McNeil Canyon is on the Kenai Peninsula and the northern shore of Kachemak Bay and trends south for about 2 miles (3.2 km) following the lower course of McNeil Creek, about 57 miles (92 km) south of Kenai and 12 miles (19 km) northeast of Homer, Alaska. The local name for the creek was first reported by William Healey Dall of the U.S. Geological Survey in 1895. McNeil Creek flows generally south for 3.5 miles (6 km) from wetlands at an elevation of 1,480 feet (451 m) and drains a watershed of approximately 15,500 acres (6,273 ha). The geology of the Kenai Peninsula north of Kachemak Bay consists mostly of unconsolidated fluvial floodplain, glacial, alluvial fan, landslide, and swamp deposits from the Quaternary age on the geological time scale. McNeil Creek has incised these sediments to expose rocks from the Sterling Formation that dates from the Miocene to the Pliocene period. These rocks are weakly lithified interbedded sandstone, siltstone, mudstone, carbonaceous shale, lignite coal, and minor amounts of volcanic ash. The Sterling Formation is up to 10,000 feet (3,050 m) thick. The seacliffs at the mouth of the creek and canyon expose rocks from the Beluga Formation that dates to the Miocene. These rocks are similar to the Sterling Formation but the Beluga Formation is only about 5,000 feet (1,525 m) thick. Sea cliffs are often found along shores where wave erosion rather than deposition is the dominant coastal process. Waves erode the base of the cliff during severe storms at high tides. The cliffs are gradually undermined until the structural integrity is weakened and the cliff collapses. The weakly lithified rocks of the Sterling and Beluga Formations frequently collapse onto the beaches of Kachemak Bay and break apart into the constituent sand and silt sediments that contribute to the extensive mudflats exposed at low tides.
Archaeological middens excavated along the north shore of Kachemak Bay represent people from the Kachemak culture that inhabited the area from about 3,000 years ago to 1,400 years ago. The Kachemak people lived in coastal settlements and hunted caribou, moose, bears, seals, and other sea mammals possibly including whales. They also caught fish, birds, and mollusks. Round or oval stone lamps and realistic human figures of carved stone have been found as well as copper tools and pottery that appeared later. Rock paintings in Kachemak Bay were generally highly stylized representations of men and animals. Little is known of the earliest dwellings, but houses were eventually built of stones and whale vertebrae and later they were semi-subterranean log structures. The Denaʼina people have inhabited the north coast of Kachemak Bay for about 1,000 years. They are Athabaskan-speaking people that migrated to the coast from the interior. The Dena’ina are unique among northern Athapaskans in having territory on the coast of Kachemak Bay and the North Pacific and made extensive use of hunting and fishing techniques adopted from the maritime Alutiiq people, particularly for catching salmon and shellfish. When Russian fur traders first arrived in Cook Inlet in the 18th century, Kachemak Bay was part of Dena’ina Athabaskan territory. In 1786, Captain Nathaniel Portlock, an English trader, found coal near present-day Port Graham on the south shore of outer Kachemak Bay. In 1798, Alexander Baranov of the Shelikov-Golikov Company experimented with coal from Coal Cove for smelting iron. In 1855, the first coal mine in Alaska was opened by the Russian-American Company at Coal Cove. In 1867, the Alaska Purchase transferred the territory from Russia to the United States. In 1891, Lieutenant R.P. Schwerin of the U.S. Navy took 200 tons of coal from four different locations on Kachemak Bay to San Francisco on behalf of some interested New Yorker investors. One of the samples came from McNeil Canyon but the investors decided the results didn’t warrant developing the fields. In 1894, the North Pacific Mining and Transportation Company began exploring in Eastland Canyon, 14 miles (23 km) northeast of Homer. This company and the Alaska Coal Company continued prospecting for coal in Eastland and McNeil Canyons from 1894 to 1897. In 1936, Yule Kilcher visited Alaska and returned four years later and purchased 150 acres of land near the mouth and on the west side of McNeil Canyon from Harry White who homesteaded the land for a fox farm in the 1920s. Kilcher later expanded the property by filing for an additional 160 acres of adjacent property under the Homestead Act. Kilcher was among the delegates to Alaska’s pre-statehood constitutional convention in 1955-56, and he served in the state Senate from 1963-67.
About 50% of the McNeil Creek watershed is privately owned, with a mix of residential and undeveloped land. The Cook Inlet Region Inc., an Alaska Native corporation, owns a large undeveloped parcel in the headwaters covering about 34% of the entire watershed. The Kenai Peninsula Borough owns approximately 12% of the land, including the McNeil Canyon Elementary School property, a solid waste transfer site, and undeveloped areas in the lower reaches of the watershed. Alaska Division of Parks and Recreation makes up about 4% of the ownership with a parcel that includes the Eveline Trail system. There are three trail systems that start above the canyon in the upper watershed. The McNeil Ski Trails are on Kenai Peninsula Borough property and adjacent to many private landowners. The Wolf Ridge Ski Trail is maintained through a permit with Cook Inlet Region Inc. The Eveline State Recreation trails are on 80 acres (32 ha) with a developing network of scenic trails traversing mostly gentle terrain. In winter, the Eveline trail system is connected to the McNeil Canyon School trails. The Cook Inletkeeper began monitoring McNeil Creek in 1997 by partnering with the University of Alaska Anchorage Environmental and Natural Resource Institute as part of a regional Cook Inlet water quality assessment. A control site was chosen in the upper undeveloped reaches of the McNeil Creek watershed and Citizen Environmental Monitoring Program volunteers began sampling in the lower reaches of the watershed in 2000 and continued until late 2009, with a total of 81 site visits. Read more here and here. Explore more of McNeil Canyon here: