The Refuge is a 1.92-million-acre (7,770 km2) wildlife habitat preserve. As a wildlife refuge, visitor services are minimal and the vast majority of the refuge is roadless. It is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A guide to the refuge is available online as a PDF here.
This refuge was created in 1941 as the Kenai National Moose Range, but in 1980 it was changed to its present status by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. The refuge is administered from its headquarters in Soldotna.
Landscapes inside the refuge range from coastal rainforest, lowland taiga forests, muskeg and other wetland environments, mountainous alpine areas, and ice fields. There are a great many lakes of various sizes within the refuge, as well as the Kenai River, which runs through Skilak Lake, one of the most popular destinations in the refuge.
Flora and fauna
The refuge protects several large mammals, including wolves, brown bears, black bears, dall sheep, moose, Canadian lynx, and caribou, as well as thousands of migratory and native birds, including bald eagles in large numbers. Forest are mostly white spruce, black spruce, and Sitka spruce, with significant stands of birch as well. The lakes host water lilies and numerous other aquatic plants. Fish are abundant, including king and silver salmon, rainbow and dolly varden trout, and other freshwater or anadromous species. One danger to these fish is the invasive northern pike. Anglers catching pike are asked to land and keep the fish and immediately contact the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
The area generally has a mild coastal climate. Rain is common. As with any area of wild Alaska, travelers should come prepared for changing conditions, in particular on larger lakes or in the mountains. It can snow at any time of year in the Kenai Mountains, and fierce winds sometimes make travel by boat difficult or impossible. Several major wildfires have burned significant areas of the Refuge, when planning a visit be sure to check if fire will be affecting the area you plan to visit.
All road access is via the Sterling Highway, one of the two major roads on the Peninsula, with some areas accessible from the Kenai Spur Highway. The Refuge is bordered on its north side by the Chugach National Forest, and on its east side by Kenai Fjords National Park, creating a very large wilderness area. The nearest airport with scheduled flights is in Kenai and cars can be rented there, but most visitors arrive via Anchorage and come south. Chartered floatplanes can land directly on Kenai Lake at Cooper Landing, but there is no formal airport or rental car facility there. The main road inside the park is Skilak Lake Road, which is entirely unpaved and can get extremely rough after heavy rain or in the early summer "breakup" season. If you do rent a car they may expressly forbid driving on this road.
Fees and permits
Access to the Refuge is free, but some services, such as boat launches, ferries, and overnight rental cabins have a fee. Cabins must be reserved and paid for in advance via the refuge's website. There are a number of minimally developed campgrounds that are first-come-first-serve and have no fees, as well as two developed campgrounds with flat, paved spaces: a very large one at Hidden Lake and a smaller one at upper Skilak Lake. Fees are usually around $10 for camping and $30-$45 for cabins. ☏for information about fees.
Fishing and hunting of any kind require appropriate licenses which can be obtained from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Hunting is sharply restricted within certain areas of the refuge, check with refuge managers before engaging in any hunting.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game☏
There are no bus tours or other organized land-based tours in the Refuge. There are a number of float trip operations, mostly based out of Cooper Landing, that float the Kenai River in canoes or rafts to Skilak Lake or beyond. There are also outfitters and guides in the Kasilof area that can assist with access to Tustumena Lake and the Kasilof River area. The Swan Lake and Swanson River canoe trails provides a non-motorized access to a large portion of backcountry. Both routes have significant portages and power equipment or wheeled vehicles of any kind are prohibited.
The Refuge maintains headquarters and a large visitor's center with a trail system of its own in Soldotna and a seasonal visitor's center at the north end of Skilak Lake Road where it meets the highway. Even the most casual visitor to the Refuge has the opportunity to see wildlife and amazing scenery. Merely driving the highway through this region provides ample opportunities for both. The strong salmon runs in the Kenai and Russian Rivers draw brown bears and sightings are frequent when fish are running. Skilak Lake Road is a great way to see the backcountry from your vehicle and there are numerous trailheads and lakes adjacent to it. If Skilak Lake itself were in any other state in the U.S. it would be a major tourist attraction, it is vast and has spectacular scenery all around. Thousands of species of birds and waterfowl inhabit the refuge, including eagles, owls, grouse, ptarmigan, swans, ducks, magpies, crows and ravens, and the ever-present grey jay, also known as the "camp robber" for their tendency to raid any stray food left unattended in campgrounds.
☏for information on recreational and educational resources and programs in the refuge.
As a wildlife Refuge, activities are all about the outdoors. Thousands of people each year fish for world-class salmon along the banks of the Kenai River. There are over a hundred miles of trails in the refuge, along with two canoe trails and many easily accessible lakes. Kelly, Peterson, and Watson Lakes are just off the highway and have informal campgrounds and boat launches. The Seven Lakes Trail begins on the shores of Kelly Lake and goes deep into the woods, offering a side trip to the back of the majestic Hidden Lake, eventually ending at Engineer Lake on Skilak Lake Road. From the Lower Skilak campground boat launch one can easily access the Kenai River trumpeter swan refuge area, motorized boats are restricted in this area to avoid disturbing the swans.
You'll want to stock up on supplies either in Anchorage or Soldotna. Cooper Landing and Sterling are closer but have minimal services and selection of food and outdoor equipment, although small boats can be rented in both towns.
