My sister had a guidebook with her when we were at the Old Town of Kenai, and she read about the distinct architecture of the Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church.
It was however already 8 PM and for sure the church would be closed, but my sister still dialed their number! LOL - surprisingly someone answered and curious why were calling - my sister just asked for directions. He was not able to open the church for us, but we were able to take pictures outside.
The church has become a National Historic Landmark and is nice white and blue structure, a replica of the Russian Orthodox School of 1900. It was built in 1967 to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the purchase of Alaska from Russia (remember the very low price of about US$7.5 million - what a deal!)
While on our All-star trip the local Semi-pro baseball team gave our team free admission to the game and called each of our players out onto the field to stand next of the player of their same position and to get their autograph on a baseball (provided by the oilers) and stand with them during the National Anthem. The kids really enjoyed it and the Peninsula Oilers have a big thank-you from our Kodiak All-Stars!!
Our Player Marvin has just his named called! If you're in Kenai and need a break from fishing I highly recommend seeing a game. It is very inexpensive and every seat in the house has a great view. Some of these players will be going to the Major Leagues and they all come out after the game and sign free autographs!
Traveling westbound toward Kenai, shortly after the Skilak Lake Loop Road, you'll see a sign to turn onto Swanson River Road. It's a lot like the Skilak road but we thought it was in a slightly better condition. However, we did go when things were still iced up so the road could have just been better for that reason. Anyway, this road takes you to Swan Lake Road--used to get to the canoe trail routes of Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Along the way, there are numerous lakes for fishing. In the early spring, no one was out there and we used some of the (very snowy) trails to get down to the frozen lakes. Even if you aren't into fishing or paddling, take some time and go down Swanson River Road. There are campgrounds and trails and it's a good place to maybe spot some wildlife.
You should probably be aware that you need to follow the road to Swanson River landing and not be confused by the gated road a few miles from the end. This area borders private oil fields. Believe me, you don't see them and they don't distract from the lakes, the road and the canoe trails. And there's no way you'd accidentally wander into this area, either.
The drive on Swanson River road is 17 miles of gravel but it seems to go pretty fast. Beyond that, Swan Lake Road leads another 12 miles to the east and continue on if you are using the canoe trail or want to camp out here.
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.
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.
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.
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 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;-)
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.
At the end of the Sterling Highway is the town of Homer. Many people know this place because it seems whenever bald eagles are featured in documentaries or reports, they go to Homer. The number of bald eagles in the winter on the spit is astounding--taking all the eagles I've seen in my life (including in southeast Alaska where they are numerous) doesn't add up to the amount I saw one morning in Homer. This town is cute and sizewise, it seems to go on forever down East End Road. Homer is noted as one of the best art towns in America but I can see it as one of the best small towns overall. There's lots to do here, no matter the season. I'm going to keep this tip kind of brief because I'm sure later this year we'll get back down there and spend enough time in the town for me to build an entire page. So here are basics...the main attraction is the Spit, a long thin gravel bar in Kachemak Bay. This is where the eagles are...there's also boat harbors, restaurants, fishing areas, bars and a beach. In February it wasn't very cold there at all--about 40F. In the town, there are cute cafes, plenty of restaurants, hotels and pretty much everything you'd want. Great views of the water, mountains and glaciers can be seen from East End Road and when you come into town on the Sterling Highway. The link below this gives you a list of the things you can do and what you can see and give you an idea of when you need to and how long you need to stay to accomplish those things. Definitely, definitely visit Homer.
There are three Russian church buildings in Old Town Kenai. The church itself was originally established in 1791 and the current building was constructed in 1894. Russian Orthodox services are still held there every week. The Parish House Rectory dates from 1881. The third building, the Chapel of Saint Nicholas, was built in 1906. It is named after a priest, Father Nikolai, who is remembered because he brought smallpox vaccinations to the area.
The cabin is in its original location and is a good example of what the early buildings in Kenai looked like. It was built in 1918 and is near the Chapel of Saint Nicholas. Also nearby once stood the original Fort Kenay structure, Russian Redoubt Nikolaevsk (1791), and later the American Fort Kenay (1869). The Oskolkof/Dolchok Cabin is now Veronica's Coffee House and Cafe, a great little place to stop for an espresso. It also has an open mic night at 6:30 PM on Thursdays, and blues, classic rock and Hawaiian folk music at 6:30 PM on Fridays.
As you walk into the Visitors Center there is a white board with the day's activities and an information desk with people to assist you. The front lobby area also includes things for sale if you want to shop a little. In the afternoon a local author, Chris Jenness, was doing a book signing for his children's book, "Sammy Goes Home." It's about a salmon named Sammy and its adventures.
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.