One of the most common questions asked by out-of-staters is, “What do Alaskans do all winter long?” For someone unfamiliar with winters in Alaska, it may be difficult to imagine what life on the last frontier is like once its lush terrain is transformed into a snowy landscape.
Cold winter days are commonplace in Alaska for about six months out of the year, between late fall and early spring. And while some parts of Alaska are more difficult or downright impossible to navigate once snow and ice develop in the winter, the Kenai Peninsula remains a dynamic destination for locals and travelers alike.
Whether you’re interested in moving to Alaska or you’re in the process of contemplating your next vacation destination, you’ll find plenty of reasons to love it here all year long. From cross-country skiing to being curled up in front of the fireplace with a good book, the Kenai Peninsula’s idyllic landscapes provide the perfect backdrop for any ideal winter day.
Winter In Kenai
Winter in Alaska is undoubtedly unique. However, for cities like Kenai, winter is simply a part of daily life. With wilderness areas in close proximity and ample opportunities for outdoor activities, Kenai residents are able to enjoy life to the fullest no matter what the season. As the saying goes, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing”. Alaskans suit up and enjoy the beauty of the winter landscape.
Kenai-Area Winter Family Activities
Christmas Comes to Kenai
This annual tradition is known around Kenai as the event to kick off the holiday season. The Christmas Comes to Kenai festival starts the day after Thanksgiving and features a parade, local art fair, bonfire, and plenty of sweet holiday treats and goodies. Kids will be able to meet Santa and his elves, and the evening is rounded out with a spectacular fireworks finale.
Frozen River Fest
This outdoor winter event is a must-attend for beer, food, and music lovers in and around Soldotna. Frozen River Fest takes place in Soldotna Creek Park each February and features local food vendors, live music, and beer from breweries throughout Alaska.
Daubenspeck Family Park
There’s no shortage of parks in and around Kenai, however, with over 200 acres of developed trails in addition to winter ice skating, Daubenspeck Park is a perfect location for any spontaneous family outing. Visitors enjoy a wide range of activities here, including cross-country skiing and, of course, ice skating.
Homer Winter Carnival
Located about 90 minutes south of Kenai, Homer’s downtown Winter Carnival is a perfect winter destination for kids of all ages. The carnival takes place on the second weekend in February, and features a variety of uniquely decorated floats alongside plenty of other festivities guaranteed to erase any of your winter blues.
Challenger Learning Center
Kenai’s Challenger Learning Center offers learning experiences via simulated space and earth science workshops year-round, both online and in person. The center also leads a range of free community events and provides cold water survival training for both kids and adults.
Winter Wildlife Viewing Around Kenai
The Kenai Peninsula provides an ideal setting for bird-watching year-round. The wilderness surrounding Kenai offers refuge to hundreds of species of birds, and bird-watching enthusiasts come to the area from all parts of the country to observe the migration of shorebirds and geese. Although birds are warm-blooded and many leave Alaska in search of warmer weather during the winter, you’ll find plenty of birds around Kenai during the winter, including bohemian waxwing and large prey birds such as owls and bald eagles.
During the colder months, Moose will head to lower elevations to find food sources. Moose are common throughout Alaska, and while they gravitate toward wetlands or marshes in search of greenery in the summer/fall, they can often be seen strolling through town in the winter and should always be viewed from a distance.
While many marine mammals, including many species of whale, are only active in Alaska’s arctic waters parts of the year, killer whales, harbor seals, sea otters, and sea lions live and hunt in bays and inlets along the Kenai Peninsula year-round.
The Kenai Peninsula includes vast expanses of wilderness that are home to a wide variety of animals. While many are less active during the winter months, there’s still plenty of opportunity to see mammals of all shapes and sizes, from the common hare to the occasional lynx. The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge provides easy and convenient access to nature trails around Kenai.
Kenai Outdoor Winter Activities
Alaskans are known for enjoying the great outdoors to the fullest, no matter the season. There will be no shortage of wide open spaces when you visit Alaska, so you’ll want to ensure you block off plenty of time on your calendar for activities. In addition to taking in Alaska’s winter beauty via a hike or wildlife-watching tour, the locals here enjoy skiing, snowboarding, snowmachining, ice fishing, dog sledding, fat tire biking, snowshoe hiking, and so much more.
Cross-Country Skiing at the Kenai Municipal Golf Course
You won’t have to go cross-country to enjoy skiing in Kenai. Kenai’s Nordic Trail System includes several miles of trails suitable for beginners and experienced skiers, including a back-country snowshoeing loop.
Visit the Kenai Peninsula Lakes
The lakes nestled deep within the Kenai Peninsula are a popular summer destination for tourists and locals alike, providing ample opportunities for fishing, boating, wildlife viewing, and more. However, during the winter months, these lakes continue to draw in nature lovers from Kenai and other surrounding areas.
