So, you are looking for good ways to experience Alaska’s wilderness. Exploring on foot, from the comfort of your car, on a bike, or on a wildlife or glacier boat tour are all great options.
One option that not many people often think about, however, is exploring by raft. Rafting in Alaska may be just the relaxing (or exciting!) experience you’ve been looking for.
In reality, it doesn’t matter which method you choose. Alaska doesn’t hold its beauty hostage and only gives it away to those who have the perfect trip. Even so, you can’t go wrong by diversifying your trip with a scenic float down the Kenai River.
We have been involved in plenty of outdoor adventures during our time living in Alaska, including some incredible hikes near Seward.
But in the following article, I will share the options that a visitor has when it comes to rafting in Alaska (specifically the Kenai Peninsula), as well as share my own recent experience of rafting down the Kenai River.
Rafting in Alaska: Float Down the Beautiful Kenai River
Back in early July of 2022, my girlfriend’s parents were visiting us up here in Seward, Alaska. In an attempt to provide an experience for them that they haven’t had yet, Ireland decided to book a rafting trip.
The float was to take place on the Kenai River, a gorgeous 82-mile-long flow of glacial drainage slicing through the Kenai Peninsula.
This rafting trip wasn’t only new to Ireland’s parents, though. She and I had also never been rafting in Alaska. Suffice to say, we were all excited.
Where is the Kenai River?
The Kenai River sits in the upper portion of the Kenai Peninsula, with its origin being Kenai Lake.
It then flows westward where it’s subsumed by Skilak Lake, but quickly gains its independence again and continues heading west towards the Cook Inlet.
The city of Kenai sits right at the mouth of the Kenai River, watching it merge into the ocean. In total, the Kenai River is 82 miles long, making it the longest river on the Kenai Peninsula.
The Kenai River is accessed via the Sterling Highway. To get onto the Sterling Highway, you simply keep right at the fork that sits about an hour and a half south of Anchorage via the Seward Highway.
Twenty minutes of driving later, the Kenai River will appear.
The Sterling Highway follows the river closely, which means you will be able to catch glimpses of its turquoise-blue waters and rolling rapids.
The Kenai River Drifters Lodge
There are a plethora of companies that operate rafting tours on the Kenai River, but the company we floated with is the Kenai River Drifters Lodge.
The Drifters Lodge specializes in guided trips on the Upper Kenai River that include fishing, rafting, and even guided hikes.
No matter what kind of experience you’re looking for on the Peninsula’s longest river, chances are you can find a trip that fits your needs.
The Drifters Lodge sits just past the point where Kenai Lake lends its waters to the Kenai River.
What are their guided rafting trip options?
For this article, we will only be focusing on rafting trips specifically. So what options does a visitor have?
7-Mile Float (approx. 2 hours)
Start Times: 10 a.m. / 2 p.m. / 6 p.m.
The most basic option they provide is a scenic float stretching 7 miles downriver. Beginning at the Drifters Lodge launch point, the float starts off gently. As the raft slowly makes its way westward, all around you will be the sights and sounds of wild Alaska.
Notable mountains include Cecil Rhodes Mountain, which towers nearly four and a half thousand feet high, and the famous Slaughter Ridge, with its popular but quite difficult 5-mile trail.
As you look up and ponder what the view is like from the tops of these mountains, keep an eye out for wildlife lurking in the trees. Bald eagles, river otters, and even beavers are possible to see as the raft drifts past.
While most of this 7-mile float is tame, there are a few sections of Class I and II “whooptidoo” rapids, as the Drifters Lodge website calls them. These rapids are by no means dangerous but don’t expect to walk away from the experience completely dry.
On top of all these wonderful sights, sounds, and feelings, your knowledgeable rafting guide will provide commentary on the experience. Have any questions? Well, the Drifters Lodge wants you to ask them!
In the end, they hope you walk away from this short rafting trip with a new appreciation for the Kenai River’s ecology.
As you reach the seventh mile, the guide will direct the raft to a ramp that sits at the junction of the Kenai River and the Russian River. A quick van ride back to the lodge and your guided rafting experience is completed.
12-Mile Float (approx. 3 hours)
Start Times: 10 a.m. / 2 p.m. / 6 p.m.
The next option they offer nearly doubles the amount of distance covered, but only adds about an hour more to the trip.
Now I’m not entirely sure what accounts for the fact that you cover 7 miles in two hours and 5 more miles in one hour, but I assume it has to do with the speed of the river at different points.
For this trip, after completing the first 7 miles that the two-hour float covers, your guide will take you the additional 5 miles into the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
According to the Drifters Lodge site, “The Kenai Refuge is a unique expanse of protected land encompassing many biomes on the Kenai Peninsula.”
Along this section of the Kenai, the valley that holds the river broadens, which in turn allows for even more expansive views of the landscape.
If your rafting group and guide are so inclined, floating through the narrow backchannels that are separate from the main river can provide feelings of seclusion from the rest of the world.
Depending on the time of year you are floating, it’s possible to see Sockeye salmon hurriedly making their way upstream to finally return to the Russian River and spawn. Expect to see lots of fisher(wo)men trying their luck.
As the twelfth mile turns, your float will end at a point named Jim’s Landing, where the van will be waiting to pick you up.
