When weather conditions are toughest for trails — in the ice of winter or breakup of spring — Ski Hill Road just outside of Soldotna has always been there for dog walkers, fat-tire bikers and runners.
There’s only one problem — it’s a road. A road that leads to the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center and Headquarters, thus not getting a ton of traffic, but a road nonetheless.
“We’ve definitely had our collection of close calls,” Leah Eskelin, visitor services park ranger at the refuge, said of trips from her workplace down the hilly, curvy road to Soldotna.
There is now a better way.
Saturday, the refuge is hosting a grand opening of the Ski Hill Multi-use Trail from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m.
The trail is packed gravel, 8 feet wide, 1.5 miles long and unlike anything the refuge has ever done before.
The path, which has trailheads at the north end of Ski Hill, south end of Ski Hill and at the visitor center, cuts through the woods just west of Ski Hill Road.
It takes advantage of the roller-coaster, moraine terrain that gives the verve to trails around the visitor center, Tsalteshi Trails and Slikok Trails.
“It has a really nice, rolling hill aspect,” Eskelin said. “It’s been more engineered than any other refuge trail.”
Eskelin said all that engineering allows the trail to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The engineering also makes the trail a perfect gathering place for groups of different generations, abilities and preferences of nonmotorized transport.
While the trail is not lit, Eskelin said it is cleared wide enough that the sun and moon will have plenty of angles of illumination.
Steve Miller, deputy refuge manager, said the trail is a result of the refuge and Alaska Department of Transportation submitting a successful grant in 2014 to the Federal Lands Access Program. This program is administered by the Federal Highway Administration to improve transportation facilities that provide access to, are adjacent to, or are located within federal lands.
“This has been a great partnership with the Federal Highway Administration and the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities,” Andy Loranger, refuge manager, said in a released statement. “… We are thankful for all the support received from the Kenai Peninsula Borough, City of Soldotna, Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, Tsalteshi Trails Association, Friends of Kenai Refuge, and the public.”
While skiers and snowshoers are welcome on the trail, Eskelin said the trail will be plowed for walkers, bikers and runners because the trail’s purpose is to provide an alternative to Ski Hill Road. Skiers and snowshoers will have to act fast after a snowfall.
The refuge has set up activities during Saturday’s grand opening for each of the three main activities the trail will host — walking and running, walking a dog and biking.
Information about all of the day’s activities will be available at tents at each of the three trailheads, though Eskelin said the visitor center trailhead is preferred because that has the most parking.
Due to the new coronavirus pandemic, Eskelin said staff will be practicing social distancing and wearing masks. Anything the public picks up will have been sanitized.
For walkers, there will be self-led wayfinding activities all day. There also will be a scavenger hunt to introduce map reading and nature exploration.
Walkers can also take up the challenge of associating things on the trail with as many of the letters of the alphabet as possible. A geocache also has been set up on the trail.
While walking is as time-honored an activity as there is on the refuge, Eskelin said bikers and dog walkers get a special treat in the trail.
This will be the lone trail on the refuge where biking is allowed. To celebrate that, a youth bike ride hosted by the Tsalteshi Trails Association will leave the visitor center parking lot at 2 p.m. The ride will be about 2 miles. Children must be accompanied by an adult and all riders should wear helmets. There is no registration.
The Ski Hill Multi-use Trail also will allow dogs. While dogs are allowed on most of the refuge, they are not allowed on any of the other refuge trails departing from the visitor center. Eskelin said giving dog walkers an option other than Ski Hill Road is a huge benefit.
“The road is windy and that makes it precarious, especially in winter when it’s icy,” she said. “Drivers are driving on ice and dog walkers may or may not see us, and there’s not much shoulder on the road.”
Eskelin said it is preferred that dogs on the trail are leashed. If they are not leashed, they should be under direct voice control.
To celebrate dog walkers, rangers at each of the three trailheads will be ready to certify B.A.R.K Rangers and their handlers. B.A.R.K. is an acronym — Bag waste, Always wear a leash, Respect wildlife and Know where you can go.
Dog walkers can use the trail all day. At 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., B.A.R.K. Ranger Trail Steward programs leave the visitor center parking lot.
These walks, which require no registration, allow walkers to learn more about the refuge’s new Trail Stewards program. Trail Stewards, who don’t have to own dogs, help refuge staff with trail reports, photos, maintenance projects and trail cleanups.
While Eskelin said refuge staff is excited the drive home from work should be safer for the community, she said refuge staff is thrilled for another reason.
“Most of us have young children and now we have a new urban trail that’s really prime for after-school recreation or weekend family outings,” she said. “It’ll be great throughout the whole year. I’m pretty excited as a mother to bring the kids out and I hope other families will check it out as well.”