Hiker at the end of the Harding Icefield Trail, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska.
Of all the wonderful hiking trails in the Seward area, the Harding Icefield trail is my favorite. It has everything; amazing scenery and wildlife. The wildlife on this trail includes plenty of marmots, but there is a very good chance you will see bears and mountain goats as well. But the real attraction has to be the scenery – specifically Exit Glacier and the Harding Icefield. If you have never stood at the edge of an icefield and looked out at mile after mile of ice, snow and nunataks (mountain rising out of the icefield), it is an amazing experience! I have spent some wonderful nights on the edge of Harding Icefield with my tent watching some beautiful sunsets and sunrises.
The trail is about 8 miles round trip – that isn’t too bad, but like most trails in the Seward area, you do a lot of climbing – it has a 3,000 vertical foot rise in total. If you don’t do a lot of hiking, you are going to feel the climb
The trail begins near Exit Glacier – there is a clearly marked turn off shortly before you get to the glacier. From there, it doesn’t take long before you begin climbing. The first stretch offers some nice views of the valley, along with a medium sized waterfall. The Park Service does a wonderful job at maintaining the trail – there are a few steep spots early on where you might have to put a hand down, but after that, there isn’t anything tricky. I understand they will be moving the trail around these steeper places in the Summer of 2008.
A stream along the Harding Icefield Trail.
After you emerge from the forest you cross a small stream, and enter a fairly long stretch in thick alders where you can’t see a lot. Don’t give up on the trail here – you will be greatly rewarded once you emerge from the alders and on to the alpine tundra region at about the halfway mark. Once you hit the tundra, the views are terrific in almost every direction.
Lupine and Exit Glacier near the halfway point of the Harding Icefield Trail.
The final stretch is actually above the tundra and pretty much just on rock and snow. If you hike up there before August, you will likely be hiking mostly on snow for the final mile. Follow the stakes and the dirty footprint trail in the snow and you won’t get lost. Near the end of the trail is a small weather shelter – this building gives you a nice visual reference – everything is so big up there, you will lose all sense of scale.
Don’t turn around at the shelter, the final reward is just up over the rise beyond the shelter. If you have the energy, it is fun to hike down to the edge of the Icefield – some years there is a pooled river and tunnel at this section of the icefield – other years, a dramatic waterfall. Every year is different and unique.
You do want to be prepared for bears, particularly black bears. I carry bear spray and make noise while passing through the thick vegetation – especially when I’m hiking by myself. I was camped up there one night in August and a young couple showed up a little after 1:00 a.m. – I can’t imagine hiking through the thicker areas in the dark, but they did it.
Make sure you bring water and a lunch, it will be a long day. There are plenty of water sources on the trail if you run out – it would probably be wise to filter it – although I don’t.
I think it is safe to say this is one hike you will never forget!
2009 Update: The trail now bypasses the steepest sections – you no longer have to use your hands to scamble over any portion of the trial. The trail now also bypasses the waterfall – listen carefully in the early switch backs and watch for a small spur trail that will provide a nice view of the waterfall.