Huge thank you to our friend E for allowing us to share her photos in this post. Papa B and I were so focused on just getting through this one that we didn’t take many pictures.
I first learned about Grace Ridge when a friend made plans to hike the north side with her young family in March. After scoping it out online, I knew this was one we needed to do. The views looked fantastic, and several people around Homer raved about it. There are two ways to hike Grace Ridge; the most popular way is a half-day out-and-back hike from Kayak Beach, the primary destination being a lookout point 2.9 miles in with 1745 feet of elevation gain. The other option is the through hike, which covers 8.9 miles and 3,100 feet of elevation gain. After reading about it, scoping out photos, and talking to local friends, I wanted to experience the through hike. It is listed as “moderate to difficult”, but I know people who hiked it with kids and raved about it. We could totally do this (we can do hard things!), and the views would be top notch.
Neither of us were particularly interested in tackling this mountain by ourselves with kids in tow, though. We thought it looked like a fun hike to do with some friends from Seattle who love to hike. I reached out to my girlfriend to plant the seed, thinking maybe we could get a trip planned sometime in the next few years. They agreed that it looked amazing, and after looking at their calendars, made plans to come spend a few days with us in mid-June. After receiving their flight confirmation at the end of March, I was excited. Papa B was a bit less so, realizing this was going to be a physically demanding endeavor and we were sleep deprived parents of a two month old and an almost two year old. But two and a half months gave us plenty of time to whip ourselves into better shape for this adventure. We bought a pack to carry Little B in, a hydration bladder, and some trekking poles. Let’s do this thing!
We started off strong, logging some miles in the neighborhood and on local trails while carrying both kiddos. I knocked out nine miles on the Russian River Trail in April with the kids, and it was totally doable. (Never mind there was little in the way of elevation gain on that trail.) Surprise, surprise, though, life got busy and our half-baked commitment to train got pushed to the back burner. We even made a round trip drive to Minnesota…nothing like being completely sedentary on a road trip for two entire weeks to prepare you for a strenuous hike while carrying kids!
In what seemed like the blink of an eye, it was mid June and our friends were here for their long weekend visit. Needless to say, Papa B and I were experiencing some serious cold feet now that it was almost go time. We are, after all, very occasional hikers who had fallen off of our training wagon at breakneck speed. Add in that this was unfamiliar backcountry, laden with bears who were just getting started on their summer feasting. As relative newbies to outdoor adventuring, we fully respect the risks involved with venturing into the wilderness.
I hadn’t booked anything with the water taxi yet, as we were waiting to see how the weather played out. Everyone said that it’s not worth hiking Grace Ridge unless you have a clear day. The first few days of their trip were rainy, and we filled our time with fishing and exploring Homer. The weather forecast for Tuesday, their last full day in town, looked to be perfect, though. Uncertain as we were, chickening out was not an option. This hike was the reason they were here in the first place.
On Tuesday morning, we awoke to sunshine and clear skies. We arrived at the harbor shortly after 7:30am to catch our water taxi, and before long, we were off on our adventure. Little B hadn’t been on a boat since last summer, and wasn’t quite sure she enjoyed it at first. She settled in and drifted off to sleep after moving inside to the cabin with Daddy. After dropping off an employee at the Tutka Bay Lodge, we soon found ourselves at the beach of the South Grace Trailhead and campsite. We hopped off the boat and delicately trekked up the beach, which was covered in mussels. We watched our connection to civilization motor away as we readied ourselves for the hike. The kiddos were situated, trekking poles set, and bear spray moved to an easily accessible location. Papa B got our DeLorme InReach turned on so we could track our progress (and also have a lifeline to help in the event of an emergency.) Little B was chattering away with excitement. In the process, we woke up the people sleeping in a tent at the campsite… sorry guys! And with that, we were off!
The trail began with an incline, and Papa B and I quickly realized we were going to need to go into beast mode to conquer this thing. The south side of the trail is a fair amount steeper than the north side, and we made the conscious choice that we’d rather go up the steep side than go down it. We were carrying 40-ish pounds a piece between the kids and our packs. While I tried to pack as lightly as possible, you can only pack so lightly for four people. At the end of the day, we were in the backcountry, and we needed to be prepared for the unplanned.
The first part of the trail goes through an old growth spruce forest. The trees towered above us, and it was a neat experience to walk among them. Massive devil’s club plants sprawled on either side of the trail. Before long, we hit a patch of downed spruce, and it was the first pang of, “uh oh…what are we in for,” of the day for me. I knew going in that we would likely encounter downed trees, but I hadn’t quite appreciated just how large some of those downed trees would be, and how much of a challenge it would be to navigate those sections of trail while wearing the kids. We decided the best way to get ourselves through it was to take the kids off and hand them over the trees and then climb over ourselves. Thankfully, we were able to get through the rest of the downed tree areas while wearing the kids.
