Cooper Landing, Alaska, and where the Kenai and Russian Rivers meet…
I’m not sure if it is a “hidden gem,” but it is a gem nonetheless. Our friend, Mary DeSpain (Travel Advisor), who lived in Alaska and owns a home in Anchorage (but is now a full-time RVer in the lower 48), recommended Cooper Landing and Russian River to us. Cooper Landing is along the Sterling Highway that runs East to West on the Kenai Peninsula. The Kenai River flows westward from the Kenai Lake in the Kenai Mountains and parallel to Sterling Highway into Cook Inlet. The Russian River flows northward from the Kenai Mountains and into the Kenai River in the Cooper Landing area. Where the two meet, the Kenai-Russian River Confluence, is a summer hotspot for fishing and rafting and—much to our happiness—encountering bears.
Bear sighting. Bear watching. Bear encounters. We (safely) had all three. We occasionally saw bears foraging alongside the roads we travelled. Once, we saw grizzlies running in the distance. And we saw a black bear in his fenced area at a wildlife refuge. We watched a mama bear teach her two cubs how to clam along a beach. But we were lucky enough to encounter a bear in the “wild”—something that we were kind of hoping for, but from a safe distance.
Our first time through Cooper Landing was in mid-July. We left Williwaw Campground in the Portage Valley area (near Whittier) and were heading to the western side of the peninsula to a boondocking spot in Ninilchik (thanks to Boondockers Welcome) for several days. We needed to find a spot for one night along the way, and we decided to try to get into the Russian River Campground. During July and August, when salmon are running, the Russian River Campground is mostly fully reserved. Since we didn’t have a reservation, we thought we would try to get a FCFS (first come, first served) site for the night. They had a spot for us, and we enjoyed spending the night in this beautiful, spacious campground. We rode our bikes around and took a walk along one section of a boardwalk along the Russian River (which runs along the backside of the campground). The section of the Russian River we observed seemed relatively shallow, and the water was crystal clear. The board walk has a couple dozen river access points for anglers (fishermen). We saw several people in different areas standing in the river casting their lines, and we met and chatted with a few who had fished and were leaving. They shared their stories of woe or success and showed pictures of bears trying to snatch their catch off the line!
We decided to walk another section of the boardwalk toward the confluence the next morning before we had to leave. Carl was armed with bear spray, and I was armed with my camera. There were less people on the boardwalk that morning, so our fear and excitement of a possible bear encounter were heightened. Carl noticed some wet prints on the boardwalk, and he believed they were bear pawprints. A short time later, we noticed a black bear ahead of us sauntering toward the confluence. I photographed him, but I mentioned to Carl that it would be cool if he turned around so I could I actually get a photo of his face. When the bear got to the end of the boardwalk, we stopped. We needed him to move out of the area before we could proceed. He sniffed around for a little bit then turned back down the boardwalk, coming in our direction slowly. I was able to take a couple of pictures of him before we loudly suggested to him that he move on into the woods, which he kindly did! We were able to finish our trek to the confluence area to watch dozens of anglers casting, catching, and releasing fish. We did not stay long enough to see if a bear tried to steal any of their fish, but we hope to do that someday.
A week later, we decided to try to get back into the Russian River Campground for a couple of nights. The salmon were running harder by this point, and we were hoping to get caught up in the excitement of watching people fish (I mean … there are people who find this exciting!). We spent one night in overflow parking, and we were able to get a spot the second night. No bear encounters or sightings this time. We explored Cooper Landing a little more, hiked to the Russian River Falls, and took a scenic raft ride on the Kenai River. Rafting down the Kenai was fantastic! The water is a beautiful turquoise color, and in many areas it moves swiftly. Our trip started in Cooper Landing and lasted about 2-3 hours going past the Russian River Campground to the Russian River Ferry area near the confluence. We saw five or six eagles along the way, but no other wildlife. There is a day-long rafting trip that ends in Skilak Lake, which is remote and not easy to access. Next time, we’d like to do that!
Enjoy a brief pictorial video of our experience at the Kenai-Russian River Confluence (above or at https://youtu.be/x9QMYPxGMPE?si=_IFCGzI1Y6rRn4lD)
There are other campgrounds in and around Cooper Landing as well as cabins and lodges. We highly recommend spending some time in this area. Our future trip there will hopefully include a longer stay (1-2 weeks) at the Russian River Campground, a day-long raft ride on the Kenai, kayaking on a nearby lake, maybe a ferry ride across the confluence to explore that side of the river, and possibly some bear sightings or encounters!
Remember! Do not approach or feed wild animals! Keep a safe distance. Keep bear spray on hand and know how to use it. If you are worried about wildlife encounters, take us with you! We learned that we must be wildlife repellant because, even though we have a couple of good stories about seeing wild animals in Alaska, for the most part we saw just wildlife signs…