Hiking Exit Glacier and Harding Icefield Trail

August 2020

Hiking Exit Glacier and Harding Icefield Trail

It is no surprise that Alaska is full of glaciers and often a tourist’s goal is trying to get up close to one. There are multiple opportunities throughout the state through various hikes and boat tours. When visiting Seward, one of the most popular things to do is visit Exit Glacier.

The Exit Glacier Area features a short and easy 1 mile trail to visit the base of Exit Glacier, making it desirable for all sorts of people to have the chance to see the glacier. Alternatively, there is an even more unique view that requires a bit more work but the reward is reaching the Harding Icefield. The price? A strenuous 8.2 mile hike with 3500 feet elevation gain. Worth it? Absolutely.

Before taking on the Harding Icefield trail, there are some things to know ahead of time.

  • Harding Icefield is the size of Massachusetts and connects many of the area glaciers together – including those in Seward, such as Exit Glacier, all the way to Prince William Sound.
  • The full trail is 4.1 miles one way, totaling 8.2 miles round trip. The first 4.2 miles are tough – it is all uphill gaining 3512 feet in elevation at a rate of 1,000 feet of elevation with every mile. The first half is most climbing and the second half is made up of inclines. Because of this feature, you need to allot 6 to 8 hours to complete the trail. The benefit being the last 4.1 miles is all downhill and goes by much faster.
  • There is an alternative if you do not want to complete the entire route but want a more expansive view of the area – Marmot Meadows is 1.4 miles (totaling 2.8 round trip) and the Top of the Cliff is 2.4 miles (4.8 miles round trip). The view at the Top of the Cliff is amazing and we noticed many people reach that point and turn around. I would suggest if you can make it to Top of the Cliff that you just push through and keep going to the end.
  • Because of the incline and elevation gains, may be a good idea to pack those hiking sticks to save your knee. We saw many people with them and at points I wish we had them too.
  • There is a warning about animals before starting the trail to know what to do if you experience an encounter. Regardless, it is recommended to make loud noises during the trail to alert animals you may not see that you are there. If the animals are not startled and know you are there, they are less likely to bother you.
    • Brown Bear: Stand your ground and do not run away, make lots of noise while backing away slowing without turning around. If bear charges, lay on the ground on your belly and play dead.
    • Black Bear: Fight it! We found this one the most funny. The reason being that black bears are skittish and will most likely run away.
    • Moose: Do not approach it and if it charges, get behind something solid and strong like a tree to absorb the impact of the charge.
  • Pack plenty of water, snacks (even lunch), sunscreen, bug spray, and extra battery life to ensure you do not miss a moment of this hike.
  • Be flexible to when you complete this hike – you are going to want the best weather possible. Don’t hike the entire way and miss the reward at the end cause it was not visible.
  • It is free! There is no fee to hike this area so enjoy this budget friend option in Alaska.
  • And if this does not sound like the hike for you but you want to see a glacier, enjoy the 1 mile walk to the base of Exit Glacier.

I think that is everything! Let’s explore this amazing trail.

With a expected duration of 6 to 8 hours, I wanted us to get an early start. We arrived to a completely empty parking lot at 7AM. On the way in, there are year markers indicating where the glacier was at that year. This continued along the trail as well.

We parked and collected our bags filled with goodies for the hike ahead. Signs greeted us explaining the trail and animal safety.

The thought started to settle… we would be the first ones of the day on the trail and from the looks of it, alone for awhile… we may actually have an animal encounter. We belted all the possible songs we could think of (including Bohemian Rhapsody and the entire first act of Hamilton) – every animal on the trail knew we were coming. This also added to the challenge of the climb while producing enough vocal strength to “be loud”. Or that our pockets continued to get heavier from the extensive rock collection along the way. Guess investing in a bear bell could have made things a bit easier!

Each mile is a different terrain and experience – keeping things interesting for the entire trail.

Mile 1: The Forest and Rock Climbing

Fresh legs and all the climbing ahead, we moved through the first mile at a good pace. I think our concern for a bear encounter was highest at this portion because there was tall trees and brush. We reached the bridge and the ascending began. But the trail disappears and becomes mostly rock climbing, reminding us of the hiking in Acadia National Park. While it was a foggy morning, I knew we would eventually get high enough to see over it. As we got almost at the tree line, we began to see a small glance of the majesty ahead. Trees turned into high brush and wildflowers as the sun emerged to greet us. A short time later, we reached the 1.4 mile marker at Marmot Meadows. We got our first sights of Exit Glacier and the surrounding mountains and were simply amazed. I had not looked at images ahead of time of what to expect so we were just blown away with every turn and upward movement that got us a better view.

Mile 2: The Meadows and Switchbacks

The high brush faded away into lush grass and every color was vibrant. The rock climbing changed to switch backs and every turn left us in awe. On one side was a giant hill framed with wildflowers and the other was a towering mountain full of waterfalls. In between was this enormous glacier cutting the corners all around us. That color blue on the glacier is so spectacular and it does not translate on the camera like it does in person. This mile of the hike is very enjoyable because you are distracted by all the views. At 2.4 miles, we reached Top of the Cliffs Overlook which is a very popular spot for a photo as it provides the perfect view of Exit Glacier.

Mile 3: The Rocks and Inclines

This is where things get interesting. Leaving the bliss Top of the Cliffs Overlook resulted in a change of terrain. The lush grass was replaced by dirt and later became a field of rocks. The switchbacks disappeared and instead were we left with grueling inclines with no relief. I would much rather climb all the rocks than struggling on an endless incline. We spotted our first animal of the trail – marmots – not terribly exciting but it counts. While the views continued to amaze us, our calves and thighs were definitely feeling it by this point. Occasionally, a stream of water would flow among the rocks, glistening in the sunlight, ice cold that felt amazing on my head and neck to cool me down while we finished this hike.

Mile 4: Mordor and Icefield

All grass disappeared into more rock and dirt – looked just like Mordor in Lord of the Rings. The incline persisted without relief and worse, we could make out the trail ahead of use in the dirt and it looks like it went on for days! More streams continued to appear with larger volumes making some crossings more adventurous than others. In the far distance, we could see the Emergency Shelter. So many more steps! Every time we thought we were closer, the Emergency Shelter continued to stay the same size. The dirt became more gritty and made it more difficult to get good traction, reminding us of the Tongariro Crossing in New Zealand (the real Mordor). When we finally made it to the Emergency Shelter, we knew we were close. The final push uphill at a running pace launched us to the top of the trail with the most incredible view. And we had it all to ourselves.

We reached Harding Icefield! It is really challenging to grasp what we were looking at. This icefield expanded as large as the state of Massachusetts! And our over heated bodies quickly cooled down as the wind swept over the glacier chilling the air as nature’s air conditioner. We found a ledge to occupy for the next half hour as we ate our lunch with such a spectacular view.

Halfway into our break, a few people starting trickling to the top (I wondered if they heard my belting of songs), each taking the same panting stop at the top, looking around, and finding a place to soak everything in.

The way back was definitely faster and easier for a cardio perspective but the tip toeing down the steep inclines continued to be a calf burning work out. The clouds in the distance completely cleared, offering yet more views that we missed out in the in morning. While I know I already took so many photos, I could not help myself!

We were trail blazing back through Mordor, hopping over the streams, navigated the rocks, gliding through the meadows, and strolling though the forest – was not quite the pace of getting out of the Legends of the Hidden Temple after you get the artifact but it was close. We clocked in under six hours for our journey and that includes our stop at the top for lunch and pausing for photos. Honestly I was shocked we did not see any animals other than the marmots – guess our singing scared them all away! We started passing people gradually as we made our way down – each one asking if it was worth it or if they were close. 1) YES it is worth it 2) Never ask if you are close… ANYWAY. Many people seemed to climb to the Top if the Cliffs Overlook as that was a but more populated which is a great option but if you are able, conquer the entire climb.

While this was physically challenging it was insanely rewarding. I wish we had more hikes like this nearby. What made this so unique was not just the ability to see a glacier up close, but an entire icefield. The constantly changing scenery was also so enjoyable and stunning. Highly recommend this hike if you are in Seward!

Continue reading about our Alaska trip here – coming soon!

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