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
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
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
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
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
JUST DO IT
We’re getting used to making the most of each day in Alaska even when it’s 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.
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.
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
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
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 it’s 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 1½
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 2-2½
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 2½ miles than normal for
July, according to the ranger who brought up the rear of the group. He
said it’s 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 (4½
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
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 6½
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
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
Continued on the
next page . . . more details about the ascent
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
and Cody the ultra Lab
© 2012 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil