Flowing out of the western edge of the Chugach Mountains, the Kenai River runs turquoise blue from Kenai Lake through canyons and whitewater till it spills out onto the low elevation woodlands to where it finally meets the salt water of Cook Inlet near the town of Kenai. For almost 80 miles the river frolics through 3 sets of whitewater and forms 7-mile long Skilak Lake. A trip of 4 to 5 days is an ideal time to spend on this world-class fishery watershed, even though there are good sections that are an easy day float. If you are looking for a trip where you will not see anyone, this is not the trip. In fact the Kenai and Russian Rivers are two of the most heavily fished and visited sites in the state and power boats will nearly swamp a canoe and lines of combat fishermen on the shore may make it nearly impossible to pull over. July and August are the busiest times. But the incredible scenery of the river and the great fishing opportunities, combined with road access at numerous points make this a great trip for family or friends. In a raft it is a casual float through the Class III and III+ rapids, while in an inflated kayak there is more heart thumping adrenaline as you navigate the rapids along the way. Most of the river is within the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and is a lush spruce and cottonwood forest among steep mountains until it exits at Skilak Lake where the more rounded hills are the landscape feature. And all along its length occurs one of the greatest salmon runs of south-central Alaska. Four species of salmon are here with the King salmon reported to be the largest of its kind. Fish up to 80 pounds have been pulled from these waters.
Put In & Take Out Options
There are 3 sections of river to run and there is road access for all of them. From Anchorage you take the Seward Highway around Turnagain Arm to the Sterling Highway Junction and then take the Sterling Highway to the lower end of Kenai Lake to the start of the upper river. There several spots where you can rig and launch a raft such as the Kenai Lake Outlet, Fisherman's Bend, Cooper Creek Campground or the Russian River Campground. The next good access is at Jim's Landing and is a take out for the upper river or a put in for the middle and/or lower river. Below Jim's Landing is the Kenai Canyon and the Class III+ rapids. The lower Skilak Campground is another good access spot and is a likely take out for the upper two day trip or a middle one day trip. At the confluence with the Moose River is the Bing's Landing State Recreation Site, just upstream of the Naptowne Rapids, where there is good access and further down near Soldotna are more take outs. If you go all the way to Kenai take the Beaver Loop Road to the public dock.
Kenai Lake to Jim’s Landing: 13 miles
There are several starting spots but where the Sterling Highway crosses the river just after it exits the lake is a common one. If you are doing a multi day trip you might have time to fish the west end of the lake and there are places near Snug Harbor where you can launch. Once out of the lake and on the river expect, right away, some Class II rapids along Fisherman's Bend. Next is Cooper Creek then the Class III Schooner Bend rapids. The best line is down the right side. Two miles later is the Russian River confluence and there will surely be powerboats and fishermen along here. Below this spot the river is easy Class I to Jean Creek. Jim's Landing is here and is just above the Kenai Canyon and the biggest of the rapids.
Jim’s Landing to Lower Skilak Lake Campground: 17 miles
This is the crux section of the river having the Canyon, plus 13 miles of lake to paddle. If there are headwinds this may be impossible in a raft. From Jean Creek the Kenai Canyon is quickly reached and it is a 4-mile section of sheer walled gorge making lining or portaging near to impossible. Below the canyon is a braided section that can have logs and sweepers in the channel. Once on the lake it is 6 miles of lakeshore bluff to the Upper Skilak Lake Campground. Another 7 miles of flat water is below this point to Lower Skilak Lake Campground and road access to the Sterling Highway.
Lower Skilak Lake Campground to Kenai: 45 miles
Take 2 to 3 days to float this stretch. There are places to take out sooner as well. It is mostly flat water and is the most popular section of river, with many parties fishing by day. About 10 miles below the lake is Naptowne Rapids, another fun Class III section. It lies just below the next access spot at Bing's Landing. This could be a take out. Below the rapid is the confluence with the Moose River. As you float past Soldotna there are numerous places to pull out but the public dock off Beaver Loop in Kenai is a common place to finish this gorgeous river trip.
- Some of the rapids can be scouted by car. By turning off the Sterling Hwy at mile 58, onto the Skilak Lake Road, driving 7 tenths of a mile then walking downhill 2 tenths of a mile you can reach the river and then walk up the river trail to see the rapids. You can see the Schooner Bend Rapids from the Russian River Campground.
- To see Naptowne Rapids, drive to Bing's Landing and hike downriver a short distance.
- Obviously a river so choked with salmon is prime Brown Bear habitat, so be clean and careful especially if you are camping.
- If the winds are bad, crossing Skilak Lake could be difficult. Having an extra day to wait is a good idea, but you could take out at Bing's Landing if you lose a day.
Kenai B-1, B-2, B-3, C-2, C-3, C-4