by Bryan Bearss
Dorothy clicked the heels of her ruby slippers to get back home to Kansas, but if you’re looking for family fun and outdoor learning, slip on a pair of XtraTufs and head down to Homer, Alaska.
On the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula, 230 road miles from Anchorage, Homer may seem more like a fishing destination than a family travel hot spot. But this is a community packed with enough excitement to keep the whole crew begging to come back. While in Homer, the biggest question each day is what not to do, because there is so much packed into such a small area. With this much variety, creating a thematic focus for a trip can often boost the impact of this unforgettable experience. During my most recent visit to Homer, I chose to focus on exploring the area’s coastal ecology and found boundless opportunities that forced me to make the inevitable decision to cut potential adventures from my itinerary. The choices I did make have left me thirsty for another sip down on the unbroken, sandy sidelines of what locals call Homer Spit.
Making it Happen
Homer is not a day trip so you’ll need to pack your bags and tent (or RV) for at least an overnight (preferably longer) excursion. Luckily, the drive can be broken up with multiple pit stops along the way, the least of which is the new Fish and Wildlife Service Visitor Center in Soldotna. Recently opened, this center is packed with full sensory experiences (yes, you can see, feel, hear, and even smell), including interactive wildlife displays that inspire ooohs and ahhhhs. Visitors are greeted with the sound of melting glaciers, and traverse through masterful taxidermy displays of local flora and fauna with fascinating natural history facts; there’s even have a beaver lodge to explore. If that isn’t enough to get the wiggles out of the little (or big) ones, take a walk past the old visitor center to the Keen-Eye trail, an accessible path leading down to Headquarters Lake. Along the way you just might see, hear or smell live versions of the displays from back at the visitor center.
Home Sweet Homer
Upon arriving in Homer, you have a few options before packing it in and calling it a night. The Fish and Wildlife Service’s Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center is a quick stop with interactive displays similar to the visitor center in Soldotna (obviously with a coastal focus), but generally geared for an upper elementary to adult audience. This is a great resource for getting acquainted with the area through their variety of local maps and educational brochures, though, and the facility also has interpretive trails to explore on their 60-acre site. If you didn’t check the tide tables before leaving home this is the place to grab a copy of the tide tables, look at the live display of the current tide status, and get an tutorial on how to read the tide table in preparation for a tide-pooling adventure while in Homer. Note: Both the Soldotna and Homer visitor centers are free to the public, although donations are always welcome, and needed.
When you’re ready to dig deeper into the treasures of Homer, look no further than the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies (CASC). An energetic staff of naturalists provide a variety of options for people of all ages to interact with the outdoors. It’s a good idea to stop into their main office on Smokey Bay Way to investigate all of their opportunities and pre-book for any excursions, like guided walks, tours, camps, and overnight excursions. The few I explored are just the tip of the summertime iceberg for CASC, and I’d strongly recommend checking out their summer camps designed for toddlers to teens and overnight trips designed for pre-teens/teens and families.
While I waited for the tides to recede for a bit of tide pooling, I took advantage of the chance to explore the interpretive trails at CASC’s Wynn Nature Center. Twice a day naturalist guides escort visitors on an educational tour of the trails as they weave through this 140-acre wildlife preserve. Although I missed out on having a guide, the interpretive brochures at the log cabin visitor center, along with easy-to-follow signs along the way, made my time along on the trail very enjoyable. I found myself constantly stopping along to take pictures of wildflowers or listen to different bird calls. After 90 minutes of traversing Wynn’s trails I returned to the interpretive cabin where I found a staff naturalist was waiting and ready to answer any questions I developed along the hike. His presence at the end and eagerness to help exemplifies the educational component of CASC’s programming and separates them from any other hike in the woods. Note: It can be extremely buggy at Wynn Nature Center, so plan ahead with spray, nets, or any other preferred method for mosquito-protection.
One of my goals of this trip, however, was to explore tide pools for the first time, ever. To prepare myself, I visited CASC’s Homer Harbor Yurt on the boardwalk of Homer Spit. There, I met up with naturalists extraordinaire Axle and Chessie, who guided a small group of down the boardwalk for what’s titled a “Creatures of the Dock Tour.” A bit disconcerted at first by the hulking ships and squalling gulls overhead preventing me from seeing anything, my guides quickly set me straight -pointing out that just below our feet, upon the docks, was an abundance of life. Dropping to our bellies and peering over the side of the walkway, our group realized how right they were. Provided identification cards in hand, we worked together to spot creatures; sea stars, anemones, barnacles, muscles, sea urchins, and jellies filled the water, many close enough to be touched, or gently lifted for closer inspection. Both guides were exceptional with their knowledge base and ability to pique interest with cool facts (Did you know that the sea star pushes it’s stomach out of its body to digest food? Yuck!). A 60+ minute experience was so enthralling time passed quickly.
Armed with this new-found knowledge, I found myself racing out to Homer’s wide expanse of beaches along the spit to see what I could find on my own. I’d timed my exploration to 2 hours before low tide (a tide book is handy to have for just this purpose), so that the tide was still receding and low enough to expose any creatures trapped in pools.
There were two successful strategies I employed for tide-pooling:
1) Carefully and slowly turn over rocks. In most cases I found some kind of sea life. A couple rocks only revealed sea worms, but others provided a hiding spot for sea stars, nudibranches, and crabs. Once investigating it is equally important to slowly and carefully replace the rock and sea creatures so they can continue to live.
2) Stop and watch. True, it’s not that easy for all kids to stop, look, and listen, so while the patient ones (adults) watch and collect, little ones can dig their own “collecting tide pool,” a pool where everyone can observe the creatures found. I easily spent 60 minutes playing among the rocks. Note: Water shoes or rain boots are essential, as you will be walking through water up to 8” deep.
There are a variety of cabins, inns and hotels in and around the Homer area, but a very economical and kid-friendly option to consider is camping. Homer offers several campgrounds for less than $20 per night for tents or RVs. Some of camp areas on the spit are “ocean front property” making a walk down the boardwalk very convenient. One drawback to these, though, is the potential for frequent road noise and the lack of protection from the winds (I saw several tents flattened to the ground by the wind on my first evening!). My choice for the night was Karen Hornaday Campground, hidden gem on Homer’s wooded hillside overlooking Kachemak Bay. The amenities at the sheltered sites was limited to picnic tables and fire rings, and potable water was available next to the registration kiosk. Pit toilets were a short walk from each campsite. Where the campground lacks in luster, the adjacent Hornaday Park makes up with its whimsical and fanciful design. The playground beckons youthful folks of all ages to play, I even found myself climbing to the “crows-nest” of a giant climbing web to an amazing view of the bay and surrounding mountains.
Important Info and Resources
Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies (CASC)
708 Smokey Bay Way
Wynn Nature Center (CASC)
Tours 10am and 2pm
Creatures of the Dock Tour (CASC)
1:30pm and 4:30pm
Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center
95 Sterling Hwy
Summer hours 9am-6pm
Karen Hornaday Park and Campground
629 Fairview Ave.
$8/tent/night & $15/RV