Alaska is vast, indescribably beautiful, and has abundant wildlife. Picking a jumping-off spot to explore the last frontier can seem daunting due to the size of the state. Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula is the perfect place to start if you love outdoor adventures, ease of travel, and drop-dead gorgeous scenery.
The Kenai Peninsula is not like any place on the planet. The word “majestic” doesn’t give this place credit. If you want to explore unspoiled trails and see animals, mountains, and rivers — and a glacier — make this your next destination! Kenai is known for its exceptional scenery, wildlife, rivers, oceans, fishing, and hiking. Visit where Alaska locals come to play!
Recently, I flew to Alaska for 48 hours just to climb a glacier! My quick journey was jam-packed with many activities and many stops along the way.
1. The Seward Highway
Just about every turn on the Seward Highway offers places to stop and see wildlife. You can photograph animals and birds, take a stroll on a path or boardwalk, and search for animals.
Potter Marsh is a beautiful, easy, popular trail for bird watching and you can also see salmon swimming under the Rabbit Creek Bridge. Another great spot to see spawning salmon is at the Williwaw Creek Fish Viewing Platform. Depending on the time of year, you can easily walk on the platform (wheelchair-accessible) over several deep pools of clear water and watch and learn about the fish and their natural history and behaviors. Although the drive only takes 2 hours, add extra time for each viewing spot! The best part about all the lookouts is they are free!
Continue your drive through the beautiful Sitka spruce coniferous forests looking for moose in the meadows and bald eagles perched on treetops. The Bear Creek Weir salmon project is another great place to see salmon swimming upstream. Just off the highway is local wildlife recuperating at the Alaska Wildlife Center and it too shouldn’t be missed!
2. Beluga Whales
Pull over at mile-marker 110 along the Seward Highway to stop at Beluga Point. Check out this lookout in Turnagain Bay to see beluga whales and surfers riding the Bore Tide. Depending on the time of year and tide in Turnagain Bay, you might be lucky to see beluga whales frolicking in the water!
3. Exit Glacier
The Exit Glacier is one of 40 glaciers that make up the Harding Icefield. It’s probably the most popular outdoor destination for visitors to the Kenai Peninsula. It’s also one of the most visited glaciers in the world because of its easy accessibility. It’s favored because it’s close to a visitor center and a parking lot that is accessible by road. Easily a 10–15 minute drive out of Seward, you can walk right up to the glacier and see the dense, blue ice and maybe hear it crackle! The free parking lot fills up quickly, so plan on arriving early. There are also hourly shuttles available from the town of Seward.
Two Ways To View The Glacier
Both routes to view the Exit Glacier require walking. A very well maintained, groomed trail leads from the visitor center in the parking lot to the “toe” of the glacier. There is a 2-mile loop (wheelchair-accessible) called the Glacier View Loop. It has views to see the outwash plain and the glacier’s descent. You can continue around the loop and see part of the exposed rock and the glacier itself.
There are markers showing the glacier’s receding movement during the past 120 years. You’ll also see informational signs about the plant life. At the entrance to the trails is a chalkboard for visitors to share with others their daily wildlife sightings. The rangers also give guided tours chock-full of fabulous information as well as a self guided audio tour on the Alaska App.
Pro Tip: For a good photo-op in front of the glacier, walk the Edge of the Glacier Trail (the lower trail).
4. Harding Icefield Trail
This hike is definitely for fit climbers and is strenuous, but the journey is worth the climb! The trail/loop is 8.2 miles long and traverses all types of geography while you parallel the Exit Glacier. The challenging aspect of this hike is the vertical height climb in a fairly short distance, which makes it steep! The total ascent is 3,500 feet in vertical elevation over 4 miles. There is no way to sugar coat this, it’s steep and a tough climb! If you add the distance from the parking lot, it’s an 8.8-mile hike. The National Park Service recommends 6–8 hours and it’s best to leave early in the day.
No special equipment is required, but walking sticks really help on the descent. A day backpack with water, snacks, bug spray, a camera, and light clothes to layer up are essential items to bring. There are trail markers along the entire loop with stops and turn-around locations for those who don’t want to go to the top. As you ascend the trail, your path will take you through switchbacks, meadows, across creeks, through valleys, and ultimately to the top of the trail. Along the way, there are many places to stop and see the glacier up close. The amount of wildlife on this journey is abundant. I lost count of how many marmots and birds we saw. If you sit quietly at one of the many river crossings, you just might see a beaver! The views are spectacular and seeing a black bear traversing the glacier was a sight I’ll never forget.
If you happen to climb when there is still snow on the ground, the rangers mark the trail with small orange flags to keep hikers on course. Plan ahead for inclement weather, just in case!
Consider visiting the glacier with an expert guide if you want an up-close ice experience.
Pro Tip: Bring an extra clean pair of socks to wear for the descent. There are black and brown bears and it is recommended to carry bear spray.
Seward is a port city settled on an inlet of the peninsula and is the gateway to the Kenai Fjords National Park. This small, quaint town is a great place to jump off for cruises and boat tours to see the Kenai Fjords. There are many places to stay and a great variety of restaurants and activities; plan to spend a full day in this wonderful town.
The downtown center is one of the few intact “Main Streets” in the entire state. It really depicts what life was like at a coastal “territory” town. Now, it has a charming walking map highlighting cute shops, yummy coffee houses, and points of interest. There is a very interactive Sea Aquarium at the end of Main Street for all ages. After a full day of exploring Seward, indulge yourself with worldly prized local fish. When it comes to local seafood, it’s going to be difficult to choose just one!
How To Get To The Kenai Peninsula
Fly To Anchorage
Flying into Anchorage Airport (ANC) is convenient since it’s accessible from almost every major hub in the U.S. There is an abundant choice of hotels for every price range.
Drive To The Kenai Peninsula
The easiest and most popular destination to reach on the peninsula is the town of Seward. A smooth, quick 2-hour drive beginning in Anchorage along the Seward Highway has many scenic stops along the way. The drive to Seward is gorgeous. The first half of the drive parallels the Turnagain Inlet. The town of Homer is another popular destination and is about 5 hours by car from Anchorage.
Pro Tip: There is a scenic train from Anchorage to Seward for Alaska cruisers.
Although my trip to the Kenai Peninsula was quick, I felt like I really got to experience a slice of Alaska life. I saw scenery, wildlife, and had fabulous local food. I’m not sure what I liked best! I’m definitely going back to explore this beautiful, rugged, unspoiled corner of the world. Visit the peninsula any time of the year because a true Alaska experience awaits you.