Drive to Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula for Astonishing Scenery

from The Most Scenic Drives in America | 217

Route Details

Length: About 330 miles, plus side trips.

When to go: Popular year-round, but best in summer.

Words to the wise: Be alert for sudden changes in weather.

Nearby attractions: Resurrection Pass Trail, Hope. Kenai Historical Museum, Kenai. Small boat harbors, Seward and Homer.

Further information: Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council, 10819 Kenai Spur Highway, Suite 103-D, Kenai, Alaska 99611; tel. 800-535-3624, www.kenai peninsula.org.

Start with a wildly irregular coast- line, its rocky headlands gouged into fjords by glacial ice. Add jagged, snow-dusted peaks, scraping the sky like sawteeth in every direction. Mix in massive glaciers and rivers teeming with salmon. Then link this astonishing scenery together with two beautifully maintained highways, and you have the Kenai Peninsula, regarded by Alaskans as a priceless jewel.

1. Anchorage
Home to about half of Alaska’s population, Anchorage is wedged like an arrowhead between the Knik and Turnagain arms of Cook Inlet and sprawls eastward to the steepening foothills of the Chugach Mountains. With this prosperous city as its starting point, the drive heads along the Seward Highway, a two-lane road winding south for 127 miles to its terminus at Seward on Resurrection Bay. From its very first mile, the highway offers scenic views: the Chugach Mountains dominate the eastern horizon, while the snowcapped summits of the Alaska Range seem to rise from the chilly blue waters of Cook Inlet to the west. Numerous moose live in the greater Anchorage area, as do a number of bears. These creatures are sometimes visible from the road heading out of town, as are bald eagles soaring overhead. Gazing skyward, you may notice that the eagles share the air with pontoon-fitted seaplanes, based at Anchorage’s Lake Hood, the busiest seaplane port in the world.

2. Potter Point State Game Refuge
On the outskirts of Anchorage, the highway passes through a prime locale for bird-watching. Potter Marsh, as it is known hereabouts, attracts waterfowl from early spring through fall. A boardwalk winds across one section of the marsh, affording close encounters with Canada geese, arctic terns, green-winged teal, and pintails.

3. Chugach State Park
Nearly half the size of Delaware, Chugach State Park encompasses a half-million acres of forest, mountains, and glaciers. Visit the Potter Section House, a restored building once occupied by railroad workers who maintained tracks here during the days of steam locomotives. Declared a state historic site, the structure contains memorabilia about the Alaska Railroad.

Continuing east, the road follows the north coast of Turnagain Arm, so named by Captain James Cook, who sailed with his expedition up this narrowing extension of Cook Inlet in an unsuccessful hunt for the fabled Northwest Passage in 1778. When he hit a dead end, Cook was forced to “turn again.”

4. Beluga Point
Nearing Beluga Point, you may see a number of cars slowing down or pulling off the road at the viewing area overlooking Turnagain Arm. The seasonal tie-up, caused by the sight of white beluga whales, is known locally as a “whale jam.” To facilitate viewing, the area is equipped with telescopes and interpretive displays. When a pod of whales swims by, thin puffs of mist can be seen suspended in the air over their spouts, and their white bodies contrast beautifully with the dark waters of Turnagain Arm.

Competing with whales for visitors’ attention near Beluga Point are the unusual “bore tides” created when incoming tides from Cook Inlet are squeezed into Turnagain Arm’s narrow channel. These walls of water can be eight feet high and travel about 10 miles an hour. Announcing its approach with an eerie roar, the bore arrives about two hours after low tide.

5. Alyeska Resort

As you continue along the highway, look for roadside waterfalls, bluebells in bloom, and Dall sheep climbing the nearby slopes. For a bird’s-eye view of the area, turn north at Girdwood, where a three-mile spur leads to the Alyeska Resort, the largest in the state. A 60-passenger aerial tram glides partway up Mt. Alyeska, offering panoramic vistas of Turnagain Arm and the Alyeska Glacier.

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