The Harding Icefield hike in Alaska easily makes our top 3 list of most memorable and wow-factor hikes. The hike starts from the foot of Exit Glacier just outside Seward and takes you to the top of the enormous Harding Icefield. Throughout the entire hike you have splendid views of Exit Glacier to your left. This hike left me amazed and full of gratitude.
First view of the glacier from the trail
The hike starts at the Exit Glacier visitor center. You follow the valley floor on a paved path, but soon take off from the paved path and start heading upwards. This part of the hike would have to be characterised as strenuous, the climb is not insignificant as you work you way up towards the tree line. But wow – as you start getting close to the tree line you forget all about it as the views of Exit Glacier is nothing less then spectacular. Also remember to look back when you hike upwards as you have beautiful views of the valley and river leading towards Seward.
Also check out: Seward – where the sea boils with silver
Lunch break at the Top of the Cliffs
Having passed the tree line you have completed the worst part of the climb and you can see the entire arm of Exit Glacier and start comprehending the size of Harding Icefield where Exit Glacier origins. This is an excellent spot for a lunch break. For many with limited time this is the turnaround point, but it is not the end of the trail. If you have set of the whole day for this hike I would highly recommend continuing. Hey – you have already completed the steepest part of the hike anyways.
Try looking for black bears up in the northern slopes. We spotted 3 of them during our lunch break. They were too far away to get any good photos, but as evidence for our observation I present the following photo of a black bear with her cub, can you see them? We did the hike in September and bears were moving to higher ground getting ready for hibernation.
Black bear and cub in the far distance
After lunch we continued on along the glacier for a while before the trail took us over a moonlike area consisting of moraine from the receding icefield. I can definitely imagine some rough weather up here on less nicer days. Ensure you have enough layers of clothing with you for cold and windy days. Towards the end of the moraine you reach an emergency shelter and at this point you are very close to the end of the trail.
Splendid Exit Glacier views
Hiking over moraine
At the end of the trail Harding Icefield reveals itself. There is ice as far as the eye can see. It brings you back in time and you can imagine how things looked like during the earlier ice ages. Of all the spectacular views on this hike this was my absolute favourite.
The enormous size of the icefield is almost impossible to imagine unless you are experiencing it, but I’ll give it a try. If you are looking at the photo below there are 3 persons in the picture. There is me off course, but further down in the background there are two persons who have walked closer to the icefield. They are a bit further to the left in the photo, you can just spot the tiny silhouette of them as they admire the icefield.
If that is not enough I have pulled some stats from Wiki: Harding Icefield is the largest icefield contained entirely within the United States with its 300 square miles / 777 square kms. If you include its 40 glaciers the number increase to 1100 square miles / 2849 square kms. That’s approximate the size of State of Rhode Island.
View over Harding Icefield from end of trail
We could have stayed much longer admiring the icefield, but the day was getting towards the end of the day and we had to start on the return. If you want to stay here overnight camping is allowed as long as you set up camp at least 1/8 mile from the trail on bare rock or snow. Camping in the emergency shelter is not allowed.
Hiking back over the moraine
View from the Top of the Cliffs
The hike back offers lovely views down the valley and I found it just as fulfilling as the hike up. I had been so focused on reaching the end of trail that I hadn’t taken time to look back on the way up, so I got a totally different perspective hiking back.
Elevation gain: 960m
Difficulty: Strenuous until you reach the Top of the Cliffs. Easy to Moderate the last stretch.
Source: National Park Service (click link for larger image)
If you are looking for more hiking ideas on Kenai Peninsula also check out our Skyline Trail hike.
Thanks for reading! Please leave a comment, we’d love to hear what you think. Have you been hiking in Alaska?
Additional resources: National Park Service – Exit Glacier and Harding Icefield Trail Condition