The Kenai Peninsula, Alaska: Why it should be on your bucket list
Updated: Oct 2, 2018
Our first week in Alaska was all rain. The locals tell us it's the rainiest summer they've seen in a long time. Mother nature chose not to show us Denali, so we moved south in search of better weather. Once we hit Anchorage, we saw a break in the weather forecast and decided to keep pushing south to hike Portage Pass. I was in search of that iconic looking Alaskan view I had yet to witness. Once we started driving south from Anchorage, it was as if the entire landscape transformed. The ocean came into view with giant mountains rising straight out of the water and glaciers appeared to be all around us. The views are incredible, which is also why it's such a dangerous stretch of road. Watch out for drivers with wandering eyes!
The Portage Pass hike leaves out of Whittier, Alaska. This is a tiny coastal town that we knew nothing about before going. As it turns out, the entrance to Whittier is a bit different than most towns. Google Maps didn't give us a warning on this one. “Hmm, the road looks like it goes straight into the mountain. There must be a tunnel.” Was there ever. When you pull up to the toll booth ($13 for passenger vehicles, and yes, they do accept credit cards) they give you a lane number and you pull into one of the six lanes based on the type of vehicle you're driving. Then a monitor will tell you when it's ok for your lane to go. Why so intricate? Turns out the only way in and out of Whittier by car is through a single lane train tunnel. Once the train and the cars on the other side of the tunnel have gone through, then it's your turn. The tunnel is about 2.5 miles long straight through mountain rock. You drive with your tires on either side of the tracks and there are emergency shelters every 1,600 feet or so, just in case. It's a trippy and unusual experience.
Portage Pass is a relatively steep hike up to the top of the pass, and once there you can choose to keep going down to the glacial lake. The hike up to the pass runs along hoards of wild raspberry bushes, so if you hit it at the right time of summer you get a free snack along the way. We were relatively late, but Tim climbed through the thorns to snag me one of the last nice red ones.
Turns out it was a bit bitter :)
As we crested the pass we were delighted with the most spectacular views—the Alaska I always imagined. A small pond on the pass, and sweeping mountain views centered on a glacier.
The dogs were loving life as we let them off leash to swim and quickly found out that the pond was a bit deeper than they anticipated.
Continue down to the bottom of the trail and you'll find a black sand beach leading into a large glacial lake. Some people on their way up reported seeing the glacier calve (break off) into the lake multiple times. We spent a lot of time down there playing with the pups and enjoying the stunning surroundings before making our way back up.
If you head to Alaska, put this hike on your list. After all the rain we had in the beginning, I feel like this hike gave me life. It was exactly what I needed at that time and really got me excited for what was to come on the rest of the peninsula.
Soldotna is a landlocked town on the way from Anchorage to Homer. It's a great stop for campers and RV-ers because it's the biggest town in the area and has everything you might need to refuel. There's a Fred Meyer, or Freddy's, in town that the locals tell us is the largest in the country. I'd be inclined to believe them. It's definitely one stop shopping, and as a bonus they allow overnight camping and a dump & fill. For those with diesel rigs, their gas station also has the best price we've seen on DEF. You'll also find a laundromat in town that also offers nice, long showers. Head up the road to Kenai for a yummy pizza at B&H Pizza.
While you're in town, be sure to go check out the wood shop 3 Guys No Wood. We loved our visit here. They will show you the wood shop and how they turn bowls and have all sorts of amazing pieces. They even offer reasonably priced classes if you feel inclined.
On a clear day, the road from Soldotna to Homer will give you great views of the huge volcano across the bay.
We arrived in Homer on another rare sunny day, but it turned out to be our coldest day yet. Who would've known that little spits of land that stick out into the sea in Alaska could be windy? We grabbed a campsite in Mariner Park, which is at the beginning of the spit. It was right on the water, but a bit cheaper than going to the end of the spit. Note, a lot of the town owned parks that allow camping operate on a first come-first serve basis, so get there early. It was here that we met our new friends, Wendy and Tom from Florida.
They've spent many a summer up in Alaska and had loads of advice on where to go and what to see. They even gave us a fresh smoked salmon filet that Tom had caught on the river. Wendy has an unbelievable memory and should probably write a travel book. I have trouble remembering what I ate for breakfast, but Wendy can tell you the campground in Maine she went to a few years ago that will bring a setup to your campsite for cooking lobster over the fire. One of the great aspects of this RV lifestyle is meeting all sorts of people from around the world who have this one thing in common.
After chatting with Tom and Wendy we made our way down the spit for some lunch. The spit is known to be a bit overpriced, but if you're heading that way, you should definitely get some fried halibut. We went to this tiny stand called AK Fish Fry because they had great reviews. Turns out they do, in fact, know how to fry a fish to perfection.
The spit has a bunch of cute shops, my favorite being Salty Girls. We were also lucky enough to spot a lone otter right off the dock with the small boats. He kept diving down and bringing crabs up to munch on. It was simultaneously adorable and disturbing as he ripped their legs off the eat them. This is the one I most regret not having the good camera for, so we took mental photos. Wendy told me that when the water is clear you might also be able to spot starfish in this area, but we didn't see any.
If you have dogs, or even just want a more off the beaten path beach to go to, head down to Bishops Beach down by Old Town. The locals drive their vehicles right onto the beginning of the beach to hang out and the dogs all play off leash. (If you have small dogs this is not recommended because they're snack-sized for the local eagles). The dogs had an absolute blast playing here—Marley's first time at the ocean! If you're lucky you might even spot some seal heads bobbing off shore.
Fun side note, as you walk on the beaches in Homer, you'll notice black lumps of varying sizes all over the place that look like coal. Turns out, they are! There's an underwater coal seam on the Kenai Peninsula near Homer that the ocean breaks pieces off of and washes ashore during high tide. The locals can often be found collecting these hunks of coal; they will later be used to heat houses throughout the winter.
If you're staying at Mariner Park, it's a short walk down the street to Three J's Pizza—we got good pizza and a nice view for dinner. They're located right on the shallows during low tide and tons of birds hang out just outside to have their own dinner.
Our second day in Homer was intermittently rainy, so we decided to head onto the spit to visit a few shops we missed and get a drink at the Salty Dawg Saloon. The Salty Dawg seems like a mix of tourist and local, and includes a patio and pool table in the back. The interesting thing is that the entire bar is filled with signed dollar bills. It appears to be a tradition dating back decades, and if you pass through feel free to pin up your own signed bill. Don't expect a large variety of beers though. It's slim pickings, and although most of it is local, everything is either bottled or canned.
If you're into jewelry, the local tradition is using mammoth tusk and walrus tusk ivory in their pieces. The ivory is harvested from the permafrost in Alaska and has been used in jewelry for centuries. We stopped into High Tide Arts on the spit and the owner, Leslie Klaar, makes all sorts of nice jewelry. Her husband is a hunting guide who collects big game sheds (antlers) and makes knives with antler handles. They were both great at creating traditional pieces with modern flair.
The Russian River
After a couple days in Homer, we were ready to hop to the next place, and headed to the Russian River. We heard whispers of bears here, so we couldn't pass it up. We got a campsite for the night right along the river and hiked a couple miles in to the Russian River Falls. The river is home to one of the hardest races we've ever seen: The Salmon Run. This is one of the most fascinating and gruesome things we've witnessed. Every year, the salmon swim upstream to spawn. They use the protected areas under the river banks to lay and fertilize their eggs, and then they die. Their remains help nourish the entire environment of that area. Lots of the fish don't make it all the way upstream, however. They get badly beaten on the rocks as they launch themselves upstream, they die of exhaustion, or they get scooped up by bear or fishermen. All along the stream and at the falls you can pinpoint the favorite bear hangouts based on the amount of fish remains in that area. That's also where the magpies and seagulls will be.
When we made it to the falls, we were amazed at the sheer number of fish. Thousands of salmon were making their best attempts to jump up the several levels of falls. Some were exhausted and hanging out in little pools to rest. Some had already succumbed to their journey. The falls were relentless and damaging. Their resolve to make it to the top was admirable, to say the least. We stayed there for at least an hour trying to catch a fish on camera at the perfect moment as it leapt from the water. We cheered when they made it. We felt for them when they got washed down a level. Even though we didn't spot any bears, it was quite the experience.
The next morning we got up early to walk the river trails in search of the seemingly elusive bear. It was crisp, with fog coming off the water. The fishermen were quietly reeling in fish up and down the river. We failed on the bear front, though. We were told that a fair number of the fishermen have been charged by the mama bears that frequent the area lately, though, so maybe that's a good thing.