Located fewer than 30 minutes south of Kenai, Headquarters Lake may be small but couldn’t set a more peaceful stage for a variety of winter activities near Kenai. Here, visitors can see rare birds and waterfowl from the observation deck, go trail hiking, and ski the Refuge Ski Trails.
Cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling are all popular activities at this lake located about 90 minutes east of Kenai. There are a variety of trails in this area, including the 13-mile Upper Russian trail, which follows the south end of Cooper Lake and ends at Upper Russian Lakes Cabin. In season, you can hunt for moose, black and brown bears and wolves in the surrounding forest.
Visitors can access Skilak Lake and its vast network of lakes, trails, and cabins via an 18-mile gravel road loop that begins on Sterling Highway about 29 miles east of Kenai. The loop provides spectacular opportunities for fishing or to take a winter walk and experience nature and wildlife all year long.
Kenai Lake begins near Cooper Landing, however, the zig-zag shape of the lake makes it accessible from either Sterling or Seward Highway. Near Cooper Landing, visitors can access a wide range of trails to spot wildlife along Kenai Lake, take scenic photos, and the village of Primrose located off Seward Highway serves as a must-stop location for one-of-a-kind views of the lake, and provides visitors with a variety of other opportunities for fun and adventure along Kenai Lake in winter.
This lake nestled between Sterling Highway and Kenai Lake can be impossible to access in the winter without the proper equipment, but if remote and secluded is what you’re after, Crescent Saddle and Crescent Lake Cabins both make for spectacular destinations for those with experience in the backcountry.
Stay in a Cabin
Put the Manitoba yurts and cabins on top of your winter to-do list if you’re after an off-the-grid experience with plenty of amenities to make your stay comfortable. Get cozy in a rental and enjoy skiing, hiking, and plenty of access to nature to satisfy your thirst for wilderness.
Crescent Lake Cabin
For a primitive backcountry experience, stay at Crescent Lake Cabins, where you’ll have plenty of access to hiking, snowshoeing, skiing, hunting, and wildlife viewing. Crescent Lake Cabin is extremely remote and visitors are responsible for making their own travel arrangements and providing all amenities. The cabin only includes heating.
Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Cabins
If remote and rustic is what you are looking for, but you want your cabin to include some basic amenities, check out the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge cabins this winter. You may need a boat, plane, or snowmachine to get there, but a weekend stay in these trapper-style cabins is well worth the hike. In addition to plenty of winter sports such as snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, the refuge provides ample opportunities for catching glimpses of bears, caribou, wolves, eagles, and waterfowl.
Upper Russian Lake Cabin
Located at the northern tip of Upper Russian Lake, these secluded 12×14 cabins provide absolutely stunning views of the lake and its surrounding landscapes. Upper Russian Cabin can only be accessed by hiking in via the Russian Lakes Trail from the East Trailhead or by floatplane, and amenities are limited to a wood stove, counter space, table, splitting maul, handsaw, and outhouse.
ARC Lake Park
If you’re in search of something a little less remote, ARC Lake Park in Soldotna has plenty to offer without the need for an extensive trek. The park includes a maintained skating rink and plenty of opportunities for ice-fishing and cross-country skiing. The park’s trails connect to adjacent systems in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and Tsalteshi Trail system.
Skiing, Snowshoeing & Fishing
Kenai National Wildlife Refuge
Located approximately 10 miles from Kenai, the Wildlife Refuge is a special place for outdoor enthusiasts who enjoy fishing, hiking, skiing, snowshoeing, and more The refuge features more than 100 miles of trails, varying widely in length and difficulty, including a 10-mile circuit of well-maintained trails that are ideal for beginner hiking, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing.
Hit the Tsalteshi Trails for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, running, walking, and even biking this winter. Located just 15 minutes south of Kenai, this well-maintained set of trails includes trails designated for skiing as well as bicycling. The multi-use trails are open year-round and can easily be accessed from Sterling Highway or via Owl Trail.
Ravens Way Loop
You’ll see plenty of ravens here, in addition to a variety of other birds and small wildlife. Ravens Way Loop gently meanders through muskeg terrain and is an ideal choice for beginner skiers looking to get their feet wet and practice their technique.
Mile 12 Divide Ski Area
Whether you’re an experienced angler or you simply enjoy getting out of the house to spend time with friends, ice fishing is readily available and easily accessible around Kenai. Ice fishing is a versatile activity that’ll scratch that outdoor itch as much as it simply provides a sociable and relaxing atmosphere. Popular ice fishing locations around Kenai include Swan Lake, Johnson Lake, and Scout Lake.