Looking to hike the Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords National Park? In this guide we’re sharing everything you need to know and what to expect on this bucket list hike!
Kenai Fjords National Park was hands down our favorite national park out of the three we visited in Alaska and a big reason why was the Harding Icefield. The Harding Icefield is the largest icefield entirely in the United States at 700 square miles and almost 4,000 feet deep. And it is the source of 38 glaciers in the park!
To experience this behemoth for yourself, you can hike the Harding Icefield trail, which was not only one of our favorite hikes we did in Alaska, but ever! It is truly an out of this world experience and at times we felt like we may be hiking on another planet. Imagine seeing white ice for as far as the eye can see and that is what you’ll experience on the Harding Icefield trail.
Check out our video from Kenai Fjords National Park including hiking the Harding Icefield Trail, seeing Exit Glacier, and going on a 7.5 hour boat ride. And to learn more about the park, read our guide with all of the best things to do!
In this guide we’re sharing everything you need to know to conquer this bucket list hike, including the trail stats, when to hike, what to bring, and what to expect along the way.
Looking for more things to do in Alaska and Northern Canada? Check out these guides and vlogs!
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About the Harding Icefield Trail
Distance (roundtrip): 9.2 miles
Elevation gain: 3,641 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions
The Harding Icefield trail is not a walk in the park! At 9.2 miles roundtrip, it’s a long hike to begin with, but then throw in the elevation gain, which is around 1,000 feet per mile, and it’s a bit of a doozy at times!
It will take most hikers 6-8 hours to complete the Harding Icefield trail, so it will likely be your only activity for the day. Make sure to start early enough to have plenty of time to complete it before dark (and beat the crowds)!
While the major highlight of the Harding Icefield trail is seeing the icefield at the end, the entire hike is incredible, with varying scenery the entire way. You’ll start in the forest, then go through Marmot Meadows, reach the Top of the Cliffs Overlook (a good turnaround if you can’t make it further), go through rugged, rocky terrain, and pass a shelter, before finally making it to the end. There is so much to see and experience that the journey is just about as good as the destination!
Before embarking on your adventure, please review the Leave No Trace principles to ensure you leave every place better than you found it, so that others can enjoy these beautiful places for many years to come!
These seven principles include planning ahead and preparing, hiking and camping on durable surfaces, disposing of waste properly (pack out what you pack in!), understanding campfire rules and always fully extinguishing your fires, respecting wildlife, and being considerate of other visitors.
How to get to the Harding Icefield Trail
The Harding Icefield trail is located in the Exit Glacier area of Kenai Fjords National Park, which is the only area accessible by vehicle. And to get there, you’ll first need to get to the charming seaside town of Seward, Alaska.
Seward is on the southeastern side of the Kenai Peninsula and is accessed by taking the Seward Highway (AK-9), about a 2.5 hour drive from Anchorage (or a scenic train ride). The drive from Anchorage is a gorgeous experience in itself, so we suggest planning for extra time to soak up the scenery!
Traveling from elsewhere on the Kenai Peninsula? Here is how long you can expect to drive from other popular towns on the Kenai Peninsula:
Cooper Landing, AK: 1 hour (48 miles)
Soldotna, AK: 2 hours (93 miles)
Homer, AK: 3 hours 30 minutes (168 miles)
Once in Seward, the park is only around a 20 minute drive. You’ll turn west onto Herman Leirer Road, which will eventually turn into Exit Glacier Road and you’ll dead end at the national park.
You can also take the Exit Glacier Shuttle from Seward to the Nature Center which costs $20 per person and leaves every hour. This is a great option for those who arrive in Seward by train or cruise ship!
Once in the park, you’ll follow the Glacier View Loop Trail, which then turns into the Exit Glacier Overlook Trail, for about 0.4 miles, before reaching the actual trailhead for the Harding Icefield trail.
When to hike the Harding Icefield Trail
Kenai Fjords National Park is open year round, but as you can imagine, the wintertime brings a lot of snow to the area and the road to the Exit Glacier area of the park is not very accessible.
June-August are the best times to visit the park and hike the Harding Icefield trail, although the trail may have a little bit of snow on it, even through part of July. You can see the current trail conditions on the NPS website or by reading AllTrails reviews to find out how much snow may still be on the trail.
We hiked the Harding Icefield trail in late July on a day with a very rainy weather forecast for Seward. We had heard that typically the park’s weather is slightly better than Seward’s and we thankfully lucked out with a cloudy hike on the way to the icefield, allowing us to still see the majority of the views.
