Today is International Geocaching Day and to celebrate Geocache Alaska held an event at Slikok Creek State Park in Soldotna. From my apartment, I looked at my GPS device, and it told me I was only 65.7 miles away as the crow flies. Except for a slight diversion of about 10 miles, I basically drove straight there and straight back … for a total of 320 miles.
Soldotna is on Kenai Peninsula, just a few miles away from Kenai itself. The route is simple. Take staying on AK-1 the whole way, you take Seward Highway towards Seward, but turn on Sterling Highway … then big bang boom. I vacationed in Alaska in 2006, driving 1300 miles over 7 days in a beat-up camper-truck. What I remember the most about that trip was not only how incredible the landscape was, but how often it kept changing with incredible views at each turn. While that trip didn’t take me to the Kenai, reminded me so much of that same route.
Seward, out of Anchorage, heads east and follows the Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet. Mountains raise out from the edges of the sea to rocky peaks growing higher the further go along the arm. The road winds madly with very little room between the water and the hillside. There is only room for the two lane highway and the railroad along this path. The further up the inlet you go, the more you start to notice the snow. High up in the hills, snow. You pass Alyeska Ski Slopes, green with the summer sun on it for the long days of winter; and after that those peaks are clearly snow covered. At the furthest point in on the Turnagain just past the town of Gridwood, the ground flattens at the stretch of land that connects Kenai to the Mainland. In the center of that is Portage Lake — filled with runoff of glaciers, and a bit of iceberg too (that was my little diversion). This whole stretch, you’ve gone only 40 miles.
Around the corner of Turnagain, you run along the coast once more, just for a couple miles really, until the great wall of green grass blocks you from any further movement back to the west. So now, you head south. The road is not at all straight for the next long leg. It was placed in the easiest possible route through the mountains. Compared to the way I-70 runs through the Rockies, it’s as straight as a Kansas county road, but does wind, sometimes heading east, sometimes north, sometimes sideways. Along the way, the mountains climb thousands of feet in a long slope. They are only half covered with trees, making me think I could just as easy bushwhack through the lower areas then have freewheeling meadows to make the short climb to the top … but I only needed to take a spot at the tall evergreens at the treeline to know my scale is way off and those small pebbles near the summits are boulders that would kill me. Sometimes you would see a mountain lake along the road, and there would be a cabin or two, but otherwise it is you, the highway, and the mountains. You are not even 100 miles away from Anchorage.
When you make the western cut onto Sterling Highway, you start to follow the Kenai River. For you romantics of Alaskan River adventures, this is your Disneyland. The hills aren’t as high, but they are close. The river can be between 50 ft and 300ft across. It sometimes runs like rapids, with rafts busting through bank to bank. At some points, the roads are filled with cars, and you see nothing in the water fishermen in waders. At some points, there are cabins, outfitters, and resorts lining the roads. There isn’t many signs of normal day to day life in this stretch, no Wal-Marts or Microbrews. There is only the chance to let the river run through you. Still, you are not even 120 miles away from Anchorage.
Finally, the hills wash away. There are great flats of bogs and swamps where the mountains end and the glacial remains run to the sea. For the last 30 miles to Soldotna, there are vast flatlads of cedar trees and small lakes dotting the landscape. As hilly as this whole trip is, is as flat as this last stretch is. The road straightens, the space opens, and you are surrounded by trees and trees alone. Soldotna is a nice sized town, finally giving you your Wal-Marts and Microbrews. There are the rivers too, filled with fishermen. There is the seafood restaurants, you are close enough to the coast to now to get the full gambit of inland and ocean fisheries. Kenai is only 10 miles away, with its fishing ports and tourism. Soldotna feels like Anchorage, like any other small town.
Because I hiked, geocached, and took my time, it took hours and hours to get to Soldotna. I drove straight back and made it in just over 2-1/2 hours. 150 miles, there were four clearly distinct topographies, each outstanding in its own way. I have pictures and will try to upload them, but because of rain and fog they weren’t doing it justice. Truth is, pictures haven’t done much justice of anything I see up here. But maybe that’s why I am glad I am not a crow .. I got to see these views at each turn and made it worth every mile.