Hiking & Paddling in Kenai Peninsula

The Kenai Peninsula is a recreational playground, with all types of wilderness adventure on offer. Well-maintained trails, excellent public-use cabins and even two canoe routes offer nearly limitless exploration opportunities.

Hiking the Russian Lakes Trail

  • Start East Cooper Landing
  • End West Cooper Landing
  • Duration/Distance 21 miles/three days
  • Difficulty Easy

This 21-mile, two- to three-day trek is an excellent way to explore the Chugach National Forest on the Kenai Peninsula without overextending yourself. The popular and relatively flat trail is kid-friendly, and the 3.4 miles between the western trailhead and Barber Cabin are wheelchair accessible.

The trail is well maintained and well-marked, and most of the hike is a pleasant forest walk broken up by patches of wildflowers, ripe berries, lakes and streams. You can easily connect the trail with the Resurrection Pass Trail to the north and the Resurrection River Trail to the south.

There are three USFS cabins on the trail: Barber Cabin, near Lower Russian Lake (3.4 miles from the western trailhead); one at Upper Russian Lake (9 miles from the Cooper Lake trailhead); and another at Aspen Flats (12 miles from the Cooper Lake trailhead). You must reserve these cabins well in advance, as they’re very popular. There are also designated campsites at Lower and Upper Russian Lakes.

Highlights of the hike include getting an eyeful of the supremely impressive glaciated mountains that stab the sky across from Upper Russian Lake, the possibility of experiencing a firsthand encounter with moose or bears – or both – and the chance to catch your own fish-shaped dinner. The trek offers excellent angling opportunities for fishing folk who are willing to carry in a rod and reel. Dolly Varden, rainbow trout and salmon are found in the upper portions of the Russian River; rainbow trout in Lower Russian Lake, Aspen Flats and Upper Russian Lake; and Dolly Varden in Cooper Lake near the Cooper Lake trailhead. Check ahead for restrictions.

This is serious bear country, so you should take precautions while hiking, setting up camp, and cooking and storing food to prevent any unfortunate encounters. Bear spray is prudent, and so is making a whole lot of noise. The best bear sighting is from afar.

You can start the hike from either end, though it is easiest to begin this trek from the Cooper Lake trailhead, the higher end of the trail. To get there, turn off at Mile 47.8, Sterling Hwy onto Snug Harbor Rd; the road leads south 12 miles to Cooper Lake and ends at a marked parking lot and the trailhead.

The western trailhead is on a side road marked ‘Russian River USFS Campground’ at Mile 52.7, Sterling Hwy. From there it’s just under a mile’s hike to the parking lot at the end of the campground road – the beginning of the trail. There is a small fee if you leave a car here. If you’re planning to camp at Russian River the night before starting the hike, keep in mind that the campground is extremely popular during the salmon season in June and July. This portion of the trail is generally full of anglers during fishing season.

Hiking Resurrection Pass Trail

  • Start Hope
  • End Cooper Landing
  • Duration/Distance 38.5 miles/four days
  • Difficulty Moderate

Located in the Chugach National Forest, the 38.5-mile Resurrection Pass Trail was carved by prospectors in the late 1800s and today is the most popular hiking and cross-country biking route on the Kenai Peninsula. The Resurrection Pass Trail’s mild climb from 500ft to only 2600ft has made it an increasingly popular trail for mountain bikers, who can ride the entire route in one day. For those on foot, the trip can be done in three days by a strong hiker, but most people prefer to do it in four to five days to make the most of the immense beauty of the region.

The trail is also the first leg of a trek across the Kenai Peninsula. By linking Resurrection Pass, Russian Lakes and Resurrection River Trails in Chugach National Forest, you can hike 71 miles from Hope to Seward and cross only one road. It's a rare feat but, if you have the time and endurance, a worthy one.

