Posted by: Jerry Garrett | June 7, 2011

My 36 Hours at Alaska’s Kenai Princess Wilderness Lodge

Kenai Lake, in the heart of the Kenai Peninsula (Jerry Garrett Photos)

The Kenai Peninsula, it has been said, is the best of Alaska.

Is it possible to quantify and rank-order Alaska’s best places? Probably not. I think – no, I know – there are many places as beautiful as the Kenai, but there can be none prettier.

The Kenai Peninsula extends for about 150 miles south of Anchorage, between the Cook Inlet on the west, and Prince William Sound in the Gulf of Alaska, on the east. The glacier-covered Kenai Mountains run down the middle. The centerpiece is the huge, turquoise Kenai Lake, from which flows the river of the same name. Most of the area is lushly forested, and comprises the Kenai Fjords National Park.

Anglers know the Kenai as one of the premier fishing spots in the world.

I came here not to fish, but to look. I still caught my limit.

The Kenai Princess Wilderness Lodge.

My jumping-off point was the Kenai Princess Wilderness Lodge, one of several impressive lodges that Princess Cruises operates in Alaska. (Others are in Fairbanks, Copper River, and Denali National Park.)

At first, it seems the Kenai Princess is in an unlikely location – in the middle of nowhere. The key word here, of course, is “wilderness”. Once you’ve been there, and seen it, and all the area around it offers, you realize it is actually in the middle of everything. At least everything that goes on in the Kenai wilderness.

What can you do, in a 36-hour mini-vacation, using the Kenai Princess as a base camp? Read on.

Summit Lake, on Highway 9 in the Kenai

Getting There is Half the Fun

Most visitors to this area of the Kenai drive down from Anchorage, although some come from the cruise ship ports in nearby Seward and Whittier. (Cruise ship passengers can fill the lodge a couple of nights per week; at other times, when independent travelers are the lodge’s most frequent guests, the lodge can offer significant rack rate discounts. Check their website, or watch for ads in the Anchorage news media.)

From Seward to Cooper Landing, where the Kenai Princess lodge is located, it’s 48 miles. The first 36 miles of the route, along Highway 9, was originally the first leg of the Iditarod Trail. The scenery becomes more dramatic as you head up into the Kenai Mountains.

Susan Stevenson's cool Kenai map.

From the quaint village of Moose Pass (Joke: If Moose Pass had a gas station – which it doesn’t – would it be named Moose Pass Gas? Food for thought.), the road parallels lower Kenai Lake for several miles. The lake veers west, though, as the road continues north to the junction with the Sterling Highway (Hwy. 1). Then, it’s 12 miles into Cooper Landing, where you again encounter the lovely lake.

From Anchorage, it’s about 100 miles. For the first 50 or so, you travel along the majestic Turnagain Arm waterway (known for its violent 30-odd foot tidal variations). Lots of evidence, still, along this route of the 1964 earthquake and tsunami: dead trees, abandoned shacks, sunken terrain.

The road from Whittier joins the route about halfway along, and the route, southerly to this point, turns sharply west into the Kenai Peninsula, and up into the Kenai Mountains. Like the Seward route, you turn at the Sterling Highway junction for Cooper Landing. Tern Lake is at the junction, and then you parallel Quartz Creek for awhile.

En route, the scenery changes from fascinating to stunning to breathtaking.

First Night’s Dinner

The restaurant at the Kenai Princess is a decided notch above “hotel food”. In fact, the dinner menu offers the highest-quality dining in the Kenai. But if you would like to explore the area a bit, I found Sackett’s BBQ (Mile 50) to be a delightful surprise. My daughter April and I had the ribs, with the chef’s secret sauce, and loved them. (Also open for breakfast, Sackett’s prime rib and eggs is equally memorable.) Pricing was also quite reasonable.

Postscript: A nightcap at the hotel bar, or homemade pie ala mode in the adjacent restaurant.

KPWL's cabins

Good Night’s Sleep

The rooms at the Kenai Princess are individual log cabins. A bit rustic, but this is roughing it in style. I especially appreciated the wood-burning stove in each room, a supply of kindling and DIY instructions for making a cozy little fire to go to sleep by.

Big plus: Comfy beds and pillows.

Greeting the Day

In summer, there’s little difference between night and day, so it can be a little tricky to re-program your body clock when it is supposed to be night time, and wake up when it’s “day time”. When I was there in early June, the sun dipped just a bit below the horizon around 11 p.m., and started its rise by 4 a.m. In between it was sorta dark, but not completely. During the day, it’s fascinating to watch the sun just circle the horizon, from one end of the sky to the other.

Russian River Falls (Bud Meeks Photo via Flickr)

Hiking Off Breakfast

Assuming you’ve consumed a hearty breakfast, like we just did, it next might be advisable to hike it off. There are many hiking trails in the Kenai. The well-known Resurrection Trail passes through here; it’s a century old route used by gold miners who once trekked the nearly 35 miles from Seward to Hope (an interesting side trip). But for day-trippers, it’s out of the question (allow three days).

The best and most convenient-to-do hike in the area is arguably the 2+ miles to Russian River Falls. It’s not terribly steep, and can be done without special equipment or clothing. The falls are more a series of really steep rapids. During salmon spawning season, this is one of those places where you can see the fish leaping out of the water. Very photogenic, if you have a fast shutter finger.

But beware that bears are also keenly aware of the fishing opportunities here, and will sometimes demand their space along the river. It’s wise not to contest the issue with them.

Other good hikes include the Skilak Lookout Trail, Kenai River Trail and Fuller Lake Trail.

Lunch on the Run

If you have a car, you might want to have a little excursion farther down the Sterling Highway to Sterling itself, or the neighboring cities of Soldotna and Kenai. This is flatland, and not as intensely scenic as the Upper Kenai area. But on clear days, you can see the temperamental Mt. Reboubt volcano (it blew big-time in 2009), the Kenai River where it flows into the sea, and old wooden churches from the days of Russian settlement of the area.

A much wider choice of restaurants exists here than in tiny Cooper Landing. Also, a supermarket, hardware stores, and outdoor outfitters. The drive back is more interesting, as the glacier-topped Kenai Range is in view along the horizon.

Rafting the Kenai

Rolling on the River

I’m assuming that if you came to the Kenai to fish, you won’t care about most of this little travelogue; you’ll be out casting your flies, or trying to coax fish that aren’t hungry into taking your hooks.

Note: Catching fish here is so easy, the state has instituted a lot of rules to make it harder. Make sure you have the correct licenses for the fish you are trying to catch; some salmon, like kings, may require a special stamp. Fishing is prohibited on Kenai Lake and its tributaries. Consult printed guidelines, or ask a state officer, for better and more complete rules and regs (informative site here).

For an alternative to fishing, try rafting the Kenai and Russian rivers. Several raft rental companies operate in the area, and there are great full and half-day routes (7, 4 and 2 hours in length) to try. Guided tours leave at 10 or 11 in the morning, or 2ish in the afternoon. One company even offers an evening departure. They’re mostly located within a mile or two of the Kenai’s headwaters. There’s a state park boat launch at Mile 48.

The Kenai River is a pristine waterway, with crystal-clear waters, and a touch of turquoise in the deeper holes. The rapids aren’t much more than Class 2, but the current is strong and fast. The Kenai Princess offers three viewing platforms at a sharp bend in the river, for those you would rather get their thrills vicariously.

Post-prandial patio.

Last  Supper

If you’ve failed to catch a salmon, or if you’ve not even tried (I’m guilty on that count), and yet you still have a taste for this local delicacy, the chef at the Kenai Princess can usually be counted on to offer some creatively prepared fresh fare.

After dinner, catch the evening sun, and a scenic view of the Kenai River, from the lodge’s back patio.

Before You Leave

Horseback riding is offered, covering several of the same trails hikers adore. Pan for gold (Cooper Landing once experienced a small gold rush) at Prospector John’s. Shop for souvenirs (Most common: Chain saw log sculptures, moose horns and carvings and ornate knives). Visit the area’s small museum, or the K’BEQ native interpretive center.

The return drive is as much of a delight as the drive down, because it’s very likely you’ll spot new wonders you hadn’t noticed before. The scenic diversity of the Kenai is a treat that can never be completely explored. It is best savored – again and again. Am I guilty of overstating the beauty of driving through here? Well, don’t take my word for it: The U.S. Forest Service has designated the whole 127-mile Seward Highway with Scenic Byway status; USA Today selected it as one of the Top 10 Scenic Drives in America; and, National Geographic lists it among its “Drives of a Lifetime.”

Don’t miss it.

Jerry Garrett

June 7, 2011

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