Cottonwood trail: an easy hike with a great view

On the Homer side of Kachemak Bay, finding a good, short hike can be a challenge. Across the bay, Kachemak Bay State Park has some marvelous hikes — if you have a boat and can afford a water taxi. If you’re a visitor or local, the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies has a little gem of a hike off East Skyline Drive, the Billie Fischer Cottonwood Trail.

Part of the Carl E. Wynn Nature Center, the Cottonwood Trail is named after Wynn’s daughter. It offers a contrast to the trails on the uphill side of the road. The Cottonwood Trail goes downhill through a towering cottonwood tree forest and ends at a pair of benches overlooking Bear Canyon, Homer and Kachemak Bay. In the meadow below moose and other wildlife can sometimes be seen. Wildflowers, including the nuka rose, have been blooming since late June. It’s a great place for a quick hike or a picnic.

“We consider it to be a local treasure,” said CACS director Beth Trowbridge.

Originally, the vision had been to put in a little amphitheatre for nature and other programs. A few years ago CACS scaled back its plans and with volunteer and summer help put in the winding trail.

“I just tried to revisit that and get the trail in,” Trowbridge said. “It’s such a unique place with all those cottonwoods there as opposed to the spruce forest at the Wynn.”

Using cedar milled from logs that had washed up on the beach, carpenter Ben Gibson built the two benches with rusting metal panels on the back.

“The idea was that it would kind of blend in with the environment,” Trowbridge said.

The benches are dedicated to artist and naturalist R.W. “Toby” Tyler. A sign built by MooseRun Metalsmiths offers some of Tyler’s advice on nature: “Relax here and harken to nature’s music,” it says.

With gentle switchbacks winding through the forest, young and old will find the walk easy to moderate. Be careful stepping over roots and rocks. 

The tall cottonwood trees and bright green leaves let in enough light for ferns and flowers to grow on the forest floor.

“It’s just so neat over there,” Trowbridge said. “We see a lot of different plants. The ferns are twice as big. Everything is so much bigger because of that south-facing slope.”

Watch for baneberries, the red berry with the little block dot that grows at the end of a single stalk. Baneberries are poisonous, so unless you know your berries, be careful of eating them.

A big cottonwood tree with a hollow trunk makes a good photo opportunity for kids — or silly adults — wanting to look like forest trolls. Bring your camera, because you’ll want to take a lot of photos of flowers and the stunning view at the end.

That’s the nice thing about the Cottonwood Trail: sometimes you want to have a nice view without working hard.

“That’s the idea, to have a spot to go where you can do that,” Trowbridge.

But then you have to climb back up, she noted. “You don’t have to work until you have the view,” she said.

To get to the trail, head east on East Skyline Drive from the intersection with East Hill Road. Look for Woodman Lane on the left. Shortly after Woodman, look for a turnout on the right, about 1.25 miles from East Hill Road. It’s OK to park in the little turnout. Because the trail is on Wynn Nature Center land owned by CACS, the trail isn’t public land, though it is open to the public. Use of it is free to CACS members. Nonmembers are encouraged to check in at CACS and pay a donation for using the trail.

As with most any Alaska trail, wear sturdy shoes, bring water and snacks, carry raingear and other extra clothing, bring a camera and binoculars, and most important — don’t forget the bug dope.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at


Billie Fischer Cottonwood Trail

What:  A half-mile hike through a cottonwood forest downhill to a view of Bear Canyon, Homer and Kachemak Bay

Where:  Mile 1.25 East Skyline Drive. Take East Skyline Drive from the East Hill Road intersection about 1.25 miles past Woodman Lane on the south side of the road. Look for a turnout. Parking is limited.

Who:  At the Carl E. Wynn Nature Center owned by the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies

Difficulty: Easy going down, but a moderate to hard hike coming back up.

Cost: Free to CACS members. A donation is requested for nonmembers. Check in at the Wynn Nature Center at Mile 1.5 East Skyline Drive just up the road.

Amenities: Benches, wildlflower, wildlife and bird viewing.

Caution: Baneberries are in the area. Be careful of eating berries.

Photo by Michael Armstrong, Homer News

Photo by Michael Armstrong, Homer News

Benches offer a spot to sit and have a picnic — or look at wildflowers, like roses (previous photo).-Photo by Michael Armstrong, Homer News

Benches offer a spot to sit and have a picnic — or look at wildflowers, like roses (previous photo).-Photo by Michael Armstrong, Homer News