Drive to Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula for Astonishing Scenery
Route Details Length: About 330 miles, plus side trips. When to go: Popular year-round, but best in summer. Words to
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.
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.
6. Twenty-Mile River
Just north of Portage, the Twenty-Mile River empties into Turnagain Arm. A roadside turnout offers a striking view up the river’s long, verdant valley, where locals use long-handled nets to land smelt in May. Nestled at the valley’s far end is Twenty-Mile Glacier, where the river begins its journey.
7. Portage Glacier
Linked to the Seward Highway by a five-mile paved road that begins just south of Portage, this much-visited tourist attraction offers visitors a vivid introduction to the power of glaciers. You’ll see frigid blue water at lovely Portage Lake near the parking area; the imposing face of the receding glacier is a stout hike away. The Begich, Boggs visitor center offers a number of displays, including relief maps of the surrounding icefields and vials filled with ice worms—tiny black creatures that live atop and below glacial ice. Visitors cannot hike to Portage Glacier, but they can view it up close from a tour boat on Portage Lake or take the trail to nearby Byron Glacier.
8. Summit Lakes
The views of Turnagain Arm fade to the rear as the drive cuts south through Chugach National Forest. Among the many lakes dotting Chugach’s millions of acres are Lower Summit Lake, on the east side of the road, and then Summit Lake, a bit to the south. Lower Summit Lake lures nature photographers seeking exemplary shots of wildflowers.
9. Kenai Lake
For five miles or so, the Seward Highway cruises along the easternmost shoreline of blue-green Kenai Lake. Its unusual color is produced by rock particles suspended in the glacial meltwater that feeds the lake. Ground by glaciers into a fine powder, the particles reflect blue-green from the spectrum of sunlight, lending a turquoise cast to the snowy peaks mirrored in the water. At the lake’s south end, a lovely trail leads from Primrose Campground to Lost Lake.
10. Exit Glacier
Two miles north of Seward, turn west onto a gravel road that parallels the Resurrection River for nine miles. The road ends at the Exit Glacier Ranger Station in Kenai Fjords National Park. A three-mile-long river of ice flowing from massive Harding Icefield, Exit Glacier looms like a blue monolith over the surrounding landscape. Visitors can approach the glacier’s base by walking about a half-mile on an easy trail from the ranger station. A longer, more strenuous trail leads hikers up the flank of the glacier to a spot overlooking the Harding Icefield itself. Radiating glaciers in every direction, this mantle of ice measures an imposing 35 miles by 20 miles. Buried within its frigid bulk are all but the tallest peaks to be found in the Kenai Mountains.
Side Trip: Nimble Climbers
Smaller cousins of the bighorn (or mountain) sheep of the western United States and Canada, Dall sheep are a familiar sight on Turnagain Arm near Beluga Point. Named for turn-of-the cenury naturalist William H. Dall, these agile climbers have concave, elastic hooves that give them a sure-footed edge on steep, rugged slopes, where, beyond the reach of enemies, they munch on mountain grasses. Dall sheep range from Alaska, where they are white, to British Columbia, where they are nearly black.
Tucked between Resurrection Bay and the foot of Mt. Marathon, the city of Seward serves as the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park, a 580,000-acre mosaic of glaciers, fjords, icefields, and mountainous coastline. At a National Park Service visitor center at Seward harbor, exhibits explain how the local fjords were created by glaciers thousands of years ago. Today, these flooded valleys are home to legions of sea otters, sea lions, whales, and other marine creatures. To view them, observers can board the Seward-based tour boats that cruise up and down the coastline. The boats also provide close-up views of glaciers giving birth to mammoth icebergs, accompanied by ear-shattering crashes and thunderous plunges into the icy sea.
12. Kenai River
After backtracking north to tiny Tern Lake Junction, turn onto the Sterling Highway, a 142-mile road heading west toward Cook Inlet and then south along the inlet to Homer. The Sterling Highway first skirts the northern tip of Kenai Lake and then parallels the Kenai River for about 10 miles. Summer anglers, fishing from the shore and from rafts along this stretch of river, dream of catching a king salmon akin to the 97-pounder caught here in 1985, which set a world record for the species; fish up to 50 pounds are more commonly caught. Moose, eagles, bears, and Dall sheep can be seen from the highway and on wildlife float trips along the river.
13. Skilak Lake Loop Road
Branching off the Sterling Highway, this rough gravel road meanders 19 miles through magnificent high country before rejoining the highway near Sterling. Motorists pass a number of picturesque lakes dotted with canoes and fishing boats, including 15-mile-long Skilak Lake. Look for moose wandering the roadside and be prepared for flat tires.
14. Kenai National Wildlife Refuge
This enormous tract of forests and lakes—nearly 2 million acres —occupies much of the Kenai Peninsula. It was originally set aside to preserve the populations of moose, but it provides a home for a number of other wild creatures as well.
Throughout the summer, motorists commonly see moose cows and calves feeding in roadside woods and wetlands within the refuge. The visitor center near the town of Soldotna offers daily slide shows, wildlife displays, and information about the refuge’s 200 miles of hiking trails.
15. Clam Gulch
Turning south at Soldotna, the Sterling Highway reaches Cook Inlet at Clam Gulch. The restaurants in this aptly named town serve clam chowder, steamers, and razor clams, and motels rent buckets and shovels for clamming. During the low tides, on the flats between Cape Kasilof (north of Clam Gulch) and Anchor Point (to the south), clammers dig into the cold sand to extract razor clams, the main attraction here.
To the west, across Cook Inlet from the Clam Gulch tidal flats, a perpetually snowcapped array of tall peaks greets the eye. Mt. Redoubt stands 10,197 feet high, and to its left, 30 miles down the coast, Mt. Iliamna tops off at an impressive 10,016 feet.
Just before entering Ninilchik, take a side road to the town’s original site, where it stood from its founding in the 1820s until its mid-20th-century relocation about a half- mile away. At the site of the old village, weathered log buildings still stand in the beach grass, and a Russian Orthodox church built in 1901 overlooks the sea. In present-day Ninilchik a favorite preoccupation is clamming, but when the king salmon begin their summer spawning runs up Deep Creek and the Ninilchik River, the town is overtaken by a frenzied fishing fever, and anglers crowd every bit of the bank.
17. Anchor Point
With high peaks rising to the west across Cook Inlet, the highway hugs the shoreline as it approaches the town of Anchor Point. A short side road leads to the Anchor River Recreation Area, a mecca for anglers. There, too, a plaque notes the spot as “the most westerly point on the North American continent accessible by a continuous road system.
Most of Homer lies on the shore of Kachemak Bay, but part of it—a 41⁄2-mile-long needle of sand, rock, and gravel known as Homer Spit—juts into the bay itself. Surrounded by snowy peaks and icy waters, the spit pulsates with an inviting variety of sights, smells, and sounds. Charter boats chug out of the spit’s small boat harbor, their customers hoping to snag one of the regal-size halibut that abound in the waters of Cook Inlet. Heady-smelling shops on the boardwalk dispense fresh seafood of all kinds, both cooked and raw. (If you have a camp stove and a large pot, you can buy shrimp or clams, fill the pot with half seawater and half fresh, and enjoy an open-air seafood cookout.)
Before leaving Homer, cruise along Skyline Drive, which runs atop high bluffs overlooking the town, and gaze down at Kachemak Bay, the rugged Kenai Mountains beyond it, and the glaciers that ooze from the vast Harding Icefield. As eagles soar overhead and fireweed brightens the slopes that frame this Alaskan panorama, you’ll come to see why many residents regard Homer as one of the most beautiful places on earth.
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