This Ethereal National Park Is Home to Ancient Glaciers and Unmatched Wildlife

The Last Frontier’s immense mountains, tundras, and valleys need no introduction.

morning near a misty mountain surrounded by water and ice
Far over the Misty Mountains cold... | Noppawat Tom Charoensinphon/Getty Images
Far over the Misty Mountains cold... | Noppawat Tom Charoensinphon/Getty Images
Welcome to National Parks Uncovered, where we’ll help you discover the beauty of America’s most underrated—and least-crowded—national parks—from sweeping landscapes where you can get up close and personal with mountains, glaciers, and volcanoes to sunny paradises hiding out near major cities like Chicago and LA. To find out what natural wonders you’ve been missing out on, check out the rest of our underrated national parks coverage.

Whittled into existence by the movement of glaciers over the course of several millennia, Kenai Fjords National Park in south central Alaska is a cocktail of steep fjords, temperate rainforests, scraggly coastline, and—the park’s best-known feature—the dozens of 23,000-year-old, otherworldly-blue glaciers spilled out across roughly 670,000 acres.

More than 50 percent of Kenai Fjords is covered in glacial ice, but the 700-square-mile Harding Ice Field is what earned the area national park distinction in 1980—it’s now only one of four ice fields left in the United States. It might be worth getting there soon, as signs of its climate change-induced melt are everywhere: At Exit Glacier, one of the ice fields’ frozen fingers, trail markers note where the face of the glacier once sat, illustrating how the ice has melted thousands of feet over the decades.

Still, despite the onset of global warming, Kenai Fjords’ unique ecosystem has allowed wildlife to thrive. More than 191 species of birds have been documented here, including puffins, eagles, and ptarmigan. There are also roughly 30 types of land mammals—think moose, mountain goats, and wolverines—and about a dozen marine mammals swim in the waters off the coast; on any given day, you might see humpback and killer whales, sea otters, and harbor porpoise passing by.

There are two ways to experience the ethereal landscapes of Kenai Fjords: by land or by sea. By land, it’s possible to drive up to Exit Glacier and, from there, hike further out into the wilderness; by sea, you can see where the ice fields meet the coastline by boat. Both will require a little effort, but it’s worth it to see this criminally underrated slice of the 49th state.

spire rocks in a lake near large mountains
Sail through the stone towers of Spire Cove. | Tomasz Wozniak/Shutterstock

How to get to Kenai Fjords National Park

From Alaska’s largest city, Anchorage, Kenai Fjords is about 2.5 hours by car or just over four hours on the Alaska Railroad to Seward, the nearest town. Many visitors tend to cram the park into a day trip from Anchorage. Maybe that’s because they have a jam-packed Alaska itinerary; maybe it’s because Kenai Fjords doesn’t have the same name recognition as, say, Denali, and they’re just not aware of how much there is to do. Whatever the reason, they’re missing out. While a day trip is doable, it’s hard to grasp the magnitude of the place in just a few hours; if you can, stick around for a few days for the best experience.

Also worth noting: Because it’s such a wild landscape (and because so much of the park is inaccessible), unless you possess the kind of wilderness skills that could land you a spot on Alone, it’s a good idea to sign up for a tour.

The best time to visit Kenai Fjords National Park

The good news is that Kenai Fjords is free to enter and open 24/7/365 (although the Visitor Center and the Exit Glacier Nature Center close in the winter). Still, hands down, the best time to visit Kenai Fjords is between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Summer in the 49th state is divine—the sun barely sets, the temperatures are Goldilocks-approved, and every restaurants’ seafood was probably caught within the last 24 hours.

It’s also really the only time you can visit the park easily. Day cruises generally run regularly from mid-May to early September (with a few select sailings in March, April, and October), so unless you have your own boat or know a guy, it’s not possible to access the park by water in the winter. Going the land route is also a challenge during the cold weather months: Herman Leirer Road, the only road into the park, is closed to cars from October to whenever the snow melts, usually by April or May. Of course, if you want to cross country ski, snowmobile, or dogsled in, by all means, go ahead.

