Swan Lake Canoe Trail is located in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and covers 60 miles across 30 lakes that are all connected by shorter portages.
This canoe route is one of the best places in Alaska for an overnight canoe camping trip.
In July 2020, we kayaked 15 miles across 17 lakes along the canoe trail from the west entrance at Canoe Lakes Chain to the east entrance at Portage Lake.
This area of Alaska is beautiful and seems very quiet in comparison to many other areas of Alaska. We only saw one other person over the two days we were kayaking.
In this post, I’m going to share everything you need to know to portage Swan Lake Canoe Route in 2022, including why you shouldn’t use a kayak for this trip.
Swan Lake Canoe Trail In Alaska
- Use a canoe instead of a kayak
- Check the weather forecast
- Map your route and bring navigation
- Start early in the day
- Plan more than 2 days
What Does Portaging Mean?
Portaging means to carry a boat across between navigable waters. In this case, each lake is connected by a trail. You will need to take your boat out of the water and carry it by foot to the next lake.
Why Use a Canoe Instead of a Kayak?
I did this trip using a kayak and it ended up being type II fun… Two of us partnered up during the portages and held the end of one kayak in each hand. As the portages got longer, it was really difficult and tiresome to carry the kayaks.
Using kayaks was faster on the water but way slower on the trail. I’m not going to lie but we ended up dragging them along the dirt trail on the second day. So if you want more time on the water, I highly recommend using a canoe!
However, I would recommend a kayak if it’s a lightweight kayak.
Where to Rent a Canoe
If you don’t have your own canoe and can’t find one to borrow, there are a few options for canoe rentals in or near Anchorage. It’s always better to rent a canoe in advance just in case they get booked out.
- Alaska Outdoor Gear Rental: Canoe is $30 for the first day and $15 for each additional day. Includes paddles, PFDs, and a blige pump.
- AK Paddlesports: Canoe is $40 for the first day and $25 for each additional day. Includes paddles and PFDs.
- Alaska Canoe and Campground: Canoe is $55/day or $45 if you rent for 3+ nights. They also offer shuttle services in the area.
How to Get to Swan Lake Canoe Route
Swan Lake Canoe Trail is located 164 miles south of Anchorage and it will take you about 3.5 hours to drive there. You can access the trail from the west entrance or the east entrance. We portaged from west to east so these are the directions I will share.
Canoe Lakes Chain/West Entrance:
- From Anchorage, head south on the Seward Highway
- Slight right to stay on AK-1 S
- Follow the Sterling Highway
- Turn right onto Swanson River Road and continue for 16.6 miles
- Turn right onto Swan Lake Road and continue for about 9.9 miles
- You will see a sign for Swan Lake Canoe Route on the right
- Free parking is available across the street near the outhouses
Planning a Swan Lake Canoe Route
The summer months will be the best time to visit the canoe trail. I will say that we went in late July and the mosquitoes were horrible!
Where To Start From
There are two main access points. The west entrance starts at Canoe Lake and the east entrance starts at Portage Lake.
You can start from either direction. The only real difference is the length of portages. They are a little bit longer on the east side of the trail. You can also access the canoe trail from Moose River.
How To Shuttle Vehicles
If you’re shuttling your own vehicles you can drop your canoes and gear at the west entrance and then shuttle a vehicle to the east entrance. It’s about a 12-minute drive between the west and east entrances.
How Many Days Do You Need?
It’s possible to finish the route we took in two full days but I would definitely recommend three days. This will give you more time to actually enjoy yourself.
What You’ll Need
- Canoe or lightweight kayak
- Personal Flotation Device (PFD)
- Dry Bags
- Camping Gear
- Waterproof Boots
- Mosquito Net
- Food and Water
Get my kayaking checklist here: Overnight Kayak Trip Packing List: Everything I Packed
Where to Camp
There are no official campsites on this route. A lot of the lakes in the middle have small unofficial camping spots that previous explorers have created. Some of the campsites have small wooden benches and fire rings. I noticed camping spots at Spruce Lake, Trout Lake, Gavia Lake, Konchanee Lake, and Swan Lake.
Swan Lake Canoe Trail Map
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Over two days, we kayaked 17 lakes along the Swan Lake Canoe Route. Here are the lakes, from west to east:
How To Navigate Swan Lake Canoe Trail
It’s important to have navigation while on the lakes. A lot of the lakes are pretty large and irregularly shaped so it can be really hard to see the portage signs. The portage signs are small brown signs that have a canoe icon on them. Binoculars actually came in handy for trying to spot them from a distance.
I labeled the lakes on Google Maps and downloaded the map offline so I could reference it while out on the water. I also made everyone else download it as well so we had a backup map, just in case.
You can access my Swan Lake Canoe Route map here.
My Swan Lakes Canoe Trip Itinerary
DAY 1: Canoe Lakes Chain to Gavia Lake
Total Miles: Around 6.5 miles; Number of Lakes: 8 Lakes; Total Time: 7 hours, 20 minutes
After packing our kayaks at the west entrance, we were on the trail by 11:30 a.m. It only took us about three minutes to portage our kayaks to the first lake in the Canoe Lakes Chain.