At the Harding Icefield, we had a lot of wind, mist, and some fog, which meant that our views of the icefield weren’t as clear as we had hoped, but we could still see quite a bit. On the way back though, it was mega foggy and also rainy, so we really lucked out by starting when we did!
Things to know before visiting the Harding Icefield Trail
Entrance is free
Unlike most national parks, which have a fee to enter, Kenai Fjords is totally FREE to visit, minus any paid tours.
Dogs are not allowed
Dogs are not allowed on trails at Kenai Fjords National Park, but leashed pets are allowed on Exit Glacier Road and in the parking lot.
If you’re curious what we do with our dog Kona when we explore the national parks, you can read all of our tips and methods in this blog post. We boarded her in Anchorage during our visit to Kenai Fjords National Park, since we had a couple longer activities planned.
There are restrooms available by the parking lot and Nature Center.
The Exit Glacier Nature Center has parking for both cars and RVs, although we wouldn’t suggest bringing a Class A RV to this parking lot. The parking lot does get busy and fills up, so we’d recommend getting there early in the day or later in the afternoon to snag a spot. During our visit, some cars were parked along the sides of the parking lot and road, but we were able to get an RV spot for our van.
Check the trail conditions before you start
It is very important to check the trail conditions before starting this hike. Snow can remain on parts of this trail into the summer months and there can be the potential for an avalanche. Check the trail conditions reported by the NPS before your boots hit the trail.
If there is snow, there will be some orange flags in the ground guiding you through these areas. Even if you see other trails, follow the flags, as this route is the safest.
Stay on the trail
The alpine vegetation is very fragile. Do your best to stay on the established trail to minimize your impact.
Be prepared for any weather conditions
We can’t stress this enough! It can be sunny and pleasant at the bottom of the trail and a complete whiteout at the top. On our hike, it was a completely different world at the top and at different points along the trail we were in t-shirts and tank tops, rain jackets, and/or our winter jackets.
The vegetation along this trail is very thick in some spots, including thickets of salmonberries, which is one of the bear’s favorite snacks. As you’re hiking through the thicker areas of vegetation, be sure to make lots of noise to avoid encountering a bear by surprise.
Black bears are spotted almost everyday from the trail. Although we didn’t see any bears in the park with our own eyes, as we were finishing this trail, the group right in front of us saw one and together we all had to make noise as we finished the hike.
If you’re unfamiliar with bears and what to do if you encounter them, we encourage you to read the National Park website to get a better understanding.
What to Bring with you to the Harding Icefield Trail
To see everything we take hiking, check out our hiking gear as well as our guide about how to make a 10 essentials kit. But for this specific area, we have a few items we really want to stress bringing with you.
We always recommend wearing hiking shoes when hitting the trail, as they have better grip for the terrain. Kathryn rocks Lowa Women’s Renegade GTX on the trails and she LOVES them! Adam wears the ALTRA Lone Peak 6 Trail Running Shoe, which is a trail running shoe, so they are less bulky than boots, but still great for the trail.
Since this hike gains quite a bit of elevation, the temperature gets a lot cooler as you hike up, so you’ll want to pack layers and a rain jacket!
This is an essential piece of gear for this adventure because you won’t have much or any cell service. If you get in an emergency you’ll need a satellite communicator. We always carry our Garmin inReach Mini when we hike or backpack and it has come in handy several times on our adventures, mostly to text family (not for SOS reasons thankfully)!
This hike is steep and trekking poles may be helpful, especially for the hike down. We have the Black Diamond Equipment Distance Z poles and highly recommend them!
This trail is easy to follow, but having the AllTrails map downloaded will be handy to check your progress along the way!
Want to get 30% off an AllTrails+ membership? Click this link or use our code aplusk30 (you must redeem this code on the website, not the app)!
We use AllTrails+ on every single hike and it is the most helpful hiking tool out there! Some of the features we love are offline maps (so we can navigate even without cell service), wrong-turn alerts, and its 3D maps feature, so we can get a feel for trails before we hike.
Depending on when you hike the Harding Icefield Trail there may be snow or ice on the trail and this is where microspikes will be very helpful. We have used the Kahtoola MICROspikes for many years and they are amazing! We feel like we can run on the ice without slipping!
You’ll want to have lots of water for this adventure! We like to carry our 3L Camelbak bladders while on any hike, which makes it easy to store a lot of water and drink while on the go.
Make sure to carry bear spray while in the park! Kenai Fjords National Park is home to a variety of wildlife, including bears. Specifically, both black bears and grizzly bears, with grizzlies being the more aggressive of the two.
