Guidebook

Step Back into the Ice Age in Kenai Fjords National Park

On Alaska's Kenai Peninsula, a landscape from past Ice Ages persists: Layers of ice crowning a mountain range, with glaciers grinding down fjords to the sea.

Jesse Weber

Description

The Kenai Peninsula of southern Alaska is one rare place in the world with an icefield close to the coast, and where the glaciers of ice-carved fjords descend all the way to the ocean. This landscape reminiscent of the Ice Age is a phenomenon of geography and climate. Here, heavy precipitation and cold winters add up to deep accumulation of ice at the higher elevations, and over time it has nearly buried the mountain range. The vast Harding Icefield is the source of dozens of glaciers, which grind slowly down peripheral valleys toward the sea. These glaciers are shrinking, though, and for decades they have been studied by scientists to elucidate the effects of climate change.

Though there is measurably less ice every year, the glaciers of Kenai Fjords remain impressive and influential. This entire environment is defined by them, from fjords carved over millennia to today's flora and fauna. Temperate rainforest covers mountain slopes, watered by the stormy North Pacific and rooted in glacial till. Whales and schooling fish thrive in the plankton-rich sea nourished by glacial runoff. The glaciers are the cornerstone of this ecosystem and the main attraction of Kenai Fjords National Park. Though most of the area remains largely inaccessible, there are just enough ways to get around so visitors can experience a bit of everything.

To see the foot of the glaciers that extend to the ocean, and for a chance at spotting marine life, there are boat tours and defined sea kayaking routes available. Flightseeing trips view it all from above and can land on the icefield to let its immensity sink in. Hiking trails are limited to the national park’s Exit Glacier Area, with close-up views of a glacier in its hewn-out valley and the meltwater river gushing from it. One of these trails, the Harding Icefield Trail, is not to be missed. It’s a strenuous hike that climbs alongside the sloping glacier to a view of the vast icefield above.

For those with the necessary skills, Kenai Fjords National Park offers a host of adventures beyond the hiking trails. Chief among them is trekking out across the icefield, an endeavor typically done on skis with days’ worth of gear and food. The Harding Icefield Traverse is a challenge known as one of Alaska’s ultimate adventures. One possibility for a traverse is suggested in this guidebook, but any journey on the icefield requires extensive research and preparation. The day-hiking trails at Exit Glacier are also covered here. For information about other kinds of activities, you can consult the national park visitor center as well as tour providers in Anchorage, Seward, or Homer.

Glacier View and Exit Glacier Loop
The best Routes on FATMAP, hand-picked by FATMAP’s Editorial team.

Glacier View and Exit Glacier Loop

0 - 1 hrs
3.2 km
92 m
92 m
Kenai Fjords’ most accessible hike, leading to the foot of Exit Glacier and along its rocky outwash plain.
Moderate
Private
Harding Icefield Trail
The best Routes on FATMAP, hand-picked by FATMAP’s Editorial team.

Harding Icefield Trail

5 - 6 hrs
13.4 km
972 m
972 m
This is the hike to do in Kenai Fjords National Park, ascending alongside a glacier to a mind-blowing view over the vast icefield above.
Difficult
Private
Harding Icefield Traverse: Exit Glacier to Tustumena Glacier
The best Routes on FATMAP, hand-picked by FATMAP’s Editorial team.

Harding Icefield Traverse: Exit Glacier to Tustumena Glacier

1 day +
58.5 km
1,766 m
1,185 m
12 °
One possible route for crossing the Harding Icefield, an acclaimed Alaskan objective and bucketlist adventure for many.
Difficult
Private