Kenai River Special Management Area Alaska
Photo Credit: ATIA, Michael DeYoung

Kenai River

Kenai River

Part of the state park system, the Kenai River Special Management Area is home to some of the greatest sportfishing on earth.

The Kenai River, often referred to as the world's greatest sportfishing river, is also one of the most heavily used freshwater fisheries in Alaska. The Kenai River Special Management Area includes more than 105 linear miles of rivers and lakes, home to some of the best river fishing in Alaska.


This area offers plenty of opportunities for Kenai River salmon fishing, boating, camping, lake fishing, hiking, and brown bear viewing. Several tour operators provide guided excursions to help visitors fully enjoy the river and its scenic surroundings, including fishing charters and whitewater rafting trips. Public river access and campgrounds are readily available along the river and in the communities of Cooper LandingSterlingSoldotna, and Kenai.

The Kenai River is world-renowned for its rich fishing. Four of the five types of Pacific salmon as well as rainbow trout, Dolly Varden, and lake trout thrive in its turquoise waters. The species that draws the most interest is the king salmon. Biologists believe that genetics, and the fact that Kenai River king salmon often spend an extra year at sea, make them the largest salmon in Alaska. Generally, a trophy salmon in Alaska weighs about 50 pounds. On the Kenai River, king salmon can weigh in at over 75 pounds.

Fish Runs on the Kenai River:

King Salmon (Chinook): Mid-May through July
Sockeye Salmon (Red): Late-May through early June and mid-July through August
Coho Salmon (Silver): Late July through September
Pink Salmon (Humpy): Late July through mid-August, even numbered years
Rainbow Trout: Mid-June through October
Dolly Varden: Year-round
Lake Trout: Year-round

The Kenai River’s legendary salmon runs also attract a large population of grizzly bears, making Kenai River brown bear viewing a top activity in the area. The best spots to see bears are at slower-moving pools along the river and streams, and the shoreline of Kenai and Skilak Lakes, typically during the morning and evening.


The diverse ecosystem of the Kenai River and the variety of habitats it flows through draws large concentrations of wildlife to the area including bald eagles and many species of migratory waterfowl. Moose, caribou, wolves, black and brown bears, and other wildlife also use the river system's resources.


Four habitat types are important for the area’s resident and migratory fish and wildlife: stream bank ecosystems, contiguous wetlands, the 100-year floodplain, and tidal marshes. Each of these offers distinct protections for fish and wildlife.


The popularity of the Kenai River, one of the most heavily used fresh-water fisheries in Alaska, puts a strain on its resources. In response to increasing threats to the river system's health, the legislature established the Kenai River Special Management Area in 1984, which carved the way for a comprehensive management plan to be implemented to protect the Kenai River and its natural resources. The KRSMA management area includes Kenai Lake, Skilak Lake, and the Kenai River from River Mile 82 downstream to four miles above the river's mouth at Cook Inlet.

The largest king salmon ever caught occurred in May 1985 when Les Anderson, fishing off a boat on the Kenai River, hooked a fish and then battled it for more than an hour. He eventually discovered his net was too small to land the fish, so Anderson and his fishing partner ended up beaching the boat and wrestling the fish to shore. Later that day, they discovered the fish weighed in at 97.4 pounds, easily topping the previous world record of 93 pounds.


There are numerous communities adjacent to the Kenai River where visitors will find ample services, including plenty of private and public campgrounds, accommodations, and fishing businesses that cater to fishermen and women. Popular basecamps for fishing on the Kenai River are Cooper LandingSterlingSoldotna, and Kenai.


The Kenai River is accessed primarily from the Sterling Highway on the Kenai Peninsula, with a small portion accessible from the Seward Highway. 

Learn more about fishing in Alaska

For more information, visit the Kenai River Special Management Area website.

Southcentral Climate Alaska Hero

Local Climate & Weather

For Alaska's day-to-day weather, it’s best to plan for a bit of everything. Learn more about weather in this area.

Travel Inspiration