There aren’t enough superlatives to describe the Exit Glacier/Harding Ice Field Trail near Seward–that in four short miles and an elevation gain of about 4,000 feet–takes one back 10,000 years, to the Pleistocene Ice Age, when most of southcentral Alaska was covered with glaciers.
Epic. Stunning. Awesome. World Class.
If for some reason I was told I could only take one more hike in my life, this would be the one.
To reach the trail, turn into Exit Glacier Road at mile 3.7 of the Seward Highway, and travel nine miles to the parking area in Kenai Fjords National Park. Sign posts along the way indicate the locations of the retreating glacier’s terminus dating back hundreds of years. From the parking lot it’s a short one-fourth mile hike down a paved trail to the trailhead. Signing the register is a good idea to let park rangers know you’re on the trail, but if you do, remember to SIGN OUT. There is no entrance or camping fee for the park.
The trail is steep in places, but has been built over many years with switchbacks that make it truly one of the most hiker-friendly trails in the state. The trail’s early builders include the Raliegh Group from the U.K., the Student Conservation Association (high school students); Boy Scouts of America, private volunteers from Seward, members of the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. National Parks Service.
Take your time. In summer you will have more than enough daylight to complete the hike, even with plenty of rest and photo stops.
The trail winds through cottonwood and alder forests, passes though heather-filled meadows and ultimately climbs well above tree line to a breathtaking view of the 300-square-mile ice field that caps the Kenai Peninsula. For the top half of the hike, you’ll have the heavily crevassed Exit Glacier on your left-hand side for an incredible view. The glacier is named “Exit” because rather than flowing to the ocean, it ends on land and thus offers an egress for adventurers bold enough to take on its expanse.
Along the trail, you’ll have a good chance of seeing mountain goats, bears, moose, eagles, marmots and ptarmigan.
When you reach the top of the trail your jaw will drop at the spectacular beauty of the ice field. You’ll see small mountains poking above the ice, which are called “nunataks.” These mountain “islands” are what our Chugach Mountains looked like thousands of years ago, when ice covered the Mat-Su and Anchorage Bowl to a depth of up to 2,000 feet.
People generally filter water from streams along the trail, but I have never done so and suffered no ill effects.
Weather can change quickly near the glacier, so I highly recommend a raincoat or windbreaker, rain pants, gloves, an extra layer (polar fleece), lightweight gloves, wool hat, some micro-spikes for boots and plenty of high-calorie food to stoke the body furnace.
I recommend this hike for young and old alike–but preferably after mid-to-late July when all the snow has melted.
You won’t see dinosaurs, but you’ll get to see a significant part of Alaska the way it once was–a part that is shrinking before our eyes.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer and ECHO News team member who lives in Eagle River with his wife Rebekah, a retired grade school teacher.