Alaska Road Trip Part 1: Kenai Fjords National Park
Explore the calving glaciers, rugged coastline, and expansive views within Kenai Fjords National Park.
For anyone who yearns to explore the outdoors, the draw of Alaska is inescapable. The 49th state features 8 National Parks, plus numerous other protected areas and public spaces, with a wide range of accessibility. One could spend a lifetime exploring the wide open wilds found within the state. For two weeks during shoulder season, a group of friends and I got just a taste of what Alaska has to offer.
After flying into Anchorage, we drove south to the small port city of Seward, just outside the boundaries of Kenai Fjords National Park. The town serves as an excellent home base for exploring the different environments found in the park. Snag a tent site in Seward’s own waterfront park for excellent views of the bay and easy proximity to downtown.
One of the best ways to experience the glaciers of the Kenai Peninsula is from the water, so book a kayak tour from one of the numerous companies operating out of Seward. There are many options to choose from, but I opted for a day long trip into Aialik Bay. A note of caution: the water taxi out to the bay can take several hours, and when the weather is less than ideal (which is common in September) the seas can be rough. If you’re prone to motion sickness, this may not be the trip for you.
Along the way, the coastline unfolds into a series of steep and rugged fjords that give the park its name, carved from glaciers over thousands of years. After disembarking on a rocky shore within Aialik bay, we paddled out in tandem kayaks to get a closer look at nearby Holgate Glacier. Keep an eye out for wildlife along the shore. We saw a couple of black bears meandering along the coast, and two bald eagles perched high on a spruce tree. Otters and harbor seals occasionally popped their heads above the surface to get a look at us.
The size and power of the tidewater glacier is in full display as you float nearby. Runoff from melting ice churns into the bay, and thunder rumbles across the water as sections of the glacier calve off, littering the sea around you with large chunks of ice. A hanging glacier caps an adjacent valley, its runoff cascading into the bay in a series of waterfalls. After exploring more of the coastline in your kayak, you’ll board the water taxi once again for the return trip to Seward.
However you don’t need to take to the water to get up close views of one of Kenai’s glaciers. Set aside a day and make the short drive outside of Seward to Kenai Fjords’ Exit Glacier Area, where you’ll find the park’s only maintained trails. From the Nature Center, short trails lead to the base of Exit Glacier, or for a much more strenuous hike, follow the Harding Icefield Trail, which climbs the ridge next to the glacier, revealing breathtaking views and an expansive vista of an otherworldly environment. Along the road and trails, take note of the small signs marking specific years. These designate the historic reach of Exit Glacier, now significantly receded.
Kenai Fjords National Park is defined by the massive icefield at the core of the peninsula, and the resulting glaciers that have carved the dramatic bays and shorelines of the park. Whether by land or sea, the glaciers reveal some of the ongoing ways in which the natural world is actively being shaped, and the effect climate change is having on these environments.
From Seward, our group headed back toward Anchorage to explore a river valley in Chugach State Park.
Fees: No entry fee
Best Time To Go: Late May to early September. Kayak tours are seasonal, and Glacier Road into Kenai Fjords Exit Glacier Area is closed with snow.
Camping: City of Seward Waterfront Park $10/tent, Exit Glacier primitive sites, free (tent only).
Other Attractions: Alaska SeaLife Center, in Seward - An aquarium, research, and rehabilitation center. It's worth a visit to learn more about the marine life and ecosystems of the area.