By Jenny Neyman
In a state as rugged, picturesque and unsettled as Alaska, a wide range of recreation opportunities beckon just out the back door. But in a state as large as Alaska, that backyard can encompass hundreds of miles.
With gas prices pushing $5 a gallon on the central Kenai Peninsula, traversing that backyard is becoming increasingly expensive.
“I’ll tell you what, it’s very, very, very expensive,” said Drew “Obie” O’Brien, of Soldotna.
In years past O’Brien would make numerous trips to hike or take his boat out in the Skilak area or Kenai Lake.
“Normally I would come up here, oh, golly, eight, ten times during the summer,” he said.
Not this year, when it costs him $75 to fill the 16- to 17-gallon tank in his little truck.
“The cold, hard truth of the matter is, anybody you talk to will say they are cutting way back,” he said. “That’s just the way it is.”
For those looking to cut back on summer recreational travel, but not cut it out completely, there are options in the near end of the central peninsula’s backyard.
The Kasilof area offers lakes and the Kasilof River for boating and fishing, as well as campgrounds.
The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge boasts several campsites, lakes and hiking trails within an hour’s drive from Soldotna. For those looking for a people-, rather than gas-powered, excursion, the Swan Lake Canoe Trails system just outside Sterling on Swanson River Road can accommodate trips lasting a day, week or longer.
If even Sterling is too far to drive for an outdoors activity, refuge headquarters on Ski Hill Road in Soldotna has trails, a lake and interpretive displays.
On Saturday, Gary and Nancy Ohren and their grandson, Eli, of Silverton, Ore., took advantage of the wilderness paths at refuge headquarters not more than five minutes off the beaten path of the Sterling Highway.
“It seems like it’s pretty well maintained,” Gary Ohren said of the trails system. “We like stopping at places like this. Usually there’s a hike or something to do. It’s nice to get out and get some exercise, especially when you’re in the car for a while.”
Across the highway from Ski Hill Road is Skyview High School with the Tsalteshi Trails system, a series of interconnected loops crisscrossing the woods on a ridge overlooking Soldotna. The trails are good for hiking or mountain biking in the summer.
Twenty-five miles north of Kenai is Captain Cook State Park, with camping, fishing and hiking opportunities.
For those wanting to take a more substantial excursion without draining their tank or wallet, there are good options within an hour drive from Kenai and Soldotna.
Jordan Jenkes, a University of Alaska Anchorage student formally from the central peninsula, was climbing Skyline Trail at mile 61 of the Sterling Highway on Sunday with Barb Mossakowski, also a UAA student.
“It’s only like 45 minutes from Kenai,” he said. “It’s definitely a great day hike. I’ve been coming here for years.”
The roughly mile-long trail shoots up above treeline to offer views of the surrounding Mystery Hills, Sterling Flats and Kenai Mountain Range.
“It’s a good place to go get some elevation and it’s really close to home. You can just get out and up there and keep going,” Jenkes said.
Jenkes sings their trail’s praises as a wintertime mountaineering destination, as well, but Mossakowski recommends sticking to summer.
“I like it better now in this kind of weather,” she said. “You can make it as hard or easy as you want to make it.”
A few miles up the highway is the far end of Skilak Lake Road. The dirt road offers access to several day hikes, lakes, campgrounds, picnic areas and scenic overlooks. This variety in activity and terrain make the area worth revisiting, especially since it’s a closer, and therefore cheaper, alternative than recreation spots farther up the road.
O’Brien was at the Hidden Lake Campground off Skilak Lake Road on Sunday, cooking hot dogs with Amsl Apflaur from Anchorage. Earlier that afternoon he’d ferried a group of hikers across the lake.
The Skilak area is one of his favorite spots.
“Oh, it’s beautiful, it’s just gorgeous,” he said. “I’ve been coming out here for years and the facilities here are just gorgeous. Over the years they’ve really developed it.”
Since he’s cutting back on drives to the mountains, O’Brien said he’s been doing activities in town, like riding his bike and walking.
He’s not the only one with that idea.
“Last night I rode my bike to Safeway. There were 15 to 20 bikes there. There’s usually about three. I had a hard time finding a place to park,” he said.
Apflaur said riding a motorcycle is a way to cut down on fuel costs, but even that isn’t as cheap as it used to be.
“It’s a sad comment when it costs you a chunk of change to fill up your motorbike,” she said. “… Now you have to start carrying some real money with you.”
Ideas for conserving fuel, and cash, this summer
- Explore areas close to home.
- Carpool. Find a group of people with similar interests and try to plan trips that multiple people can go on, then split the gas bill.
- Camp. When taking a trip somewhere that requires a longer drive, stay a day or two. That reduces out-and-back travel, as well as makes you feel like you’ve gotten more recreational bang for your buck.
- Maintain your car. Changing filters, keeping tires properly inflated and other routine maintenance can improve gas mileage.
- Row a boat, rather than drive one. If you usually motor to your fishing holes, try getting there with oars for a change, or fish from the shore to mix things up.