This hike was rated 3 stars.
Difficulty
Easy; gently slopes down from Coopers Landing. However, nothing dramatic if you choose to go the other way.
Connects With
Miles One Way
21.5
Miles from Anchorage
106; 106 from Cooper Landing trailhead; 112 from Russian Lakes Campground
Season
May to September (earlier and later for Russian Lakes side; too much snow on Cooper Landing side)

Description

A friend and I were all set to do the whole traverse Memorial Day 2001 but there was still a ton of snow and after 2 miles of serious post holing on the Cooper Landing side, we hightailed it to Caines Head instead. Flash forward to Memorial Day 2003 and I finally finished what I started.

This time I started from the Russian River side. The first place you’ll want to make camp is Upper Russian Lake which is 12 miles. Even though this is already a schlep, you should make the side trip to the falls even though it will add a couple of miles. The view is worth the distance. There is very little elevation gain to get to the Upper Lake and you have hours and hours of sunlight to get there.

Note: as a day hike to the falls or Lower Russian Lake, the trail is well maintained and is ideal for disabled, elderly, or very young people.

The rest of the trail has its good points and its bad points.

On the good side, there is some really nice scenery. You’ll get some great views of the Kenai Mountains and Skilak Glacier. The two lakes are very nice and supposedly good for fishing.

Both lakes have great campsites as well as cabins for rent that include a rowboat. There is also a cabin available at mile 9. I really enjoyed camping at Upper Russian Lake. I even got to enjoy an eagle perched very near me while I sipped my morning coffee.

Another big plus is that this is a great trail for mountain biking. There aren’t many places you would have to get off your bike and walk. With very little elevation gain, a fit person could actually do the whole trail and then ride the roads back to their vehicle on the other side (about 40 miles total).

However, between the sights is something less than desired. Half the time you’re under canopy which is not what, in my opinion, Alaska hiking is about. Although the trail is well maintained, this means lots of sawed down trees which I personally find distracting. The forest service is also doing a moose reclamation project. Subsequently, there are controlled burned areas of spruce in order to bring back the willow and the aspen. It is not a pretty sight.

There are two major considerations if you decide to do this trail mid-June to mid-August: Fisherman and bears. This is one of the primo spots for salmon. The first 2-3 miles on the Russian River side will literally be teeming with people and parking will be a pain. Once you get away from Lower Russian Lake, the people should start thinning out. But as you get away from the people, then you better be on the lookout. Bears love salmon too and do not take kindly to humans who get in their way.

The other side of Upper Russian Lake, heading towards the Cooper Landing Trailhead has some really nice mountain views as well as some interesting wetlands and ponds.

Final verdict. If I was a visitor here in the summer, I would pick someplace else. If I lived here, or I was here in September, I would do this hike when it was quiet and the fall colors were at their best.

The following was added June 7, 2006:

I hiked from the Cooper Landing side to the Upper Lake this past weekend. The weather was nice and it was a pleasant hike and camping out. There was much drama on the trail 1/2 mile in as Star learned that porcupines can really mess you up. I had to pull about 30 quills out of her leg. Never heard her cry so much! I don’t think she ever imagined that anything on earth could inflict pain like that. Let’s hope she learned her lesson. More drama on the trail later on when I saw a brown bear and her cub. She looked right at me but ran off into the woods. You can bet I was making a lot of noise after that.

The trail has been completely repaired since the flood a few years back and the going was easy the whole way. However, if I was coming in and back from only one way, I would choose the Russian River side as there is more open scenery and less canopy. But as a plus, you’d probably get more solitude on the Cooper side.

Important Information

While you should always be bear safety conscious wherever you go in Alaska, it is definitely imperative that you go the extra mile around here.

If you’re going to try to catch one of those tasty salmon, make sure you are educated about regulations and licenses.

If you plan on doing the hike in May, you may want to consider snowshoes and poles just in case.

There is a huge state campground across the street from the trailhead. For information on reserving sites or renting one of the huts on the trail, go to Recreation.gov.

Etc.

The best way to hike this in the winter is to buy a cheap plastic sled and carry your stuff on it. For details about how I built mine, go here.

Topo Map

Russian Lake topo map

Comments on hiking Russian Lake

  1. April — August 6, 2015

    Some friends and I just did this hike, in late July. We came in from the Russian River Campground side, stopping to check out the falls on the way in. After a couple of miles, we encountered several 1/2 mile stretches of grass that was so overgrown we were swimming through it. We could not even see our knees, let alone a bear if we had run into one. If it wasn’t grass, it was cow parsnip or fireweed. The total mileage we spent bushwhacking was probably 2-2.5. The trail is pretty carved out in places, which made wading through grass difficult. About 2 miles before we reached the Upper Russian Lake cabin, a trail maintenance company had come through from the Cooper Lake side and widened the trail to about 4-5′ which made visibility (and heart rate) much better. I would recommend to anyone visiting the Upper Russian Lake cabin or Aspen Flats Cabin this year, until the trail maintenance is finished, to come in from the Cooper Lake/Snug Harbor Road side. We also heard that the scenery was much better from the Russian River campground side, and I have to say I disagree. We enjoyed the view much more from the Cooper Lake side on the way out. Perhaps we missed some good view on the way in from Russian River because we couldn’t see through the 7′ grass. The best part of the hike for me was the fireweed. There were fields of fireweed as big as football fields and on hillsides. Overall a good hike, but I’m not a big fan of bushwhacking or canopy cover, so it is not among my favorites.

