Enjoy scenic Kenai River Gorge hike in the winter
This Thanksgiving, if you are traveling around the Kenai Peninsula, consider enjoying this three- to five-mile-long, 250-foot elevation gain, scenic and easy hike. This trail meanders through the woods and meadows along the beautiful Kenai River, with its famous milky aquamarine water and rapids, where it carves the fascinating Kenai River Gorge. Early winter snows may grace tree limbs, while later in the winter, natural ice and snow sculptures cover much of the stream channel.
Drive 0.7 miles southwest from the eastern intersection of the Sterling Highway and Skilak Lake Road, near Jim's Landing. Turn into the gravel parking area located at the northern trailhead, where you'll find ample parking and bathroom facilities. There is a second trailhead 1.7 miles south along Skilak Lake Road, at Mile 2.4, providing a half-mile spur to Kenai River Trail, the first trailhead is easier to access.
The starting elevation of this trail is about 300 feet above the Kenai River. From here, you hike southwest more or less parallel to the Kenai River as it flows toward Skilak Lake. The trail gradually descends to the pebble and cobble streambed. The first 0.4 miles takes you along a short dirt road to the beginning of the trail and a bluff-top overlook of the Kenai River Canyon.
Here, the river has carved a gorge into poorly consolidated tertiary sedimentary rocks and their cap of glacial sediments. This overlook is a great place to see the canyon and the aquamarine water and rapids. From the overlook, you head up and away from the river channel across rolling forested hills, partly charred by the 1991, 8,700-acre Pothole Fire and a smaller 45-acre 2004 fire.
In the unburned sections, you are hiking primarily through spruce, cottonwood, birch and aspen trees. The burned sections afford broader views across the river valley and slopes. Acres of summer-visible wildflowers grow in the grass and brushlands that are regaining a foothold around the silvered snags and stumps left by the fires. About a mile into the hike, the trail splits into a 2.5-mile-long upper and lower loop section, which was partially rerouted in 2014 to avoid swampy areas. Take the left path to head back toward the river, where you can enjoy views of rapids. The right-hand path takes you away from the river to open meadows.
These two segments of the loop trail join back up about a half-mile downriver. The half-mile-long access trail from the second trailhead joins the upper loop. You might want to hike along the river on the way out and take the middle section on the way back. If you continue eastward, you leave loop trail behind, and continue for another mile or so downriver toward Skilak Lake. Exiting the Kenai River Canyon, the trail drops again down to the water.
There is no distinct end to this hike, which slowly peters out into fishing paths along the river. There are many good resting and lunch stops along the entire hike, so take your pick. Keep your eyes open for the plentiful moose, as well as eagles and a variety of birds. With two vehicles, you can park one at each trailhead and finish at the second one.
Natural history notes
The Kenai River and Kenai Lake are famous for their distinct blue-green color, which results from the interaction of superfine particles, called rock-flour, with sunlight. This rock-flour is glacial in origin, formed by rocks grinding together as the glaciers move.
Rock flour is the smallest known sedimentary particle. In fact, it's so small, it remains suspended—and interacts with sunlight — even in still water. There is a continuous supply of rock flour from the melting and retreating glaciers that feed the Kenai River system. The fires that burned through this area in 1991 and 2004 opened up some spectacular vistas along this trail and other nearby trails, which were previously unavailable.
The fires also reset the sequence of local ecological succession. So as you hike along this trail, particularly the loop portion that heads away from the river, you are gifted with a wide variety of colonizing grasses and summertime flowers such as fireweed, lupine, wild geranium, rose and other early succession pioneers.
Without the fire, much of this same ground would now be host to tall trees, rather than these youngster plants. The forested sections of the Kenai Gorge are especially beautiful when covered with snow. The Kenai River itself takes on an entirely different, artistic character when it is rimmed and partially covered with ice.