After emerging from the spruce, we found ourselves bushwhacking our way through large alders, pushki, and devil’s club that completely covered the trail. The trekking poles came in handy to hold back the nasty plants from the kids’ faces as we made our way through. There were many what I believe were salmonberry bushes along the trail as well, although the berries weren’t ripe yet. The thick brush, combined with the fact that it was still morning meant we were soaked from the dew as well. Papa B’s jeans were so wet from the thighs down he could have wrung them out. I was thankful I’d left my long sleeves on despite the fact that I was quite warm, as it protected my arms from the tall plants on either side. The view of Tutka Bay and the volcanoes started to peak through to us as we climbed, and it was a good motivator to continue.
Every so often, Papa B would pull out the DeLorme to check our elevation. We didn’t have the trail map on our device, so we’d also compare our points with our paper map of the trail. I never wanted Papa B to share our elevation because I knew we had a long way to go and he and I were both experiencing fatigued legs. Eventually, as we made our way above the tree line, our view became more consistent. And what a view it was. To the south, we could see out across the Kenai Mountain Range, with the turquoise blue waters of Sadie Cove contrasting against the dark green of the mountainside spruce and tan sands of the delta at the head of the cove. Streams and waterfalls lined the mountain across the way toward Sadie Peak. We felt like we were walking on top of the world, and it was truly spectacular.
At this point, we’d been at it for several hours, though, and Little B was sick of riding in the pack. Unfortunately, between the thick brush, sharp incline, and steep drop off on the side of the narrow trail, it wasn’t a safe place to let her out to walk on her own. We finally found a flat-ish spot to take a break, and Papa B and I welcomed the chance to give our legs a break as much as Little B enjoyed a bit of freedom to explore. We got out some food, and took in the view as a thick cloud of flies and gnats swarmed around us. After changing the kids’ diapers, we continued on. We had a ten-hour window to complete the hike and meet our water taxi on the other side, which felt generous compared to the suggested 6-8 hours most people recommended. But most people don’t hike it with kids, and we knew we’d need extra time to nurse Baby B, let Little B stretch her legs, and allow for frequent breaks for Papa B and I as well. A fellow Homer mom who has hiked the trail with kids before thought it usually took her about 8.5 hours. She’s also incredibly fit, so an extra hour and a half seemed wise for us newbies. Plus, the bugs! Even if we wanted to rest longer, the bugs forced us to carry on up the mountain.
We continued onward through the 3.5 miles (give or take) across the ridge. Hiking from the south trailhead meant a rather jagged path upward, covered by a good amount of vegetation due to the added sunlight on the south side of the ridge. We would look ahead at the steep incline toward a high point, get to the top of that and then have visibility to the next high point just a stretch down the trail. Rinse. Repeat. It was a bit disheartening at times because it felt like the last hurdle was right in front of you, yet after persevering through the struggle upward, you’d discover that it was just a mirage.
There is no real defined trail across much of the ridge, you simply look for the next cairn and head that direction. I can see why they don’t recommend the hike on cloudy days, as it would add an additional challenge to find your way across without that visual cue. There were a few areas where we had to navigate through some boulders, steep areas of scree, and a short stretch or two where the trail became a thin knife edge with sharp declines on either side. (You never see pictures of these parts, and after experiencing them, I know why!) All of these elements had me freaked out about the fact that I had brought my kids into this situation. Both Papa B and I were physically tired, and I’m not a huge fan of heights. Rather than being able to enjoy the phenomenal view surrounding us, I just wanted to get to a more forgiving area of trail and crossed my fingers I didn’t have any missteps on loose rock, etc. It also freaked me out to look back at Papa B with Little B during this portion, as the inclines were steep and his center of balance was different having 40 pounds on his back. Even though Papa B did great, it still stressed me out to watch them navigate up the dicey areas knowing how tired he was as we approached the summit. Papa B, on the other hand, kept thinking about how awful it would be if an earthquake hit while we were up there. While I can’t disagree, it would be a terrifying (and likely deadly) experience, I was far more concerned about my tired legs stepping on a loose rock, etc.
We encountered our first patches of snow on the south side of the summit as well, but were able to get across without donning our ice cleats. Again, I’m a bit of a wuss, because seeing the slippery, snowy area drop off sharply down the side of the mountain caused my blood pressure to go up a little bit. Now would not be a good time to biff it!
At one point, a lone bald eagle gracefully soared above us. Finally, we started to close in on the summit. It was a sight for sore eyes, to be sure. Our friend K, who was leading the pack was the first to reach it. About 20 minutes later (ha!) Papa B and I managed to drag ourselves us the last steep incline. Our legs were burning, we were exhausted, but we made it!
We all welcomed the opportunity to sit, get the kids out of their carriers, rest and take in the view. We truly had a perfect day for the hike, as we were able to see the volcanoes, Homer and the Spit, and down the Kenai Mountain Range to the east. This was also the first time we had encountered other people on the trail, including a couple having a seemingly serious conversation…a marriage proposal, perhaps? After nursing Baby B, having a quick snack and taking some pictures, we decided to begin our descent. While we figured we were doing well on time, I’d much rather be waiting at our pick up point than risk missing our ride home.
