The Kenai Peninsula is often referred to as “Alaska’s Playground”. Much of the draw to the peninsula for visitors is garnered by coastal towns like Seward and Homer, but there is a lot to see on the interior, too. Seemingly never-ending snow-capped peaks, enormous glaciers and icefields, and glacially-fed lakes and rivers make for hiking, fishing, rafting and just plain sight-seeing galore no matter where you are on the Kenai.
In this post, I’ll reflect on the few days we spent based out of the Cooper Landing area along the Sterling Highway, just west of where it intersects with the stunning southbound Seward Highway. In our adventures, we tracked down a challenging locals’ favorite “hidden” hike, tried to catch a salmon run, got to the toe of yet another glacier, and went back in time by finding one of Alaska’s infamous remaining Blockbuster Video stores!
Where We Stayed
We stayed at Hidden Lake Campground along gravel Skilak Lake Road – which, by the way, we thought would also be a scenic byway with good chances of wildlife sightings but turned out to just be a nice, bumpy drive in the woods. Our target was the popular Quartz Creek Campground along the iridescent turquoise Kenai Lake, but given that we were getting there late in the day, Hidden Lake turned out to be our best bet for a campground that would fit our 30 foot travel trailer and have at least some waterfront sites. This was an instance where Traveler’s Guide to Alaskan Camping by Mike and Terri Church really came in handy!
Slaughter Gulch – A Steep Workout with Classic Alaskan Views
I don’t even quite remember where I heard about this hike – maybe AllTrails? Either way, it seemed like the most exciting established trail in the area (though we learned from fellow hikers there were definitely some trailblazing opportunities off of this one, too). What made this one especially intriguing was that the trail head was unmarked, making it feel like a locals’ hidden secret. I wish I could remember which blog post I garnered the directions from because I’d love to give them credit, though I’m sure if we had asked enough locals we would have found it!
The trail head was down a narrow unnamed residential gravel road just past Bean Creek Road going east on the Sterling Highway nearby a couple of lodges. At the end of the road was a teeny tiny little turnaround where several cars were parked and the only sign marking the trail was an instructional sign entitled, “When nature calls, where will you go?”.
Since parking was super tight and the trail wasn’t far from the Sterling Highway, we parked in an open gravel area just off the road and walked in. We’d heard this trail was steep and that was no joke! The start of it was steeper than the Harding Icefield Trail and was pretty much straight up most of the way, with some tough loose scree and jagged rocky footing. We only did the most traveled part of the trail – just past the saddle where you get a view of the other side – and I gather that it was about four miles each way and maybe 2,600 feet. This one definitely kicked my butt more than I expected it to! Once we got out of the woods, the views didn’t change terribly much and for that reason we ran into several families who didn’t go all the way. The views definitely improved though and we were glad to have made it to the end! Or at least close to it for me at least since I wasn’t a fan of the exposed feeling I was getting from the final bit of ridge line after the saddle. Still, check out these views – aren’t they just everything you want Alaska to be?!
This short hike near our campground is a popular one in the area. While not super spectacular, for 1 mile each way and 400 feet of elevation, the payoffs are pretty good! An added bonus was to see Mt. Redoubt and Mt. Iliamna illuminated in orange off in the distance because of some forest fires in Kenai.
Russian River Falls
These falls are really only a few feet tall, but the big draw is when the salmon are running in the Russian River. There is a well reviewed campground in this area popular with fishing enthusiasts and there is an $11 parking fee for visitors. Since the salmon weren’t running when we stopped by, the attendants were nice enough to let us make a quick stop for free just to take a glance – we found plenty of wading fisherman, but no salmon unfortunately!
This was a stop we actually made leaving Cooper Landing and that would be best to tack on if driving to Whittier or as a detour off of the Seward Highway as it was about an hour from Cooper Landing. Nonetheless, it was yet another trail we found in Alaska that was short with a big payoff. This was about a mile long and flat so very popular but certainly worth a stop!
Going Back in Time – Wanna Rent a Movie Tonight?
Driving north up the Sterling Highway through Soldotna, we came across a Blockbuster store of all things! Turns out Alaska has 6 of the remaining 10 Blockbuster stores in the US – they even sell souvenirs it’s such a novelty! With our friend Rob being a movie buff, we couldn’t pass up stopping here before getting some great Mexican food at Senor Panchos!
Just the beginning…
There is so much to do on the Kenai that this was just a taste of the center of the Peninsula. Hope this might help you get started with your plans! Stay tuned for more of our Alaskan adventures!