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Harding Icefield Trail – The Arrival
We arrived at the Harding Icefield Trail just north of Seward, Alaska mid-morning on the 4th of July. We were excited about what our day would bring. I had heard of the Harding Icefield and even drove by the trailhead on previous trips to the Kenai Peninsula and always wondered what an icefield is like. Maybe today I would get to see one, and not just any icefield, but the Harding Icefield, a 300+ square mile sheet of ice up to 1,500 feet deep spawning up to 40 glaciers which together cover 700+ square miles! I couldn’t even imagine what that might look like or how it would make me feel if I had the opportunity to peer out over it’s expanse. I was also curious what it would be like to have an almost birdseye view of the Exit Glacier.
Our group consisted of 9 with 2 children (13 and 11) and we hailed from South Alabama. In south Alabama the elevation is just about sea level and the weather is warm most of the year. We took a stroll through the National Park’s Exit Glacier Nature Center before we started our hike up the 8.2 mile, 3,500 feet elevation rise round trip adventure. The hike is an out and back route. The first half of the journey including a 1,000 feet per mile average elevation gain. For those of you who have not hiked too much, that is a pretty strenuous day trip.
The First Ascent
As started up the hill, we meandered through some beautiful Alaskan forest and then began our climb up some sharp switchbacks with some gorgeous mountain streams and wildflowers. The first mile and a half of the trail was a study of the plants and trees of the Kenai Peninsula. There were some great photo opps. Althought this section of the trail made our legs burn a bit, it was manageable for the casual hiker. There were plenty of places to stop on the trail to rest before catching a second and third wind.
The farther we traveled up the mountain, the more strenuous the trail became. Rests became more frequent and the trip slowed to a snails pace. The team split into two groups to accomodate for the ones struggling most.
A Spectacular View from Marmot Meadows
About 1.4 miles into the hike we made it to Marmot Meadows. This section of the trail is where the breathtaking views begin. Standing just beside and above Exit glacier peering off the cliffs of Marmot Meadow is like being on a different planet. The blue ice contrasted with the rocky cliffs is a sight I will remember for the rest of my life.
After some sightseeing and a break from the climb we continued onward. The trees began to become very sparse and the snow and ice made things a little tricky. The next couple miles was like hiking on a sheet of hard snow with a small trail beaten in by hikers who had gone before. The steep cliffs were especially scary as I was watching my every step while trying to oversee my son’s maneuvers through the snow and ice. Some of the banks were high and very steep and there were a couple times we seriously considered turning back and calling it a day.
The End of the Trail
It seemed like we hiked for hours (although only a couple) trying to make our way to the lookout over the Harding Icefield. About 3.9 miles in, we could finally see what looked like the end of the planet, and in some ways it was.
Although this trip up the mountain was a very difficult afternoon, the view from the Harding Icefield Trail was worth ten times the work! No one can describe the vastness and beauty of the ocean of white snow and ice that stretched before us as we stood at the edge of those rocks.
The trip down was like most trips down a mountain. It was tough on the legs and much faster in pace. What made the descent better than most was the fact that you could “ski” down big sections of the trail. We had a blast seeing who could make it the farthest without falling in the snow.
At the base of the mountain we were thrilled to end our long day trip of about 9 hours. The nice restrooms and welcoming gift shop was a fun way to end our adventure! And needless to say, everyone slept like a hibernating Alaksa Brown Bear that night!
- Icefield: a wide flat expanse of floating ice, especially in polar regions
- Name: Harding Icefield named after President Warren G. Harding
- Length: 4.2 miles in and out totalling 8.4 miles.
- Elevation Change: 3,500 feet averaging almost 1,000 feet per mile
- Size: 300+ square miles of main icefied spawning almost 40 glaciers all encompassing 700+ square miles
- Depth: Up to 1,500 feet
The Harding Icefield Trail is a relatively strenuous trail for the casual visitor to Alaska. There are several places on the trail where the view was worth the hike and those who need less challenge can turn back for the welcome center. A particularly gorgeous turn back point is Marmot Meadows and the amazing view of the Exit Glacier. As the ice begins and the trees end, the trail turns to ice/snow most of the year. Trail conditions can vary greatly anytime of the year. You can find out what the condition is today here. Those with knee problems, leg issues or heart conditions are advised to choose another one of the gorgeous trails around the Seward area. Here is a list of a couple alternatives.
Sites Along the Way
- 0.8 Miles – Beautiful Wooden Bridge over Rolling Mountain Stream (922 ft elevation)
- 1.4 Miles – Marmot Meadows with the Best Views of Exit Glacier (1572 ft elevation)
- 1.8 Miles – Bottom of the Cliffs starting the Switchbacks up the Mountain (1788 ft elevation)
- 2.4 Miles – Top of the Cliffs Overlook (2452 ft elevation)
- 3.9 Miles – The Emergency Shelter for Inclement Weather (3459 ft elevation)
- 4.2 Miles – End of Trail and Breathtaking Overlook of Harding Icefield (3512 ft elevation)
This report comes from the National Park Service
The weather at Kenai Fjords is difficult to predict and can change rapidly. The area generally enjoys a relatively temperate maritime climate, primarily due to the influence of the Japanese current that flows through the Gulf of Alaska.
Summer daytime temperatures range from the mid 40s to the low 70s (Fahrenheit). Overcast and cool rainy days are frequent. It is not unusual to get several long periods of continuous rain in the summer months, but we do have some glorious sunny days as well. Snow often remains in the higher elevations through June or July.
Winter temperatures can range from the low 30s to -20. The Exit Glacier area averages close to 200 inches of snowfall annually, but conditions vary greatly. Storms dumping several feet of snow are common, as are rainy mid-winter days with temperatures hovering in the mid-upper 30s.
How to Get There
The drive to Exit Glacier and the Harding Icefield Trail is one of the most beautiful drives in the world. Head East from Anchorag along the Seward Highway (AK Hwy 1). Continue down the Kenai Pensinsula until you see the signs leading the way. Make sure to consider a stop at Alyeska Ski Resort, Portage Glacier, the Alaska Wildlife Nature Conservancy Center, and sites along Moose Pass.
Harding Icefield Trail – A View Worth the Work
If you are planning a trip to the Kenai Peninsula do not fail to plan some time around Exit Glacier and the Harding Icefields. Several options are available for all skill levels and physical condition. If you choose to do the hard work of hiking the main trail, you will not be disappointed and will be proud you made it to the top.
Gear for the Hike
The gear you choose will likely determine how comfortable you feel exploring the Harding Icefield Trail and Exit Glacier. Here are some recommendations that score a consistently high rating on Amazon.
If you a casual hiker, a very good set of hiking boots is a bare minimum for the Harding Icefield Trail. A good pair of hiking boots should not break the bank unless you are a serious long-term explorer. You can expect to pay around $100-120 for a decent pair of boots. It will be the best investment you will make to feel safe and be comfortable. I highly recommend waterproof boots for Alaska, particularly when hiking the Harding Icefield Trail. Here are 4 options.
Rain is not overly common at the Harding Icefield Trail, but it’s always good to be prepared. Here is my choice for the best balance between price and functionality.
Trekking poles are not a necessity, but they are very useful navigating the ice of the Harding Icefield Trail. No need to spend a ton on them unless you are a serious trekker and want to use the for future adventures.
Crampons are blades used for walking on ice and snow that clamp onto your hiking boots on the outside to allow for excellent gripping on the ice. They are used for more serious climbs and treks so are not necessary for the average visitor to the Harding Icefield Trail and the Exit Glacier.