Iconic Hikes Vol. 6: Harding Icefield Trail
Otherworldly views of a massive icefield are the reward for tackling this challenging 8.2 mile out and back hike within Kenai Fjords National Park.
This edition of Iconic Hikes features one of the only maintained trails within Kenai Fjords National Park, the Harding Icefield Trail. It may not be the easiest way to get up close views of Exit Glacier, but the 4.1 mile uphill route reveals stunning new sights of the glacier at every turn. And at the end of the trail is a surreal vista of the Harding Icefield, a vast expanse of snow and ice stretching to the horizon.
Begin your hike at Kenai Fjords’ Nature Center, located at the end of Glacier Road, about a 20 minute drive outside Seward, Alaska. Follow the paved trail behind the nature center for about a half of a mile to the Harding Icefield trailhead. Along the trail (as well as along the drive in) placards note the location of the glacier’s terminus in years past. The signs offer an easy way for visitors to visualize the effect a retreating glacier has on the landscape, and witness firsthand the increasing speed at which the glacier is receding, due in part to climate change.
After turning onto the Harding Icefield Trail, the route begins to climb steadily as it winds through the forest. As the path gains elevation, the forest thins and becomes open meadows, revealing views of the valley below and your first sights of the glacier’s terminus. The path climbs well above the treeline and, in the final stretch, weaves through a seemingly barren expanse of scree and rock. A short distance from the emergency shelter, the trail tops out on a ridge with views of the Harding Icefield. Several social trails meander to various overlooks closer to the edge.
Including the 30 glaciers that spawn from its snowy expanse, Harding Icefield covers 700 square miles of the Kenai Peninsula, a portion of which lies within the boundaries of Kenai Fjords National Park. From the top of the trail, the icefield disappears into the horizon (or clouds, depending on the weather). Nunataks, the lonely peaks of buried mountains, can be seen breaking through the sheet of snow and ice. The air is noticeably colder, chilled from the frozen mass before you.
Return the way you came, taking an extra look at the river valley below you and the ice capped peaks above you. Thousands of years ago, this whole area was once hidden beneath a frozen expanse, the Harding Icefield now just a fraction of what once was.
Distance: 8.2 miles out and back, plus a short approach trail.
Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous, with around 3000 feet of elevation gain.
Trailhead: Exit Glacier Nature Center
Route: From the Nature Center, follow the paved approach trail to the Harding Icefield Trailhead. Follow the trail to its terminus at a vista of the icefield, just past the emergency use shelter. Return by the same route.
Permits: None, and Kenai Fjords has no entrance fee as well.
Overnight Possible: Yes, but you must camp 1/8 miles from the trail on bare rock or snow. The emergency shelter is also off limits for overnight camping.
Best Time To Go: Spring and summer. Snow usually blocks the road from November to early May. Weather in Seward can be unpredictable, so aim for a clear day and hope for the best. Pack rain gear and layers. Don’t continue up the trail if conditions become dangerous.
Where to Poop: Not a lot of good locations, try and use the pit toilets at the Nature Center before leaving.