A lone hiker standing in the mist atop an Alaskan mountain at sunset
It hardly gets more picturesque than the Harding Icefield Trail. | Noppawat Tom Charoensinphon/Getty Images

Scale ancient glaciers and towering peaks

The crown jewel of Kenai Fjords National Park, Harding Ice Field, feeds more than 30 glaciers, covers 700 square miles, and is estimated to be roughly 4,000 feet deep. However, seeing it in all its stark, otherworldly glory is no easy task: the trail, albeit popular, is strenuous. For just over 4.5 miles, hikers on the Harding Ice Field Trail gain 3,641 feet of elevation on a 6-8 hour trek (not to mention the National Park Service warns hikers to keep an eye out for bears). The trail starts on the valley floor before snaking through alder forests and fireweed-filled meadows before crossing above the tree line. Even in peak summer, the trail’s terminus is often covered in snow.

If you’d like to get up close and personal with a glacier, but don’t care to spend all day hiking, consider the Exit Glacier Overlook Trail, instead. The two-mile loop has a paved path and negligible elevation gain but still gets you close enough to touch a glacier. During the summer, Park Rangers lead walks on that trail (lasting 1.5 hours), where they talk about the flora, fauna, and how the glacier-carved the valley. The first part of the walk follows the trail to the Glacier View lookout and is wheelchair accessible.

While it’s not technically in the park, you can see the protected land (as well as all of Seward, Resurrection Bay, and many neighboring mountain ranges) from a distance from the top of Mount Marathon. Fair warning: it’s a humbler. There are two routes to the top, the first being called The Runner’s Trail because, each July 4, elite athletes come from all over the world to race to the top and back, a three-mile dash that includes a vertical gain of about 3,022 feet in a single .9-mile section.

The fastest time to date was just over 41 minutes. People say if you’re not bleeding when you finish, you didn’t try hard enough (which is why the race has been dubbed the toughest 5k on the planet). For mortals, there’s the (slightly) easier Jeep Trail. It’s a less treacherous 4.1-mile loop, which usually takes hikers about four hours to complete.

If you want to get to a glacier without hiking, fear not, there is a way: Dog mushing. For nearly three decades, Mitch Seavey and his son Dallas have been the top dogs in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race—they’ve won seven races between the two of them, six of which were in the last nine years. That’s all to say: they know dog mushing, and they’ll teach you, too. From late April until the snow melts, participants can mush an actual Iditarod team, from a dog sled, to Exit Glacier. Once the snow is gone, the Seavey’s hitch the team up to a wheeled cart—it’s how they stay in racing condition year-round.

Visiting Kenai Fjords in the winter? You can still visit Exit Glacier with local company Adventure Sixty North. They lead two-hour Snow Cat tours to Exit Glacier, with the option to add on an additional two hours of snowshoe hiking. They also offer a snow machine tour (that’s “snowmobile” to Lower 48ers) on the same route. Depending on conditions, you won’t always see the glacier, but the quiet ride down the birch tree-lined road is magical all the same.

a humpback whale breaching the waters near a large rock cliff
Come during summertime for peak whale watching season. | mtnmichelle/Getty Images

Watch whales leap through the air on a wildlife and glacier cruise

Boat tours are easily the most popular day trip within Kenai Fjords, and for good reason. During the half- and full-day tours, pleasure cruisers can witness glaciers calving off chunks the size of sedans, spot sea lions perched out on rocky outcroppings, watch breaching whales hurl themselves out of the water as a big fuck you to gravity, and hear the soprano squawks of seabirds as they soar overhead. Usually, there’s a salmon buffet meal and margaritas made with glacier ice that accompanies the longer sailings.

Though some whales, like belugas, can be seen year-round, the best time for whale watching is between March and October (with peak season being June through August) when whales migrate from warmer climes to feast in the krill-rich waters off Alaska’s shores. Gray whales head north first in March and April, orcas become more common in May, and finally, the humpback whales arrive in June.

Kenai Fjords Tours is the most senior glacier and wildlife tour operator in the area. They have six tours options, including a 5.5-hour glacier dinner cruise and an 8.5-hour wildlife tour that culminates with dinner on Fox Island. Their boats are bigger and generally able to handle rough waters better. Major Marine Tours has a similar roster of cruises, with the exception of a 3.5-hour budget cruise. If you’re looking for something more intimate, you might consider Alaska Saltwater Tours. Though their vessel could take 30 guests, they limit it to 15, so you’ll have plenty of elbow room while snapping photos.

