are some really nice splashes of color happening all over,” said Steve Ford, co-founder of the Kenai Peninsula Outdoor Club.
Ford covers a lot of ground across the peninsula, regardless of the season, and has whittled his hikes down to a short list of favorite trails for taking in fall colors, ranked from short and simple, medium length and grade, to longer and more arduous treks.
For those looking for something off the most beaten paths, Ford recommends the Grewingk Glacier Trail.
“It’s a good one. It’s a pretty trail with good views of the glacier and icebergs. It’s very picturesque at this time of year,” he said.
Located south of Homer, in the Halibut Cove area across Kachemak Bay, the Grewingk Glacier Trailhead is accessible by boat or water taxi. It’s a 3.2-mile hike with roughly 200 feet of elevation gain through alders to the cobbled shoreline of Grewingk Lake. The hike is easily doable in a half day, and there are connections to the much more arduous Saddle and Alpine Ridge trails.
While Grewingk is a good weekend adventure, for those aiming for something a little closer to the central peninsula, Ford recommends the Slaughter Gulch Trail, a 1.8-mile hike with more than 2,500 feet of elevation gain. It begins from an unmarked trailhead at the end of South Face Place, next to Wildman’s convenience store in Cooper Landing.
“It pays off really fast. Within 40 minutes things open up and you can see Kenai Lake, which contrasts nicely with the fall colors,” Ford said.
While popular with trail runners and hikers with strong thighs, the Slaughter Gulch trail is not for the faint of heart, or lungs. Much of the trail is steep and rocky, and sometimes slippery with little relief from the wind, but rewards hikers with some of the best views around, even before reaching the top.
For those, particularly with small children, who want something shorter but still with ample opportunity to enjoy the seasonal change, try the hikes along Skilak Lake Loop Road. Ford recommended several trails in the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area, including Bear Mountain (1.6-mile round trip), the Kenai Canyon Overlook and Hideout Trail (1.5 miles round trip), all accessible from Skilak Lake Loop Road.
“They’re good family hikes, not too difficult and all have panoramic views,” he said.
“For biking, I like the Crescent Creek Trail. It doesn’t open up for quite awhile, but I like the subtle change of color you can see as it transitions to the alpine zone,” Ford said.
Crescent Creek Trail is 6.5 miles one way to the west end of Crescent Lake, where a U.S. Forest Service cabin is available to rent. There also is an eight-mile primitive trail that runs along the shore of the lake and connects to the 3.5-mile Carter Lake Trail, which ends near Moose Pass, for those looking to do a traverse.
To get to the Crescent Creek trailhead, turn at Mile 45 of the Sterling Highway onto Quartz Creek Road. Drive 3.3 miles to the campground. Parking is across the road from the trail.
Rather than using their legs to hike or pedal, those looking for an upper body workout, or just a change of scenery from mountain vistas, may want to set the compass for the Swan Lake or Swanson River canoe trails.
“It’s a nice alternative and easy to call it quits wherever you want,” Ford said.
The Swan Lake system covers 60 miles and connects 30 lakes via drainages or portages. The Swanson River system covers 80 miles and 40 lakes, but with longer portages between waterways, which often translates to more work but fewer people encountered if solitude is a goal.
Whatever your choice, those interested in taking in the fall foliage should act quickly, according to Ford.
“The colors don’t last long,” he said. “The winds work against you and can take the leaves down at any time.”