One of the things we wanted to see most during our July 2017 trip to Alaska were glaciers. Of all the places we stopped to view these giant rivers of ice, the Exit Glacier Trail in Kenai Fjords National Park ranks as one of our favorites. In no other place on our trip were the incredible impacts of climate change on Alaska’s landscape more visually apparent.
It’s heartbreaking to think about, but we don’t know how long Exit Glacier will be around. All the more reason not to wait to book your #parkchasing trip to experience Alaska’s national parks. Add the Exit Glacier Trail and some of the other hiking options around Kenai Fjords National Park for a true understanding of how our warming planet impacts these special places.
Planning Your Hike on The Exit Glacier Trail
About the Exit Glacier
The Exit Glacier Trail ranks as one of the most popular hiking options in Kenai Fjords, in part because the Exit Glacier is one of the most accessible valley glaciers in all of Alaska. As we mentioned above, it’s also one of the most profound examples of the impacts of climate change in all of the National Park Service. Between 2013 and 2014 the glacier retreated more than 180 feet, an alarming speed that park rangers continue to monitor.
The Exit Glacier is part of the larger Harding Icefield. One of the largest ice fields in the United States, Harding covers more than half of Kenai Fjords National Park. The Exit Glacier received its name from the first recorded crossing of the Harding Icefield in 1968. The mountaineering party ‘exited’ the Harding Icefield by descending the glacier.
About the Exit Glacier Nature Trail
The trail is one of the few designated trails in all of Kenai Fjords National Park. The path is a series of loops that lead out to different overlook points of the Exit Glacier. The total distance of the trail is 1.8 miles, however, depending on how many of the loops you take and optional add-ons to the Harding Icefield, you can easily shorten or lengthen the route to meet your hiking group’s needs.
As you walk along the trail, the National Park Service signage tells the story of what happens when a glacier recedes from the landscape. Beginning with the 120 year history of the Exit Glacier’s recession from the area, the signs indicate–by year–the location of the glacier’s toe.
Elevation change for the trail is minimal, only 269 feet of gain on the partially-paved path. The trail is accessible for wheelchairs and individuals with mobility concerns. The National Park Service indicates the hiking time for the trail at around 30 minutes,
Locate the Exit Glacier Trailhead at the end of Herman Leirer Road, also known as “Exit Glacier Road.”
Turn off Seward Highway (AK-9) at mile 3 and then drive 8.4 miles to the nature center parking area. During the operating hours of the nature center, traffic and congestion become problematic in the parking area. Allow plenty of time and watch for wildlife in the parking area. The trail departs directly behind the nature center.
(Google Map Coordinates: 60.1782633,-149.6494389)
Seeing the toe of the glacier
As the ice from Exit Glacier continues to retreat, visitors continue to need to hike farther from the trailhead to see the current terminus of the glacier. The National Park Service does not recommend hiking to the toe of the glacier because of unpredictable conditions in the area below the glacier:
Getting to the toe of the glacier requires crossing the rocky outwash plain. There is no set trail across the plain, and stream channels change often. Due to frequent flooding, this area may be not be accessible. If water levels are low, you can make your way to the terminus or toe, but don’t approach the glacier in places where the ice is over your head. Huge, heavy chunks of ice can fall off without warning. Check the current conditions for updated information on warnings or closures.Taken from nps.gov
When to Hike the Exit Glacier
The busiest season to visit the Exit Glacier (and all of Alaska) is early June through early September. The warmer weather and the long daylight hours offer plenty of opportunity for hiking the glacier trails. The trail itself is open sunrise to sunset, although the Exit Glacier Visitor’s Center facilities are only open 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m during the summer months.
If you would like a quieter experience on the trail, it’s best to hike early in the morning or in the early evening. With fewer people on the trail you may be more likely to spot wildlife around the area.
Unlike many other parts of Alaska’s national parks, Kenai Fjords remains relatively accessible year-round. The road to the Exit Glacier trailhead closes during the winter months (usually mid-November). After that, the trailhead can be reached by snowmobile, dogsleds, cross-country skiing, or snowshoeing.
Ranger-led Hikes of the Exit Glacier Trail
If you’re interested in an in-depth experience of the Exit Glacier, the National Park Services offers daily ranger-led hikes of the Exit Glacier Trail. The tours depart from the Exit Glacier Nature Center. Visit the Nature Center when you arrive to collect your passport stamp and find out current tour times.
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Stops Along the Exit Glacier Trail
The best viewing points along the Exit Glacier Trail include:
- Glacier View Loop Trail – the first section of trail from the Exit Glacier Nature Center. It travels through the cottonwood forest to the first overlook of Exit Creek and the outwash plain left behind as the glacier retreats.
- Glacier View – Hike to the closest view of the Exit Glacier and parts of the Harding Icefield. At the one mile mark, this is one of the easiest places to view the glacier.
- Exit Glacier Overlook – After the Glacier View overlook, continue left along on the Glacier Overlook Trail to the next viewpoint. The Exit Glacier Overlook stretches out over the current flow of Exit Glacier and gives visitors the closest look to the current ice.
Adding the Harding Icefield Trail
If you’re interested in a longer day hike to add to the Exit Glacier Trail, consider the Harding Icefield Trail. This strenuous trail leaves from the same trailhead as the Exit Glacier Trail. The 8.2 mile out-and-back route carries visitors through the upper alpine areas of the park to viewpoints of the vast Harding Icefield.
We ran out of time to complete the full Harding Icefield Trail during our trip to Kenai Fjords National Park but found that extending the route a bit farther after the Exit Glacier Trail was well worth it. We caught sight of one of the hoary marmot that calls this area of the park home. The wildflowers were also in full bloom, a special treat.
The Kenai park ranger staff offers some ranger-led hikes of the Harding Icefield Trail. Options to hire a private guide from the Seward area are also available if you prefer to share the trail with someone familiar with the area.
Other Tips for Hiking in Kenai Fjords National Park
A few final tips we have about hiking in Kenai Fjords National Park:
- Kenai is in the heart of
bearcountry. Know the rules about hiking in black bear and Alaskan brown bear territory to keep yourself safe while on the trails in the park. At the time of writing this post, the park service closed a portion of the Exit Glacier trail because of bear activity. If a trail is posted as closed, respect the wildlife in the area and follow park regulations for safely viewing animals.
- Alaska brings all types of weather challenges. Be prepared for storms, high winds, intense sunlight, and sudden temperature changes by packing extra layers and sunscreen.
- Ice can fall from the glacier without warning. Be aware of the risks of hiking near and on a glacier.
- The vegetation around the Exit Glacier is fragile. Be sure to stay on marked trails and not cut switchbacks.