You’d think a 24 mile long, azure glacial lake located an hour and a half from Anchorage would be overwhelmed with visitors. Yet most people drive right past Kenai Lake on the way to either Seward or Cooper Landing. Kenai Lake offers some of the most stunning car camp sites in Alaska, but it’s also a portal into rarely-visited aquatic backcountry.
Nearly half the length of Kenai Lake is true backcountry, from the south end of Snug Harbor Road and the Trail River Campground. An additional seven miles, from Quartz Creek Campground south to Porcupine Campground, feel remote since the unpaved Snug Harbor Road is hidden in the trees on the lake’s southwest shoreline. When paddling on this section of the lake, you have to crane your neck to see the mountaintops on the lake’s south shore, which rise precipitously from shoreline. Low cliffs line much of the shoreline, with tiny intermittent beaches. When the wind howls through this canyon, the lake feels very wild indeed, and anyone venturing out here should be ready to navigate miles of whitecaps and strong wind in the event weather deteriorates. While there are established campsites at Porcupine Island and Ship Creek, much of the shoreline is not convenient for landing or hanging out in the event of bad weather.
Typically, the wind blows from southeast to northwest, following the flow of water from lake sources to its outlet. This typical wind is a sea breeze that comes in from Resurrection Bay, then follows the fjord. Such a sea breeze would make a nice tail wind for paddling toward Cooper Landing from Trail River or Primrose campgrounds. There’s also a small boat launch behind the ranger station, located near Trail River’s confluence with the lake. It is approximately 18 miles from Trail River campground or the ranger station to the Quartz Creek boat launch, a very reasonable sea kayak day trip under good conditions. Make sure to check the weather forecast to ensure a tailwind. If the wind forecast is for greater than 15 mph, I’d suggest waiting for better weather. If you are paddling with any chance of significant wind, a drysuit provides a significant margin of safety, and anyone kayaking should have a paddle float, bailer/bilge pump, and familiarity with self rescue.
In addition to day trips, Kenai Lake is a great place for leisurely overnights. The Meadow Creek campsite is just an hour paddle from the Trail River campground, and has imposing views of the glaciated peaks above Moose Pass. Porcupine campground, which is seven miles or roughly two hours from Quartz Creek, is also a lovely campsite and has great views of Mount Adair and other peaks in the mountains that stretch from Cooper Lake to Primrose.
Whether you’re paddling the length of the lake in a day or heading out for a leisurely camping trip on a waterfront camp site, Kenai Lake is a great way to traverse the roadless backcountry between Cooper Landing and Seward. Despite it’s allure as a destination and the popularity of the Kenai Peninsula, you’ll mostly have the lake to yourself.