  2. The following was submitted by Barb Cary:

    I’m an 18 year resident of the Kenai Peninsula and have hiked the Russian River/Lakes Trail at least once every summer. It’s about 21 miles of good trail and easy walking or biking either direction. It makes a good long day hike, or a 1- or 2-night backpack trip, depending on your group’s abilities. I find it’s best to do this trail early in June – before the big red runs in the Kenai River and before the Russian River is opened to salmon fishing. Then there’s no crowding at the trailheads, very few people or bears on the trail, and the vegetation hasn’t grown up so tall that it obscures views. When I did the trail this June we saw only 2 other hikers in three days on the trail. The Forest Service has installed new bear-proof food lockers at all the established campgrounds on the trail.

    Etc:

    If you do the trail before the Russian River opens to fishing, there is no fee to enter or park at the Cooper Landing trailhead in the Russian River Campground.

    Webmaster’s note: I had edited out a line in this description which went as follows: “An option that was not mentioned in your description is to hike from the COOPER LAKE Trailhead, which is at the end of Snug Harbor Road, to the Cooper Landing Trailhead, which is in the Russian River Campground. (We switched to the Cooper Lake trailhead after the Resurrection River portion of the trail was wiped out in the ’95 and ’02 floods.)”. I wrote her telling her that I had covered it and maybe was she referring to something else. She emailed me back just after I published the above and I want to share it with you for it’s historical significance and general interest.

    Hi Bill – I probably confused the issue because locals and “old timers” refer to the trails by different names than many modern maps do. If you can stand it, here’s a history lesson (you may want to grab a map of the Chugach National Forest to follow this).

    Historically, before Cooper Landing, the Seward Highway, or Sterling Highway existed, the native and goldminers trail to Hope started in the seaport of Seward. It went up what is now the Seward Highway and Exit Glacier Road, then up what is now called the Resurrection River Trail, then over to Upper Russian River and down the Russian River on what is now called the Russian Lakes Trail, continued through Cooper Landing (which didn’t exist) and over to Hope on today’s Resurrection Pass Trail. It was all one continuous trail from Seward to Hope, and the entire thing was called The Resurrection Trail. Locals who learned the trails from old timers still refer all the parts of it as The Resurrection Trail. The town of Cooper Landing, the Seward, Sterling Highway, the National Forest and Wildlife Refuges, and the huge Russian River Campground broke the single trail up into several separate trails and it was given several names: Resurrection Pass Trail (about 39 miles Hope to Cooper Landing), Russian Lakes Trails (about 21 miles Cooper Landing to Cooper Lake), and Resurrection River Trail (about 16 miles from the Russian Lakes trail to Exit Glacier Road near Seward).

    The message I posted was about what is now officially called the Russian Lakes Trail. Its northern trail head is in the Russian River Campground in Cooper Landing. It parallels the Russian River (and therefore is sometimes called the Russian River Trail) passes lower Russian Lake, passes part of Upper Russian Lake and continues east towards Cooper Lake where its other trail head is at the end of Snug Harbor Road by Cooper Lake. Many people incorrectly describe the Russian Lakes Trail as continuing south down towards Seward along the Resurrection River (what is now called the Resurrection River Trail) and the section that goes east to Cooper Lake to be a spur trail off of it. That’s because historically, the section of the trail that goes to Cooper Lake didn’t exist. The 16 mile Resurrection River Trail is actually now a spur trail off of the Russian Lakes Trail. We used to regularly hike from Exit Glacier Road to Cooper Landing on the Resurrection River Trail and Russian Lakes Trail until the Resurrection River Trail was badly damaged by flooding and tree blow-downs in 1995. Now we hike Cooper Lake to Cooper Landing.

    When I read your descriptions of the Russian Lakes Trail on your web site, I had a difficult time telling whether you were talking about the Russian Lakes Trail as going from Cooper Landing to Cooper Lake, or Cooper Landing to Exit Glacier Road. I also don’t know what you mean by “both sides” of the Russian River Trail. I also couldn’t tell if the writers were saying the severe damage done to Resurrection River Trail in 1995 was repaired or if they were talking about the (relatively) minor damage on the Russian Lakes Trail. I guess we’re both confused!

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