You’re right, it’s not south. In fact for most of us the Kenai is really, really north. So far north in fact, it is almost a different world. But for those looking for the best senior travel destination, the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska offers the adventure of a lifetime and the ability to experience nearly every type of Alaska in as compact as you can get for a state that is roughly half the size of the lower 48.
Flying in. Most people coming in for a Kenai vacation will probably fly into Anchorage. Seattle, Minneapolis, and New York will have direct flights however this list is growing so there may be more after this writing, which makes getting to Alaska just that much easier. After you land in Anchorage you can either rent a car and drive to the Peninsula around the Turnagin Arm, which is a beautiful drive and not a bad option because you will need a car for most of the trip anyway. The other option would be to connect on a flight from Anchorage to Kenai directly, landing at the Kenai Municipal Airport and renting a car from there.
Driving in. So you want to drive to Alaska? Well you are in for one heck of an adventure my friend, and good for you! This drive holds a special place in my heart. The many routes through Canada along the AlCan highway all offer unbelievable scenery, plenty of wonderful little towns (a few ghost towns), and wildlife viewing that alone can be a vacation – and for many it is! Unless you are already on the West Coast of the U.S. or you just really want to see Vancouver and the coast of British Columbia, I do recommend crossing the border in Montana for expediency to the AlCan highway.
Other than that, the Canadian West is a land of many options so grab yourself the latest Milepost Guidebook (this is a must!), and enjoy one the most magical journeys I’ve personally ever experienced (each time I’ve driven it).
Before or After a Cruise. Many people have discovered that an Alaskan Cruise only wets their appetite for more time on land experiencing the wilderness and welcoming people of this unique place. With many Alaskan cruises departing or starting from Whittier or Seward, spending a week before hand on the Kenai will fulfill all but the most hardened adventurists, so do consider this option if budget and time allows.
The Places of the Kenai
For most people driving down from Anchorage the first option of places to see will be Whittier and the Portage Pass. Likewise, many cruise ships will disembark here on railroad cars for the Denali National Park Lodges.
Whittier is an interesting town, but to be honest unless you are going for a specific reason (excellent sea kayaking, fishing, or boarding a cruise ship) the main attraction is just before the town, which is the Portage Tunnel. Cars share this tunnel with the railroad so if you are in a car you might have to wait for the train to make its way through the tunnel. While you are waiting there is a beautiful visitors center and boat that floats along the glacial lake created by the Portage Glacier. It is a great first glimpse at the glacial environment you have access to in Alaska.
Inside Whittier, the most curious thing to me was that the entire town lives in one building. The mountains are so close to the deep water bay that real estate is at a premium and most of the 300 residents are either crew members or other resource laborers. The building was an old Army barrack that was shuttered in the 1950’s but still functions today as the town residence, school, medical facility, and city hall.
Before heading south for the rest of the Peninsula, an optional interesting town is Hope, Alaska. Once a major jumping off point for gold miners headed up the Turnagin for Anchorage, the town has become a quaint little village that does have one of the most spectacular views of the Cook Inlet as well as white water rafting, excellent and affordable lodges, as well as a somewhat raucous nightlife for a “downtown” that consists of one restaurant and bar.
The town also has a tourist gold mine, where you can learn how to pan for gold…and then keep what you score!
In contrast to Whittier, Seward is a jewel of a city and closely captures what most people hope to see in an Alaskan small town. There are many attractions in addition to the town itself that add charm to this community.
For starters there is the excellent Alaska Sealife Center that will introduce visitors to the animals and ecology of the area with live aquariums, the largest sea bird aviary in the world (with two story dive tank), and rescued sea mammals that will melt your critter-loving heart. Seward has a main street lined with restaurants, microbreweries, and historic hotels befitting this town’s origins as a Russian fur trading base settled in 1793.
Today fishermen, tourists, lumberjacks, gold miners, dog sledders, and national park rangers all call Seward home.
Servicing the Exit Glacier and Kenai Fjords National Parks, Seward boasts some of the most accessible glacier viewing anywhere in Alaska, with day hikes and day trip boat rides, there are multiple options. To see the grandeur around the town.
SeniorSouth Tip: If you’re camping there is a great municipal campground here that isn’t too noisy during the shoulder months, but if you’re not in the mood for the crowds and RV’s look for one of the many small bed and breakfasts downtown for your stay.
As you drive south along highway 1, you will undoubtedly notice when the views become even more breathtaking. Where the large Kenai and Russian Rivers meet, is a town called Cooper’s Landing. This town is in the Alaskan Register of Historic places and was founded by an old gold miner, Joseph Cooper. There are many river rafting trips out of here as well as fishing trips. The water is a distinct blue because of the silt suspended in the water. Multiple other activities are based here such as horseback riding, hiking, and mountain biking. The nearby Russian River Falls is a famous place to try and spot salmon swimming up stream.
This is a great place to fill up with gas, grab a bite to eat, and if you like it, stay for a while!
Soldotna is the largest city on the Kenai, where you can find a large Fred Meyers (very similar to a walmart super center) where you can resupply with anything you need. The city has become synonymous with salmon fishing and multiple outfitters and lodges abound. However the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge surrounds Soldotna and has a canoe trail that your trusty online guide worked in for 2 summers and can personally recommend it if you want to truly unplug from the world. Just rent some canoes from the Alaska Canoe and Campground, they even have shuttles that can pick you up. Also check in with the wilderness refuge visitor center, because they may have some tips and advice on where to go.
We recommend considering one of the Soldotna Bed and Breakfasts as your home base if you want to go to every location on the Peninsula because of its central location.
Some say to save the best for last, and in this case I’d have to agree. Even just the drive to Homer is a great experience as it runs along a bluff over looking the Cook Inlet with the Alaskan Volcanoes looming high even 20 miles across the water. Every so often a pair of bald eagles may swoop overhead as they scan the bluff fishing the banks below. It is a panorama you won’t soon forget.
Once in town, enjoy the many restaurants and microbreweries available. If you’re tent camping, I highly recommend the campground above the Karen Hornaday Park. If you’re in an RV, then head for the Spit where you can park and walk the tourist section and visit the fisherman’s memorial.
Any activity you would want is in Homer, including fly-in flyout fishing and sightseeing, halibut fishing, hiking, and sea kayaking. There are many trips to the nearby Kachemak Bay State Park which offers some very remote wilderness and you might see a few orcas as well.
Things to do:
Fishing – Salmon and Halibut
Wildlife Viewing – Either yourself or with a guide, there are too many trails to count but we like the Russian River Falls
Rafting – Stop in Cooper’s Landing or Hope for this activity
Canoeing – The safest and most serene lakes are in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and many can be accessed by car
Backpacking – So many options, but we like the Resurrection Pass Trail near Seward.
Glacier Hike – Starting from the Exit Glacier visitor center a longer hike can take you up and over the glacier.
It’s not just about Salmon
For many, the Kenai Peninsula is just about fishing for salmon. However the Kenai Peninsula is a pocket of Alaska that offers literally every aspect of Alaska for the traveler in a bite-size (ok it’s a big bite) region you can access with a car. I truly love the peninsula and have spent some very special summers there. I hope you get up there anyway you can and enjoy the beauty of our Northern state.
P.S. Have you been to Alaska or the Kenai Peninsula? Let me know if you have any experiences or questions below!