If you’re not keen on being on a boat, another alternative is seeing where the ice, forest, and water converge from above on a scenic flightseeing tour of Kenai Fjords. It’s hard to fully grasp just how superlative Alaska is until you see it from the sky—and even then, it’s still unfathomable.

For those looking to get a bird’s-eye view of the remarkable landscapes of the 49th state, there are a handful of tour operators that offer scenic flightseeing tours of Kenai Fjords, including AA Seward Air Tours (a bush plane company that offers flights to four different glaciers, with an optional glacier landing), Marathon Helicopters (where every seat is a window seat and tours range from 30 minutes to an hour), and Exit Glacier Guides (which drops guests on Harding Icefield, so they can ski down).

two adults on stand up paddle boards observe a hole melted in an iceberg
Don't slip! | James + Courtney Forte/Getty Images

Kayak amidst tidewater glaciers

Alaska’s Indigenous people have long paddled the waters of what is now Kenai Fjords National Park—granted, their boats were probably much different from the polyethylene ocean kayaks used by outdoor guides today. Myriad sea kayaking companies operate out of Seward and can take adventurers deep into the park to paddle amongst bobbing bits of iceberg, into protected coves, and in the company of sea otters and whales.

Sunny Cove Kayaking zooms adventurers out to Kenai Fjords in their private catamaran, where they can noodle around tidewater glaciers. Liquid Adventures does full-day expeditions to Aialik Glacier, where guests can paddle in the electric-blue waters. And Kayak Adventures Worldwide makes custom trips geared towards families.

Where to stay near Kenai Fjords National Park

Unless you plan to day-trip in from Anchorage, you’ll want to anchor yourself in Seward. Once you’re there, where you stay depends on how close to activities you want to be and how upscale you prefer your digs.

If you’re looking for something budget-friendly, there are oodles of places to camp. Exit Glacier Campground is the only established campground within the park, but backcountry camping—not for the faint of heart!—is allowed anywhere else. Miller’s Landing is a perennial favorite campground on nearby Resurrection Bay; just be sure to reserve one of the tent spots or rustic cabins ahead of time.

If you can’t be without private bathrooms and electricity, you might consider Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge, whose 16 Alaska-chic cabins have the closest real beds to the park entrance. In downtown Seward, there’s Harbor 360 Hotel and Gateway Hotel Seward, both of which are conveniently close to the Small Boat Harbor, where most of the day cruises depart from. For something more middle-ground, there are also a smattering of Airbnbs and locally-owned cabins for rent, including joints like Salted Roots or the Domestead.

a tourist standing in front of an enormous, ancient glacier wall
Get up close and personal with the electric-blue Exit Glacier. | Matt Champlin/Getty Images

Things to know before you go

All over Alaska, you’ll see tourists wearing head-to-toe Gore-Tex just to noodle around the shops downtown. Although you don’t need to refit your entire wardrobe, do come prepared for any kind of weather. Summer temperatures can fluctuate anywhere between 40 and 70 degrees, and while it might be a bluebird morning, fog and rain can roll in quickly. Trust us: you don’t want to be caught several miles down a trail in a T-shirt and shorts when that happens. A common refrain in Alaska is “cotton kills” because the fabric takes a long time to dry. Instead, opt for garments made with wicking materials, like polyester or nylon.

Also, remember that this is bear country—both black and brown bears are found within Kenai Fjords. While you certainly don’t need to worry if you’re just going on a cruise, it’s a good idea to pick up some bear spray (and to know how to use it!) if you plan to do any camping or hiking. Most grocery stores and gas stations in Seward sell cans. That being said, bears want to avoid you as much as you want to avoid them. So long as you make your presence known as you walk along the trails (singing or talking is fine) and properly store your food (keep leftovers at least 100 feet from your campsite overnight to avoid attracting critters), it’s unlikely you’ll need to bust out the bear spray on your trip.

Last but not least, if you plan on spending time in Kenai Fjords without a guide, it’s a good idea to bring a paper map since there’s no cell reception in the vast majority of the park.

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Bailey Berg (@baileybergs) is an Alaska-based journalist covering travel, beer, the outdoors, & more.