8 Reasons to Visit Kenai Mountains-Turnagain Arm National Heritage Area
by Robert Manning
When President Ronald Reagan dedicated America’s first National Heritage Area in 1984, he announced that this and other NHAs to come would be “a new kind of national park.” The purpose: to preserve areas of the United States that reflect distinctive regions’ sense of place, including natural and cultural history, and offer outstanding visitor attractions, recreation, and educational opportunities.
Kenai Mountains-Turnagain Arm National Heritage Area (Kenai Mountains) is the only national heritage area in Alaska, established in 2009, and is located on the Kenai Peninsula. Extending 150 miles, the peninsula is bordered on the west by Cook Inlet and on the east by Prince William Sound.
While national parks are generally large areas of public lands managed by the National Park Service (NPS), NHAs are a mix of public and private lands, run by partnerships that usually include local citizens, nonprofit organizations, private enterprise, and government agencies. These groups join together to help define, celebrate, conserve, and share the NHA’s natural, historic, cultural, scenic, and recreational resources. As with national parks, only Congress can establish NHAs. The NPS provides funding and technical assistance to NHAs. Many are big, sometimes much larger than national parks, and can even include national parks within their boundaries.
The Kenai Mountains-Turnagain Arm NHA’s name derives from its history. Indigenous people called the rugged, glaciated peninsula Yaghanen, meaning “the good land.” Before Russian fur traders settled where Kenai is today in 1786, Dena’ina Athabaskans lived there in a village called Shk’ituk’t, meaning “where we slide down.” They also used ken or kena, meaning “open area with few trees.” The traders called them Kenaitze—“people of the flats.” The tribe incorporated as the Kenaitze Indian Tribe in 1971 and today identify as Kahtnuht’ana Dena’ina. Turnagain Arm is the name of the water body that flows into northern Cook Inlet from the east near Anchorage. In 1778, William Bligh, sailing master of the HMS Bounty (captained by James Cook) was searching for a northwest passage; the ship entered Cook Inlet, and Bligh was ordered to send a party up what is now Knik Arm, but they discovered it was river-like rather than a passage and turned around to go back to the ship. The party then explored the other large waterbody that extended off Cook Inlet, only to find that it, too, was not a passage and had to “turn around again” to return to the ship—thus the name.
Kenai Mountains is an unusual NHA in that it’s mostly public land; nearly 90 percent of the NHA is in Chugach National Forest. But this is logical considering that the majority of all land in Alaska is publicly owned. The NHA is managed by the nonprofit group Kenai Mountains-Turnagain Arm Corridor Communities Association and works with many partner organizations, including the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service. The primary theme of the NHA is the history of transportation on the eastern Kenai Peninsula. This rich narrative covers land and water routes Indigenous people traveled, routes prospectors and miners used when looking for gold and other minerals, dramatic and scenic roads and railroads that now serve the area, and an extensive system of trails that offer opportunities to appreciate the area on foot, bicycle, and horse. Topping it off are beautiful and distinctive mountains, lakes, rivers, glaciers, fjords, and frontier communities.
1. Kenai Fjords
Large fjords with narrow inlets and steep sides or cliffs created by glaciers are this park’s signature features. The park also contains the largest ice field in the nation (Harding Icefield at 700 square miles), nearly 40 glaciers (several of which flow directly into the sea), 545 miles of wild coastline, towering peaks that rise right out of the ocean, and a collection of iconic terrestrial and aquatic wildlife that only Alaska can offer. A short hike to Exit Glacier just outside Seward or the more challenging route to the massive Harding Ice Field make excellent day trips.
2. Iditarod National
The famous Iditarod Trail is the only winter one in the U.S. National Trails System. Besides its main route between Seward and Nome, an additional 1,400 miles of side/connecting trails link communities and historic sites or provide parallel/alternative routes. Consider walking or biking the first (paved) mile of the trail as it departs from the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward.
