Russian Lakes loop Mountain Biking – Alaska

Russian Lakes is definitely a Kenai classic and a must-ride for anyone that enjoys beautiful cross country rides. It is generally the first to melt out, so a good early season ride (mid May) that gets overgrown by mid-June. Riding it too early means there will likely be downed trees as the forest service doesn’t generally get out there until Memorial Day weekend. But, riding it early improves visibility (less brush) on the trail, is a great ride to wake up the biking legs for the season, and oftentimes fewer bears are out and about! Riding it in June makes the Russian Falls add-on a bit more exciting as the red salmon are running and it never gets old watching them swim up the falls. Amazing animals! That said, if you want to see the fish, it’s an easy 3 mile pedal in from the road and doesn’t require the big ride to enjoy!

Snug Harbor to Upper Russian Lake

This first section of trail is lovely. Wide trail on good dirt allows for lots of line options. There are some punchy climbs to warm up your legs, though no sustained climbing. And the views are great – upper Kenai mountains, lots of lakes, expansive views. The last few miles are a fun descent – a bit more technical though still very rideable. Technical challenge is less than Johnson Pass but still requires that you pay attention! It’s worth taking the left turn down to the lake/cabin because you can get to the beach out of the way of the cabin and enjoy a truly stunning lake vista. It’s a great place to stop for lunch. Riding consistently at moderate pace, its about 1.5 hours and 10 miles to the lake.

Headed out, and enjoying lovely mountain views – this is May 17 so not super green yet!

 

Typical of the early trail section – this is one spot where there’s a fork and we took the right line along the rive – both converge at the bridge.

 

1st bridge, about 2 miles in . . . all smiles!

 

The early section of the trail is easy and just plain fun!

 

Ski dreaming is easy in this part!

 

As you might imagine, this section is much narrower as the vegetation grows, but still very rideable on June 19 (this pic is May 17)

 

Fun forest sections, again with smooth and wide trail, make riding this part a joy! The longer downhill section is just about to come from this point!

 

Again, it narrows with vegetation, but stays wide enough and is smooth trail!

 

The lake is not to miss! On a sunny day, it’s nice to cool off (my feet were already wet, so why not?!?) and oftentimes has a nice breeze to keep the bugs away!

Russian Lake to Russian Falls Campground

While arriving at the lake feels like you must be halfway, or even ‘almost there,’ don’t be fooled! The 6 miles after the lake are essentially at the same elevation (up/down, no sustained climbing) but they’re pretty rough and rooty making them a bit unrewarding. The Aspen Flats cabin is about halfway through this section, as is a very lovely overlook of the Russian River, making both a nice way to mix up the roughness. The 1st 3 miles of it is a bit more brutal, perhaps because you’ve been spoiled with such nice trail up to this point!

The cool part about this section is that in parallels the Upper Russian River, which is super serene and beautiful. This section also has some of the steepest uphills (short, but only the elite climbers among us will clear them – I push!), 3-4 super fun descents, and some nice forest riding. You eventually come to a narrow bridge with only one railing that most will walk, though I’ve seen it ridden! I personally don’t want to fall 10’ to the rocky creek below! From the bridge, you break out into the grassy hills above lower Russian Lake . . . super expansive views come back, Skilak Glacier off the Harding Icefield is visible, and later in the year the wildflowers are lovely.

 

Leaving the lake, the trail narrows a bit – it feels a lot narrower than this looks when grown in!

 

Changing trail character – narrower and more rooty (though roots not seen here!)

 

This is one of my favorite views of the Russian and a nice reprieve from the very rooty section it occurs in! Definitely worth a stop!

 

Most people walk this bridge due to exposure, but the talented among us ride it!

 

Early season riding has a lot of this . . . crossfit for mountain bikers! We had nearly 40 trees to cross on May 17 and zero on June 19th!

 

The final grassy section May 17 . . . this gets a bit off camber and dicey when grown in!

 

What a difference a month makes! Same section of trail, 4 weeks later . . .

 

All smiles, Skilak Glacier exiting the Harding Icefield in the background, almost there!

 

Same area, a month later! Skilak Glacier again in background – love this spot!

At the far end of Lower Russian Lake, you’ll encounter the well developed trail leading to that cabin – turn right uphill for a fun ride to the main trail from the campground to the falls. Riding to the falls adds about 3 miles (1.5 extra miles each way) and another climb (it’s a descent to the falls). If the fish are running, it’s totally worth it. Otherwise, it’s nice but if your legs are shot, it’s no huge miss to skip it. The final portion is essentially all downhill (after the short initial climb) and super fun – wide trail so lots of options, although lots of pedestrian traffic too.

Check out the salmon resting in the eddy on the far bank – so cool! Salmon tv is great to watch here – amazing animals making their way up the falls.

General info

Russian is a great ride, though a long 21 miles (don’t be fooled by the net 800’ descent!). It’s most easily done as a car shuttle, starting the ride at the end of Snug Harbor road and finishing at Russian River Campground. If you don’t want to pay the $11 parking fee, it’s also easy to leave a car at Resurrection Pass TH and ride the roads to there (mostly downhill, ¼ mi on the highway), which is what I usually do. Sporty spice riders do it as an out-and-back 42 miler, and I have done it once as a loop (ride 15ish miles up Snug Harbor, ride 7ish highway miles back to car at Post Office) and happily run the shuttle at this point, even though it is a long one!

Of note, it is extremely common for people to bonk or meltdown on this ride – of all the rides I do, it happens most on this trail, and I’d say it’s the exception if it doesn’t happen on this ride! I think it’s because the second ‘half’ is longer than the first – 1.5 hrs riding to the lake, 2.5 hrs riding to the car from there . . . and the second half has rougher trail and fewer stunning/expansive views. So, prepare for a solid 4 hours (more if you hang out at the lake, less if you’re a super fast rider!). Into June the bugs can get a bit worse, so ‘resting’ is only fun if there’s a breeze!

While maybe not yet open for a May ride, we went straight to the Kingfisher for dinner after our June ride!  Definitely some of the best food in Cooper Landing!

For more mountain biking trail reports, check out the whole guide to Alaska biking!!!  Ride on and enjoy 🙂

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  1. Eddie Parks says:

    Now that I’ve had a chance to decompress a bit, I think it was the roots of the second half that were the biggest “problem” for me – they’re completely rideable, they just sapped a lot of my momentum. Definitely worth riding down to the falls overlook if the fish are running though, even if your legs are completely shot – what a cool little place! Thanks for tolerating my near breakdown – and another great ride!

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