Views of Exit Glacier and lupine from the Alpine Meadows section. - Taz Tally

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The lovely play of tones and shadows across the icy landscape of Harding Icefield. - Taz Tally

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Fascinating red algae growing on snow. - Taz Tally

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Visit the remarkable Harding Icefield

August 10th, 2017 | Taz Tally Print this article   Email this article  

This is a strenuous four-mile-long hike with 3,500 feet of elevation gain into the land of perpetual ice that is the, size-of-the-state-of-Rhode Island: Harding Icefield, a stark, strange and wonderful landscape where glaciers are born.

The hike usually takes three to four hours.

Getting there

There miles north of Seward on Seward Highway, turn west onto Exit Glacier Road. Continue 8 miles to the parking lot at Kenai Fjord National Park Visitor Center.

The trail

From the interpretive center, walk 0.3 mile along the paved path toward Exit Glacier to the trailhead for the Harding Icefield Trail located on the right. This trail has four distinct sections: a lower forested section, a middle alpine meadow section, an tundra section, and an upper snowfield and bare rock section. The trail begins along a short, flat, closed-canopy forest of large aspen trees.

After 0.1 mile, the trail rapidly ascends over moist rocks through brush and then an aspen, alder, and poplar forest paralleling the west side of Exit Glacier. Because of the convex shape of the hillside you cannot actually see the icefield until you reach higher elevations. Switchbacks keep the trail from being too steep overall, although several very steep, rocky segments require using hands and feet.

There are several overlook points providing peak-a-boo views of a deeply incised stream channel far below you, along with the lower section of Exit Glacier. As you reach the second section of the trail, at about the two-mile/1,500-foot mark, you suddenly leave the forest behind and pass up into wildflower meadows of subalpine grasses, short alders, and wildflowers, with gorgeous violet-blue lupine dominating in June and July. The fields also include the distinctive Echinacea plant (purple coneflower) as well as dwarf hemlocks and ground cedar. As you enter the open meadows, there is a short side path to a terrific overlook of Exit Glacier and its crevassed surface.

As you hike across the bare rock outcrops, look for the distinctive, glacier-carved linear striations on the bare rock surfaces. Rub your hand parallel to the striation to feel how smoothly the glacier has polished these rock surfaces.

Progressing through this third section, the subalpine grasses and alders gradually diminish and finally disappear as you climb into the alpine tundra zone. The maintained trail disappears, but the well-worn path is still obvious.

As this is a high-traffic area and the grasses and lichens are fragile and easily damaged, try to stick to the main path marked by orange flags rather than meandering randomly over the ground, which can also be quite wet in spots. But do hike over to rock outcrops that provide sweeping panoramas across the Harding Icefield. Search the high rocky slopes for mountain goats and the lower slopes for brown as well as black bears and even caribou.

At about mile three, you ascend a quartermile-long snow-covered traverse that crosses a broad slope in front of you that you can see as you approach. Hiking this section can be treacherous, as unaccustomed and tired feet can slip on the wet, snowy iciness. Children especially love to play here but take care that they don't use up all their energy or get too wet, for your uphill trek continues for another mile.

As you cross the snow, look for patches of snow tinged with red algae, which blooms in patches that are unmistakable once you notice the first one and realize what it is. There are numerous snow-source freshets of delicious-tasting water draining this slope.

On the way back through this area, for fun, try boot-skiing down the snow, remember to keep your weight forward, or glissading using a collapsed hiking pole as a brake. The fourth and final segment of the trail begins at the top of the traverse at around 3,000 feet in elevation. Here you'll hike primarily across snowfields and mostly vegetation-free, due to recently-uncovered-by-the-retreating-glacial-ice, rocks supporting some spare communities of lichen and a few pioneering plants, such as blue forget-me-nots, the Alaska state flower. This is a stark, beautiful, primordial feeling landscape.

Near the top, continue pass the small shelter, toward the end of the trail. Plan to stay long enough to nap & noodle. Devote some time to simply sitting and watching the alpine light and cast shadows as they plays across the sea of ice before you. Also take the opportunity to scramble around explore the rocky landscape along the margins of the icefield, being careful to avoid trampling the delicate plants clinging courageously to their tenuous existence.

Also, take care to cling to yours by not getting too close to the edges. This is a great place to have lunch, and rest up for the return hike, while you enjoy this glorious landscape.

Special notes

The interaction of the cold glacial ice, the mountain slopes, the winds, and the sun creates a very dynamic weather environment. Wear polarized sunglasses, dress in layers and use hiking poles.


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