With summer traffic in full force, it took what seemed like an eternity to make it from Fred Meyer back to the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters area. I decided that my weekend errands would have to wait another few days.
I had the urge to get out of town and sink my boots into some dirt. With laundry still sitting in the washing machine, I threw my pack into my car and headed north. But what trail should I take today?
I’m accustomed to hiking to keep myself in shape. Skyline is an excellent trail for breaking a sweat, but I had tired with that trail, hiking it several times in recent weeks. In addition, the sky looked like rain, and that wasn’t a battle I wanted to tackle on Skyline. Trust me on this one.
Instead of an intense workout I usually look for, I sought beautiful sites and the more gradual elevation gain of the Fuller Lakes Trail.
After hiking a few days before with a friend who enjoys slowing down on a trail and checking out the little mushrooms, picking a few berries and trying to identify what birds she hears, I learned to not just rush through life.
Instead, to sit down and just take it all in. Notice each stroke that paints the larger picture. Several trails came into my mind, but the one that stuck out the most was Fuller Lakes Trail.
However, skepticism set in as I was driving through Sterling — it started pouring down so hard that I set my wiper blades to full speed. Thoughts of turning around and going back and relaxing in my warm, dry cabin were starting to chip away at my motivation for the hike.
I then remembered the saying, “If you don’t like the weather in Alaska, wait 10 minutes.”
If not, I had hiked in the rain before. I have suitable rain gear, and if my boots get wet, I was not backpacking overnight, and I could take them off as soon as I got back to the car. So, I decided to go for it.
Over 10 minutes later, I arrived at the Fuller Lakes trailhead on Mile 57 of the Sterling Highway. Wouldn’t you know it, I had blue skies.
I strapped my pack on, and with bear spray on my hip, started up the trail. Fuller Lakes Trail is a little steep for the first half mile or so but gradually gets less intense as you approach the saddle. If you can get past the first stretch, it is smooth sailing from then on up to the lakes.
Winding my way up through spruce, alder, cottonwood and aspen groves, I started to hear running water. I found a place to look out and see the lower Fuller Lakes drainage pouring over cliffs and forming little waterfalls.
I decided this was a nice place to have a snack and drink some water. Continuing up the trail, I saw the trees start to thin out as I entered more of a meadow area. Many high bush cranberries, raspberries, fireweed and the most beautiful but deadly little purple flower, monkshood, seemed to be growing in abundance.
Visibility increased even more, and I got my first glimpse of the eastern peak of the Mystery Hills. Several minutes after walking through the first stand of mountain hemlock of the hike, I went around a bend, and there was the first lake.
Standing on the bridge, I looked out at the lake with Round Mountain’s reflection rippling across the water, still having a small snowpack toward the very top this late into July. After a few minutes of taking in the scene, I continued forward. I had finally made it to a notable checkpoint, but I was not yet to my destination.
The day was still young, and I still had energy, so I continued. With views of the lake for the next 15 minutes, the trail peeled away. On toward the upper lake I went. Through some taller grasses and alder patches, the trail opened into a marshier wetland where vegetation was low, and a few tiny lakes formed in the wetter lower parts with cliffs dwelling behind.
Several steps off the trail proved to be rewarding. I stumbled into some of the biggest blueberry patches that I know. A handful of berries later, I kept on my way toward the upper lake.
Not much time had passed when I climbed slightly higher, and the Upper Fuller Lake came into view. Situated at the base of two mountain peaks, the lake vanishes off into the distance like an infinity pool in Malibu.
However, the lake doesn’t drain toward you, into the lower lake then down into the Kenai River. Instead, it flows north toward Mystery Creek and Chickaloon River and eventually into Turnagain Arm’s Chickaloon Bay.
Grasses along the lake were a little thicker, so I watched my step a little more carefully. With views of the lake for the rest of the hike, I noticed that it was tremendously clear, and you could see the bottom the whole time.
Finally getting to the end of the lake, I crossed the creek. I explored the knob of land where there were several unofficial, dispersed campsites that looked like people regularly used them.
I continued along what was no longer maintained trail. Another mile in, this trail gains access to the spine of the eastern peak of the Mystery Hills. In order to get on top of the ridge, more experienced hikers traverse across the ridge for 10 more miles to connect up with Skyline trail, an overnight strenuous hike, or a very long one-day hike covering 14 miles from parking lot to parking lot.
Black clouds were starting to roll in, so I chose to stop and turn around.
Turning back, it is all downhill from now on. I passed the upper lake quickly and got to the lower lake with no issues. As I started downhill from the lower lake, a completely unexpected sight rewarded me. Views of Skilak Lake filled a picture framed by trees. It is funny what you see when you look back to where you began.
It ended up being a beautiful day for a hike on the refuge. The rain held off while I was on the trail, and I didn’t use an ounce of bug spray. I passed a group of people on the way down with the two friendliest and fluffiest dogs I have met. I didn’t see any other people the rest of the way down.
In less than half the time it took me to climb up the trail, I was back at the parking lot. Looking at my trail app on my phone, I did a total of 9.25 miles round trip and burned over 2000 calories. I would say that it was a much better day than running errands. Now, it’s time to finish that laundry.
Nick Longobardi is in his eighth season as a YCC Leader at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Find more information at http://www.fws.gov/refuge/kenai/ or http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge. Find more Refuge Notebook articles (1999–present) at https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Kenai/community/refuge_notebook.html.
By NICK LONGOBARDI
Kenai National Wildlife Refuge