Not only is it important to have bear spray on you, but you need to have it readily available and know how to use it. We’d recommend watching this video that explains how to use bear spray, if you aren’t familiar.
If you haven’t heard, the common joke is that the state bird of Alaska is the mosquito. Although we didn’t have an issue with mosquitos during our visit, in order to not have a miserable time swatting mosquitoes all day make sure to bring bug spray with DEET!
You’ll often be hiking in exposed areas, and even on cloudy days you’ll want to have sun protection. Sunscreen and a hat will be very helpful!
Seeing the icefield and mountains with the naked eye is fantastic on its own, but you’ll be able to see even more epic views (and maybe even some wildlife!) with binoculars. We have the Bushnell H20 Roof Prism binoculars and we love them!
What to expect on the Harding Icefield Trail
From the trailhead through the forest
After leaving the parking lot in the Exit Glacier area of the park, you’ll follow the Glacier View Loop trail and Glacier Overlook trail for about 0.4 miles before turning right onto the actual Harding Icefield trail.
Once getting on the trail, you’ll reach a trail register where you’ll be asked for your name, how many are in your party, your start and end date, and a couple other questions. Make sure to fill this out!
The trail is an uphill climb from the get go and this first part is the least exciting, as you’ll just be going through the forest. But as you climb up, you’ll have occasional views, a small waterfall to admire, and a fun rocky section, which makes things more interesting!
About 1.7 miles into the hike you’ll reach an area called Marmot Meadows. This area is much more open, with gorgeous views of the Exit Glacier, as well as the valley and other mountains behind you.
This is a great spot to rest for a bit and despite us hiking a lot of challenging hikes, we found ourselves having to catch our breath quite a bit on the Harding Icefield trail. But there are definitely worse places to pause and admire the scenery for a while!
Top of the Cliffs
Once leaving Marmot Meadows, you’re out of the taller brush and will have views for the rest of the hike…score! And after about a mile and almost 1,000 feet of climbing you’ll reach the area known as Top of the Cliffs.
At this spot you’ll have your first glimpse of the Harding Icefield! From the overlook you can look down on the glacier and beginning of the icefield and really start to see the crevasses and different shades of blue in the ice. It’s incredible!
Despite the name of Marmot Meadows, we saw way more marmots in this area, including some wrestling (and maybe kissing?) each other! Oftentimes the marmots see you before you see them and you’ll know they spotted you when you hear their loud, cute shrieks.
If you don’t have the energy to keep going, this is a great place to have a quick snack and turn around. Although you’ll miss the final view, the view is still epic and it’s an accomplishment to get here!
From the Top of the Cliffs to the Shelter
From this point the scenery really starts to change. You’re way past the treeline and the trail becomes more rocky and rugged. The landscape is barren and seems otherworldly and at times it kind of looked like we were at a volcano with lava rock.
Even in late July, we encountered a couple small patches of snow along the trail, but it wasn’t hard to cross. Remember to follow the orange flags if snow is present!
The trail will eventually start to flatten out a bit, which was a nice break from the climbing, and after a little under 1.5 miles from Top of the Cliffs, you’ll encounter an emergency shelter.
This is just a one room wood cabin that can shield people from the elements if it gets nasty out. On our hike back the weather had turned on us and it was really windy and rainy, so we had our lunch in the shelter with a few others. It’s not a very big space, but it can fit 6-8 people inside and was a nice way to stay dry and warmer!
End of the Trail
After the shelter you won’t have much longer until you reach the end of the trail! However, we found the official end of the trail to be a little confusing. There is no marker indicating the end and the AllTrails map says to go further than it seems safe to do.
We ended up stopping at a rocky area that overlooked the Harding Icefield and WOW, the views were insane! At this point, the wind was gnarly and we were being slammed with mist, but despite that, we could still see a good chunk of the icefield, which looked like it went on forever. With the gloomy weather, rugged rocks, and endless view of ice, it felt like we were on another planet!
On a clear day, we can imagine the view is even crazier, as you’ll also get to see nunataks, which are peaks that jut out of the ice. But don’t let a non sunny day deter you…the views are still some of the craziest we have ever seen on a hike! Where else can you stand and look at ice that spans 700 miles and goes 4,000 feet deep? As we stood there admiring what we could see, we felt like a tiny speck in the universe.
While the Harding Icefield was challenging, it is unlike any trail we have ever hiked and was one of our most memorable experiences in Alaska, which says a lot, because our time in the state was filled with many amazing moments!
Looking for more things to do in Kenai Fjords National Park? Check out our ULTIMATE guide to visiting Kenai Fjords National Park!
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