Wildlife viewing and canoeing are key attractions in this diverse refuge, comprised of pristine alpine tundra, wetlands and boreal forest
Kenai National Wildlife Refuge is a long, broad swath of the western Kenai Peninsula, stretching across 2 million acres and encompassing the western slopes of the Kenai Mountains, forested lowlands along Cook Inlet, rivers, wetlands and chains of lakes.
Bounded to the east by Chugach National Forest, to the southeast by Kenai Fjords National Park and to the south by Kachemak Bay State Park, the refuge was originally called the Kenai National Moose Range when President Franklin Roosevelt established the preserved in 1941 as a way to protect the moose from market hunting. In 1980, the moose range was renamed and expanded and today the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge is the most accessible refuge in Alaska and the most visited, drawing more than half a million visitors each year.
The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge is comprised of a variety of ecosystems to support the diverse wildlife in the area: ice fields and glaciers, mountain tundra, lakes and wetlands, and rivers all play a critical role. Due to the vast and diverse bionetworks that comprise the refuge, the 1.92 million acre wildlife preserve is often referred to as “Alaska in miniature.”
The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge features a range of habitats; from treeless alpine and subalpine zones, home to mountain goats, Dall sheep, caribou and wolverine, to boreal forests in lower elevations where moose, wolves, black and brown bears and lynx reside. Breaking up the forest are numerous lakes and rivers, including the Kenai River whose king salmon fishery is world-renowned and reputed to support the largest genetic strain of the species anywhere. The world's record for a sport-caught king, weighting 97.2 pounds, was pulled from the Kenai in 1985.
Outdoor adventures abound in the refuge year-round, including world-class fishing, hunting, hiking, cross-country skiing, canoeing, and camping. Visitors can fish or float on the waters of the Kenai River, experience canoeing in lowland lakes, or hike trails high into the refuge’s alpine tundra.
The largest lake in the refuge is Tustumena Lake at nearly 74,000 acres, but among canoers, the most popular ones are found in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Canoe Trail System. The 120 miles of lakes and water trails is one of only two wilderness canoe systems established in the country. The Kenai system is divided into two areas. The more popular Swan Lake route covers 60 miles and 30 lakes and connects to the Moose River. The Swanson River route covers 80 miles and includes 40 lakes and 46 miles of the Swanson River that ends in Cook Inlet.
The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center on Ski Hill Road near Soldotna is an excellent, family-friendly center with exhibits on the lifecycles of salmon, wildlife films in its theater and naturalist-led outdoor programs on the weekends. Two short loop trails begin at the center and wind into the nearby woods or to a viewing platform on Headquarters Lake.
The refuge has 13 developed campgrounds along Skilak Lake Loop Road and Swanson River Road located on various lakes near hiking trails and fishing areas. There are also 14 rustic, public-use cabins with most of them reached by boat or float plane and available on a reservation system. Some cabins, however, are accessible from the road and a short walk. There are more than 200 miles of trails in the refuge that vary widely in length and difficulty and range from paths along creeks and through forests to alpine routes high above the treeline. Most of the trails are day hikes, but camping is permitted along all trails, and located along Skilak Lake Loop Road in what is referred to as the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area.
There are no entrance fees at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge but there are nightly fees for the campgrounds and public-use cabins. Reservations for the cabins are made through the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center.
The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge is bisected by the Sterling Highway, which enters the refuge westbound at Mile 55. Secondary access roads are Skilak Lake Loop Road, Swanson River and Swan Lake roads and Funny River Road. The northern refuge boundary is 20 air miles from Anchorage. The refuge is also accessible along river trails and by floatplane to many lakes.
For more information or to reserve a public-use cabin contact the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center (907-262-7021, 877-285-5628; kenai.fws.gov) in Soldotna.