3. Seward All-American
Recognized for its scenic, natural, historical, and recreational values, the 127-mile Seward Highway holds the distinction of being an All-American Road. It skirts the base of the Chugach Mountains and the shores of Turnagain Arm where you might see beluga whales, Dall sheep, eagles, and waterfalls. The arm experiences tides of up to 40 feet, the largest in the United States. The flood tide often begins with a tidal bore, which can crest six feet and travel at five to six miles an hour. The remainder of the drive courses through the mountains, offering dramatic views of wild Alaska.
4. Alaska Railroad
The historic Alaska Railroad connects many visitor attractions and communities over hundreds of miles of track. The Coastal Classic winds its way south from Anchorage along Turnagain Arm before entering the mountains, eventually reaching Seward. This 114-mile trip takes four and a half hours.
Glacier-clad mountains tower behind Seward, a small town with a population of nearly 3,000 on the shores of Resurrection Bay. About 120 miles south of Anchorage, the hamlet was a former Russian colony. It’s the southern terminus of the Alaska Railroad, the historic starting point of the Iditarod National Historic Trail, a stop on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system, and home to the Kenai Fjords National Park visitor center. Cruise ships doc frequently all summer. A highlight is to take a day-cruise on Resurrection Bay and into one of the fjords.
The vast public lands of Kenai Mountains encompass numerous trails that are in keeping with the historic transportation theme of the area. Choices for day hikes and backpacking trips abound. Lost Lake Trail is a 15-mile traverse that features alpine lakes and can be done as a long day hike or an overnighter. Russian Lakes Trail is 21 miles, but offers a shorter option of only 2.4 miles to Russian River Falls; three Forest Service cabins are available by reservation. Gull Rock Trail runs 5.7 miles and is nicely representative of the Turnagain Arm area; there are numerous overlooks of the waterway, but don’t be tempted to walk on the mudflats that appear at low tide, as they can trap hikers. Byron Glacier Trail is just 1.4 miles of varied terrain; the glacier is easily visible at the end of the trail but climbing on or around the ever-moving ice can be dangerous. Palmer Creek near Hope is 1.5 miles to small lakes and weaves through remnants of gold mining equipment. These are just a few of the Kenai Mountains’ scenic trails.
7. Trail Towns
The NHA has worked hard to showcase the historic towns that dot the landscape and that are connected to the area’s trails. Trail towns support enthusiasts with services, promote the trails to residents and visitors, and celebrate trails as a resource to be protected. Examples include Seward, Moose Pass, Cooper Landing, Hope, Sunrise, Whittier/Portage, Girdwood, and Indian/Bird Creek.
8. Prince William Sound, Whittier, & Valdez
Prince William Sound offers outstanding sportfishing, recreation possibilities, and marine mammal watching. Whittier and Valdez, the sound’s only road-accessible coastal communities, offer visitor services and myriad tour companies, as does Cordova, accessible by plane or state ferry. The Native villages of Tatitlek and Chenega round out the sound’s settlements. Famous events in Prince William Sound include the magnitude 9.2 earthquake and associated tsunami in 1964—the most powerful ever registered in North America—and the grounding of the fully loaded Exxon Valdez oil tanker on Bligh Reef in 1989 after it left the southern terminus of the trans-Alaska pipeline in Valdez. Each incident left lasting scars—both physical and emotional—but each spurred change and innovation. A visit to these towns or anywhere in the sound can be educational, thrilling, or relaxing, depending on the focus.
For more information about Kenai Mountains-Turnagain Arm NHA and to help plan your visit, see, kmtacorridor.org, and nps.gov/places/kenai-mountains-turnagain-arm-national-heritage-area.htm.
Robert Manning is a professor emeritus at the University of Vermont, where he taught the history, philosophy, and management of national parks and conducted a program of research for the National Park Service. His recent book is America’s National Heritage Areas: A Guide to the Nation’s New Kind of National Park.