2012  HIKING, CYCLING,

& RV TRAVEL ADVENTURES

 

   
 
Runtrails' Web Journal
 
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   IT'S LONELY AT THE TOP: AN AWESOME HIKE TO
THE HARDING ICEFIELD
IN KENAI FJORDS NP

SATURDAY, JULY 7

"Ice stretches as far as the eye can see, interrupted by an occasional jagged nunatak, 
Eskimo for "lonely peak." The Harding Icefield's expanse covers over half of 669,983-acre 
Kenai Fjords National Park and conceals a mountain range under ice several thousand
feet thick. Named for President Warren G. Harding . . . the ice field is a relic from the
last ice age. It gives us a glimpse of when ice covered much of North America."
 
~ from the Kenai Fjords National Park brochure
 
 
I have no doubt that today's hike up to the Harding Icefield will rank as one of my lifetime top-ten mountain trail adventures!

It's the first (and perhaps last) time I've ever stood at the edge of an ice field. How "cool" is that?

In some ways it wasn't as awesome as numerous hikes and runs I've done in the Rockies. For example, it wasn't at nearly the elevation of the 14ers in Colorado or as colorful as previous runs and hikes in the Grand Teton or Bighorn mountain ranges.

But gazing out over an immense span of white at the top of the Kenai Range, knowing ice is thousands of feet thick under the blanket of snow??

Seeing the top of a three-mile long glacier??

Knowing that the "rockpiles" (nunataks) poking out of the ice are actually the summits of mountains as high as 5,912 feet above sea level??

That's not only a priceless experience, it's a scene very few other people will ever see. I'm really sorry Jim wasn't able to hike up there with me. Maybe with a new knee someday he can resume more hiking like this.

And that's why I'm including nearly 100 pictures with this entry -- for all the folks who will never see this special place. I spread the photos out over five pages so they will load more easily.

The pictures will give you an idea of what the ice field looks like but they don't begin to convey its immensity (30 by 50 miles, approximately) or the extreme solitude you can find there. It's truly other-worldly, especially on a day when the sky was almost the same color as the snow and it was difficult to determine where the sky ended and the horizon began.

Today the ice field was a world in grayscale. It would look quite different on a sunny, cloudless day.

I lingered up there as long as I could before coming back down because it was so different and so peaceful.

Except for this laid-back mountain goat I had the place to myself for more than half an hour, which was a real treat:

The only reason I descended when I did was because I could see about a dozen hikers coming up toward me. I didn't want to be up there with all those folks or to descend the same time they did. I really enjoyed being mostly by myself today.

I suppose I could have walked out farther into the ice field to extend the solitude but I was leery of treading where no one else has been so far this season. I could have fallen into an unseen crevasse or something.

Ice fields and glaciers are always in motion, even if we can't sense it.

In addition to the seemingly-unending white world I found at the edge of the ice field this hike was also memorable for a few other reasons:

  • being within eyesight of three-mile-long Exit Glacier most of the way up to the ice field:

 

  • looking down from 3,750 feet elevation at the top of the glacier to near-sea level valleys full of streams and green foliage -- that's about as high as I am above the valleys when at the summit of some of Colorado's 14,000+-foot peaks:

 

  • and hiking over two miles of snow-covered trail in the middle of summer in the northern hemisphere to get up to the ice field, with patches of snow lingering down to less than 1,000 feet elevation in spots that don't receive much sun:

 

That's life at the 60th N. parallel after a record-breaking winter of snow!

I took about 400 photos today during this 9+ mile hike. I've whittled them down to five pages worth here. I hope you enjoy them. I also hope they inspire you to visit this area of Alaska.

(No, I'm not on the payroll of the Seward Chamber of Commerce or the State of Alaska. I wish!)

If you're ever in Seward, I highly recommend taking this trail up as far as you possibly can. Even if you only get up to the meadow or the top of the cliffs the panoramic views and the different perspectives on Exit Glacier make the effort well worth it.

Most summers there is less snow in early July than there is this year, making the upper part of the trail easier to negotiate than the conditions I found.

If you don't have the time or ability to go up to the ice field, at minimum do a hike in the valley to the lower part of Exit Glacier. I described those trails and gave general information about Kenai Fjords National Park in the last entry.

JUST DO IT

Were getting used to making the most of each day in Alaska even when its overcast, chilly (40s-50s F.), and a little rainy. Hey, we may never be in this beautiful place again!

