Tutka Front Door

Tutka Front Door

27 miles backpacking between Tutka Bay and Seldovia, Alaska

July 22-24, 2023

The plan was to hike the Tutka Backdoor Trail, an Alaska-trendy multiday traverse through the mountains between Taylor Bay, on the Gulf of Alaska, and Kachemak Bay. But the weather wasn’t cooperating. To reach Taylor Bay we’d need to take a short charter flight from Homer, but the float plane needed a reasonably high cloud ceiling and decent weather to operate safely. As we drove down the Sterling Highway, a thick layer of ocean fog enveloped the car.

Sometimes you roll the dice on outdoor trips, and you get unlucky.

Driving to Homer

Fog on the Sterling Highway

In Homer that night, we discussed backups. I recalled that there had been a plan to extend Tutka Backdoor over the mountains to the small seaside town of Seldovia, and the maps on my phone suggested that there were already developed trails on either end of the route that would take us through the brush. We’d just have to make our way over the mountains in the middle. As long as a water taxi could handle the weather tomorrow, we could start at Tutka Bay instead of ending there, end at Seldovia instead, and take the ferry back to Homer.

We wouldn’t be walking into Tutka Bay from the back door, so much as waltzing in via water taxi through the front. It was only fitting to call this–whatever this would be–the Tutka Front Door traverse.

Bryce Coryell

Bryce

“B$”

Dana Kerr

Dana

“Dangerous Dana”

Ryan Stassel

Ryan

“Steeze”

Bronté

Bronté

“B-Tay”

Karaline Ragula

Kara

“Auntie Kara”

Paxson Woelber

Paxson

“Paxson”

Tutka Front Door Map

Day 1: Sea Star Cove to Red Mountain

We were relieved to wake up to awesomely decent weather the next morning, and quickly booked a water taxi to Sea Star Cove. After checking out of our hotel we hopped on the water taxi full of tasty Homer takeout and optimism. This Plan B was starting to feel like a grade A scheme.

Water taxi in Homer
Water taxi at Sea Star Cove

Taking the water taxi from Homer to Sea Star Cove. Photos: Ryan Stassel

Kachemak Bay was calm and the surface of the water in the cove was covered in spruce pollen, giving it the appearance of rippling battered gold. We hopped over the last couple feet of gold onto the beach, tossed a celebratory bag of wine back and forth, and got ready to hit the trail.

Water taxi at Sea Star Cove
Bagged wine at Sea Star Cove

Hitting the beach at Sea Star Cove. Photo of the author: Ryan Stassel

The narrow trail zig-zagged up from the beach directly into the lush, mushroom-strewn, mossy Kachemak rain forest. We ascended a hillside, wound along the edge of Tutka Lake, and then dropped back down to sea level at Tutka Bay Lagoon.

Bridge above Tutka Bay Lagoon

At Tutka Bay Lagoon the trail awkwardly took us directly through the buildings at the salmon hatchery (“…uh, are we supposed to be here?”) and then out onto an intertidal marsh. It turned out that this part of the route was only passable depending on the level of the tide–something we hadn’t planned for.

But sometimes you roll the dice on outdoor trips and you get lucky. The tide was coming in but the route was still passable. We skirted around the edge of the lagoon before climbing back into the trees.

Tutka Bay Lagoon
Walking around Tutka Bay Lagoon
Seaweed in Tutka Bay Lagoon

Tutka Bay Lagoon

The next portion of the route was surprisingly varied. We walked through lush coastal forest, down narrow singletrack through what looked like planted trees in a previously logged area, through a tunnel of overhanging alder, and then up through mature forest on Jakolof Bay Road.

Though there were tracks from motorized vehicles on the lower stretches, the bridges on Jakolof Bay Road (also sometimes called Red Mountain Road) were in ruin and parts of the road were washed out. We never saw anyone else on it, though I later heard that it’s popular with mountain bikers.

Crossing Jakolof Creek under Jackolof Falls

Crossing Jakolof Creek under Jakolof Falls

Above a jumble of rusted culverts on Jakolof Creek, the road continued to wind gradually uphill through the spruce and alder. Then it leveled off, and we suddenly found ourselves on a wide, leaf-strewn lane lined with overgrown trees planted at regular intervals. It felt like we had taken a wrong turn and been transported to an abandoned German country estate.

Red Mountain Road near Herb's Farm

A few moments later, we started noticing the debris of an abandoned settlement through the trees: the skeleton of an old tractor, an archaic snow machine, rusted-out appliances, the walls of a collapsed structure decaying into the earth.

After the trip, I asked Hig Higman, one of the architects of the Tutka Backdoor trail, about the ruin. He responded, “Herb’s farm—made a go of raising cows. Before my time, but not by much I think.”

Abandoned tractor at Herb's Farm
Ruined snow machine at Herb's Farm
Ruins at Herb's Farm
Abandoned car road trip at Herb's Farm
Ruined washing machine

Herb’s Farm. An interesting landmark, though the only thing growing here now is rust.

About two miles past Herb’s Farm, we set up our tents in a clearing next to Windy River, not far from the base of Red Mountain. We made dinner, and then hid from the sprinkling rain inside my Hyperlite mid before turning in.

Hyperlite Ultamid 2p tent at Red Mountain
Camp in front of Red Mountain

Camp at Red Mountain. Video: Bronté Smith

Day 2: Red Mountain to Camp 2

Immediately above our camp, the road broke into a network of old mining roads left over from the long-defunct Queen Chrome mine. We followed a faint road south, and then veered up the rocky hillside toward a broad pass to the southwest.

According to a USGS geological map, the Red Mountain area is made of “ultramafic plutonic rocks,” and is geologically different from nearly everything else on the Kenai Peninsula. An excellent post on Ground Truth Trekking explains the source of Red Mountain’s striking color, as well as the area’s unusual lack of foliage:

“Though the mountain is named for it’s distinctive tan hue, this color is only skin-deep. Much of the mountain is made of the mineral olivine, which is green, but readily reacts with oxygen and CO2 producing the tan color you see. Olivine and minerals commonly associated with it are very rich in magnesium and iron, which is why they’re called ‘ultramafic’ – the ‘ma’ is for magnesium, and the ‘fic’ is related to ferric, or iron-bearing. When they weather, the resulting soil is not very good for plants (serpentine soil). The high magnesium is particularly problematic. As a result, there’s fewer plants, and those plants that do survive might be otherwise unknown in the area (like the maidenhair fern that’s widespread at Red Mt. but you won’t find anywhere else in our area.)”

Backpacking under Red Mountain
Red Mountain

Hiking past Red Mountain

From the top of the pass, we looked off into the more-or-less unknown. None of us were familiar with this area, and we hadn’t talked to anyone who was. There were no trails or routes marked on any of our maps. All we knew was that there was an alpine ridge that looked manageable on the topo maps, and that if we made it to the other end of it there would–should–be a trail taking us down off the ridge to Seldovia.

It’d been a long time since I’d walked into the mountains with this little information. I felt a mixture of curiosity, trepidation, and excitement. We were really exploring–if only for ourselves.

Cloudy Kenai Mountains
Rock near Red Mountain
Rock near Red Mountain
Rock near Red Mountain

The first task was gaining the ridge itself. As we zig-zagged higher on the steep tundra, the weather that had grounded our float plane in a Homer lagoon swept up the mountainsides to greet us. The wind whipped rain through the cool, humid air. The tundra was steep and slippery, and the footing was tricky.

Kenai Mountains
Wine break
Wine break
Bronté

Members of our group had different experience and comfort levels with conditions like this, and the first mile or two on the ridge were the most challenging. At times we had to stop to scout ahead or help one another over difficult sections. One observation: it’s easy to commend people for helping others, but being open to help is an equally important wilderness skill. Our group communicated well, worked through problems, and kept pushing forward.

It was slow going at times, but we were going!

Walking a ridge in the clouds

Walking the ridge between Red Mountain and Seldovia

Despite the moody weather, walking the crest of the ridge was often pleasant and the views–when there were views–were sublime. The fog occasionally lifted to reveal bright meadows and forests in the valleys below us, while the rocky ridge in front of us snaked up into the clouds. We couldn’t see any roads or trails. We were quietly navigating our own rugged, beautiful little alpine world.

Mountains in the clouds
Ridge walking

We were hoping to make it to a small alpine tarn by the end of the day, but the careful pace had us a bit behind that goal and we eventually decided to find a good spot to bail off the ridge and make camp. We reached the top of a 3000-foot point, but the terrain on the far side looked challenging so we backtracked down a side ridge and glissaded down a snowfield to the floor of a small alpine bowl.