Canoe Lakes Chain
We started our overnight kayak adventure super excited and even took a shot of fireball whisky to get us going. Little did we know how much our feelings would change as the day went on.
There are three lakes in the Canoe Lakes Chain, Canoe Lake #1, Canoe Lake #2, and Canoe Lake #3.
The first portage was pretty short and it seemed like it could’ve been possible to kayak through the connecting channel if the water level was a little higher.
My favorite lake on the Swan Lake Canoe Trail is Contact Lake. I like to call it lily pad lake. The whole lake was covered in lily pads and it was really cool to kayak through it. We spent a lot of time here taking photos.
The portages between lakes continued to get longer and by the time we made it to Martin Lake it started to feel like type II fun.
As the sun started to come out, so did the mosquitoes! Luckily, we all packed mosquito nets. I don’t think we would’ve survived without them.
We were excited when we arrived at the portage between Martin Lake and Spruce Lake because it’s actually a water channel and you get to kayak through it. It was a super cool experience and there’s a ton of tall reed-like grass that you have to navigate through closer to Sitka Lake.
The portage between Spruce Lake and Trout Lake was the longest portage on day 1. It took us an hour to carry all four kayaks to the other end.
At this point, we were carrying them one at a time. We would drop the kayak down the trail and go back for the other one. It was exhausting.
Our last portage for the day was between Trout Lake and Gavia Lake. I can’t even tell you how excited we were about this.
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We made it to our camping spot on Gavia Lake at 6:40 p.m. There is a small island in the middle of the lake with an unofficial campsite. It has a fire ring and a few wooden benches.
We made a fire and tried to chill our drinks in the lake, Alaska style. Unfortunately, the lake wasn’t cold enough to make a difference.
We cooked dinner immediately. I’m not even sure how many calories we burned that day but I ate a whole bowl of mashed potatoes and salami. I didn’t realize how hungry I was until that bowl was empty.
The sunset around 8 p.m. and we were probably in bed around 10 p.m.
Choosing a Campsite
As I mentioned before, I’ve noticed camping spots at Spruce Lake, Trout Lake, Gavia Lake, Konchanee Lake, and Swan Lake. If you are planning a 2-night trip, I would recommend staying at Spruce Lake on day 1 and Swan Lake on day 2.
DAY 2: Gavia Lake to Portage Lake
Total Miles: Around 8.5 miles; Number of Lakes: 9 Lakes; Total Time: 8 hours
After a much-needed good night’s rest, we were ready to take on day 2. We were in our kayaks by 10:10 a.m.
The portage between Gavia Lake and Konchanee Lake was super short and only took us a few minutes.
By the time we were paddling on Konchanee Lake, the rain started to fall. The weather was definitely moodier on day 2.
The portage between Cygnet Lake and Swan Lake was disgustingly long. It was the second-longest portage of day 2.
Swan Lake has four connecting trails: back to Cygnet Lake, to Raven Lake, to Loon Lake, or to Moose River.
Swan Lake is the largest lake on the Swan Lake Canoe Route. It was windy on the lake and this made paddling more work.
By the time we made it to Raven Lake, we were dead. The portages on the east side of the route are much longer than the west side.
We were exhausted and we stopped here for a bit to rest, eat some food, and take some shots of fireball.
The longest portage of day 2 was between Mallard Lake and Teal Lake. At this point, we were ready to be done with this entire trip.
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As we got to Teal Lake, we started to hear signs of other life. We were slowly paddling back into reality after two full days exploring the incredible wilderness within the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
The lakes became a lot calmer later in the day, including Birch Lake. There were a lot of beautiful reflections of the trees on the water.
There are two Portage Lakes, Portage Lake #1 and Portage Lake #2. There are two of the smallest lakes on the canoe route.
We finished these lakes quickly and were overjoyed to see the last portage sign at the east entrance, marking the end of the canoe route!
It was just after 6 p.m. by the time we finished for the day. We made the 3.5-hour drive back to Anchorage in the dark.
When I look back on this trip, I smile and laugh at the same time. As women, it’s always empowering to navigate an unfamiliar area by ourselves and plan a really cool trip like this.
Even though we experienced a mix of emotions, I would do the trip again… but I would change up the strategy. I would use a canoe or make everyone use a lightweight kayak.
Also, I would plan three days instead of two. Hopefully, I’ll get to explore another part of the canoe trail soon.
If you enjoy fishing, you should definitely bring a fishing pole. You’ll find fish in Canoe Lake #2, Contact Lake, Martin Lake, Spruce Lake, Trout Lake, Gavia Lake, Konchanee Lake, Cygnet Lake and Swan Lake.
You can find a lot of wildlife within the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, including Eagles, Moose, Brown and Black Bears, Lynx, Wolves, Swans, and more. During our trip, we only saw a bald eagle and some fish jumping.
Swanson River Canoe System
Another nearby canoe route is the Swanson River Canoe System. It’s more difficult and covers 80 miles across 40 lakes and 46 miles of the Swanson River. You can access this route from Paddle Lake at Mile 12 on Swan Lake Road. This could be a long weekend or a week-long kind of trip.
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Do you have any questions about the Swan Lake Canoe Trail in Kenai, Alaska? Let me know in the comments.