Rather than turning onto the Sterling Highway, if you stay on the Seward you'll eventually end up in...Seward. Looking on a map, Homer and Seward are very close but road, quite far. But they are similar towns--both cute waterfront communities with lots of things to do. I have spent more time in Seward so I feel I know more about it and created a separate page for the area.
Click here to go to my Seward page.
Staying on the Sterling Highway rather than the Kenai Spur will lead you south along the west side of the Peninsula. You'll pass a couple little towns like Kasilof and Clam Gulch which although we've been down that way a couple times, they don't particularly stick out as anything memorable. So moving onto one that does: Ninilchik. This little village does catch your eye be it for the bluffs on the water or the little Russian Orthodox church. It's really a cute little place, much like Hope. People come here not just for the fishing but Ninilchik is a prime location to get razor crabs. It seemed pretty empty and quiet when we visited but that Russian Orthodox has stood on top of that hill since 1901. I heard it a different way that makes its existance even more impressive: That Russian Orthodox Church has endured 106 Alaskan winters. Wow. Ninilchik is also where the Kenai Peninsula Fair is held each year in August--smart location since its in between Soldotna and Homer. Additionally, they have a salmon and halibut derby, charters, gift shops, restaurants, gasoline, and places to stay. You'd never know this is you visit in February like we did, though. It looked completely deserted! Still, great views of the Inlet, the volcanoes and the little village. Certainly worth a stop.
Captain Cook State Recreation Area is at the end of the Kenai Spur Road. You enter it about 4 miles before the end and right away the scenery is better than Nikiski. First, you'll come to Bishop Creek--a good place to look (not fish) for spawning salmon in the summer or to picnic and walk to the beach. Stormy Lake, about 1/2 mile down the road has a swimming area and fishing. The overlook for the lake is slightly beyond that followed by a boat launch. Also in the park is Swanson River , campgrounds and trails. It's a nice out of the way Recreation Area with opportunities to see lots of wildlife as well as a great view of Mt Spurr and the water.
This area is very cute, full of history and information on a self guided walking tour. Believe me, it's so small there's no other way to see it but by walking--you can get a brochure from the close by visitor center. The first building you're likely to see is Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox church which is one of the oldest in Alaska. Good insight on Russian Alaska with the history here and there are services held. Nearby, there is a chapel called St. Nicholas which is a memorial to Father Nicholai built in 1906. There is also the Parish House Rectory built in 1881 and is the oldest in one remaining in Alaska. There is also Fort Kenay on the site of the Russian schoolhouse. I find the Russian history more interesting than the Fort being an American installation but the multi-cultural history of the area makes it fascinating alone. There is of course more history here but you'll just have to visit to learn the details;-)
Our first trip out this way last year was meant to have Kenai as our destination. Still pretty new to the area, Kenai was a city we had heard of but really didn't know much about it. We certainly didn't know the population of this area or much else besides Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and Old Town Kenai. It really is a populated area with very easy access to the wilderness. Over 7,000 people live in the city of Kenai--a good sized Alaskan city and the largest on the Peninsula. There's lots to do here, too. Many, many restaurants...there is zero problem finding a place to eat. In the summer, there is a Saturday Market too. There are quite a few things I love about Kenai--the view from the Kenai River beach and the Scout Park is incredible. You can get great views of volcanoes (Mt. Spurr, Mt. Illamna, Mt. Redoubt) and look for whales. There's beach access near Old Town Kenai (more about Old Town in the next tip). The Kenai River Flats are a terrific place to look for wildlife like Siberian Snow Geese and caribou. We saw coyotes when we were down there last. Kenai also has a baseball team--the Kenai Peninsula Oilers and many, many more sporting opportunities. If you want to fly to Kenai, you can do that also--there's lots of flights from Anchorage (20 minute flight) but really, it's not that far (about 160 miles one way by road). Since there is so much to do here, I highly suggest going to the visitor center so you're able to put together some sort of itinerary.
Soldotna is the next community you'll come to on the Sterling Highway. It sorta merges with Sterling and Kenai adding another 4,000+ residents to this "metro" area. Being in between Sterling and Kenai, it's the center professional activity--meaning the Kenai Peninsula college is here, medical services and so on. Here, you have the choice to continue on the Sterling Highway if you're Homer bound or turn onto the Kenai Spur road to get to Kenai. You can also take Kalifornisky Beach road for visitor information and end up down in Kasilof (again if you're going down to Homer) or if you want to bypass Kenai to get to the Bridge Access Road. If you stay on the Sterling past the Kenai Spur intersection, you can turn onto Funny River Road to get to the airport if you're heading out for fishing trips. It sounds a little chaotic in this write up but most roads will lead to one with which you are familiar. Having taken all of these roads, I'll write one tip separately to tell you what is along the alternatives to the Sterling Highway. All services are in Soldotna--any class of hotel, lodge, campground or b&b. Many restaurants, places to shop and lots of activities. Like other towns on the Kenai Peninsula, fishing is the key attraction for most travelers--there are lots of parks and recreation areas.
