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Geography endowed this one stretch of coast with several of the world's great natural places. On the east, near Cordova, the Copper River's immense, entirely unspoiled delta is one of the largest contiguous wetlands in the Western Hemisphere, where flocks of rare, graceful waterfowl congregate on shallow ponds surrounded by miles of waving grass. Prince William Sound is a vast protected sea of wooded mountains and mammoth glaciers, a place where you can camp among the otters and eagles on tiny islands out of contact with the rest of civilization. Kenai Fjords National Park takes in bays off the open ocean where the mountains soar a mile straight up from the water. Boaters here spot humpback, gray, and orca whales; otters, seals, and sea lions; and colonies of puffins and other seabirds. The Kenai River harbors the world's biggest salmon, on the western side of the peninsula. On its southern tip, Kachemak Bay is like a miniature Prince William Sound, but with people and tiny towns with lodges, art galleries on pilings, and some of Alaska's best restaurants.

The region is exceptionally accessible, by Alaska standards. The Kenai (Keen-eye) Peninsula, in particular, is easy to get to without the expense and exhausting travel that can make much of the state difficult. Most of what you're looking for lies along a few hundred miles of blacktop, within reach of a rental car and perhaps a tour-boat ticket: glaciers, whales, legendary sportfishing, spectacular hiking trails, interesting little fishing towns, bears, moose, and high mountains.

Anchorage residents go to the peninsula for the weekend to fish, hike, dig clams, paddle kayaks, and so on, and certain places can get crowded. There's a special phrase for what happens when the red salmon are running in July on the Kenai and Russian rivers: combat fishing. At hot times in certain places, anglers stand elbow to elbow on the bank, each casting into his or her own yard-wide slice of river, and still catch plenty of hefty salmon. The peninsula also exerts a powerful magnetic force on RVs. During the summer, the fishing rivers, creeks, and beaches on the west side of the peninsula and the end of Homer Spit can become sheet-metal cities of hundreds of Winnebagos and Airstreams parked side by side.

Yet the decision is yours as to whether you spend time in the company of tourists. If the roadside fishing is hairy, hiking a little farther down the bank usually means you can be by yourself. Being alone is easy. You can paddle among otters in Resurrection Bay; tramp over the heather in Turnagain Pass; and hike, bike, or ski one of the many maintained trails in Chugach National Forest. When you're ready to come back to the comforts of civilization, you'll find that some of the state's best restaurants and most interesting lodgings are here, too.