Alaska in Miniature A Family Adventure on the Kenai Peninsula

With our two young kids in tow, ages two and eight months, my husband Matt and I drove nearly 10,000 miles from Los Angeles to Alaska and back, spending a month in a cabin on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. We camped along the way, and cooked our meals at pit stops. At night, the maroon dome tent became a play fort for the kids, and we piled in the blankets, toys, and books to keep them entertained. All four of us slept peacefully, snuggled together like a pack of wolves.

Two days after entering Canada (day four of the trip), we reached the infamous Alaska Highway. Built during World War II, it runs 1,488 miles from Dawson Creek, British Columbia to Fairbanks, Alaska. Though supposedly paved along its length, it’s notorious for lengthy sections of road construction, but also for abundant wildlife and breathtaking scenery. Quaint signs warn drivers to watch for wildlife on the road—moose, caribou and native sheep.

Eight long days after leaving Los Angeles, we reached our destination: Soldotna, known for its King Salmon. We checked into the Alaska Treetop Bed & Breakfast and our small but cozy cabin on Lake Denise. Hostess Dawn Musgrove introduced us to digging tasty razor clams at “minus tides,” told us the best fishing spots, and shared her incredible stories of growing up in Alaska’s homestead days. Nearly everything on the Kenai Peninsula was under two hours from our central base.

Wild and Scenic

The Kenai Peninsula is one of the most diverse and beautiful regions of Alaska. Sometimes called “Alaska in miniature,” the 16,000-square-mile peninsula boasts glaciated mountain peaks, ice blue rivers, coastal rainforest, sandy and rocky shores, and abundant wildlife. The vast majority of the Kenai lies within public lands, including both national and state parks, a wildlife refuge and a national forest. Yet there’s trouble in paradise: warmer weather, possibly the result of global warming, has exploded the population of spruce bark beetles. The virgin forest is marred by mile after mile of browing, dying spruce trees.

Photo: Wendee Holtcamp
Savannah Holtcamp, 2 1/2, gets involved with the abundant Kenai flora. Photo: Wendee Holtcamp

In Portage, a 12-mile train ride takes you across the mountains to Prince William Sound, made famous by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. To check out the Sound’s Blackstone Bay, board the Emerald Sea ($89 for adults). Lime green spruce pollen speckles the gently rolling sea, and snow-capped mountains reach for the sky. Bald eagles perch in massive nests, high in the treetops. Tidewater glaciers calve huge chunks of crystalline blue ice into the Bay, and harbor seals laze on ice floes. There is no obvious evidence of the oil spill, but much damage was done, and many species will never recover.

Seward, on the southwest tip of the peninsula, is the gateway to the Kenai Fjords National Park. The 35-mile long Harding icefield takes up much of the park’s inland portion. The park’s single trail system takes you through excellent black bear-spotting country, right up to the face of Exit glacier. Viewing the fjords by boat offers the Kenai’s best ocean wildlife-viewing experience ($89 to $119 for adults). Marine mammals and colorful seabirds flourish during summer months: sea otters, killer whales, stellar sea lions, grey whales, puffins, murres, and hundreds of other seabird species are common. For an up-close wilderness experience, kayaking the rocky coastline is an option.

In Homer, “the end of the road,” a five-mile spit protrudes into the ocean, and is popular for camping, halibut fishing and beach-combing. (A cautionary note about the fishing: average halibut size has been steadily decreasing in the last few years, and the population could become seriously depleted if harvesting rates continue.)

Across Kachemak Bay from Homer, the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies (CACS) day-trips ($55) are a naturalist’s paradise. Behind the rocky shoreline, there is primeval coastal Alaskan rainforest; a short walk away, lie the clam-rich tidal lagoons of China Poot Bay. At low tide, all the critters from Biology 101 appear before your eyes: sea cucumbers, sea stars, clams, sea anemones. Blue mussels coat the rocky intertidal zone, octopi hide under reclusive rock shelter, and foot-wide maroon sea stars slowly devour clams in their shells.

A month is barely enough to explore the Kenai. Plan your own agenda, and do take your kids. Bed and breakfasts offer the best way to enjoy Alaskan hospitality, but campsites and hotels are also abundant. If you have the time, drive the Alaska highway to get there—it’s rugged and slow but intensely beautiful. Don’t worry if you can’t fit everything into one trip—you’ll be back for more.

WENDEE HOLTCAMP is a freelance writer and mother of two based in Texas.