If you go to Alaska, you want to see some bears. The 49th state is a vast wilderness where brown, black, and polar bears thrive. You shouldn’t have too much trouble spotting at least one, or two. But probably what you’d really like, is to bring home some awesome pictures of several bears, scooping up salmon as the fish attempt to swim upstream.
One of the best places in Alaska to capture such a photo is Russian River Falls. It’s located on the Kenai Peninsula, just off the Sterling Highway, near Cooper Landing. You’ll need to hike 2.3 miles (one way) to reach this idyllic spot for hungry bears, but in the right season, it’s worth it.
That’t the key, though: in the right season. I was visiting the area during the first week of June. This is neither horseshoes or hand grenades. Very close to the right season is not close enough. But, I’ll still tell you about the hike, and what you can expect to find there.
You’ll find the trailhead for the Russian Lakes Trail on the access road to the Russian River Campground. It’s just west of Gwin’s Lodge on the Sterling Highway, Alaska Route 1, and about six miles west of the bridge over the Kenai River. The trailhead is a small parking lot at the side of the access road.
The hike is a 2.3 mile (one way) journey through the woods, but it really is nothing more than a stroll. There is very little elevation gain or loss, which makes it an easy hike for most people.
However, the views along the way are not stunning. Most of the way, you’ll be surrounded by trees, although some brief breaks in the forest reveal a bit of the surroundings.
There is one place where the trail splits along the way.
The Russian River Falls trail does not take the foot bridge. Cross the bridge, and you’ll end up at Barber Cabin, a rustic accommodation that can be reserved through the Chugach National Forest.
With little to see along the way, and few hills to climb, I was able to finish the two-and-a-third-mile hike in about 45 minutes.
When you reach Russian River Falls, there are some viewing platforms that overlook a gentle, tumbling waterfall – it’s just steep enough to give salmon a challenge, causing them to leap into the air as they swim upstream. It’s also just enough to give bears a great place to watch for those airborne fish.
In no time, I realized that I wasn’t going to see thousands of fish flying through the air. Nor was I going to see even one bear on an Alaskan fishing expedition. All I was going to see was a waterfall – and not a very impressive one.
I trained my camera on a place where I figured it was likely, or at least possible, to see a salmon hop out of the water. After just a handful of shots, and an excessive amount of holding my breath, I gave up. I might have seen one fish, but I can’t prove it. A few weeks later and I would likely have been more successful.
So here’s the moral of the story. Before you hike, ask a local if the fish are running. If they’re not, don’t bother with the hike – unless you just want to take an easy, 4.6-mile stroll through the woods (which is not such a bad thing).
Here’s a look at the drive from Soldotna, through the Cooper River area, on to the Seward Highway: