Exploring the Kenai Penisula

by Bobbie Hasselbring | Photo © Anne Weaver

For drop-dead gorgeous scenery, abundant wildlife and thrilling adventures, Alaska is a vacation wonderland, and its Kenai Peninsula in the southwest is one of the most breathtaking. Jutting from the southern coast of Alaska into the Gulf of Alaska, the Kenai is one of the most accessible and visitor-friendly areas of this wild state.

Seward to the south and Homer to the west were the focus of my last trip to The Kenai. From Anchorage, I began my journey on scenic Alaska Route 1 (AK-1) that skirts the south shore of Turnagain Arm and Cook Inlet where tides rise 30 to 35 feet between high and low tides, the second largest tidal range in the world. The shallow inlet is also noted for tidal bores, huge breaking waves that rush up the channel when the tide comes in.

The road passes Potter Point State Game Refuge, a favorite among bird watchers where we spot ducks, gulls and big fluffy white swans. Just a few miles further, Beluga Point offers stunning views of Cook Inlet and the Kenai Mountains and, occasionally, white whales (Belugas).
I pass through Chugach National Forest and Chugach State Park, a half-million acres of some of the state’s best hiking, skiing, camping, wildlife viewing, rafting and climbing. I spot the first of countless bald eagles; a little farther on, a big owl swoops low.

Sightseeing in Seward

A few hours later, I enter Seward on Highway 9. This historic village (population 2,700) on Resurrection Bay is renowned for fishing and cruise ships. The town is also famous for cool, windy and often rainy weather, even in summer, and I’m glad I brought jackets and rain gear.

Downtown’s western-fronted buildings include galleries, an ice cream shop, a scattering of restaurants, the Seward Brewing Company and the Alaska SeaLife Center. Since Alaska has nearly 36,000 miles of tidal coastline and is bordered by two oceans, three seas and the Gulf of Alaska, Alaska SeaLife Center is an essential stop.

I check out the Center’s exhibit on the 1989 Valdez oil spill, which dumped millions of gallons of oil into pristine Alaskan waters, killing at least 250,000 seabirds and harming several different species of animals. There’s also a seabird exhibit populated by puffins, terns, guillemots, murres, oystercatchers and more. Sleek silver harbor seals glide through a two-story tank, and Woody, a 1,700 pound Stellar sea lion, effortlessly swims in slow circles.

Since the rain has held off, I drive to Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park to meet Ranger Ann Fineman for a 3.5-mile naturalist hike. As we walk the paved pathway, Ranger Ann points out signs—1815, 1917, 1926, 1951—marking where Exit Glacier used to end at different points in time. Today, the glacier is farther in the mountain, but its craggy, blue and white river of ice is still impressive.

The following day, I join Kenai Fjords Tours for a day-long exploration of Kenai Fjords National Park, one of the wildest parks in Alaska. I board the 90-foot Explorer and, as soon as we motor into Resurrection Bay, the wildlife show begins—a Dall’s porpoise frolics off the bow; a large humpback whale feeds on tiny fish; dozens of sea otters float on their backs munching crabs and clams.

We head for Northwestern Fjord, the farthest and wildest fjord in the area. There, we spot our first orcas, their triangular-shaped dorsal fins standing tall. We navigate slowly into pristine Northwestern Fjord to a massive glacier face. Suddenly, with a thunderous crack, a colossal chunk of ice calves from the wall, sending up a 50-foot spray and shockwaves that rock the hull.

On our return, we watch two massive humpbacks roll on their sides and slap the water with barnacled, 15-foot pectoral fins. They simultaneously leap out of the water, their bodies arching high before crashing back into the waves, sending a giant fountain of water skyward. It’s a fitting end to my visit to Seward.

Homing in on Homer

I head north and then west onto the Sterling Highway (AK-1). Three and a half hours later, I pull into a hilltop turnout and I’m greeted by the sign “Homer, the Halibut Fishing Capital of the World.” From here, I can see the town, Homer Spit, the snowcapped Kenai Mountains and even the massive Alaska Range across Cook Inlet.
Downtown, I visit Pratt Museum and its exhibition of Native American artifacts, fishing vessels, homesteader history and geologic wonders. Especially poignant is “Lost and Found,” a display about harrowing accidents at sea.

