At Kenai Fjords National Park, you can see climate change at work in real time at Exit Glacier, wildlife such as Dall sheep and archaeological sites of the Sugpiaq people.
Few things will leave a greater impression on you than seeing the retreat of Exit Glacier in the Kenai Fjords National Park. Since the 1800s it has shrunk hundreds of feet, averaging about 162 feet per year in the past 10 years. It’s just one of more than three dozen glaciers that come off the Harding Icefield, which spans more than 600 square miles. This icefield is the reason why this area became a national park in 1980.
Massive in size and in the powerful evidence of its retreat, Exit Glacier is easily accessible by road. In fact, there’s only one area of this park that is accessible by road and that’s the Exit Glacier area. You’ll reach it from Exit Glacier Road, an easy, 10-mile drive from Seward, Alaska. Along the way to the glacier along the road, and later along the trail, you’ll see markers with dates on them like “2005” that demarcate where the glacier extended that year. It’s believed Exit Glacier stretched 1.25 miles beyond its current location, stretching almost all the way to Resurrection River, according to the park service.
Park in the parking lot next to Exit Glacier Nature Center to access a number of hiking trails here, including a paved one offering good views of the glacier. While it began retreating about 3 feet per year in the 1800s after the Little Ice Age had ended, the glacier has disappeared faster more recently. From 1889 to 2011, the average rate was 19.7 meters per year. From 2011 to 2015, the average rate of retreat was 44.5 meters per year, according to research published in a 2016 National Resource Stewardship and Science report.
For a short trail, take the accessible Glacier View Loop Trail, a one-mile loop that leads you to a great viewpoint. If you want something a little longer, continue .6 miles more to the Glacier View Overlook to the Exit Glacier Overlook. The views are outstanding and you may even see bald eagles in flight.
For a challenging 6-8 hour hike, take the Harding Icefield Trail, which will have your heart pumping because of the extreme elevation gain.
“It’s rigorous, but on a clear day, you have beautiful views of an otherworldly landscape,” says Kat Sorensen, communications director for Seward Chamber of Commerce.
Look for Dall sheep near the trail. Check in at the nature center to find out the latest conditions before you head out. Anytime there is a glacier, you’ll find it’s a dynamic environment. At times, ice falls from the face of the glacier, so you want to avoid going too close to its face.
Homeland of Sugpaiq
Before the Kenai Peninsula was settled by pioneers seeking gold, the Sugpiaq people, also known as Alutiiq, spent more than 1,000 years hunting and living on the outer Kenai Peninsula coast, according to the National Park Service. There are 37 archaeological sites in the park alone. Spanish, British and Russian explorer reports from the early 1800s estimated the Sugpiaq population of the outer Kenai coastal areas and Prince William Sound around 600.
There are 44,000 acres of land along the coast of the 500,000-acre park that is owned by the Port Graham Corp., which was formed under the Alaska Native Settlement Act of 1971 to represent the Sugpiag people living in the Kenai Fjords.
Getting to Kenai Fjords
There are three ways to access the park— by vehicle, boat or helicopter.
You can drive to the Exit Glacier area in the summer months (the road is closed in the winter). It’s literally minutes from Seward and a gorgeous, easy drive. You can also take a shuttle from Seward to Exit Glacier and back. Since there is no cell service at Exit Glacier, your return ride will be at a predetermined time, so you’ll want to be aware of how quickly time passes while you’re out on the trails. There are three area taxis that can also give you a ride to and from Exit Glacier.
Otherwise, depart from the Seward Harbor and go on a guided tour to see the park by boat or kayak between late spring and early fall. You’ll see areas of the park that you can only see if you arrive by water. From the water, you can look for humpback whales, sea otters, orcas and more. You’ll also see tide water glaciers, which are in the water, that calve and create icebergs.
“Anyone who comes to town should experience the park by boat,” says Kat Sorenson, communications director for Seward Chamber of Commerce. “We are also lucky that the park has a land entrance that is just 20 minutes from town.”
On a boat cruise, you can go for 3.5 hours or even a few days, depending on what you’re interested in. Kayak tours are also a great way to explore the park, and if you do so, you’re part of a long continuum of people who have traveled the coast by human-powered boat. The Sugpiaq (also known Alutiiq) hunted and lived along the Kenai Peninsula, with each male owning a boat known as a qayaq. It’s not recommended park-goers go kayaking unguided.
And if you prefer to see the park from above, take a fixed-wing plane or helicopter. You can fly over Resurrection Bay, the Gulf of Alaska, a number of iconic glaciers and even do a glacier landing.
Lodging in the Kenai Fjords National Park
There are no hotels or lodges in Kenai Fjords National Park, so Seward is your basecamp for this park.
There is a campground with 12 tent sites that are walk-in only near the Exit Glacier area in the park. And there are two cabins open to the public in the greater Aialik Bay area to reserve in the summer, but they are only accessible by water. The Aialik Public Use Cabin sits on a cobble beach and is on Port Graham Native Corp. land, and the Holgate Public Use Cabin sits on a bluff above a cobble beach. Both cabins take 2-4 hours to reach by boat or a 30-35-minute plane ride from Seward.
You will find the only lodge on the Kenai Fjords’ coast —Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge —in a Sugpiag-owned wildlife sanctuary that’s surrounded by the park. At this stunning eco-lodge, you’ll enjoy a beautiful dining room, lounge area, a bar, an outdoor deck lined with rocking chairs with views of Pedersen Glacier, a cedar sauna and more.