A view from the well-traveled Skyline trail on a clear day can be a rewarding sight of the Kenai Peninsula mountains any time of the year.
Heading up the trail before the leaves bloom in the springtime will immediately give a glimpse of a sight that rarely presents itself in the foothills of the Kenai Mountains. At this time of year, the trail is often soft and muddy, and doesn’t always provide solid footing as hikers doggedly work their way up the steep climb, but the effort is worth it.
Whether it be the adrenaline junkies looking for the thrill that the icy slopes provide, or the more mellow simply searching for a challenging daytime activity to pursue, Skyline is the nearest, commonly trekked mountain hike for the central peninsula. It starts north of the Sterling Highway just east of Mile 61.
Of course, some adventurers live for the thrill of a snowy slope, which can turn into a wintry version of a Slip’n Slide as long as hikers take care to make sure there are no slightly covered rocks in their slippery path.
“When you get up to the top and start down, it’s great to just go off the trail and bomb down the snow,” said Zach Johnston, who made the trip from the top to the bottom in about 30 minutes late last week.
Johnston makes the trek up the mountain with his wife, Kara, and their energetic adolescent canine as often as they can to get the blood pumping. The Johnstons credited the ease of access and the challenge of the trail for their desire in hiking it.
In the early going, hikers trek through the bushes and trees and up the various roots and rocks that keep the twisty trail moving in different directions. In the summer, the trees are too thick with leaves to get a clear view of the surrounding terrain, while a blanket of snow assures a different scene in winter.
A new section of trail directs hikers through a series of winding switchbacks that ultimately regroups with the original trail at the top of the “bench,” a flat area which serves as the first good stop to make, allowing travelers to dip into their packs for a quick snack, sip of water or camera to snap a picture of the increasingly impressive view.
“What I like about it is the progression you make,” said Julie English of Kenai.
English took on Skyline a few weeks ago with friend Morgan Aldridge, a frequent hiker on local trails. With daylight hours rapidly expanding to 9 or 10 p.m., a trip to Skyline has quickly made it possible for even casual hikers to make the 30-minute drive from Soldotna to the trailhead after a day at work.
“I was born here, and I didn’t even know it was here,” Aldridge said. “We’d hike the Vista trail a lot (accessible via the Upper Skilak Campground).”
Aldridge, a 2000 graduate of Soldotna High, is a rabid outdoors enthusiast but said other available options kept her from getting up Skyline with regularity.
“Vista is usually more open, so that’s why we did it,” Aldridge explained.
Now with Skyline on her list of hiking sweet spots, Aldridge has become a regular visitor.
Up near the top, after the final few energy-sapping steps up to the summit, the Johnstons and fellow trail enthusiast Scott Huff find themselves standing at just over 3,200 feet after starting at the trailhead at 450 feet. On a clear day, the summit offers splendid views of Mount Redoubt to the west and Denali and Mount Foraker to the north.
Huff, a Kenai runner who climbs Skyline several times a year in the summer, said the crowning moment of each trip is the summit.
“When you get up top, it’s great to look down and see no houses or people, or anything down there,” Huff said. “All you see is all the hills and peaks.”
A fitness fanatic who competes in a bevy of running and biking races each summer, Huff has no problem making it down Skyline. In a recent descent, Huff tore by multiple hikers on his way down, including the most important person of all — his wife.
“She’s still up there,” he said gingerly.
A slushy, muddy trail will temper any speed demon who attempts to set a new record down Skyline. Unlike the supersoft descent trail on Mount Marathon in Seward, which features an ideal bed of loose shale and is known to produce some of the fastest downhill times in the state every July 4 in the famed race up and down the mountain, Skyline will punish anyone who leaves their comfort zone and dares to allow gravity to do the work for them.
“That’s why we wear long pants instead of shorts,” Zach Johnston quipped.