After walking the Russian River that morning, we booked it down to Seward for a noon wildlife boat tour with Major Marine. We were originally going to pay a lot more to go on a small 6 person whale tour because we figured we would get a lot closer to marine life near the shore in the smaller boat. However, after finding out that it was late in the season and most of the whales had already migrated to warmer waters, we decided to go with the cheaper tour. Seward was insanely windy, but luckily once we got out on the water the wind died down significantly. I chose one of the shortest tours offered, but it turns out that 5 hours on a tour boat still feels like an entire day.
We got the first sunny day in Seward in weeks, so we were able to go pretty far out to see Bear Glacier, the longest glacier in the Kenai Fjords National Park measuring 13 miles long and 2 miles wide. We also saw what the captain described as “the last whale in Destruction Bay”. It was a lone humpback who made a couple appearances for us. Other wildlife included otters, sea lions, sea birds, a puffin, harbor seals, and a bald eagle. It was a great cruise for people who have limited mobility, limited time, or prefer to have sights delivered to them. For us, it was a bit lackluster. Next time we will be more likely to choose one of the kayak tours.
One of the gems we discovered in Seward was our boondocking site. On the road to Exit Glacier & Kenai Fjords National Park we discovered small, free pulloffs in the trees. We were initially deterred by signs that looked like no camping signs, but they turned out to be area use rules. It allowed us to back off the road just far enough that we felt super secluded and a small path lead down to the river so the dogs could play. It was quiet and made for the perfect sleeping conditions.
The next day we drove to the southern part of Seward to hike to Tonsina Point. It's a nice, quiet hike through thick rainforest that leads out to the ocean. Fun fact, the Pacific Coastal Temperate Rainforest runs from southern Alaska all the way to northern California and is the largest coastal temperate rainforest in the world. I had no idea there was rainforest all the way up here, but it sure shows in the forest. Everything is very green and mossy while the air is cool and damp.
Tonsina Point was a nice section of beach at the confluence of the river and ocean. Some salmon were still hanging around, but they had certainly seen better days. Beautifully worn driftwood dotted the shore. Seagulls hung around the water's edge until Rigby and Marley scattered them.
After our hike we popped over to Lowell Point, which is a common departure point for a lot of the kayak tours. The low tide had stranded a number of moon jellyfish on the shore. They're an odd type of jellyfish without tentacles and look more like a clear, gelatinous hockey puck (Tim contends they look more like breast implants).
Our last stop in Seward was to Exit Glacier in the Kenai Fjords National Park. If we had more time and less dogs on this trip, we would have hiked up the glacier, but instead we did the small loop around for a view. If you go to this park, you might notice a bunch of signs with years on them, starting on the road in. These are interesting to pay attention to because they're marking the location of the glacier in that year so you can see the extent to which the glacier has receded.
On the road back to Anchorage
Instead of staying in Seward that night, we decided to head up to the little town of Moose Pass. Moose Pass boasts a few shops as well as a free wet stone powered by the town's old waterwheel on which you can sharpen your knives. They also allow boondocking right down by the large lake just outside of town where you can often spy moose in the early mornings.
Since we had yet to spy any bears in the wild, we decided to stop at the Alaskan Wildlife Conservation Center on our way back to Anchorage. This is a sanctuary for big game animals who have found themselves orphaned or injured in the wild and is SO worth the $15 entry fee. I will be doing a separate post about it soon.
The town of Girdwood is also a small detour on the way back to Anchorage, and although we did not end up stopping, I have heard it's quite nice.
We also got an inside tip from a local about a stop along the road back to Anchorage called Beluga Point. If you hit it at the right time, just before high tide, you might be able to spot Beluga Whales as they come in with the tide to fish. We went out on the point of land in a grove of trees facing the ocean, all alone, and just as we did three whales passed right in front of us. It felt like a private showing and it was really exciting. The views from this point are also really nice.
Things we learned from the Kenai
Know this iconic shots of grizzly bears standing at the top of waterfalls catching the salmon as they jump up the stream to spawn? Those are all (well mostly all) taken in Katmai National Park. If you chose to make the journey, expect to charter a float plane from Homer for ~$750/pp.
The weather does what it wants, regardless of season. Bring those layers!
Befriend a local, or someone who has spent significant time in an area. If you're nice and trustworthy looking, they just might share their favorite things with you.
Eat the fish, all the fish. So fresh and so yummy.
The whole peninsula is most definitely bear country, both brown and black. Carry bear spray at all times and know how to use it.
Chugach (pronounced Choo-gash) National Forest is absolutely spectacular, a true gem. In fact, it may very well be more scenic than some National Parks we have visited...