Jim rode his bike around town again (13 miles) and I had a great hike up to the Harding Icefield. I hiked a total of 9.11 miles per my GPS in 6:29 hours, including all stops to gawk at the scenery, take several hundred photos, eat some snacks and lunch, and wander around the northeastern edge of the ice field.

This map section shows where the ice field is located in relation to Seward (in yellow).  Exit Glacier (blue line) and the Harding Icefield Trial (dotted black line paralleling the glacier) are under the red arrow I drew:

The ranger station is at the nature center, where all trails near Exit Glacier start. Note that the national park extends farther south than this map section.

The Harding Icefield Trail is rather steep. I began near sea level and ascended to a little over 3,750 feet. Most of the gain was in the 2nd and 3rd of 4+ miles going up to the ice field. The first mile had the most rocky steps and scrambling. I don't know what the trail is like in miles 2 to 4 because it was covered in snow today.

The Icefield Trail is shown in yellow on the map sections below, which I photographed from an interpretive panel at the trailhead:

The trail is out and back.

The website says it's 4.1 miles each way. This map says it's 3.9 miles from the intersection with the Edge of the Glacier Trail, which would make it 4.3 miles from the nature center (red X below):

You can see a more detailed .pdf map at this link.

From the nature center, my GPS read 4.55+ miles to the point where I turned around. I added some distance by wandering around the rocks and snow at the edge of the ice field. With all the snow, I couldn't tell where the trail officially "ends." I didn't see any signs up there warning folks not to go any farther.

In snowy places at the top I walked in paths that other people had made or where flags marked the correct path. I wasn't keen on falling into a deep crevasse by hiking in uncharted territory!


A trail at the edge of the ice field

I got out to the Exit Glacier nature center early enough to see that a large group was forming for the ranger-led hike up to the ice field. Because of all the snow its the first time this year that the rangers have led a group up to the ice field.

When I saw how large the group was, I decided to go ahead of them alone. I wanted to go at my own pace and take lots of pictures without dozens of other people in them.

When I talked with one of the rangers later near the ice field shelter he said 36 people were in the group at the beginning. About half of them went only to Marmot Meadows, an overlook above the glacier about 1 miles from the trailhead. With all the snow this year it doesn't look like a meadow now, but I think I know where it is.

This photo from the interpretive panel shows the view on a day with less snow on the ground:

Others in the ranger-led group reportedly stopped at the bottom or top of the cliffs, approximately 2-2 miles in, respectively. A plateau at the top of the cliffs is very close to the glacier.

Here's another picture from the interpretive sign that shows this overlook on a more summery day:

There is much more snow on the trail the last 2 miles than normal for July, according to the ranger who brought up the rear of the group. He said its usually a real trail (i.e., dirt and rocks) by early July most of the way to the last plateau before the ice field. 

The ranger also noted that more snow fell last night in the last mile of the trail. That's why it was such a pretty white up there:

 

I began hiking 10 minutes before the ranger-led group was to start at 9 AM. I got to the top (4 miles) at least 50 minutes before the first members of the group. They were strung out quite a ways through the snow field. I could see them below me most of the morning.

Hikers are advised that it takes 6-8 hours for the round trip to the ice field. There are numerous variables, especially when you're hiking with a group of strangers. Because of today's snow  conditions it took this group longer than that. I'm glad I went by myself.

It took me 3:10 hours to get to the top. That included taking about 300 photos during my ascent, talking to some other hikers and trail workers along the way, and taking my pack off a couple times to get food.


In some places the snow was quite colorful. Minerals color it red, light absorption colors it blue.

I spent about 30 minutes wandering around the edge of the ice field and descended in about 2:50 hours, a total of just under 6 hours for the whole hike. That's within the NPS estimate of 6-8 hours roundtrip. Without so much snow I could have walked faster.

However, if it had been warmer up there I might have spent even more time on the high plateaus. Especially on your first time up, don't rush it. Enjoy the experience.

It was more difficult descending in the slick snow and mud after all the other hikers had tramped through it. I didn't have trouble with traction going up but it was very slippery in some of the steeper places going back down.

Dark clouds formed to the east while I was on the mountain. Although overcast, it didn't rain and the clouds never obscured my views of Exit Glacier or the Harding Icefield.

Continued on the next page . . . more details about the ascent

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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