If you want to go on one of the most unique and arguably one of the best hikes in the US, then you need to do the Harding Icefield trail! Climb up a mountain to expansive views of ice and glaciers that extend for miles. This trail in Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska will surely blow you away 🤯!
Harding Icefield is the largest icefield in the US covering over 700 square miles of distance. This icefield encapsulates 40 glaciers and reaches depths of up to 4,000 feet.
I have gone on over 200 hikes in the past 2 years and this is in my top 5 all time favorite trails! It’s got incredible landscapes, unique geological formations, and adorable wildlife on the way.
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Table of Contents
Harding Icefield Trail Guide
In this post, I’ll share everything you need to know about completing the Harding Icefield hike!
This post will go into detail about the hike itself 🥾, how to get there and will showcase some of the beautiful views along the way!
Although it’s a tough steep climb up the mountain, you’ll be rewarded with one of the most incredible panoramic views 🤩 over a large swath of ice. I’d give yourself at least half a day or a minimum of 6.5 hours to complete this tough climb.
I have been on over 200 hikes in the last year throughout the US and there’s a reason this one is at the top of the list! If you have the time and the capabilities then you should definitely add this trail to your Alaska trip.
What is Harding Icefield?
So, Harding Icefield is the largest icefield in the US, but what even is an icefield?
Icefields are created when snow and ice accumulate at the top of a mountain. Mountain peaks jut out above the ice and the ice creates a large patch around the mountains. Interconnected glaciers create outlets for the icefield down the mountain below.
Exit Glacier is the most accessible of the glaciers that’s part of Harding Icefield. So, many visitors come to this area of the park to see this glacier or hike up further to get expansive views of the icefield.
Quick Hike Info
Distance: 8.6 miles, but you can stop at lower viewpoints and turn around
Elevation: 3200 feet of gain
Type: Out and Back
Length: 5-7 hours total (depends on your pace and breaks)
Difficulty: Hard (the trail up is relentless)
You’ll begin the trail at the Exit Glacier visitor center. From there, you’ll walk along the Exit Glacier trail until you see a sign 🪧 on the right side of the path for the Harding Icefield trail. It should only be .3 miles in.
Then, turn to the right and start walking through the forest. You’ll cross over a bridge and small waterfall before beginning climbing up through the forest.
This trail goes up the entire time, so you’ll feel it from the start. After 2 miles and 1200 feet, you’ll get to the clearing for Marmot Meadows. This is a great viewpoint with wildflowers 🌸🌸 in the summer.
You can choose to stop here or continue further up!
Top of the Cliffs
The trail gets tougher from there, with steep switchbacks above the treeline that feel rather endless. As you climb up another 1200 feet in 1.2 miles.
Luckily, as you walk you’ll get stunning views of Exit Glacier and eventually it will open up to one of the best vistas I’ve ever seen. 😱 On one side is the icefield and on the other you’ll see the valley below.
I have thought back on this view many times in the last few months.
It’s a fantastic place to stop and take a break or to turn around at if you’re too tired to go on. You’ll definitely want to take plenty of pictures 📸 here!
Harding Icefield Shelter & Summit
Once you get above Top of the Cliffs, the trail begins to get rocky 🪨. You’ll take one long steep climb up the rocky mountain side before getting to some hills covered in rocks as well.
At this point, you’ll begin to feel like the end is in sight as you get better and better views over the icefield. If you’re lucky, you may even see mountain goats hanging around!
With another few up and downs, you’ll finally get to the Harding Icefield shelter, which is the official end of the hike! Climb up just beyond the shelter to get to the summit and jaw dropping views over the icefield.
We could have stayed there for hours just taking it all in. It is magnificent! There’s really nothing that can compare 😮💨 to seeing an icefield extend for miles beyond your vision.
For the very daring individuals, you can go even further adding an additional 1.5 miles to get to the toe of the icefield. But, I recommend turning back from here!
Planning Your Harding Icefield Hike
Harding Icefield Location
Harding Icefield is on the Eastern side of the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. It’s located in Kenai Fjords National Park and can be accessed at the Exit Glacier Visitor Center.