Next I head to the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitors Center, headquarters for the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge Center and its free educational exhibit on shorebirds and estuaries. Outside, I put my newly acquired education to the test as I hike Beluga Slough Trail, a raised boardwalk extending into the wetlands and onto Bishop’s Beach.

The next morning at 6 a.m. on Homer Spit, 4.5 miles of sand extending into Kachemak Bay, I join North Country Charters for a half day of halibut fishing. Sixteen of us crowd into the cabin of the 53-foot “Irish” for the 90-minute trip to the fishing grounds.
Once in halibut territory, the crew baits our lines, and we start fishing. My line is in the water less than a minute before there’s a telltale tug, and I start reeling. Before long, everyone is yelling, “Color!” (the term for “fish on”) and reeling like crazy.

The crew hustles, unhooking fish and re-baiting hooks. Halibut don’t fight, but pulling them up is like dragging plywood through the water and my arms burn with the effort.
By 10 a.m., it’s all over. The fish hold is full and my arms are weary. As our boat churns back toward the harbor, we sit with silly grins on our faces talking about eating halibut for dinner, and how Kenai Peninsula is both beautiful and delicious.

Tip: Can’t get enough Alaskan ambiance? After your fishing trip, plan a stop at The Salty Dawg Saloon (saltydawgsaloon.com), a Homer landmark watering hole located on Homer Spit.

Exploring the Kenai Peninsula

Getting to the Kenai Peninsula is easy: Fly to Anchorage and rent a car. Alaska Airlines has several flights to Anchorage daily. Driving time from Anchorage to Seward is 2.5 hours, and from Anchorage to Homer is about 4.5 hours.

When to go: The Kenai Peninsula is an all-season destination; late spring and summer offer the best road conditions and most activities and attractions.

Tourism resources:
>> State of Alaska Tourism: travelalaska.com
>> Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council: kenaipeninsula.org
>> Seward Chamber of Commerce: sewardchamber.org
>> Homer Chamber of Commerce & Visitor Center: homeralaska.org
Lodging: Many options are available, but these are close to major attractions.
Anchorage:
>> The Hotel Captain Cook, captaincook.com
>> Westmark Anchorage, westmarkhotels.com/anchorage.php
>> Millenium Alaskan Hotel Anchorage (airport) millenniumhotels.com/usa/millenniumanchorage
Seward:
>> Hotel Seward (downtown boutique hotel), hotelsewardalaska.com
>> Seward Windsong Lodge (season begins May 16), sewardwindsong.com
>> Kenai Fjords Wilderness Lodge (season begins May 31), kenaifjordslodge.com
Homer:
>> Land’s End Resort (at the tip of Homer Spit), lands-end-resort.com
Cooper Landing (on the Kenai River):
>> Kenai Princess Wilderness Lodge, princesslodges.com/ kenai-lodge.cfm
Attractions, Tours & Charters:
>> Potter Point State Game Refuge: adfg.alaska.gov
>> Chugach State Park: dnr.alaska.gov/parks/units/chugach
>> Alaska SeaLife Center, Seward: alaskasealife.org
>> Exit Glacier: nps.gov/kefj/planyourvisit/exit-glacier.htm
>> Kenai Fjords Tours: kenaifjords.com
>> Pratt Museum, Homer: prattmuseum.org
>> Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitors Center: islandsandocean.org
>> North Country Charters: northcountrycharters.com
Other Kenai Peninsula destinations worth a stop:
>> Soldotna, visitsoldotna.com: This central river fishing hub of the Kenai, located between Seward and Homer on AK-1, borders a two-million-acre mecca for wildlife viewing—the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge (fws.gov/refuge/kenai).
>> Kenai, visitkenai.com: In this largest and oldest city on the peninsula, where Alaskan culture and history coexist with modern growth; start your visit to Kenai at the 10,000-square-foot Kenai Visitor & Cultural Center.