Salmon and trout can be caught in the rivers and lakes of the refuge. Wild chives can often be found growing on lake edges, and mushrooms and other edible plants can be foraged in the forests. If you want anything else to eat you'll need to bring it with you.
Well water is available at campgrounds, it is recommended it be boiled or otherwise sanitized before consuming.
As a wilderness preserve, there are no hotels or lodges within the Refuge itself. The only option is public-use cabins. These are generally hike or boat-in facilities. They must be reserved and paid for in advance and you are expected to have your permit with you at all times while occupying the cabin. Plan ahead, the cabins can be reserved up to six months in advance, and weekends in summer tend to fill up early. Further information and booking here.
These are wilderness cabins, well built but without running water or electricity. The cabins have bunks (but no bedding), tables and benches for eating and food preparation, wood stove, outdoor picnic table and fire ring, and a wood crib and tools for collecting wood. There may or may not be firewood, be prepared to bring or gather it yourself. Each has an outhouse as well. Some cabins on lakes come with a rowboat, meaning you can hike in and then row back to the parking area to collect your gear if you prefer. Each cabin also has a log book where you can read about other visitor's experiences and add your own. If you do not have a reservation it is asked that you not approach the cabins and respect the privacy of the renters.
There are a number of campgrounds throughout the refuge, most are situated on lakeshores. The large developed ones charge a fee. These are at Hidden Lake and Upper Skilak Lake. They have flat, paved areas for vehicles and trailers, fire pits, picnic tables, pit latrines, dumpsters, and generally have firewood for sale. They do not have RV hookups but there are dump stations. There are also undeveloped campgrounds at many of the lakes that charge no fee. These are unpaved, often have no clearly defined camping spaces, and may or may not have a picnic table for each space. They do also have pit latrines but no dumpsters. Mid-morning is the best time to find a good spot right on the water. Engineer Lake is not recommended for large RVs because of the tight turns on the access road and limited space in the parking area. Whichever option you choose, be sure to practice best bear safety practices, both for your safety and that of the bears, who often have to be killed if they become accustomed to human food or garbage.
Backcountry camping is permitted. Campers must be well off of trails and not within 1⁄4 mi (0.40 km) of a public use cabin or a road. Backcountry campers are strongly advised to practice strict bear safety precautions, including eating and storing food in a different location than where you camp, and using bear-proof containers for storage. It's best to use a tent that has never had food in it, bears have an incredible sense of smell and will investigate anything that smells of food.
Every inch of the refuge is wilderness and the domain of wild animals.
Assume the presence of bears at all times and act accordingly. If you clean a fish, dispose of the carcass in running water if possible. Never leave coolers, food or beverages, even water, out when not in immediate use. Bears also are attracted to the sound of flapping fish. If you are trying to land a fish and a bear approaches, play out the line, give it some slack until the bear leaves the area, or cut your line if it continues to approach. Letting the big one get away is better than being mauled by a bear. Bears are known to frequent the shores of the Kenai and Russian Rivers even when the area is dense with anglers, never assume they aren't around, they are. When in dense woods, talk or sing to alert bears to your presence, bears don't like being surprised. If an encounter is unavoidable, do not run. The bear's predatory instinct will kick in and it will chase you, and it can run faster than you. Confront the bear, raise your arms over your head and yell at it. If you have any metallic objects, bang them together. This confuses the bear and it will probably withdraw. Bears with cubs are extremely dangerous and will attack without warning if they feel their cubs are threatened. Most attacks are defensive rather than predatory. Bluff charges are common, and even if a bear does make contact attacks usually only last a few seconds, but in that brief time they can seriously injure a human.
Moose are equally dangerous, and in fact more people are killed or injured by them than bears, which shouldn't be because it is generally very easy to avoid a moose attack. Unlike bears, moose are not territorial, but they do have a strong sense of their personal space and will defend it. They may seem lumbering and slow, but they can move with incredible speed and decisiveness when threatened. The most dangerous moose are bulls during the fall rut or mothers with calves. Moose calves are cute, but approaching them can lead to your painful death as several hundred pounds of moose stomps on you, so observe them from a distance only. Unlike with a bear, if a moose charges you, run. They will usually give up the chase as soon as it is clear you are running from them. If you are in the woods, zig-zagging between trees will also discourage a charging moose.
On the water
The lakes and rivers of the refuge are beautiful, but can also be dangerous. Be sure you know what the conditions are before attempting a river float or lake trip, be aware that even the smaller lakes can experience dangerous conditions when strong winds blow from the mountains, if planning a longer trip factor in extra time fo possible whatever delays. The middle portion of the Kasilof River (below the Tustumena Lake access boat launch) is considered class II whitewater, and the silty nature of the water makes hazards difficult to spot.
If floating down the Kenai River to Skilak Lake, be prepared to wait at the upper end of the lake, winds tend to go straight into the river mouth and boaters often have to wait for conditions to improve before crossing the lake.
Tustumena Lake is the largest lake on the Kenai Peninsula, with 73,000 acres (30,000 ha) of surface area, it is up to 6 mi (9.7 km) wide and up to 950 ft (290 m) deep and there is nowhere to go if you get into trouble. Attempting to paddle it or use smaller powerboats is not recommended due to the remoteness and danger from high wind and waves. Winds tend to blow down from the glacier in the afternoon and the lake has a well-earned reputation for dangerous conditions.
Ice fields and glaciers should not be approached at all without an experienced guide. Never get on an iceberg.