It’s an easily accessible park if you’re planning on visiting Alaska. It’s just a 2.5 hour drive from Anchorage 🚗 right outside of the adorable town of Seward. Plus, many cruise ships and the train stop in Seward as well.
So, you should definitely add this hike to your Alaska itinerary!
How to Get to Harding Icefield
Luckily, it’s very easy to find the Harding Icefield trail if you’re spending time in Seward. This trail is just one turn off of the main road that travels through town, so it’s hard to get lost!
In order to get to Harding Icefield, you’ll need to drive or take a shuttle 🚌 with service from Seward to Exit Glacier.
Whether you’re coming from Seward or Anchorage, you’ll take State Highway 9. Turn onto Exit Glacier Road and then follow this road all the way down to the visitor center. The trailhead leaves right there at the parking lot!
Things to Know Before You Go
💵 There is no entrance fee to visit Kenai Fjords National Park, which makes it a great park to visit for the whole family!
☀️ Weather changes quickly in the mountains and in Alaska. You should be prepared for inclement weather when climbing up this trail. At any time, it can go from sunny to rainy quickly.
⛺️ You can find one campground at Exit Glacier, which is where this trail leaves from. There are 12 sites that are all first come, first served. You can expect them to fill up during the summer, so go early!
🐻 Alaska is grizzly and black bear country! Make sure that you stay bear aware and carry bear spray with you on the trails.
🦮 Pets are not allowed on the trails in Kenai Fjords National Park, so you cannot bring them up to Harding Icefield.
⚠️ Exit Glacier road closes during the winter season, which means it can only be accessed from Spring to Fall. You can see updates on all closures on the NPS website.
🍃 Remember to follow the Leave No Trace Principles. As always, you want to leave nature looking better than you found it.
Best Time to Hike in Kenai Fjords
Unfortunately, this trail is inaccessible during the winter time. Alaska has a very long winter and temperatures stay cold ❄️ for a while. So, the best time to hike Harding Icefield is summer or early Fall.
I recommend completing this hike during the months of July-September.
Although, it can get very crowded during the peak season, it’s still worth it. We went on a beautiful sunny day in August and had no trouble finding a parking spot. That being said, go early or on week days for quieter trails!
What to Pack for the Trail
The Harding Icefield is literally a field of glaciers and ice, so it can get very cold at the top! Also, Alaska’s weather is very fickle, so it can change at a moment’s notice ⛈.
Prepare well for the hike by bringing layers and preparing for rain. Although, we had a beautiful day that ended up being incredibly warm even at the summit. But, I was glad to know I packed layers in case I needed them!
Packing Guide Harding Icefield
- Comfortable Hiking Boots
- Day Pack
- Hiking poles
- Water Reservoir
- 3-4 Liters of Water
- Snacks and Food
- First Aid Kit
- Bear Spray
- Bug Spray
- Rain jacket
- Light winter jacket
- Satellite phone
- Downloaded AllTrails Map
Where to Stay Near Exit Glacier
Seward is only a 20 minute drive from the trail, which makes it an incredible place to stay. If you’re a van lifer or RV traveler, then you can also stay off of Exit Glacier Road for free. It’s one of my favorite places I’ve ever camped!
If you’re going to stay in Seward, below are some of my favorite options. My mother in law actually ended up staying at the Spruce Lodge and she had a wonderful stay. The rooms are nice and conveniently located.
Great Hotels in Seward:
- Spruce Lodge – Off of Exit Glacier Road! My Mother in Law loved her experience here.
- The Vue B&B
- Harbor 360 Hotel
Final Tips for Hiking Harding Icefield
Harding Icefield is one of my all time favorite trails 🙌🏻. But, one of the things that I love most is you can make it as hard or as easy as you want. If you don’t have the time or endurance, you can simply stop at one of the lookouts and turn around.
It’s better to be over prepared for the hike than under prepared. I recommend packing hiking poles, layers, and sunscreen for your trek. Happy trails!
Let me know in the comments if you enjoyed this trail
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