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Exit Glacier and Harding Icefield

Kenai Fjords National Park, AK

     Exit Glacier, the only area of Kenai Fjords National Park accessible by car, is one of thirty-five glaciers that flow off the vast Harding Icefield. The Icefield is the largest in North America, and it remains as a 300 square mile vestige of the last ice age. In this park intrepid hikers can not only trek to Exit Glacier; they can also venture up a strenuous trail to the Harding Icefield.

     Our exploration of the glacier began at the visitor center, where we headed out onto the paved trail, a 0.25 mile path where you will notice signs posted along the side that are labeled with years. These represent where the terminus of the glacier existed in that era, and it is amazing to note just how far it has retreated. In fact, it is believed that the glacier once extended all the way to the town of Seward, almost 8 miles away.

     At the end of the paved path you will see a kiosk containing displays about the glacier and the local fauna. Beyond the kiosk, you have your choice of three trails, The Lower Loop, The Upper Loop, and The Nature Trail. The first trail we set out on was the Lower Loop Trail, a 0.5 mile loop that leads to the outwash plain at the face of the glacier. Making our trek a little more difficult then normal, was the fact that recent flooding had closed a portion of the trail. Instead of an easy stroll along a marked trail, we now had to improvise with a small scramble over a rock face. We made our way through some densely packed trees along the edge of the river to a small cliff that required a climb across, and down its face to the outwash plain, a flat gravelly area downstream from the terminal moraine. From there it was a straight shot to the towering chunks of blue and white ice that make up the face of Exit Glacier. Several signs are posted near the glacier’s face warning of the potential danger associated with getting to close, and yet several people waltz right up and stand directly below the massive chunks of ice. But unless you feel the need to risk being crushed by a calving glacier, I suggest you heed the warning signs. After all, you wouldn’t want to win a Darwin Award for your contribution to Natural Selection. Besides that, the views are just as magnificent from behind the danger zone.

     Continuing on towards the Upper Loop Trail, a 1 mile loop, the views become even more spectacular. Along this hike you gain some elevation and by so doing are able to see the glacier from a higher vantage point. Steps made from rock and wood help to make the 100 foot climb a little less taxing. From the top you can see huge crevasses and towering seracs juxtaposed against a beautiful mountain, the view is out of this world. The vastness of Exit Glacier is unbelievable, and for those who climb to the Harding Icefield the views become even more fantastic.

     The hike up to the Harding Icefield is a strenuous, 7.7 mile roundtrip, hike that gains 3000 feet. That is just a little over 1000ft per mile, making the trail very steep and suitable only for hikers in good condition. We set off on our hike prepared for a myriad of weather conditions, hopeful that the current dreary weather would soon pass, but realistic enough to know that our views were probably going to be limited. Fog, rain, and poor visibility are common in this area, and it appeared as though we were going to encounter all three conditions on our journey. We stopped to sign the hiker’s register and then began our climb up the slippery, muddy banks of the glacier—catching glimpse of a ptarmigan along the way. The trail starts off in the forest and there are no views of the glacier until you reach the 1.5 mile point. We stopped here, near a rock outcrop, and admired the icy vista. The view is slightly obscured by trees, but it gives a taste of what is yet to come. Just one mile further and the views really open up, at mile 2.5 you rise above treeline and enter into an alpine environment complete with fields of wildflowers. The enormity of the ice field is now perfectly evident, as it seems as though it stretches on forever.

     As we continued to push our way up the steep trail, we noticed a dark figure moving on the hillside far in the distance. With the help of binoculars we identified the figure as a black bear. The bear was clipping along at a hefty pace, making its way down the mountain. It was a good reminder to stay alert while hiking through the wooded areas, the last thing you want to do is startle a bear! We also encountered a friendly marmot who watched us struggle up the mountain from his perch on a boulder, he looked at us as if we were crazy, that or marmots just have a judgmental way about them. As we left the marmot behind, the trail began to loose its maintained appearance. The last portion of the trail follows the lateral moraine and exposed bedrock above Exit Glacier, making the remainder of the hike one of following cairns and sloshing through snowfields. Fun! Most of our favorite hikes incorporate some sort of trekking across unmaintained routes.

     Hiking through the snow was incredibly entertaining, and not all that easy. The snow was really slushy, and it made hiking a challenge. In addition to the slushy snow, the fog was beginning to set in over the Icefield. Despite the lack of visibility we decided to push on as far as we could manage to go. Through the fog we could just make out the outline of the shelter that sits below the overlook. Dew from the fog was settling on everything we owned, including our eyelashes. A brief respite from the rain was taken when we reached the shelter, and then we hiked on to the overlook. We could only briefly catch sight of the sprawling sea of frozen water known as the Harding Icefield before the clouds would conspire again to block the entire view. But the glimpses we managed to steal were beyond belief. I can only imagine how amazing it is on a clear day.

     Our return hike was pretty wet and dreary, but nonetheless the vistas were still incredible. Seeing the river of ice flowing down the mountain is exactly how I pictured Alaska, and even though we didn’t get expansive views of the Icefield the journey was still worth every step.




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