Long before I reached the last marker post, the Harding Icefield Trail at Exit Glacier had earned a place as one of my top 5-day hikes ever. That may not mean much if this is your first time visiting my blog but after climbing glacier filled slopes on Mount Rainier, exploring the floor of the Grand Canyon, and ascending the cables to the top of Yosemite’s Half Dome, I may not have been everywhere, but I’ve seen enough to know an amazing hike when I’m on one.
If you’re still not convinced, try this on for size: I’m talking about massive glacier views (you’ll be right up near Exit Glacier and see plenty of others in the distance as well), rolling green hills covered in mist, imposing rock cliffs, an endless icefield, and a remote wilderness shelter all thrown together in just a single day trek. It’s seriously Lord of the Rings meets Game of Thrones fantasy level stuff and if that’s not enough still, just check out the photos below.
What to Expect in Hiking to the Harding Icefield
It may not be a technical climb (in summer season that is) but getting to the ice field is a serious undertaking just the same and the almost 4,000’ effective climb is rated as strenuous. The overall profile is around 1,000′ / mile over rough terrain including plenty of large and often slick rocks. You’ll cross muddy fields, traverse some narrow and exposed hillsides, and near the end pass over a few washed out points.
When you’re in glacial country, nothing is ever simple and the park service suggests 6-8 hours for this adventure though you can go a shorter way up the trail for a killer view of Exit Glacier too!
For those up for the challenge, the reward is well worth it. Going the distance to the end of the established trail is incredible but really there are a thousand views along the way to take in.
Necessary warning: While Exit Glacier & the Harding Icefield Trail may just be a “day hike,” it’s nothing to take lightly. This is remote terrain with regular wildlife encounters (bears most certainly included) across a steep trail possibly with ice, snow, or water crossings. There’s a reason there is a glacier here so be sure to come prepared!
Getting to the trailhead: Directions, lodging, trail facilities
The Harding Icefield Trail starts at the base of Exit Glacier. Well, the former base, the glacier has been progressively receding and first few minutes of walking will take you past a number of markers pointing out where the glacier use to reach not so long ago.
In any event, reaching the trailhead is simple enough not exactly in the middle of town. Located in the Kenai Fjords National Park, you’ll want to Head to the Exit Glacier Nature Center 20-30 minutes outside of Seward and 2.5 hours from Anchorage. Here you’ll find a ranger station with updated trail and area conditions, restrooms, potable water, and a few basic supplies in the bookstore. Parking is limited so consider carpooling in and be sure to stock up on snacks and hiking essentials before you head to the park (likely in Anchorage.)
Though the trail is mostly dirt, rock, or potentially snow, you’ll start out on the paved Exit Glacier path just beyond the Nature Center.
The best map of the trail route that I’ve seen can be found @ NPMaps.com
Hiking to the Exit Glacier View at the Bottom of the Cliffs
The Harding Icefield trail can really be broken up into two sections: hiking out of the forest to the cliffs for an amazing view of Exit Glacier and then climbing on up to the Harding Icefield above it. Though the elevation profile is not always even, each of these sections is right around 2 miles so it breaks the day up nicely for objectives.
While much of the first half is hiking a rocky trail through the treeline, there are plenty of views along the way and it’s certainly not a boring trail at any point. As you climb the switchbacks, you’ll be just a short ways from the lower portion of Exit Glacier and a few partial clearings provide great encouragement to endure the constant uphill push along this section – rest assured that those views will only get better too!
At 1.4 miles, the trail really begins to break free of the treeline and opens up into a stunning meadow area with rolling hills ahead and towering cliffs further above. Tempting as it is to stop here, it’s well worth moving on just a little further (though also all up hill) to the start of the cliff switchbacks and an incredible view down on Exit Glacier just below you.
With such incredible views, the trail can get moderately busy and as I took my break / photo stop along the cliffs, I ran into several groups who had decided to make that point their stopping spot. While there is plenty more to see going on ahead, this is not a trail where you must top out to get a view. Beyond the incredible glacier views, the hills you will be hiking are rather amazing to look at too and on a clear day, you’ll also be able to see plenty of other glaciers on neighboring mountains. We saw a Grizzly down by the glacier – thankfully well out of range of the trail and several other creatures over the course of the day.
Hiking to the Harding Icefield
Continuing from the lower cliffs, it’s easy to understand why many stop their day here as you look on ahead at the switchbacks that lead up the cliffs above. Thankfully, the views continue all around you so it’s easy to find a consistent excuse to take breathers as you pause to snap photos of it all.
As you top out from the cliff overlook (another main great break point if you want to push a little further), the trail cuts further into the hill and away from the glacier. By this point, you’ll have a continuous view of the glacier from just about any high point and it’s fascinating to look out as the ice transforms from well crevassed towards the more stable field above.
Just as the view changes, so does the trail, moving from lush hills into a rockier terrain. Expect to cross over plenty of water along the last mile of the trail as you get closer to the melting snowpack above (waterproof boots or shoes are a serious help on this trail.)
You may also find yourself crossing snow & ice for much of the upper trail so be sure to check with the rangers about the need for microspikes and / or crampons before heading out!
Ascending the rocky (or snowy) slopes, the trail is mostly defined but does occasionally split as the ever-changing terrain has forced people to forge new routes around eroding surfaces You’re not likely to get lost on a clear day but paying attention to the terrain ahead will help you avoid sketchier sections and minimize impact by sticking to the developed paths (always stay off vegetation and avoid short-cutting switchbacks which damages the trail and environment.)
After a few hundred more vertical feet, you’ll finally spot the Emergency Shelter standing out on a hillside above. While it’s not a large structure, it does offer an interesting perspective in the otherwise in-human environment around. As you climb the hill to reach it, your feet will be happy to know that the best icefield views are just a few minutes above.
Hiking beyond the shelter, the trail (if it’s not all snow) splits in a variety of paths though most lead up to the hill ahead. As you make your way there, you won’t need to look at your map or anything else to know that you have arrived at the end of the line as you find yourself staring out at a landscape of ice. By this point, you may be in an entirely different climate than the trailhead now almost a mile below. For my hike, which started out on a nice day with just light rain, that meant snow by the top as you can see in the photos!
There are plenty of paths around to different viewpoints in the rocky hills above the Harding Icefield as well as a few trails down to its edge. Tempting as it is, I strongly suggest staying off the ice unless you are experienced in (and ready for) glacial travel – and again, respect the fragile environment you are in!
When you’ve had your fill of photos (and lunch), head back down the way you came and enjoy a couple more hours of amazing views as you do so!
If you’re worried about taking this hike on yourself, there are guided treks available for a rather reasonable price from several local operators just outside the park. You can also sign up for hikes out on the glacier with guides providing technical gear and support of course.
Quick facts about the trail:
- Route: Out and Back
- Official Rating: Strenuous
- Start point: Exit Glacier Nature Center
- Distance: > 8.2 miles r/t
- Duration: 6+ hours
- Elevation Gain: 3,482’ per NPMaps
- Facilities: Restrooms, water, ranger station at the TH
- Water: None on the trail!
- Crowds: Moderate in Summer
- Cost: $20 to enter the park or an NPS annual pass
- Permits: None required