Travel by car through Whittier, Seward, Cooper Landing, and Homer and discover spectacular adventures on land and water.
Ever since I crossed Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, my mental picture of mountain splendor has shifted north. The peaks in the Kenai can match anything in my home state of Montana, with one big difference. Where the Rockies have foothills and plains, the Kenai has ocean. The mix of slopes and sea opens all sorts of combinations: humpback whales and brown bears, halibut and rainbow trout, fjords and glaciers, hikes and day cruises.
Most Kenai visits start in Anchorage, the state’s largest city. You can drive south on the Seward Highway or take the train that runs between Anchorage and Seward; either way, the payoff is almost immediate. Both the road and the rails follow the Turnagain Arm, a wild and roiling branch of Cook Inlet. You can see beluga whales on the right, Dall sheep on the rocky slopes to the left, and mountains in every direction.
However you get there, you’ll want to spend time on a boat. Open ocean, secluded coves, big rivers—whatever kind of water floats your vessel, it’s here. Take, for instance, the six-hour glacier cruise on Prince William Sound out of Whittier, a rusty port town 60 miles from Anchorage on the Seward Highway and the less traveled Portage Glacier Road.
Even on a day when wind whips Turnagain Arm, the protected sound stays calm—a huge blessing if you’re the type who can get seasick on a lumpy sidewalk. Though fouled by the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, these waters now look pristine. Skinny waterfalls plunge down rock faces, bald eagles perch on old-growth Sitka spruces, and rafts of sea otters float whiskers-up on the glassy water, occasionally hitching rides on mini icebergs sloughed off from local glaciers.
From Whittier, it’s a 90-mile drive through the mountains to Seward (population about 2,600), a busy hub of Kenai adventure. On Seward’s waterfront, you can sign up for a ﬂoatplane trip, summertime rides on wheeled carts pulled by sled dogs, ﬁshing excursions for halibut or salmon, or my choice: an 8½-hour cruise through Resurrection Bay and Kenai Fjords National Park. Early in the outing a humpback whale breached right next to the boat, close enough to coat cameras with whale spray. As we drifted past sheer rock islands, horned and tufted puffins flapped speedily overhead, their stubby wings barely sufficient to lift their pudgy bodies. (The term “flying potato” came up among our group.)
The captain cut the engine a quarter mile from the Aialik Glacier, a mile-wide river of ice suffused with light the color of a blue raspberry snow cone. While we studied the Aialik’s 400-foot-tall face, a tower of ice six stories high crashed into the bay, setting off shock waves of sound and water that rocked the whole boat and set some passengers hollering.
From Seward, I drove about 50 miles inland to Cooper Landing, a small town on the upper Kenai River. The turquoise water here rages with runoff from upstream glaciers, an unusual arrangement for a famous fishing stream. Eager to test its reputation, I signed up for an eight-hour guided trip with Alaska Wildland Adventures. Fly-ﬁshing from a drift boat, I caught a couple of decent rainbows—nothing huge—but my attempts to hook a massive sockeye came to nothing.
“It’s great to catch ﬁsh, and we usually do,” said guide Todd Harris, a sixth-grade teacher in Portland. “But the setting is so spectacular, you can just sit back and watch the river go by.” Harris often sees brown bears doing some fishing of their own. No bears on our trip—just a wild and gratifying ride through deep forests, mountain meadows, and narrow canyons.
Homer, an unreformed ﬁshing town 120 miles beyond Cooper Landing, marks the end of the road for most trips to the Kenai. The Time Bandit from the TV show Deadliest Catch often docks here, and you can always sign up for an open ocean adventure of your own.
Phil Kvamme, an information technologist from Billings, Mont., who had stood at the deck rail beside me on the Kenai Fjords tour, had come for a ﬁshing trip with his 14-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son. Despite eight- to 12-foot swells on Cook Inlet—which Kvamme called “exciting”—they managed to pack a cooler with 150 pounds of dressed-out halibut, lingcod, black bass, and salmon.
Not ready for that kind of excitement, I opted for something gentler. On a day of low clouds and light rain, I rented a kayak from Mako’s Water Taxi, caught a ride out to a protected cove across the bay, and started paddling. With the tide rushing out beneath me like a salty river, I glided in solitude for a couple of miles past harbor seals, eagles, and forested islands, then parked the kayak at a hiking trail that took me to Grewingk Glacier Lake, a reflective spot studded with blue icebergs. Piles of bear scat along the shore suggested that I wasn’t the only one who appreciated the view.
Back in town, I stuck my head into the famously seedy Salty Dawg Saloon on Homer Spit—home of the renowned Salty Dawg martini (a 25.4-ounce “oil can” of Foster’s Lager with two olives on top)—before heading to the Bear Creek Winery. Alaska isn’t exactly vineyard country, but Bear Creek coaxes rich flavors from local gooseberries, blueberries, and rhubarb, either on their own or mixed with imported grapes. Sipping the sweet “wildberry” blend at the tasting bar, I had to remind myself that I was still in Alaska. Until I went outside, that is. Those mountains across Kachemak Bay—you just don’t get that view in the Rockies.
Photography by Fred Hirschmann (Kenai Fjords National Park); photography courtesy of Wikipedia/U.S. Government (lakes and mountains)
This article was first published in July 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.