Snowshoe to an isolated 'Winter Wonderland'
A nice wintertime companion hike to last week's Kenai River Gorge Trail is the nearby Hidden Creek Trail, which is 1.5 miles and gradually drops 500 feet from the trailhead near the eastern end of the Skilak Lake Road to the edge of Skilak Lake.
This is an easy, snowshoe-in trail through alternating spruce-canopied forest and open grasslands to a secluded section of Skilak Lake. This short little gem of a trail offers one of the few accesses to Skilak Lake without a roadway. The slope of the trail is shallow enough that snowshoeing in and out during the winter is not only doable, but fun! Adjustable ski poles or hiking poles with snow baskets are big help.
Also bring some fire-making materials and fixings for hot chocolate, s'mores and hotdogs! If you are Nordic skier, you might strap your skis on your pack for use once you reach the lake. Also, pack some boot grips for ice walking if the lake ice is windswept clean.
Drive 4.7 miles southwest on Skilak Lake Road from the east intersection with Sterling Highway near Jim's Landing. The trailhead for Hidden Creek Trail is on your left, about four miles past the main trailhead for the Kenai River Trail.
Road Note: The Skilak Lake Road is not regularly maintained in the winter. A four-wheel-drive, studded-tire, high ground-clearance vehicle is recommended. I always carry a set of chains driving the Skilak Lake Road in winter - just in case. You can often follow previously made tire tracks. If the road bed becomes too challenging, be prepared to turn back. This may sound a bit gnarly, but the hike/snowshoe rewards are well worth it!
The path heads gradually down and away from the trailhead through an open-canopy aspen, birch, spruce and cottonwood forest typical of this area. Snow-ladened spruce branches often arch over the winter trail. Much of the middle portion of the trail, through a section burned by the 1991 Pothole Fire, offers sweeping views to the east of the snow-covered Kenai Mountains. The burned sections show evidence of much new growth, with young spruce trees growing among the charred snags along with remnant wildflower stalks, such as fireweed, bushes of alder and young aspen trees all making a comeback after the fire. At about the one-mile mark, the trail splits, with the left (east) and slightly longer section heading off toward Hidden Creek. It leads through the wetlands surrounding the lower portion of Hidden Creek and eventually leads to Skilak Lake as well. The right section travels more directly down to Skilak Lake a half-mile away, re-entering unburned woods as you near the lake. In winter, take the right trail directly to the lake.
The real prize awaits you at the lake, where you can stand at the edge of the forest and enjoy sweeping views of the east end of Skilak Lake and the Kenai Mountains beyond. The snowy, ice-covered beach offers many natural ice sculpture treasures formed by windblown snow and ice that piles up along the shore due to the expansion and contraction of the ice during the winter. Plan to make a base camp at the edge of the forest on the lake from which you can venture out.
Fire note: Build your fire away from the snow-covered tree limbs. Snowshoe or ski along the shorelines for as long as you like. You can enjoy an entire day exploring along Skilak Lake, and you'll find plenty of driftwood buried in the snow with which to make fire. Additionally, depending upon snow conditions and depth, you can ski, hike or snowshoe across the lake for some spectacular and breathtaking middle-of-the-lake views of the Winter Wonderland surrounding SkiLak Lake. The lake surface is often windswept clean and safely hikeable with grips.
The hike in and out is short enough that you can go in and out one day, and still have plenty of time for fun. Or, plan to stay an overnight or two so that you can explore even further across the lake and along the shorelines. This is a dandy, isolated, often-accessible wintertime retreat that you likely have all to your own.
Local weather conditions on Skilak Lake are unpredictable and can change rapidly. Dress warmly and in layers. Winds often blow down off the Kenai Mountains and their glaciers from east to west across the lake, so be sure to bring a sweater, windbreaker and hats and gloves.
Also, be sure to bring and use polarized sunglasses, to protect your eyes from the intense reflected light off the ice and snow covered lake. Build a driftwood fire, drink your hot chocolate and cook your hot dogs while you enjoy the views of Skilak Lake country in the winter.