Article Overview: Hiking the Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords National Park
Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords National Park’s ascent takes you back 23,000 years to when wooly mammoths roamed Alaska. The 8.2-mile roundtrip trail rises from coastal forests through alpine tundras to expansive views of the icefield, spanning 700 miles.
You could put Sequoia National Park inside the Harding Icefield that spans much of Kenai Fjords National Park and then some. The icefield covers an entire mountain range, is deep enough to fit three Empire State Buildings underneath it, and connects 38 glaciers, a dozen of which are in Kenai Fjords National Park near Seward, Alaska.
My Alaskan adventure began years before I even realized it, as I often proclaimed to nobody in particular, “It’s colder than the Alaska tundra in here!” from the confines of my windowless workplace with cubicle fjords.
“Do you wanna go to an Alaska tundra to be sure?” my adventurous colleague said, almost daringly.
Two approved PTO forms later, and we started plotting our path to the Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords National Park.
Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords
Table of Contents: Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords
Table of Contents: Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords
- Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords
- Things to Know Before You Visit Kenai Fjords National Park
- Where to Stay in Kenai Fjords National Park
- Terminology of Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords National Park
- Getting to the Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords National Park
- The Best Time to Hike Harding Icefield Trail at Kenai Fjords National Park
- Safety Steps for Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords National Park
- Hiking the Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords National Park: Step-by-Step Guide
- The Ascent of Harding Icefield
- Marmot Meadows on Harding Icefield Trail
- Bottom of the Cliffs on Harding Icefield Trail
- Top of the Cliffs on Harding Icefield Trail
- The Harding Icefield Trail Final Stretch
- The End of the Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords National Park
- FAQ – Hiking the Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords National Park
- Is Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords National Park Worth It?
- Pin the Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords
- Map of the Harding Icefield Trail
Things to Know Before You Visit Kenai Fjords National Park
Kenai Fjords National Park is FREE. No admission is charged for cars or individuals. However, if you plan to visit more National Parks within the next 12 months, I suggest you purchase the America the Beautiful Pass (which can be found at the entrance gates to most national parks). This pass gets you into all National Parks, Forests, Monuments, and more, including 2,000 sites for free after a one-time $80 fee.
Use it. Lots of it. Especially this one, which I never leave the house without because it plays nice with our dear friend, Earth 🙂
The Best Guide Book for Kenai Fjords National Park is this one, which we’ve marked up and highlighted quite a bit.
The Best Map: I like this map best for Kenai Fjords National Park.
National Parks Checklist Map: This beautiful National Parks Checklist Map can be ordered to your house.
Framed National Parks Map: We’re a sucker for maps; this framed national parks map is the best.
Where to Stay in Kenai Fjords National Park
Where to Stay: This is our favorite hotel in/around Kenai Fjords National Park.
Terminology of Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords National Park
After spitting on myself several times while learning to say “fjord” (say “Fee-yord” really fast as one syllable), I found that ice means more than just frozen water. Here are some terms to help you avoid the rabbit hole of research.
- Fjord: A fjord is a long, narrow sea inlet that forms when a glacier cuts a U-shaped valley that later fills with seawater.
- Icefield: A large expanse of interconnected glaciers covering an area of at least 3 miles.
- Glacier: A persistent body of dense ice that is constantly moving under its own weight, formed from the compaction and recrystallization of snow.
- Nunatak: (“Noon-uh-tack”) Nunataks are isolated peaks of rock or land projecting above glacial ice fields or sheets.
Getting to the Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords National Park
Getting to the nearest town of Seward means hopscotching some transportation options. No commercial flights come out of Seward, leaving Ted Stevens Anchoring International Airport as the best option. From there, you’ll need a rental car to get to Seward. You will drive for 2.5 hours.
Other options include:
Additionally, you’ll need to get to Kenai Fjords National Park from Seward, which adds another 12 miles to the drive. You can also park in Seward and use a shuttle or taxi service to get into the park.
TRAVEL TIP: The road to Exit Glacier, Herman Leirer Road, is closed during the winter at mile 1.3, where the road intersects with Old Exit Glacier Road. You can still access the park by snowmobile, snowshoes, cross-country skiing, or fat bike.CHECK ROAD CONDITIONS AND CLOSURES THROUGH ALASKA DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION
Finally, you’ll reach the Exit Glacier Nature Center, and you are about to take the journey on a steep turn.
The Best Time to Hike Harding Icefield Trail at Kenai Fjords National Park
As much as I longed to run back to work and proclaim, “This office IS as cold as the Alaskan tundra!” I also didn’t want to die on that hill, literally. The best time to hike the Harding Icefield Trail is July through September when you’ll actually be hiking and not mountaineering.
The summer months also mean more things to do in Kenai Fjords National Park, as I wanted to take a boat tour of the fjords in the spirit of “As above, so below” before I hit the Harding Icefield Trail.
Visiting during winter means as little as six hours of daylight. Boat tours become limited, if not impossible, to find from late September to early March due to rough seas.
Safety Steps for Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords National Park
Beyond avalanche risks and slippery trail sections, you need to be aware of some Alaskan-sized risks on the way to the top of Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords National Park.
Cow Parsnip, aka “Pushki”
Be on the lookout for this plant along the Harding Icefield Trail of Kenai Fjords National Park. The leaves have a defense mechanism to fight off attacked, but the chemical can also cause intense itches, blistering burns, and pain.
Especially when exposed to sunlight, these wounds can last up to two months, with pigmentation discoloration for up to two years.
The Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords National Park passes through a thicket of Salmonberries. While the park rules allow you to collect “small quantities,” the hungry bear that feeds off these sweet treats poses the real risk.
Carry bear spray on your hip or harness and keep talking while you walk through this bear buffet.
Follow the Orange Flags
Instead of blazes on this trail, orange flags are placed along the trail while snow is still on the ground. Do NOT venture off the trail marked by these flags, as you could damage sensitive plants and run into a myriad of dangers in the off-trail snow.
Checklist of Items for the Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords National Park
Hiking the Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords National Park: Step-by-Step Guide
Finally, we got ready to ascend the Harding Icefield Trail at Kenai Fjords National Park on an overcast July morning. A quick visit to the nature center taught us the glaciology of what we were about to see.
Read the bulletin board at the start of the trail. It contains important information like avalanche risks and, in our case, an aggressive bear warning. Be sure to sign the guestbook, which also helps park rangers know who is on the trail if an aggressive bear strikes.
We took the Glacial Loop Trail around to get a look at the Exit Glacier before we reached the Harding Icefield Trail, but a more direct path is available by walking down the road, where you’ll meet up with the Glacial Overlook Trail before you get to the trailhead for Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords National Park.
The Ascent of Harding Icefield
The Harding Icefield Trail of Kenai Fjords National Park spans 4.1 miles one way with an average elevation gain of 1,000 feet every mile. This was not intimidating to me. It should have been. I sloppily tried to get my GoPro out but realized I was huffing and puffing like the alleged aggressive bear somewhere on the trail ahead.
Through a series of wooded switchbacks and through sheer fear of brushing up against a plant that was going to burn a tattoo into my hands, I trekked on.
Wooden Bridge Milemarker
Elevation: 922 feet
This wooden bridge over a glacial stream was a nice resting point to catch my breath after the first 0.8 miles of almost 1,000 feet in elevation gain on switchbacks, knowing the more challenging switchbacks were still to come.
Prime bear country fills the next half mile or so on the way to Marmot Meadows. The narrowness of the trail and the thick brush around me left no escape plan if I came face-to-face with the berry-hungry bear. This is why it is important to hike in groups and keep making noise as you go. I opted to keep my bear spray in my hand, just in case.
Marmot Meadows on Harding Icefield Trail
Elevation: 1,572 feet
You’ve earned the break you get at Marmot Meadows, about 1.5 miles into the trail. Also known as “lunch rock,” take some time to fuel up for the next ascent with an epic look at Exit Glacier. You still have 2.6 miles ahead of you, but this view could make a good turnaround point if the steepness of the trail is too challenging.
The Marmot Meadows name comes from the hoary marmot, which was once abundant here. While those numbers dwindled due to plant growth, you might hear one whistle at you from time to time.
TRAVEL TIP: If you really want to see whistling marmots, plan a trip to the Skyline Trail in Mount Rainier National Park.
Bottom of the Cliffs on Harding Icefield Trail
Elevation: 1,788 feet
The next 0.4 miles weave through more meadows, but you’ll keep the Exit Glacier at your left while the narrow, wooded trails have opened up to a “The hills are alive with the sound of music” landscape. Especially at the height of wildflower season in the summer, the views become more vibrant with each step. This would make an excellent campsite.
Is camping allowed on the Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords Natkional Park?
“Camping is permitted along the Harding Icefield Trail corridor, but you must set up camp at least 1/8 mile from the trail on bare rock or snow. Follow the principles of Leave No Trace. Limit group size, find a camp spot that is out of sight from the trail, and avoid crushing fragile vegetation.”kenai fjords national park service rangers
Take a swig of water and stretch out those calves – it’s time to take the switchback stretch, what I consider the hardest part of the Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords National Park. I couldn’t stop looking over my shoulder to see the fjord splayed out behind me.
Top of the Cliffs on Harding Icefield Trail
Elevation: 2,452 feet
I could feel my heartbeat in my hamstrings as I reach the Top of the Cliffs. Snow covers portions of, if not all, of this trail well into July. Remember when we checked that board at the trial base? If you saw an avalanche advisory, this is where you should stop unless you are prepared for mountaineering and have an avalanche probe, shovel, and transceiver (and know how to use them).
Seeing the nunataks became the biggest reward of those switchbacks. The peaks of mountains sticking out like little ice islands remind you that there are 4,000 feet of compacted snow and ice all the way down.
If you are physically able, I highly recommend at least making it this far. That would make the roundtrip on the trail 4.8 miles long. The icefield is in view, and the Exit Glacier looks like a giant sledding hill. I did not take nor find a photo of this view that does it justice.
The Harding Icefield Trail Final Stretch
Emergency Shelter: 3,459 feet
Exhaustingly, I looked at my travel buddy and said, “Does Alaska have longer miles than the Continental U.S.?” We still had 1.7 miles to go, and it felt like we had already gone more than four miles. My legs burned, and were it not for the purple parade of fireweeds stretched out before me, I might have been annoyed.
Why is it called Fireweed?
“Fireweed gets its common name in the United States because it’s notoriously associated with fire landscapes. It quickly colonizes disturbed areas, including fire scars, logged land, and oil spills. It was one of the first plants to appear after the catastrophic eruption of Mount St. Helens in Oregon.“
Fireweed grows abundantly here because it can survive the extreme climate of Alaska.
If you lose sight of the orange flags in the snow, look for the emergency shelter atop a hill near the trail end and walk toward it.
This section of the trail has a certain “Winter Is Coming”/Game of Thrones feel to it. Dark rocks mixed with sections of snow make it feel otherwordly.
A few things hit me here that I wasn’t 100% prepared for, no matter how much research I had done.
- Winds: Yeah, I knew it would be exposed and windy. I didn’t realize it was “knock the breath right out of you” windy.
- Brightness: The trail can be gloomy in some parts but blinding in others, especially near snow. Keep your sunglasses easily accessible above the treeline.
- Brrrr: It got really cold really fast. The mix of sweat from the switchbacks to the chill of the air made me feel like a Slurpee machine. You really have to layer clothing properly here.
The unpredictability of the weather here is why the emergency shelter is in place. This is not a camping location or a place you can rent overnight. It’s just for those who need to escape threatening weather conditions.
The End of the Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords National Park
Finally, we arrived at the top of the Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords National Park. Icefields are devilishly misleading because you just want to keep going. Quite frankly, some people did, edging closer to touch the Exit Glacier, which is receding with each passing year.
My travel buddy wanted to get close to the glacier, hoping to touch it. However, she reached a scree (sediment hill) she didn’t feel safe walking down.
It’s hard to wrap your head around that you’re only seeing a slice of a 700-mile behemoth icefield.
Eventually, fog settled in, and clouds a little too dark for my comfort level began rolling in. The trek back down could have been faster, but slippery conditions and intermittent rain slowed us down. We also took a few extra seconds to appreciate the view before we ducked into the meadows and forest, where our “Hungry Bear Watch” senses had to kick in.
As we walked back to the car, my friend said, “So? Is the office as cold as the Alaskan tundra?”
A mix of sweat and rain dripped down my face, and I sniffled, “Maybe I should start saying it’s as cold as the Arctic tundra. We should go to Gates of the Arctic National Park next to be sure!”
FAQ – Hiking the Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords National Park
A handful of the most expert-level mountaineers will attempt the walk the Harding Icefield each year. That is considered a backcountry hike and should be done through an expert tour guide service based in Seward.
You can read the details in this Teacher’s Guide to Exit Glacier from the National Park Service, but it’s the same reason water and the sky look blue. The long wavelength on the color spectrum, like red, gets gobbled up by the glacier. Concurrently, that leaves the short wavelengths of blue bouncing off the ice crystals within.
The strenuous trail takes six to eight hours, but conditions along the way could slow you down. You’ll also get the benefit of a lot of daylight during summer. From April 22 through August 21, the skies never turn to night.
Is Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords National Park Worth It?
In all seriousness, hiking this trail is not only worth it, but it’s something that should take priority over places that aren’t feeling the effects of climate change so dramatically. In the Kenai Fjords National Park plan for 2004, one of the goals was to promote the park as a place to “touch a glacier.”
The 2018 plan told a different story, with four different options to promote the park, knowing that Exit Glacier is retreating, quickly becoming out of arm’s reach.
Give Your Input for the Future of Kenai Fjords National Park
The Harding Trail at Kenai Fjords National Park is now currently one of the only places where you have a shot at touching the Exit Glacier. It was once a given that you could come to this park and touch one. Now that requires going off the trail, which is strongly discouraged.
Understandably, the retreat and dangerous scree left behind could result in more visitor injuries and an increase in search and rescue operations. One plan for the park’s future is not only to continue to promote the Harding Icefield Trail but make it a more robust trail with more options.
“The NPS could also rebrand, divert, or provide appropriate and safe experiences to address the visitor expectation of touching ice—formalizing the mountaineering route off of the Harding Icefield may be one solution. Additional accessible trails should be considered, given the potential increase and diversity of visitors.”kenai fjords national park, Scenario Planning Discussions for the Future Frontcountry
Management Plan, 2018
Obviously, Kenai Fjords National Park isn’t doomed if the glaciers are gone. The landscape left behind brings its own ecosystems waiting to be explored. As much as bears and moose roam this tundra, there’s a living, breathing dynamic to the glaciers and icefields that command respect and preservation.
Most of all, Kenai Fjords National Park needs appreciation for what it is now and where it has been, with more than 23,000 years of evolution behind it.
Pin the Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords
Map of the Harding Icefield Trail
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