• “This is our Grace Ridge”
By Christina Whiting
All summer long Grace Ridge’s peaks and ridgelines have been teasing my friend Heather and me. By the end of August, we’re ravenous for its long, challenging hike.
We both love Grace Ridge Trail with its eight miles of varied terrain and elevation gain of 3,145 feet. We give ourselves eight hours to hike, including lunch and rest at the summit.
More often than not, high winds blow at the top and low-lying cloud cover obscures the view, but with sun in the forecast, we set out, hoping for the best.
The water taxi drops us off at Kayak Beach, a rocky stretch of beach with a developed campsite and outhouse. Heather signs us in on the trail register and we’re on our way.
The day is clear and the morning light peeks through the thick tangle of alders that line the first section of the trail. The alder berries are fat and donning their autumn colors.
We step up, over and around moss and lichen-covered logs as we climb through the Sitka spruce and hemlock forest, leaning in to our hiking poles and find our pace on the steep terrain.
Just over a mile up the winding trail, we pass the tree line that opens up to grand views across the Herring Islands, southern Kachemak Bay, and southern Cook Inlet all the way to the Alaska Peninsula. Wisps of clouds surround the peaks and then dissipate. The sun is bright in the pale, blue sky.
Berry-filled scat litters the trail, evidence of the black bears that populate the area. We talk to ourselves and to each other, letting the bears know that we’re out here, too.
Leaving the dense forest behind, we enter an open meadow. Low-lying alpine flowers display deep red and brilliant orange. Heather spots low-bush blueberries, and we sit on the trail to feast upon the sweet treats.
The trail winds back and forth and upward, crossing a creek and then up through sub-alpine alders and across more open meadows. The fading fireweed stems dot the horizon beneath clear skies and the warming sun.
We stare in silent wonder at the unobstructed views of Eldred Passage, Sadie Peak, Mount Iliamna and Mount Redoubt. The steady click, click of our hiking poles keeps us company and we move in steady rhythm up, up and up the dirt path.
Soon, the path disappears and we’re following stone cairns. These wide mounds of rock guide us across the rocky and flower-strewn alpine tundra. Visible all along the distance, they act as beacons.
Crossing an open saddle, we climb the alpine ridgeline, picking our way carefully over the loose stones and reach the summit of 3,145 feet.
With aching shoulders and tender calf muscles, we stop and soak in the views of Sadie Peak, the fjords of Sadie Cove and Tutka Bay and the surrounding Kenai mountains. There is no wind and no sound. We are greeted by stillness and beauty.
The soft, grassy area provides a great perch to burrow into. The spectacular 360-degree view lifts our tired spirits and we eat our lunch and watch a long line of thick clouds parade across the bay.
We rest for an hour and then cautiously pick our way along the 3.5-mile ridgeline spine, with slopes that precipitously drop 3,000 feet on each side of us, down to Sadie Cove and Tutka Bay. Heather urges us to channel our inner mountain goat.
This section is my favorite area of the entire Grace Ridge Trail. The vast views and precarious trail leave me breathless. When we dare to lift our gaze from the narrow trail, we stare straight along the ridgeline into the snow and ice-covered peaks of the southern Kenai Mountains and the southern tip of the Harding Icefield.
Loose rock lines the already-treacherous path, and we adjust the length of our hiking poles as we descend. There is no sound out here but the click, click of our poles.
At the end of the ridgeline, we sink in to thickets of alder, salmonberry plants, skunk cabbage, pushki and devil’s club. The fireweed’s cotton blows across our view like snowfall, resting gently on our shoulders and in our hair.
Continuing our descent, my quads ache from the strain of walking downhill, forcing me to walk slower and I dub them “jelly quads.” Heather sings “The Sound of Music,” distracting my inner critic and we plod on.
Mounds of berry-filled scat continue to litter the trail. Passing a tangle of alder and pushki, we hear the distinctive woofing sound of a black bear from deep within the vegetation. We talk louder, chanting, “Hey Bear, Hey Bear, Nothing to eat here Bear.”
The trail descends ever downward, leading us through another spruce forest. The early evening light falls through the woods, casting shadows across the dirt path. With glimpses of Tutka Bay visible through the trees, we follow the trail as it continues to wind down until at last we reach the shoreline of the north shore of Tutka Bay.
The water taxi sweeps in to retrieve us.
This is our Grace Ridge.
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