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Hikers pack Cooper Landing trail, drawing community concern

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Elizabeth Earl
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KDLL

Frequent hikers in the Cooper Landing area may be familiar with one of the favorite community hikes: Slaughter Gulch. The trail meanders through a forested half mile before jaunting up a grueling mile and a half to an alpine ridge, leading hikers up another steep peak ascent that looks down over the bright teal ribbon of Kenai Lake and the Kenai River.

Until the last month or two, it was uncommon to see more than a handful of hikers on it at any time. But starting in May, dozens of cars started showing up at the trail, parking on the Sterling Highway shoulder and anywhere nearby they could find.

David Story, who serves on the Cooper Landing Advisory Planning Commission, said one of the community’s frustrations with the crowding has been that people will park in the middle of the safety path, which the community has long been trying to develop to improve Cooper Landing’s walkability.

"I’ve only counted cars there a couple times in the past month, but each time I’ve counted the cars there have been at least 29, another time it was 30, which any given normal year, even to se 30 people on Slaughter Gulch trail would be sort of unheard of," he said. "Generally, it’d be kind of a handful of folks you might run into, maybe three or four parties at any given time. But the last time I counted, there were 30 cars, including three on the safety path down next to the road."

It’s hard to say why the trail suddenly spiked in popularity, but Story said his best guess is that the trail app AllTrails featured it with photos. That coincided with the weather suddenly turning nice, the snow out, and people desperate to get outside after coronavirus lockdown.

The trail itself is what’s called a social trail—essentially, something informally built for access. Like many other community-developed trails, it goes straight up and doesn’t have any accessory facilities, like signs, parking, tread, or switchbacks. Story said it can’t really sustain heavy use.

The mountain and most of the trail itself is on U.S. National Forest Service land, but the most common route starts out on Kenai Peninsula Borough land and edges up on private properties as well. Borough Lands Director Marcus Mueller said the borough has been informed of the increase in popularity, but doesn’t really maintain recreational facilities on its own.

The borough has struck trail management agreements on borough lands before, but other organizations maintain them, like Tsalteshi Trails Association and Kachemak Nordic Ski Club. There may be some opportunity for improving that access with the incoming Cooper Landing Bypass project that the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities is starting this summer, he said.

The U.S. Forest Service has also been informed about the issue, said spokeswoman Alicia King. The part within the forest hasn’t been reported to have serious issues yet, she said.

Story said both the borough and forest service have come to the Cooper Landing Advisory Planning Commission’s meetings and heard about the issue, but understands that money is tight for land management agencies and taking on a new trail takes resources they may not have. Though community volunteers have been willing to maintain it in the past, Cooper Landing is a small community, and people there tend to wear multiple hats already. Instead, he’d like visitors to take responsibility for the sustainability of the trail.

"The thing I’d want them to take into consideration would be the same sort of thing I’d expect from anybody traveling in wild Alaska," he said. "Pack out the stuff that you pack in, be considerate of the people in the area, whether those are visitors are residents, I don’t think it makes too much of a difference as far as noise and traffic and those sorts of things, and try to pay attention to the land itself. Although I love being able to go all over, there are some trails that are not built for some activities, and it takes some self-restraint sometimes to recognize what activities those trails are best suited for."

In other words, leave it better than you found it.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at eearl@kdll.org.

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