As we headed down, we were again glad to have our trekking poles along. While it was nowhere as steep on the north side as the route we came up, it still had some incline to it. There was more snow on this portion of trail as well, and Papa B and I would link arms in an effort to keep each other from slipping. Thankfully, we only broke through the top crust once or twice, and didn’t sink down too deeply. It was neat to be able to see the trail a ways down the mountain, and the cooler breeze of the snowy mountainside felt refreshing as it was a sunny, 73°F day (which is HOT by Alaskan standards). At one point, we accidentally followed a side trail into some alders and had to back track a bit. Thankfully we recognized our error pretty quickly and got ourselves back on course.
Little B was definitely sick of riding in the pack at this point, though, and was vocalizing her discontent. Papa B quickly discovered he could calm her by picking a flower for her, so he and our friend E were always keeping their eyes peeled for flowers from non-poisonous, non-prickly plants. About one third of the way down, Papa B’s knee started to give him problems, and he was experiencing some major discomfort by the time we made it to the tree line. My knees were also feeling it (that extra weight of our packs was brutal on the joints!), but I wasn’t quite as miserable. We also ran out of water about the same time. We had brought just over a gallon of water for the day, and I had hoped it would last us. But between the heat and being a nursing mama, it wasn’t enough for our family. The only silver lining in this development was we were carrying eight fewer pounds. As we followed the trail through the forest, things started to fall apart a bit. Little B was itching to run around, and Baby B wanted to nurse. Papa B was limping along at the back of the pack, I was thirsty, and we were encountering bear tracks and scat. I wanted nothing more than to get to Kayak Beach. We powered on, and eventually Baby B dozed off to sleep. Thankfully, there was far less bushwhacking on this side of the trail. We kept Little B entertained by singing our “Hey bear! Ho bear!” ditty, intermixed with a little “Who cut the cheese?” a la Two and a Half Men. Finally, we came to a small wooden sign directing us to Kayak Beach. The end was in sight!
After arriving at the beach, we happily took off our packs. Our friend E graciously shared her water with Little B and I, and Little B was thrilled to explore the beach and throw rocks in the water. We had completed the hike in 9 hours, so we had an hour to spare before our water taxi arrived. Although my cell reception was poor and I was unable to make phone calls, I was able to text the water taxi company to let them know we had made it. Papa B took a nap a nearby picnic table while we waited, shaded by some spruce trees. His coat served double duty as both pillow and mosquito barrier.
Our 6pm pickup time came and went, with no sign of our water taxi. I was definitely feeling cranky. The flies and mosquitos were thick on the beach, and I was exhausted. I was able to connect with the water taxi company again, and they assured me they were on their way, just running a bit late. Little B and I constantly swatted bugs away from our face as we waited for our ride home. (Poor Little B had five massive bites on her face the next morning.) Then we heard a loud splash, and I looked up to see a humpback whale that had just breached. (I missed the breach, but caught the splash.) Sure enough, several whales had made their way into Tutka Bay right in front of Kayak Beach. It was probably the closest I’d seen whales from shore, and it was a nice silver lining to our late pick up. We didn’t see another breach, but we saw (and heard, clear as a bell) several blows as they swam right in front of us.
Eventually our water taxi arrived, two hours after we’d first reached the beach. We were all a little sun and wind-burned from our trek, and were happy to be heading home. A cold beverage and some food sounded like the perfect way to cap off our big adventure. After we got settled on the boat, we mentioned the whales to our captain and he offered to go look for them on our way back. As we motored off, Little B was chattering away, and at one point, stated out loud, “I drive the boat.” The boat captain commented on how articulate she was for her age, and then asked if she’d like to try her hand at driving the boat. Needless to say, she said yes. She was thrilled to sit on Daddy’s lap and “drive” for a few minutes. The captain tasked her with finding the whales for us, and sure enough, she did!
All in all, it was an amazing hike. We’re glad we did it, even though, admittedly, we weren’t feeling so chipper about it at many points during the actual hike. I think Papa B nailed it when he commented that it is important to know your limits, and for us in our current physical condition, that was it. Put another way, “We can do hard things…but we don’t always have to.” We both agree we would absolutely do the hike again, but will leave the kids at home until they are old enough to hike it themselves. It is definitely doable with kids, though, particularly if you are a more experienced hiker and are used to carrying your kids on trails with some legitimate elevation gain. It’s also amazingly satisfying to accomplish a task (whatever it may be) that pushes your comfort zone and your abilities. It’s been fun in the days since to look at Grace Ridge from the Spit or from the building site of our new home and enjoy the sense of accomplishment for having conquered the hike with our two little kiddos in tow.
E & K…thank you for putting up with our moaning at various times throughout the day, you two are the best! Thank you as well for carrying my backpack for parts of the hike. That was a lifesaver. I hope you’ll still be willing to tackle more hikes with us in the future. I still have a long list of cool places we could explore! 😀