Camping the Kenai
Blog &Photos by Joe Byers
Exploring Alaska by RV is amazing and more affordable than most think. Here’s how to do it all in seven days.
Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula packs more adventure into 222 miles of road than any place on earth. You can see every species of large mammal except polar bear, catch five species of salmon, hike miles of trails, walk on glaciers, kayak among ice flows, and ogle at mountains and eagles until your eyes glaze over. The Kenai is often called “Alaska in Miniature” and our experience proved it.
Our group of five landed in Anchorage at 11:00 a.m., rented a motorhome from GoNorth RV, bought groceries and supplies at a Walmart Supercenter, and headed down Route 1 through the Kenai Peninsula.
Keep Your Eyes on the Road
This simple sentence of common sense suddenly becomes difficult as the highway parallels the ocean shore where towering snow-capped mountains follow your journey to the right, with perhaps porpoises or whales spouting in the salt, while to your left sheer cliffs float veils of water and Dall sheep look down upon you.
Fortunately, this main thoroughfare has numerous pull-offs to allow slower traffic to pause and allow speedier cars to pass. In addition, these are excellent places to pose your first Alaskan photographs against a spectacular backdrop. On a clear day, glancing back toward Anchorage you can see Denali’s peak more than 100 miles away.
A bit further, the road makes a stark turn to the west, and you come upon the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC), a must-see collection of the state’s great mammals in near-natural surroundings.
The AWCC Up Close
This amazing facility is a non-profit corporation that houses animals that have been orphaned for one reason or another. Some had a mother killed by a car strike or came from a zoo or other home where they could no longer stay. Each animal is supervised and well cared for by veterinarians funded by admissions to the AACC.
This can be a couple-hour adventure or a half- or full day, depending upon your interest. Seeing the animals is always exciting, and if you have a long lens or video camera you can capture amazing images. Especially at feeding times, animals are continually active and often interact with each other.
The facility offers visitors food and beverages along with a full gift shop, again with all the proceeds benefiting the animals. Seeing half the species that reside here would require weeks of travel around the state and many thousands of dollars in plane rentals. Schedule more time than you’d normally expect and just enjoy the sights.
Practically next door to the AWCC is the road to Whittier and Portage Glacier. Although the Portage Glacier has melted beyond eyesight, a one-hour cruise aboard the MV Ptarmigan will get you up close and is a magical way to begin your vacation. Reservations are required, but this informative and scientific adventure costs just $45 for adults and $25 for children. Additionally, icebergs from the glacier often float and break up in Portage Lake near the visitor’s center and you can literally hold geological history in your hand.
Hope as Our First Home
This former gold mining town still has about 300 residents and is a popular weekend retreat for locals due to its proximity to Anchorage and its quaint nature. Additionally, the adjacent stream (Resurrection Creek) fills up with pink salmon on even-numbered years.
Pink salmon bite on a host of lures, are tasty when cooked fresh, and are the easiest of the state’s five species of salmon to catch as well as the most abundant. Unfortunately, our visit was a month before the fish come to spawn, but we walked the huge salt flat, built a campfire, and had dinner at the local café.
Back on Route 1 the next morning, we were anxious to pan for gold at Cooper Landing. I had met Prospector John during a trip in 2006 and he was still working ore in the same spot. If you love horseback riding and want a wilderness experience, Alaskan Horseman Trail Adventures will pack you into a remote cabin for an overnight stay. This is much cheaper than a bush plane flight and a true adventure.
Our visit with Prospector John did not disappoint as each of my grandsons and daughter came away with a vile of flakes all garnered from their own efforts with a sluice and pan.
Soldotna- Heart of the Kenai
A river runs through it and from mid-June to early August, it’s loaded with sockeye (red) salmon, one of the state’s tastiest creatures. The famed Copper River Reds fetch $79.99 per pound online, an indication of the delicacy swimming upstream. Soldotna has a one-mile boardwalk along the Kenai River that makes a perfect casting platform or just an environmentally friendly way to see much of the riverfront.
The Visitor’s center is located right on the river and is a great place to begin exploring the area. Additionally, it has a large parking lot that makes parking your motorhome safe and easy. Additionally, Fred Meyer operates a huge store that is the perfect place to pick up fresh groceries and last-minute items for the trip.
We stayed at the Diamond M Ranch Resort and the kids had fun at their petting zoo and hiking to the river past a rugged cabin with a grass roof, or Alaskan shingles as they are called. Diamond M offers full-service camping including bike rentals and a playground for kids—five stars in our book.
Kings for Kids
Our boys really wanted to catch salmon, but landing a king salmon is very challenging, even for experienced anglers. Alaska opened the Ninilchik River for kids only up to 16 years old and we camped nearby to access the river.
At first, we hooked two fish, but couldn’t land them, except for a sculpin, one of the ugliest creatures in the sea. Changing locations, we ran into Derrick, a local fisherman with his son. As we spoke, his lad hooked and landed a fish, much to the amazement of our guys. Once landed, this perfect stranger helped my youngest grandson catch his first salmon. It was a wild salmon and had to be released, but what a hoot!3
In the next half hour, he got the other two boys into salmon and soon each boy had his first king salmon, and we were all smiles. In my experience, Alaskans are the kindest people on earth and Derrick literally made the trip for these boys with his generosity and kindness.
One Heck of a Halibut
Thursday dawned with open skies and calm winds, perfect conditions for a halibut charter out of Ninilchik with Captain Damon Knight and his Sea Voyager. We launched the considerable craft into the surf near Ninilchik and powered up his two 350-horse outboards. Soon we joined other fishermen in an area that appeared productive.
Our first hour was action packed as we learned how to hook the tasty bottom fish and landed four of them between 30 and 32 inches. Believing that he could find bigger fish, we headed to another area where we began to catch fish near 40 inches. Still wanting more, Captain Knight took us into 250 feet of water where fish became considerably larger.
Zachary hooked into a fish that the captain immediately identified as a large fish. We all cranked in our lines in preparation for the battle. The mate harpooned the big fish so that it would have to fight a large floating ball and eventually calmed enough to bring alongside where the captain put two .38 slugs in its head.
Believing the fish was dead, both men hoisted the 100-plus-pound behemoth onboard, and our mouths gaped at the size. Halibut often play possum until they are brought onboard and can cause severe injury as they revive and fight to the last. Eventually, we’d take 109 pounds of fresh fillets to be vacuum packed and frozen for the trip home.
Homer and Home
Our last two nights in Alaska were spent at the Homer Spit Campground where we had full service practically on the beach. At low tide, the beach revealed its hidden treasures, and the convenient location was within walking distance of most shops, restaurants, and fishing charters on the spit.
Our first experience renting a motorhome was amazing and we quickly adapted to our motorized lifestyle. The GoNorth RV headquarters is just minutes from the Anchorage airport, so I dropped the family and fish curbside, returned the rig, and caught a quick Lyft back to join them. Sleeping on the flight back home was no problem. The week-long adrenalin rush had subsided, and we rested comfortably in the mystical arms of great memories and cell phones filled with images of breathtaking scenery, huge fish, and smiles that are as genuine as fun itself.
(Author’s Note: Kenai Tourism offers an excellent guide to incredible adventures and services on the Kenai. Now that COVID has subsided, it’s best to plan well ahead and this vacation planner will make that easy and exciting: travelalaska.com/kenai.)