Ninilchik's foundation was laid by Alaska's previous owner, Russia.
In the mid-1800s, Russian American Company employees were reaching pensioner age and wanting to remain in Alaska. To accommodate them and the ties many of them had developed during their years working in this Russian colony, the company established settlements where the pensioners and their Native or Creole (a mixture of Native and non-Native) wives and children could live independently.
Ninilchik was one of those settlements.
Small log homes built near the mouth of Ninilchik River were heated with coal collected along the beach. Gardens produced fresh vegetables. Moose, fish and razor clams provided fresh meat.
Crosses in the cemetery of the Transfiguration of Our Lord Russian Orthodox Church bear the names of the village's founding families. Overlooking the village, the church is a much-photographed structure and the frequent subject of paintings, postcards and calendars.
Ninilchik's first English-speaking school was established in 1911. Before the first plane landed in Ninilchik in 1929, boats on Cook Inlet, sled dogs in winter and walking the beaches in summer and winter allowed villagers to visit their peninsula neighbors. In the 1940s, the Sterling Highway opened the area to automobile traffic.
Commercial fishing was once Ninilchik's economic mainstay. Some of the community's 800 residents have continued that lifestyle, while others work at small local businesses, operate fishing charters and bed and breakfasts during the summer, provide road maintenance through the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, or are employed at Ninilchik School or Ninilchik Traditional Council. Others find employment in the neighboring communities of Homer, Soldotna and Kenai, or are employed in Alaska's oil industry on Cook Inlet or Prudhoe Bay.
Visitors flock to the area in the summer, fishing in Ninilchik River and Deep Creek, launching boats to fish on Cook Inlet and clamming along the inlet's shore. From Memorial Day weekend until the end of summer, private and state campgrounds fill with a summer crowd. A boat launch site at Deep Creek stays busy with fishermen on private and charter boats eager to hook into a halibut or king salmon on the inlet's salt water.
State-operated campgrounds in the area include the Ninilchik River Campground, with 39 campsites, the Ninilchik Scenic Overlook with nine campsites, Ninilchik View Campground with 13 campsites and Deep Creek State Recreation Area with 100 campsites.
As its name suggests, Deep Creek Beach and Campground is on the beach, offering easy access to a commercial boat launch. It, as well as the Ninilchik Beach Day Use Area, also offer direct access to some of the peninsula's best razor-clam digging. As with any visit to the beach along Cook Inlet, be aware of strong tides that rise and fall quickly and with considerable strength. Check local tide tables and plan accordingly.
The annual Memorial Day weekend pancake breakfast feeds hundreds of visitors and locals, and raises funds for Ninilchik Emergency Services, a volunteer organization.
The Kenai Peninsula State Fair, nicknamed the "biggest little fair in Alaska," is Ninilchik's pride and joy and draws thousands of visitors the three days its gates are open in August.
The Ninilchik Rodeo has drawn increasingly bigger audiences and participants since it began in the late 1960s.
During the winter, Ninilchik becomes a beehive of activity for snowmachiners. Backcountry routes offer scenic rides through forests and across frozen lakes to the peninsula's high country and the Caribou Hills.
Directly across Cook Inlet, 10,195-foot Mount Redoubt and 10,013-foot Mount Iliamna keep watch. Redoubt's most recent eruption was in 2009. On the morning of March 2 of that year, ash plumes boiling out of the mountain reached 30,000-60,000 feet above sea level, with 11 major explosive events happening in one week and a total of 19 major events happening of a 14-day period that stretched into April, according to the Alaska Volcano Observatory. The AVO reports Iliamna's last eruption in 1952, but it is not uncommon to see plumes of steam rising from its peaks.
For more information:
Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation, dnr.alaska.gov/parks/, (907) 262-5581
Alaska Volcano Observatory, www.avo.alaska.edu
Kenai Peninsula State Fair, www.kenaipeninsulafair.com, (907) 567-3670
Ninilchik Chamber of Commerce, www.ninilchikchamber.com/, (907) 567-3571