Kenai Fjords National Park

Trek to the snowy birthplace of Alaska’s glaciers


Houston Chronicle

Should you find yourself under a cloudless summer sky while visiting here, you might be tempted to take a boat tour through Kenai Fjords National Park. At nearly 670,000 acres, the protected area about 130 miles south of Anchorage is known for its beautiful, pristine coastline and abundant marine wildlife.

But I’d recommend saving the humpback whales, orcas, puffins, sea lions and otters for another day. For it’s not often you get a chance to see what the last ice age looked like while hiking in short sleeves and sunglasses.

You can discover the forces that created the coastal fjords by visiting the Exit Glacier area, which is topped by the spectacular Harding Icefield. About 12 miles north of Seward, the area is the only part of the park accessible by road. It’s worth a visit, no matter if strolling is more your speed than hiking, as a series of trails makes great views available to everyone.

The easiest is a one-mile, wheelchair-accessible loop. The path goes through a cottonwood forest before opening onto a panoramic glacier view.

If you feel like getting closer and water levels are low, cross a rocky outwash plain to approach the glacier’s terminus, about a half mile off the main loop. Don’t get too close, as large slabs of ice can fall off without warning.

A moderately strenuous 1.2 mile hike up a well-maintained trail — brightened by wildflowers and butterflies — will get you to the glacier’s edge, with towering turquoise ice that rivals the color of shallow tropical waters.

If you’re not prepared for change in weather or not wearing rugged footwear, this is the place to turn back. But if you’re equipped and feeling fit, trek up to the Harding Icefield, a 936-square-mile expanse of snow and ice, where Exit Glacier and more than 30 others were born.

The entire trail, which is 8.2 miles round trip from the visitors center, takes six to seven hours to complete. It’s tough, climbing nearly 1,000 feet every mile. It passes through forests and meadows — prime bear country — before rising above the tree line. The National Park Service warns on its website that black bears are spotted daily. We saw four — a sow and two cubs on the way up and a single bear on the way down.

Our group did the hike on June 21, the longest day of the year. Even so, we had to kick-step and punch our feet through calf-high snow, which can remain through early July. At least the trail was well marked.

Hikers don’t need to go to the top to see the icefield, but we were too mesmerized to stop.

And we’re from Alaska. Call us spoiled: We’ve seen Denali many times, caught our share of salmon and shivered under the Northern Lights.

But the Harding Icefield blew us away. An ocean of snow lay before us, silent, as far as we could see. Only distant mountaintops (called nunatak, by Alaskan Indians, meaning “lonely peak”) poked through the snow and ice, which is thousands of feet thick. Exit Glacier cascaded to our left.

I’ve long felt Alaska is at its most beautiful in winter, when the sky is bright blue and the crisp snow sparkles in the sun.

And here we were enjoying it, on a fabulous summer solstice day.

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