You can start from either end, but the climb is more friendly if you start in Hope. From here, the trail climbs gently through birch forest and along Resurrection Creek before reaching a wide alpine valley. Look for beaver dams (and beavers); be sure to filter your water since wildlife use this corridor.

At mile 17 the trail forks at Devil's Pass, and you can exit on the Devil's Creek Trail. It makes a nice option for a shorter trip (27 miles from the Hope trailhead). The Devil's Pass trailhead is at mile 39 of the Seward Hwy.

The trail continues on to Juneau Lake, where you'll see an occasional floatplane land. The final few miles into Cooper Landing are set off by thundering Juneau Falls and then a series of switchbacks down to the Sterling Hwy, which you can hear before you see.

There are eight USFS cabins along the route, but you must reserve them well in advance. Most hikers take a tent and stay in designated backcountry campsites at Mile 4, Wolf Creek (Mile 5.3), Caribou Creek (Mile 7), Mile 9.6, Mile 12.6 and East Creek (Mile 14.6). Most sites have bear-resistant food lockers, but pack a camp stove as fallen wood is scarce during summer.

The northern trailhead is 20 miles from the Seward Hwy and 4 miles south of Hope on Resurrection Creek Rd. Hope, a historic mining community founded in 1896 by gold seekers, is a charming, out-of-the-way place to visit, but be warned: Hope Hwy is not an easy road for hitchhiking (if you choose to travel in this potentially risky way).

From Hope Hwy, go south at the Resurrection Pass trail signs onto Resurrection Creek Rd, passing the fork to Palmer Creek Rd. The southern trailhead is on the Sterling Hwy, near Cooper Landing.

Paddling the Swan Lake Canoe Route

  • Start Canoe Lake
  • End Moose River Bridge
  • Duration/Distance 3 days/60 miles
  • Difficulty Easy; Class I water

In the northern lowlands of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, there is a chain of rivers, lakes, streams and portages that make up the Swan Lake canoe route. The trip is perfect for novice canoeists, as rough water is rarely a problem and portages do not exceed half a mile. Fishing for rainbow trout is good in many lakes, and wildlife is plentiful; a paddle on this route could result in sightings of moose, bears, beavers and a variety of waterfowl. This land also belongs in large part to the mosquito, so bring plenty of bug dope and a mosquito net at a minimum.

This easy and popular route connects 30 lakes with forks in the Moose River for 60 miles of paddling and portaging. The entire route would take only a week but a common three-day trip is to begin at the west entrance on Swan Lake Rd and end at Moose River Bridge on Sterling Hwy. The topography is relatively flat, which makes portages fairly easy but views a little unexciting.

You have a few options for this journey. Your first put in is at Canoe Lake and you’ll then meander south through Contact, Martin, Spruce and Otter Lakes. At Otter, you can fork southwest or southeast; this itinerary takes the latter route to Rock and then Loon Lake (though another route to the Moose River Bridge is a fork at Spruce Lake). From there you’ll travel north to Swan Lake where you can end your journey, or carry on north through several more lakes to the east entrance.

Bring a map and have your route planned out beforehand, as the many options can feel confusing and lakes can look the same. Portages are marked by signs; once you train your eyes to find them they'll become obvious.

To reach the Swan Lake canoe route, travel to Mile 84, Sterling Hwy, east of Soldotna, and turn north on Robinson Lake Rd, just west of the Moose River Bridge. Robinson Lake Rd turns into Swanson River Rd, which leads to Swan Lake Rd, 17 miles north of the Sterling Hwy. East on Swan Lake Rd are two entrances for the canoe route. The west entrance for the Swan Lake route is at Canoe Lake, and the east entrance is another 6 miles beyond, at Portage Lake.

Throughout the summer months, Alaska Canoe & Campground rents canoes and runs a shuttle service for people paddling the Swan Lake canoe route. Alaska Canoe’s campground (tent sites/cabins $20/175) is near the takeout along Sterling Hwy, and it makes a nice place to stay overnight if you find yourself arriving late on the last day.