Carter Lake Trail reaches heart of Kenai lake country
The beautiful, glacially carved, flower-meadow-surrounded Carter Lake, and its larger cousin Crescent Lake, are within 0.5 mile of each other. The 3.3-mile-long hike to Carter Lake has about a thousand feet of elevation gain. It's about half the distance of the Crescent Lake hike, and a manageable hike for families, that takes you into the heart of the Kenai lakes and mountain country.
The Carter Lake trailhead is easily accessible directly off Seward Highway 3 miles east of Tern Lake at mile 33 on the south side of the road and offers ample parking and bathroom facilities.
From the trailhead parking lot, you climb on a moderate-grade series of rocky, switchbacks through a birch, aspen, spruce, and cottonwood forest and the densest, most beautiful, white feathery goatsbeard stands on the Kenai. As you gain elevation the trail narrows.
Wear long pants, as the pushki (aka cow parsnip) and thistles can reach out and grab exposed legs. After climbing for about 1.5 miles the trail reaches tree line, levels out and moistens as you approach the wetlands surrounding Carter Lake, located in a high mountain meadows-strewn valley. This high mountain valley has a remote-feeling, unpopulated, little-visited dreamy quality to it.
Once reaching Carter Lake you can hike for about three-quarters of a mile around and just west of Carter lake through broad, open, expansive fields of wildflowers featuring wild geranium, tall larkspur, monkshood, ever-present pushki, and fireweed, as well as an uncommon amount of Indian paintbrush and northern bedstraw.
The large rocks you see strewn around these fields are glacial erratics that were transported here from the surrounding peaks and deposited by the glacier that once carved this valley and then melted and retreated. The main trail is offset from Carter Lake by a couple of hundred meters, but there are several side paths leading down to the lake.
There is a primitive tent camping site just off the main trail near the southern edge. As you stand looking at Carter lake, notice how the often-present winds cut ripples as they move across the surface.
There is probably more wind here in this wide-open valley than you encountered walking up the trail. These high-in-the mountains and colorful-in-summer fields are pristine and offer a beautiful contrast against the vast swaths of green and gray surrounding steep mountain slopes that are capped with snowy peaks bathed in cool, clear air. This is indeed a calming environment.
Once you pass Carter Lake, you have about a half-mile of pleasant walking over to the much larger Crescent Lake as you pass through open stands of hemlock and grassy wildflower fields. This section of the trail is the drainage divide between Carter and Crescent Lakes. Carter Lake drains north via Carter Creek into Moose Creek, while Crescent Lake drains south, via Crescent Creek, located at the other end of Crescent Lake, into the Quartz Creek drainage.
As you approach Crescent Lake, the trail diverges into several small paths leading into the hilly area overlooking the northeast end of Crescent Lake. There are several pleasant Crescent Lake overlooks on top of grassy knolls that make excellent lunch and snooze spots. After lunch wander down to and noodle around the Crescent Lake shoreline.
Primitive path around Crescent Lake
If you are feeling a bit adventurous, consider venturing along the primitive trail that begins about a quarter of a mile from where the end of the Carter Lake path terminates at the overlook area of Crescent Lake.
This trail follows the crescent shape of Crescent Lake for 8 miles cross-country through subalpine grasslands and open canopy hemlock stands offering wonderful autumn wildflower displays, changing views of Crescent Lake and a midway cabin. You don't have to hike the entire path, but I recommend at least a short foray down this trail for a half of a mile.
Crossing the trail are beautiful unnamed cascading streams that drain the upper north facing slopes of Madison Mountain. In the spring and early summer these can be wide and fast flowing and their cobble channel beds can be very slippery, so be prepared to don your stream-crossing footwear and use your hiking poles to help with balance.
The primitive trail follows the lake edge for 3.5 miles to the Crescent Saddle Cabin with less than 100 feet of elevation change. Past the cabin the trail traverses another five miles through alternating open fields of wildflowers and more open canopy stands of hemlock.
The entire length of the primitive path can be quite overgrown, with the grasses more than 6 feet tall, and tough going in July and August. On the upside, the wildflower fields have some of the most intense displays of purple with perhaps the densest stands of wild geranium, tall larkspur, and monkshood you will see anywhere on the Kenai. Plus, you earn bragging rights for having gone where few others have.