Exploring Homer & the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska
Exploring Homer & the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska
Including an outstanding hike to Grace Ridge.
By: Peter & Kathy Holcombe
After exploring the northernmost reaches of Alaska, a rapidly approaching winter nudged us toward southeast Alaska, and the quaint hamlet of Homer: a drinking village with a fishing problem … or so the welcome sign claims. We first visited Homer in 2016 and were completely enamored with the halibut fishing, sea kayaking, and spectacular scenery. But this year, as per our usual modus operandi, we weren’t certain exactly when we would arrive, and pulled into town without any reservations …ma calamitous decision we ended up deeply regretting.
Camping on the Homer Spit
We pulled into town and went immediately to the Mariner Park Campground: a fabulous multi-use park right on the Homer Spit with 34 campsites that are first come/first serve and run $30/night. Fortunately, there was plenty of room at the campground and we booked a site for the rest of the week. With our accommodations set, our next mission was to book a halibut fishing trip.
Halibut or Bust
We checked the forecast and were a bit disheartened to see a severe storm was on its way. The next day would be clear and warm, and then a forecasted storm with a small craft advisory for the remainder of the week. Knowing time was of the essence, we headed down the spit to see if we could book a fishing trip for the following day.
Much to our dismay, EVERYTHING was booked. And even worse, no one was willing to book anything later in the week due to the impending storm. We were a bit heartbroken that we wouldn’t be able to fill our freezer (actually Peter’s Dad’s freezer as our Revel freezer is tiny) with our favorite fish, but also wanted to take advantage of our one day of good weather.
So, we headed into town to the Chamber of Commerce to come up with a solid Plan B. As we entered the building, we were immediately captivated by a wall that was completely covered with a map that showcased the topography of the area. We always love a good map, and the detail on this one was exquisite. Of particular interest were all of the boat lanes that fanned out from Homer Harbor and crossed over to Katchemak Bay State Park on the other side of the Bay.
Even if we couldn’t fish, we might still be able to explore the waters surrounding Homer. The kind staff at the Chamber highlighted one of the areas newest hikes, the Grace Ridge, and sent us over to Mako’s Water Taxi to make arrangements for transport across the Bay.
Mako’s Water Taxi
The folks at Mako’s were familiar with the Grace Ridge hike and filled us in on everything we needed to know. They recommended that we do the trail from south to north, starting the Grace Ridge Trailhead South in Tutka Bay, and finishing at Kayak Beach on the northern tip of the peninsula. We made a reservation for 8:30 the next morning and began to research the route and gather everything that we needed for the next day.
As we began reading about the route, we noted a discrepancy in the distance. Our AllTrails app claimed the Grace Ridge Hike to be 8.5 miles. The map at the visitor center said it was 9 miles, and the folks at the water taxi said 10 miles. We decided to prepare for the longest scenario and hoped to be pleasantly surprised if it turned out to be shorter than expected.
Crossing Katchemak Bay
We woke up early the next morning, excited about our upcoming adventure and headed down to the harbor to meet our water taxi - the Orca. We left the harbor just as the morning fog was beginning to lift. The sun glistened off of the hanging glaciers that clung to the deep valleys that creased the mountainscape across the bay.
Sea otters frolicked in the bay, twirling and whirling as they scoured the seafloor for shellfish. As we entered the Tutka Bay, we were greeted by a pod of humpback whales arcing their long backs along the surface of the water until all we could see were their giant flukes. As we approached the trailhead, a young black bear scrambled up the shoreline with a giant salmon in its mouth. It was only 9 a.m. and had already been a really extraordinary day!
Grace Ridge: Best Hike EVER!
Captain Avram beached the boat and lowered the ramp, allowing us to easily scramble ashore. We had a little less than eight hours to complete approximately ten miles of trail with 3,353 feet of elevation gain. We had plenty of time but needed to get this show on the road.
The first part of the trail switchbacked along a hillside through a dense rainforest. The towering trees above dispersed the sunlight protecting the fern covered understory from the sun’s penetrating rays. A little over a mile into our hike, the rainforest gave way to meadows thick with chest-high brambles.
There were black berries, raspberries, and several other berries I couldn’t identify, whose thorny tendrils snatched at our pants and scratched our arms as we navigated the overgrown trail. After another mile or two, the berry thickets gave way to rockier terrain and the incline of the trail increased significantly. But the higher we climbed on the trail, the better we were able to take in the full grandeur of our surroundings.
A deafening crack reverberated up to our position high on the trail from the water below. We looked down to the Tutka Bay and noticed a disturbance in the water almost 2000 feet beneath us. As we were squinting, trying to figure out what was causing the commotion, a colossal beast erupted from the surface of the Bay, sending a white spray bursting from its path.
The humpbacks were breaching. We watched five huge whales launch into the air and belly flop down back into the sea, waiting for the slap of their bellies hitting the water to reach our ears. As we continued on, up, up, up the steep trail we caught a glimpse of Saddie Cove on our right. The breathtaking scenery kept our minds off of the incredibly steep trail that we were navigating. Occasionally a loud psshhhhhh would catch our attention as a whale surfaced and took a breath in one of the bays below.
A Humpback Farewell
Eventually, the steepness lessened as we reached the rocky ridgeline that hugged the summit contours. The vistas from the top of the ridge were some of the best I have ever seen. We were surrounded by water on three sides with the Kenai Mountains creating a spectacular view to our south.
After almost seven miles, we began our descent from the summit ridge and back into the brambles. A black bear scrambled down the hill ahead of us and disappeared into the rainforest. Fortunately, he was afraid of us and remained nestled deep in the undergrowth as we continued on down the trail. We popped out of the rainforest at Kayak Beach (after ten long and glorious miles) just as the Orca was coming ashore to pick us up.
As we pulled out back into Kachemak Bay we were greeted once again by a pair of humpbacks who bid us a fond farewell with their massive tail flukes. We reached Homer Harbor just as the sun was beginning to set and returned to the Mariner Park Beach Campground with the sky ablaze, draping the Kenai Mountains with rosy hues.
Spontaneity Leads to New Discoveries
While we continue to feel the absence of halibut in our freezer, our spontaneity (and lack of a formal gameplan) forced us to discover something new and fabulous. As an avid hiker, I have tramped across trails all around the world, and the Grace Ridge definitely lies in my top five favorite hikes of all times: the scenery and wildlife were absolutely world class!
Homer continues to hold a special place in our hearts, and we look forward to returning again, this time with reservations for halibut fishing, and hopeful that we will discover a new trail to explore in Kachemak Bay State Park. Until next time… onward!
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