Three trailheads are better than one. At least that’s the guiding philosophy behind the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge’s new Ski Hill Road Multi-Use Trail, which opened to the public Saturday.
The trail winds through the woods between the Sterling Highway and Ski Hill Road in Soldotna, covering a bit over a mile and a half on an 8-foot path. It’s accessible from three points — on the south side of Ski Hill Road, near Skyview Middle School; on the north end of that road, near Spenard Building Supply; and at the refuge’s visitor’s center.
Unlike other refuge trails, this one is open to bikers and dogs, in addition to walkers, and is compliant with the guidelines laid out in the Americans with Disabilities Act. That doesn’t mean the trail is flat but the slopes are interspersed with flatter resting spots. This makes it a bit of a choose-your-own-adventure, said Leah Eskelin, a lead project ranger and visitors center manager for the refuge.
“The trail has a dual personality,” Eskelin said. “If you come in from the visitors center spur, the trail going north toward town is that more engineered side, and has amazing, beautiful views when it’s a clear day. And going south it’s a little more undulating and follows the natural contours a little more.”
That engineering is deliberate, to fit with ADA requisites. Even the parts of the trail that are a bit steeper comply, Eskelin said.
Early Saturday morning, amid cloudy skies and a light rain, several trailblazers were out on the hill. Becky Hutchinson, a board member of the Friends of the Alaska Wildlife Refuges, said she prefers walking the new trail than walking on Ski Hill Road, which was more of a shoulder than a dedicated pedestrian trail.
“Well, it’s quieter than being on the road. And you have the trees all around you,” Hutchinson said. “It’s beautiful scenery, it’s quite lovely. You can even see wildlife. I’ve seen northern three-toed woodpeckers, yes, lots of squirrels, spruce hens, all of that. Quite nice. Bear tracks, too. And bear poop. But no bear.”
Jennifer King, of Soldotna, liked the safety of the separated trail when walking with her 3-year-old son.
“With the little one, the part that’s on the road is a little tricky,” she said. “But the rest of it we like. So, yeah. It’s been really nice. It’s good for him to run around and have a flat surface to run around with little bit of hill.”
Later in the day, volunteers with Tsalteshi Trails Association led a group bike ride, and visitors had a chance to get their dogs vetted as “BARK Rangers,” signifying that dogs and their owners had learned proper trail etiquette.
At each trailhead, guides, including Kenai Refuge Education Specialist Michelle Ostrowski, provided maps and booklets about the trail and the greater refuge. Ostrowski is excited the trail is friendly to dog walkers and bikers.
“Most of the trails here at headquarters have different rules and regulations. You can’t bike on trails in the refuge. So this is allowing for a bike trail,” she said. “The trail over near the headquarters area , that system, doesn’t allow dogs on it. People will walk their dogs on the road, but this provides a safer option to be able to take your dog out and be not just walking on a road where all the cars are. So those are my biggest two users that I’m excited for us to connect with.”
The trail was created with a grant from the Federal Lands Access Program, a program of the U.S. Federal Highway Administration meant to increase accessibility and safety on federal lands. It’s been in the works since 2014 and originally included a plan to build an overpass or underpass to Skyview Middle School. That part of the plan was later scrapped.