Are you a planner? An organizer? A list-maker?
I’m not. I love not knowing what tomorrow will bring, and when it comes to taking a trip somewhere, I usually don’t know where I’m going until right before I get there.
It probably drives my friends and family crazy, especially the ones that get stuck traveling with me.
Questions like, “What do you want to do when you get there?” are usually met with something like, “I have no idea.”
Luckily for me, Alaska often rewards the spontaneous adventurer.
Since the summer began, I’ve spent many weekends jumping in the camper van with my girlfriend, Lizzie, and her dog, Tilt, with only a vague sense of where we were headed.
Now “unplanned” should not be mistaken for “unprepared.” The van stays stocked with everything we could possibly need in the Alaska wilderness: gallons of water, bug spray, firewood, tarps, you name it, we’ve got. Occasionally we’ll even throw the kayaks on top, just in case.
What we initially intended to be a camping trip in Hope last month ended up being an excursion through Cooper Landing, simply because the Kenai River was looking particularly blue and beautiful that day.
At first we wanted to find a campground to set up for the weekend, but as it turns out, every single campground in Cooper Landing was full. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the planners beat us to the punch that time.
We opted to park in a day use spot at Quartz Creek Campground and took Tilt down to the shore of Kenai Lake.
As Tilt was splashing in and out of the lake, diving for the sticks we were throwing into the water and generally having the time of her life, Lizzie made a remark that surprised me a bit.
“Wow, this is like, the most beautiful place on Earth,” she said, to no one in particular.
I wasn’t surprised that she had that realization, but I was surprised that she hadn’t come to that conclusion sooner. Cooper Landing and the surrounding area is what I picture when I think of “paradise.” I just assume everyone else feels the same way.
After spending some time at the lake, we did some driving through Cooper Landing, because we both had seen relatively little of the town outside of what is on the highway. While aimlessly exploring, Lizzie remembered that one of her favorite hikes was in the area, so we made a detour to the Slaughter Gulch trail.
For those who have never hiked this trail, like myself, the first thing you notice is that there are no signs leading to it.
She pointed to a small side road that branched off the Sterling Highway. After passing what looked like an abandoned auto mechanic shop we found ourselves on a small, unmaintained dirt road.
“Are you sure this is it?” I asked, naively forgetting that Lizzie is always sure.
“Yep, you’ll see,” she replied.
Once you find a place to park in the dirt roundabout that serves as the trailhead, you start going up. Immediately. The hike goes through a dense, green forest, and behind a few cabins. Lizzie and I mused about one day having trail access in our backyard like those cabin owners. Meanwhile, Tilt ran up and down the hills ahead of us.
At one point we came across a particularly muddy spot, and anyone who has hiked with a dog knows this is when you brace for impact. I’ve seen plenty of dogs charge right through the mud with glee, and we expected Tilt to do the same this time, but she surprised us and walked gingerly across the logs that were meant for humans, avoiding the mud.
She did not have the same amount of self-control when it came to jumping in the creek that crossed the trail, but a wet dog is still preferable to a muddy one. Plus she had already spent some in Kenai Lake, so who were we to stop her?
Eventually the climb opens up to a rocky outcropping that overlooks Cooper Landing and the Kenai River in a way that is, well, indescribable.
We spent a long time up there, just looking out silently at the scene in front of us. One of my favorite parts was waiting for other hikers to make it to the top and seeing their reaction to the view. It was unspoken, but universally understood, that we were in a special place. I think I understand now why it’s Lizzie’s favorite hike, and it truly is one of the many hidden gems of the Kenai Peninsula.
The hike continues on from this view, but we decided to head back down as evening was approaching. Even with the extra daylight in the summer we didn’t want to be coming back too late.
We never made it to Hope that weekend, and spent that night camping in my backyard, because it was the only place left that wasn’t already booked up.
None of what we did that weekend was on the agenda, mainly because there wasn’t an agenda, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.