Born and raised in Soldotna, Cassie Sheridan, 27, has been hiking Skyline Trail since she was 5 or 6 years old.
She’d never had a hike on Skyline like she did Sunday.
“It’s crazy,” Sheridan said. “Before, it was so dense. You didn’t have much of a view until you got above tree line. Today, we had great views all the way up.”
The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge opened up the Skyline and Hideout trails Friday. The Skyline trailhead is at Mile 61 of the Sterling Highway and is 4 3/4 miles and 2,800 feet of elevation gain and loss on a round trip to the summit.
The Hideout trailhead is on Skilak Lake Road, 1.9 miles west of the east junction with the Sterling Highway. It’s a round trip of 1.5 miles with about 700 feet of climb.
The refuge also opened up the section of trail between lower and upper Fuller Lakes on Friday. The section from the trailhead, located at Mile 57 of the Sterling Highway, and lower Fuller Lake had already been open. The Fuller Lakes Trail is just under 6 miles round trip and gains 1,400 feet of elevation.
The trails were closed when the Swan Lake Fire erupted last fall. Skyline and Fuller Lakes were closed Aug. 16, while Hideout was closed along with the rest of the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area on Aug. 18.
Surprise Creek, as well as portions of the Kenai River and Seven Lakes trails, remain closed.
The opening of Skyline came just in time for Sheridan to show the trail off to friends Drew Schaller and Meghan White, both of Carlsbad, California. Sheridan now lives in Anchorage, but had been checking if the closed sign was down at Skyline each time she drove past. She saw on social media that the trail had opened up.
“It’s a special trail,” the 2011 graduate of Soldotna High School said. “I used to come up here after school or in the summer hiking with friends. It’s convenient because it’s so close to Soldotna.
“We’d also use it for cross training for sports, like the ski team.”
Leah Eskelin, visitor services park ranger with the refuge, said the trail was the top priority for trail crews. Because of the elevation of the trail, though, the trails crew couldn’t go right at the trail in early spring.
“We pretty well pulled the signs and we had 30 people on the trail that day,” Eskelin said of Skyline. “Word got out very quickly the trail was open. It’s a good place to find a way to socially distance and get closer to nature.”
Sheridan was in the Peace Corps in Lesotho from September 2017 to November 2019. She said she followed the Swan Lake Fire from afar, getting pictures of fireballs on the road.
“I was gone for 2 1/2 years, and I remembered everything looking a certain way,” she said. “Nature normally doesn’t change that fast here, but the fire made everything so extremely different.”
Sheridan said the biggest difference hikers will note is the total lack of foliage on the trail. That meant a wind on Sunday could get at all levels of the trail, views of the topography of mountains and surrounding lands were constant, and there wasn’t the persistent wonder of what’s around the next bend.
“Before it was so dense and bears could pop out with hardly any warning,” Sheridan said, noting bears are a very rare sight on Skyline because it gets so much human traffic.
Eskelin said the refuge was able to double its trail crew this year from four to eight people due to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service program that provides funding to a burned area. Other members of the refuge staff, such as those from the cabin program, were able to help as needed.
“This was not just a repaving of the old trail,” Eskelin said. “The trail crew really took the time to get to know the trail and make it function best.”
For instance, on the lower fourth of the trail, the path goes past a rock wall before going up a sharp incline. The fire destroyed this section of the trail, so trail workers put in a lot of rock work to resurrect this portion of the path, then built some switchbacks up the steep incline.
The last step was getting ash off the trail. Eskelin said the trail was set to be opened, but then staff were on a section of the trail that still had ash when it rained.
“It became slippery, slimy and consequently very dangerous,” Eskelin said. “They couldn’t keep their footing. So instead of calling it done, they took care of that.”
Eskelin said Skyline hikers now have the opportunity to watch the forest regrow after a fire. She also noted the current views won’t last forever.
“The burned area is regreening already,” Eskelin said. “Boreal forest is designed to come back after fire. In a short little walk through the area that’s been burned, you already see a lot of willows, birch and fireweed.”
She said that within five years, shrubs will be so thick that most of the views on the lower trail will be gone.
On the Fuller Lakes Trail, Eskelin said the trail is pretty much back to normal. Only a few hazardous trees had to be cleaned up so the trail could open, but they were not a high priority.
Hideout Trail has seen massive change, with the fire sweeping through that area.
“It’s interesting access to a burned area,” Eskelin said. “The views are amazing.”
Eskelin also noted that just because trails are opening up doesn’t mean areas surrounding the trails are totally safe for those hunting morel mushrooms.
There have been two holdover fires from the Swan Lake Fire in areas where morels are hunted. One, on June 16, was just 10 feet by 10 feet and was extinguished with no problem. A second started Thursday north of the Sterling Highway, across from the road that leads to Kelly and Peterson lakes. Refuge and Alaska Division of Forestry firefighters had the 7-acre fire on monitor status by Sunday morning.
Eskelin said these fires didn’t have much potential to spread widely because they were in burned areas. She said they did serve as good reminders to morel hunters to probe areas where they are walking, watch out for tree roots and downed trees, and be aware that there are many hazardous trees still standing that could be knocked over by the wind.