2012  HIKING, CYCLING,

& RV TRAVEL ADVENTURES

 

   
 
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   EXPLORING EXIT GLACIER IN
   KENAI FJORDS NATIONAL PARK

FRIDAY, JULY 6

 
"At Exit Glacier -- the only part of [Kenai Fjords National Park] -- you can get close enough 
to peer into deep blue glacial crevasses. Although retreating, Exit Glacier is active. 
Large blocks of ice calve from its face without warning. The short stroll to Exit Glacier
is like a trip back through time. Here the story unfolds of how plant life
reclaims barren rocky land exposed by the glacier's retreat."
 
~ from the Kenai Fjords National Park brochure
 
 
This afternoon we drove to Exit Glacier, one of forty glaciers flowing out of the massive Harding Icefield above Seward (the ice field is about 50 miles long and 30 miles wide).

It is the only place visitors can drive into any part of Kenai Fjords National Park and one of the few glaciers in Alaska that are easily accessible to most visitors by road and trails. In addition, there is no entrance fee to see the glacier, hike the nearby trails, and browse in the nature center.

What a deal!

 
In this zoomed-in view of Exit Glacier from the road,
you can see the edge of the Harding Icefield in the distance.

Rugged Kenai Fjords National Park covers almost 670,000 acres of ice, snow, fjords, and temperate rain forests wedged between the frigid coastal waters of the Gulf of Alaska and the tips of jagged mountain peaks poking above the Harding Icefield.

Throughout the year storms drop hundreds of inches of snow on the higher elevations, feeding the ice field and glaciers. The landscape is constantly changing as Mother Nature sculpts it.

Here's part of a map of Kenai Fjords National Park that shows the Harding Icefield -- all the white is ice or year-round snow and includes the larger glaciers. The ice field is mostly in the park (thick green boundary line) and partly in the adjacent Kenai National Wildlife Refuge:

If you click on the link above you can see the whole map -- and large enough to read it.

Despite the harsh environment, wildlife flourishes in the narrow slice of forest that paints the low elevations bright green -- moose, bears, wolverines, mountain goats, marmots, bald eagles, songbirds, and other species live there.

Native Alaskans hunted and fished in the fjords for many years, and Russian fur traders and gold seekers passed through. The National Park Service preserves both natural and cultural resources in Kenai Fjords.


Another glacier in Kenai Fjords NP that is visible from the trail to Exit Glacier

This is one of more difficult parks to access in the entire U. S. national park system. Except for Exit Glacier you'll need either a plane or boat to see anything else at Kenai Fjords.

Authorized commercial guide services offer camping, fishing, and kayaking trips. Air charters fly over the coast for sightseeing and access to the fjords. Boat tours ply the coast observing calving glaciers, seabirds, and marine mammals on day trips. Boat charters also offer overnight fjord and fishing trips.


Tall white flowers in the rainforest near the Exit Glacier nature center

The park has no food service. It maintains a few summer-use coastal backcountry cabins that can be reached by boat, kayak, or float plane. Exit Glacier also has walk-in summer-use campsites.

In addition to the park website, you can also learn more about visiting Kenai Fjords National Park at the visitor center in Seward and the nature center at Exit Glacier. Both have maps, publications, and ranger information. The visitor center has several films and the nature center offers ranger-led hikes.

VISITING EXIT GLACIER

The 8.6-mile paved road to the Exit Glacier Nature Center intersects with the Seward Hwy. about three miles north of Seward.

Itís a good road to drive, walk, run, or cycle. Itís flat and very scenic along the Resurrection River with beautiful mountain views to the south and west:

 

We started seeing Exit Glacier (below the red arrow) about two miles before we reached the nature center:

 

 

Between that overlook and the nature center we saw these two signs indicating how far Exit Glacier extended into the valley in 1815 and 1894:

 

The glacier has receded significantly in the last century.


Good view of Exit Glacier on the approach to the nature center

Our first stop was the handsome nature center,

where we browsed the exhibits and interpretive panels, picked up the park brochure and a more detailed trail map, and asked the rangers some questions.

We also had some fun with the moose antler bench outside . . .

. . . and the "canned" moose and bears inside:

 

By the way, the cans hold little stuffed bear and moose toys!

FOUR TRAIL CHOICES

Several trails offer different views of the glacier:

  • "Glacier View" is a relatively flat, one-mile roundtrip wheelchair-accessible loop that leads to a panoramic view of Exit Glacier from the creek that flows from it through the valley. Part of this trail is paved; the rest is smooth crushed rock. It is shown as a solid yellow line on the trail map below.

  • "Toe of the Glacier" is a one-mile trail out and back (= two miles total, or more) to the leading edge or "terminus" of the glacier. This trail is also fairly flat but has trickier footing once it leaves the forest. It requires crossing the rocky outwash plain through which the glacial melt drains into Exit Creek, then the Resurrection River. This area is not always accessible due to shifting streams or flooding and there is no defined trail once you're down in the outwash. We didn't walk there today but we could see the whole area from higher up on "Edge" trail (described next). The "Toe" and "Edge" trails are the dotted yellow lines on the map below:


Part of an interpretive panel showing the trail system at Exit Glacier

  • The "Edge of the Glacier" trail is 1.2-miles to the right (north) side of the glacier on a moderately strenuous trail that is partly rocky and hilly (= 2.4 miles total). It crosses bedrock and moraines, leading to a wall of blue ice at the edge of the glacier. As the glacier recedes park staff must adjust the trail to allow visitors to get as close as possible to the ice without being in danger. There is a loop near the end of this trail.  The "Edge" trail is shown in the dotted yellow lines above. Beyond the Glacier View trail the Edge trail goes up and down about 100 feet. The glacier itself ascends 2,700 feet to the Harding Icefield over its three-mile length.

  • The "Harding Icefield" trail (4.1 miles one way) is a steep trail that follows the glacier's flank to an overlook of the huge ice field at the top of Exit Glacier. The lower portion is shown in the white dotted lines above.


Ranger-led group at Glacier View overlook

There are several ranger-led hikes each day in the summer. We opted out of the one at 2 PM because it went only to the Glacier View area and we wanted to see a lot more than that. I ran into the group later.

All the trails begin at the nature center on the paved Glacier View Trail, then veer off at various points.


Note the date:  Exit Glacier extended to this point in 1917.

We followed the paved trail (shown above) about 1/3 mile, then continued on the dirt-and-rock Edge trail as we hiked outbound today.

On the way back we completed the Edge loop near the glacier. When we got back to the Glacier View loop (solid yellow line below), Jim returned to the nature center the way we went outbound. I turned right to see the rest of the Glacier View loop and a different perspective of the glacier and outwash plain.

Jim walked about 2.5 miles and I did a little over 3 miles. My route is shown below:

TRAIL TO THE GLACIER'S EDGE

After we got off the paved Glacier View trail we followed the signs for the Edge trail. It was wide and flat with smooth crushed rock to begin with, then got more narrow, rocky, and hilly as we got closer to the glacier.

These photos are in order as we approached Exit Glacier:

 


The toe (leading edge) of the glacier was out to here in 1961.

There are lots of interpretive panels like this one along the trails:

They explain all sorts of things about the formation and movement of glaciers, the concept of "succession" (how plants take hold over the years in the moraine soil and rocks after glaciers recede), and other topics.

Continued on the next page . . .

Happy trails,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the ultra Lab

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© 2012 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

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