Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska is a land of breathtaking beauty and diverse wildlife. One of the park’s most iconic hikes is the Harding Ice Trail, which winds through the stunning Exit Glacier and provides an up-close look at the Harding Icefield. The Harding Ice Trail is a challenging hike, but the incredible views and unforgettable experience make it well worth the effort. In this guide, we’ll take you through everything you need to know to hike the Harding Ice Trail.
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Getting to Kenai Fjords National Park
Kenai Fjords National Park is located in the southern region of Alaska. Many visitors make it part of an itinerary that includes Seward, as it is just a short drive away. It is about a 40 minute drive from Seward to Exit Glacier (where the hike begins).
If you plan to make this your first stop in Alaska and you are flying in, you’ll most commonly arrive at Ted Stevens International Airport (Anchorage). From Anchorage it is about a 3 hour drive, however I would allocate a bit more time as the drive is breathtaking and we stopped at a few places for pictures.
A 3rd option is to take the train from Anchorage to Seward on the Alaska Railroad. This train is not cheap! It will set you back about $360 dollars (round trip) and is a 5 hour journey. There is also no easy transportation from the train stop in Seward to exit glacier.
*Travel Tip: car rentals in Alaska (especially in summer months) are expensive! Book ahead of time and if you find a better rate you can always cancel and rebook.*
The best time to hike the Harding Ice Field
Summer (June-August): This is the peak tourist season in Kenai Fjords National Park, and the trail can be quite crowded. However, the weather is generally mild and dry, making it a great time to hike. The days are also longer, which gives you more time to complete the hike. Keep in mind that the trail may still have snow and ice during early summer, so be prepared for varying trail conditions.
Fall (September-November): Fall is a beautiful time to hike the Harding Ice Trail as the leaves change color, and the crowds thin out. Be prepared with warm layers and rain gear because the weather can be cooler and wetter than in the summer. The trail conditions can also be more challenging in the fall due to the changing weather.
Winter (December-March): Winter hiking on the Harding Ice Trail is not recommended for inexperienced hikers. Snow and ice can cover the trail, creating more challenges and hazards.
Spring (April-May): Spring is another beautiful time to hike the Harding Ice Trail as the snow begins to melt, and the wildflowers begin to bloom. However, snow and ice can still cover the trail, especially during early spring, which can make it more challenging. Be prepared for changing trail conditions and potentially slippery terrain.
Essential Tips for Hiking the Harding Ice Field
The Harding Ice Trail is a strenuous, 8.2-mile round trip hike with an elevation gain of 3,500 feet.
Before setting out, make sure to check the weather forecast for the day and dress accordingly. The unpredictable weather in this area means you should always be prepared for anything. Also as the elevation changes, so can the weather. While at the base it was sunny, but by the time we reached the top it was snowing.
Hiking the Harding Ice Trail doesn’t demand any permits, but you’ll need to pay a park entrance fee of $10 per person. If you plan on camping overnight in the park, you’ll need to obtain a backcountry permit. This can be obtained at the Exit Glacier Visitor Center. You can also use a America the Beautiful Pass here for free entry.
This is bear country! Ensure you prepare for the possible chance of bear encounters. Bear spray is important to have on hand. We did see one bear while we were hiking to the top, luckily it ran away as soon as it saw
Hiking the Harding Icefield
The first part of the trail is relatively easy, with a gentle incline and a few stream crossings. However, after about a mile, the trail starts to get steeper and more challenging.
At around mile 1.5, you’ll come across a sign that warns you that the trail ahead is strenuous and that hikers should be in good physical condition. This is where the real climb begins.
For the next couple of miles, the trail becomes steep and rocky. You’ll need to use your hands and feet to scramble over boulders and rocks, and the trail becomes more narrow and exposed in some places.
The trail also becomes more challenging as it climbs up the rocky ridge to the top of the icefield. In some sections, hikers must use ropes and chains that we’ve installed to help pull themselves up and navigate the steep terrain.
At around mile 3.5, you’ll reach the top of the ridge and the trail levels off a bit. However, you’re not quite at the end yet. From here, it’s another mile or so to reach the top of the Harding Icefield.
Even in some of the summer months it can be dangerous to reach the final stretch of the trail. In June three of us made it to the stretch and multiple park rangers warned us of the possibility of an avalanche, so we had to come back at a later day to avoid that risk.
Once you reach the top, take some time to rest and soak in the stunning views. You’ll be standing on top of a massive sheet of ice that’s over 700 square miles in size and several thousand feet thick in some places.
The descent can be just as challenging as the climb. Take your time and be careful on the way back down. Overall, the Harding Ice Trail is a challenging but incredibly rewarding hike that’s sure to be a highlight of any trip to Kenai Fjords National Park.
Hiking the Harding Ice Trail is an unforgettable experience that offers incredible views and a sense of accomplishment that comes from conquering one of the most challenging hikes in Kenai Fjords National Park.
The trail may be strenuous, but with careful preparation and a sense of adventure, hikers of all levels can tackle this incredible trek. From the lush forests and stunning waterfalls to the rugged terrain and breathtaking views. The Harding Ice Trail is truly a one-of-a-kind hike that will leave you with memories to last a lifetime.
So, grab your hiking boots and get ready to experience the natural wonder of the Alaskan wilderness on the Harding Ice Trail!