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.
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.
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.