20-Mile Canyon Float (approx. 6 hours)
Start Time: 8 a.m.
For those wanting to become well-acquainted with the entire stretch of the Upper Kenai River, this 20-mile float is your best option. This full-day adventure begins the same way as the previous two options.
You will launch from the Drifters Lodge, float your way past the Russian River confluence, past Jim’s Landing, and eventually descend into the spectacular Kenai Canyon.
Unlike the 7-mile and 12-mile options, the Kenai Canyon float features exciting Class II and III rapids. As far as the Upper Kenai River goes, these rapids are the best it has to offer.
Through the first 12 miles of the 20-mile float, fishing boats will most likely be very prominent. Through the Kenai Canyon, however, boat traffic is typically greatly decreased. In some cases, the entire canyon will be all yours. That sounds pretty amazing, am I right?
As you exit the canyon, the rapids give way to a calm section. Directly ahead lies Skilak Lake: a 528 feet deep, 15-mile long, beautifully blue body of water. You won’t spend too long on the lake, though.
The raft will be beached and left behind as your group makes their way towards the Sterling Highway on the Hidden Creek Trail. Two miles of walking later and you’ll be hopping in the shuttle to head back.
My Experience Rafting in Alaska with the Drifters Lodge
This past summer, my girlfriend Ireland booked us for the 7-Mile Float. The four of us (myself, Ireland, and her mom and dad) had never been rafting in Alaska before.
This short 2-hour float seemed like the perfect way to get outside and enjoy a new perspective of this gorgeous state.
In front of their building, the Drifters Lodge has a handful of parking spots. As long as you don’t arrive way before your rafting time, you should be able to park here.
Checking in was quick and easy. We simply provided the name on our reservation, and they pointed us toward the place to pick up our gear.
The Kenai River Drifters Lodge didn’t require us to wear any specific clothing or bring any gear. We simply showed up in comfortable clothing that we wouldn’t mind getting wet (because that is a possibility), and they took care of the rest.
They will first ask for your shoe size. To make the float as comfortable as possible, they provide knee-high black rubber boots. You by no means have to wear these if you brought your own footwear that you prefer. But the option is there anyway.
Next, we got handed lifejackets. Some quick adjustments with the straps and we felt secure.
Taking a Seat on the Raft
Our guide, Kip, led us down to the small wooden dock where the raft awaited. We received a quick briefing about how to safely enter the raft: the sit and spin.
One by one we piled into the front of the raft, getting situated and realizing how easy it would be to fall back into the water.
The 7-mile float had another group on it besides us, who took their seats on the back half of the raft. As far as seating positions go, we had chosen the wetter of the two.
Kip took his position right in the middle of the raft. A wooden plank served as his captain’s seat, and the oars on either side of him his captain’s wheel.
After a quick look around the raft, he asked if we were ready to go. We answered in the affirmative and set off, getting slowly pulled into the current of the river.
Floating Down the Kenai River
The float itself was simply spectacular. With Kip there to facilitate conversation between everyone, and the views all around us taking the breath right out of our lungs, every minute spent on the water was enjoyable.
Heads swiveled left and right, front and back, catching glimpses of bald eagles, the undulating flow of water, and, perhaps most importantly, smiling faces.
A couple of instances arose where Kip posed the question, “Whooptidoos?”. Ireland and I sat at the very front, so our answer was probably going to be taken into the most consideration.
Regardless, everyone on board agreed to point our bow directly into choppier sections of the river. This added excitement, while definitely not needed to have a good time, was welcomed with open arms.
The whooptidoos were nothing crazy or frightening in any way. But as the nose of the raft left the safety of water and floated in the air before plummeting back down into the next standing wave, we couldn’t help but exclaim.
The resulting splashes effectively soaked our pants. Worth it.
We Saw Bears!
It’s possible to see a wide variety of wildlife in this area. I knew it was possible to see bears, but I certainly didn’t expect to see two juvenile bears walking in the river!
Kip was just as excited as the rest of us when he laid eyes on the bears.
Right as the two-hour mark approached, we spotted our endpoint. The concrete ramp sits right before the point where the Russian River meets the Kenai, and we saw many people trying their luck at catching some fish.
Kip steered the raft towards the land, and as we came to a stop, I found myself not wanting to get out. If the opportunity came to take another guided rafting trip with them, the 12-mile seems like it would be a great middle ground.
Even so, we carefully exited the raft and walked toward the van that was waiting for us in the parking lot.
The short walk gave us a chance to assess the condition of our clothes: still wet. Thankfully the ride didn’t last longer than 10 minutes.
We pulled back into the Drifters Lodge lot, expressed our gratitude to Kip for being a fantastic rafting guide, and hopped in our car.
Ready to Book Your Rafting In Alaska Adventure?
Rafting in Alaska was an experience we will not soon be forgetting. Highly recommend it and guarantee it will give you memories to last a lifetime.
Josiah Bonner is the middle child of Todd and Julie Bonner. Having gained the invaluable experience of living on the road with his family, he felt overcome with the desire to continue exploring. That search landed him in Seward, Alaska, where he currently resides. His love for the outdoors is welcome with open arms in the Last Frontier, and with an endless amount of hiking and backpacking to be done, he’s eager to share the best that Alaska has to offer.