Ryan on the descent

Ryan traversing above rocks before boot-sliding down the snowfield

We set up camp on a tongue of exposed tundra extending into the snow-filled bowl. Our campsite was flat and picturesque, we were largely out of the wind, and clear meltwater streams trickled and tumbled down the tundra around us. The site was a perfect reward for the tough miles on the ridge.

In the evening, most of us piled into my mid again to share tall tales and a bit of after-dinner bag wine. The wine was not good. It didn’t matter.

Camp below the snowfield
Hanging out inside the Hyperlite Ultamid 2
Bronté slapping the bag

Day 2 camp. My Hyperlite UltaMid 2 made for a great group hangout spot, but the Dyneema walls let in more light than I would prefer. Sleep mask recommended/required.

Day 3: Camp 2 to Seldovia

The next morning we broke camp, switchbacked up a snow-filled gully, and quickly reached the tarn we’d been aiming for yesterday. At this point in the season, the tarn took the form of a ring of vivid blue meltwater over a base of snowpack, with concentric rings of snow in its center.

Backpacking toward the tarn
Hiking toward the lake
Turquoise lake in the Kenai Mountains

Just past the tarn, we climbed back up and regained the ridge. We were thrilled to find what looked like a relatively mellow walk all the way to Graduation Peak. The weather was easing up, too, giving us views back up the ridge and down into the forest below us, which was engulfed in yellow clouds of spruce pollen.

Ridge walking
Ravine near Graduation Peak
Hiking toward the lake
Ryan Stassel kicking back in the Kenai Mountains

The final sections of the ridge before Graduation Peak. Video of the author: Ryan Stassel

Finally, we reached the summit of Graduation Peak and dropped our packs for a break. From this point we could see far up Kachemak Bay, and, through the clouds of pollen, there was Seldovia! We still had quite a few miles to go, but it felt like we’d already made it.

Graduation Peak summit overlooking Seldovia
Flowers in the tundra below Graduation Peak
Hiking down Graduation Peak

Graduation Peak

The “trail” below Graduation Peak was really more like neon flagging connecting a set of meadows, though it gradually coalesced into a proper trail as it entered the brush. We were just thrilled to find that a route actually existed, and thankful to those who had put in the work to build (or, at least, flag) it.

The trail got better and better as we neared Seldovia. At the same time, we were getting hungrier and hungrier. Talk of ridges and routes was replaced by talk of pizza and beer.

Backpacking between Graduation Peak and the Rocky Ridge South trailhead, in Seldovia

Finally we reached the Rocky Ridge South trailhead, and continued on the roads into town. After several days in the mountains, suddenly we were surrounded by luxurious seaside homes, boardwalks, and tourists.

Seldovia, Alaska

Seldovia, Alaska

We continued walking all the way to the Linwood, a seaside bar and restaurant, and got the luckiest break of all: arriving just minutes before they finished closing their kitchen. They graciously kept the ovens on long enough for us to bury ourselves in pizza and beers.

Earlier, we’d joked that we should get on Seldovia dating apps and talk our way into a place to stay for the night. As it turned out, apps weren’t required. We met a seasonal resident at the bar, who lived nearby and offered us his living room floor.

Day 4: Seldovia to Home

Despite sleeping in a sleeping bag in funky backpacking clothes, waking up indoors felt downright luxurious. Through the living room window, I watched the wind and rain swirl across a small pond behind the house. We quickly packed up, thanked our host, and walked a couple blocks back to the harbor to catch the ferry back to Homer.

Group photo in Seldovia

Group photo at the Seldovia harbor. From left to right: Bronté, the author, Dana, Bryce, Kara, and Ryan

Before hopping on the ferry we stopped for a group photo by a carved wooden “Seldovia” sign. Our trip had had its challenges, from trip planning to weather to coping with the terrain. But we’d adapted our route, helped each other over the spires and around the cliffs, kept up morale with good banter and bad wine, and even, at the end, managed to find our way to a warm living room in Seldovia.

Sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes you don’t. And sometimes luck has nothing to do with it.

About the Author

Paxson Woelber

About the Author

Hi! My name is Paxson. I grew up in Alaska and currently live in Anchorage. For more about me and winterbear.com, click here.

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Logan
Logan
1 month ago

What a great play by play of your adventure and a good resource for others, thanks for taking the time to document your trip!