Sterling is...a place where people live. There's not much you can say about it because it looks more like urban sprawl than a separate town or community. It is unincorporated so I suppose it has an excuse. There are lots of services and this area has lots of people living here (by Alaska standards)--a little less than 5000. It also has good businesses for tourists: a hostel, restaurants, campgrounds, motels, Visitor Center, good fishing and paddling outfitters and lodges. Still, if it wasn't for the sign welcoming you here, you'd have no idea when you entered Sterling proper...well, if there is such a thing. It's really just a lot of businesses and side roads along the Sterling highway. This is a good place to get gas (if you can't wait until Kenai which seems to have slightly cheaper prices), go to the restroom and maybe even eat. One of my favorite restaurants in Alaska is here called Suzies.
This road, though tough at times, is a beautiful, beautiful drive. Tough because it's 19 miles of gravel that includes some rough potholes and some bumpy stones. You can't go fast but why would you want to? Not only is Skilak Lake along this road but there's Pothole Lake, Hidden Lake, Hidden Creek, Upper Ohmer Lake, Lower Ohmer Lake, Engineer Lake and Bottenintnin (NO clue how that's really pronounced!) Lake...need I go on? It's a scenic drive and you are looking to fish, you can do it here. If you want to just view wildlife, you've come to right place too. It's labeled as "prime brown bear habitat" by my coveted Milepost. We saw no bears but plenty of ptarmigan:) Of course, you're rolling along on a very loud road, so your chances are better if you take one of the many trails along this road. Even to those of us who are picture happy, this is a great drive...lots of scenic views but difficult to capture it all. You can enter at either mile 58 or 75 on the Sterling Highway.
This refuge is large. 1.97 million acres large. While much of it is wilderness, you will drive right through a part of it on the Sterling Highway. Of course, there are parts that are worth mentioning as separate tips, so this is just going to be the overview of the Refuge. There are many trails you can hike, places to fish or paddle and lots of wildlife. If you want to know when to go to see certain animals, the refuge has a great list of places to go and what to see. The hikes range from easy to very difficult, from short to multi-day. There are bears in the area so if you're hanging out near the water or camping in the Refuge, make sure you're smart about it. The weather has always been agreeable when we visited but be prepared for anything--especially if you are hiking and camping. Bring a compass and a good topo map as well as the right clothing, bug repellent and a first aid kit. There is a visitors center before the turnoff for Skilak Lake Loop road--it says that it's open from Memorial Day to Labor Day but it was open when we visited the 3rd week of September last year. We didn't stop in this spring when we visited, so I can't say about before Memorial Day.
The Kenai NWR is worth visiting multiple times as it is so large and it totally changes with the seasons.
Cooper Landing is the first small town you'll come to when driving the Sterling Highway from the Seward. Unlike Hope, there is no real downtown area, just an assortment of fishing and kayaking charters. Given its location directly on the Kenai Lake/ River, that's understandable. But like Hope, it was settled when gold was discovered in the area. In the winter, it's just a quiet little place with a few people braving the cold to fish in the river but in the summer, this little town comes alive. Fishing charters and other outdoor outfitters cater to lots of tourists wanting to catch salmon, go rafting or just take extended float or boating trips. There are lodges, campgrounds, b&bs, places to shop, eat and drink and so on. But, this does seem to be only in the summer...when we went through in the fall and the spring, it was still very quiet with only a couple people out.
There are a few great spots to stop and get pictures in Cooper Landing--first, there's a road called "Bean Creek" which leads up the Princess Lodge--a great turnout there for a view of the Kenai River from above. Second, if you go to the Cooper Landing Recreation Site Boat Launch, you can take a little boardwalk with some interpretive displays and the out to the river. There are bathrooms here as well.
We've been out this way numerous times and only recently did we decide to take the road to Hope. It's a turnoff between milemarker 56 and 57 on the Seward highway that is well maintained, paved and takes you 18 miles to the little town of Hope. The drive itself is actually quite pretty and it's another one of those Alaskan towns where everyone waves at you. There are cabins, campgrounds, places to eat, fish and hike as well as a few turnouts that provide excellent views. The downtown is rustic but cute with a goldrush history. The sign that says, "Welcome to Hope" tells you all about it. While your destination may be one of the larger towns/cities on the Kenai Peninsula, take some time out to drive down to Hope.
kenai is where i have spent most of my life. looking back, i sure had some good times and if you are in the area, here is what i think you can't miss. the best spot in kenai is a little place called veronica's cafe. yummy coffee and snacks, as well as soups and sandwiches. they play live music in the evenings and often host open mic nights. its a beautiful little log house with lots of nooks and books too. it is a jem in kenai. it is also in old town, near the russian orthodox cemetary and church, and a few other historical buildings. the rest of old town is full of apartment complexes with great views.
Homer is a beautiful town located off Kachemak Bay and it has the 2nd longest spit in the world petruding out into the bay. The surrounding scenery is very beautiful and Homer is famous for its halibut fishing, kayaking and trip to Halibut Cove. More photos and information are at my VT Homer page.
Kenai Alaska, my favorite place to escape to from Anchorage! It's a 2 1/2hr drive south of Anchorage, along the turnagain arm, where you pass picturesque views of the ocean, mtns, sheep, whales, eagles, glaciers and much, much more.
It was a great night for a Baseball game! The Oilers and Pilots are semi-pro teams in the Alaska Baseball League. Many Major League Super Stars have played in this league including Mark McGwire and Roger Clemens!