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Rating: 5 out of 5.

Alaska GuideHiking

Popular ForDay hiking, backpacking
SeasonLate June – August
TypeOut-and-back
DifficultyModerate (very steep)
Length8.2 miles
Elevation Gain3,070 ft (936 m)
LocationSeward – Exit Glacier Nature Center

Map of Harding Icefield Trail (red) and Exit Glacier trails (blue) – map disclaimer and information

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Overview

The Harding Icefield Trail is easily one of the most stunning and photogenic hikes I’ve ever done. From cottonwood forests on the lower trail, the trek takes you through some rocky terrain, to green alpine meadows overlooking the blue, crevassed Exit Glacier, past mountain cascades up to a vista of the endless sea of ice that is the Harding Icefield.

This physically demanding hike climbs about 1000 ft per mile (190 m/km). Snow persists into mid-summer at the higher elevations. In late July, I’ve had to cross about a half-mile in snowfields. It can snow any time of the year, and the local climate is typically very wet. Yet the trail is very well-traveled and flagged. While it helps to be in shape and have strong legs and endurance, I rate the trail moderate in difficulty because it’s only 3.7 miles (6 km) of climbing and is very well maintained. 

I highly recommend this trail for anyone that is suitably fit and has some experience hiking and navigating. I do not recommend it as one of your first hikes without someone experienced. Additionally, bears frequent this area, so you must know how to stay safe in bear country! National Park Service Ranger-led walks are available as well as a guiding service through Exit Glacier Guides.

Hikers overlooking the Harding Icefield at the end of the Harding Icefield Trail
The Harding Icefield is on a scale that is difficult to comprehend. A pair of hikers stand near the end of the trail overlooking a sea of ice and snow.

Restrictions

As in all National Parks, and as we should everywhere, follow Leave No Trace principles. There are no trash receptacles or outhouses along the trail, so be prepared to pack everything out or dig a cat hole at least 100 feet from the trail or water source for human waste. Camping is permitted along the trail only 1/8 mile from the trail on bare ground, not on vegetation!

Because of the heavy traffic in this area, walking or camping on vegetation is devastating. Alpine flora takes a very long time to grow, so please stick to the trails. There is a trail shelter high up for emergency use only. You can’t camp there. Be sure to check other restrictions with the National Park Service before your trip!

Fireweed and lupins blooming along the trail

Trail Description

The hike begins at the Exit Glacier Nature Center. Starting on the Glacier Overlook Trail. (If you’re looking for something a little tamer, these are some great walks and may only take a few hours to explore). Even though I would allow for an entire day for the Harding Icefield Trail, it wasn’t difficult to add the Glacier Overlook Trail, which only added a mile out-and-back. If you have time after returning, it’s well worth the quick jaunt out to see the terminus up close.

Gorgeous greenery and fern-lined trail with a roof of alder
Gorgeous greenery and fern-lined trail with a roof of alder | Purchase Prints

Following the Glacier Overlook Trail for 0.4 miles (0.64 km), the Harding Icefield Trail branches off to the right (well-marked). The first quarter-mile (0.4 km) is through dense cottonwood and alder passing a few small cascades. The forest slowly opens up as the trail steepens and you start some long switchbacks. Looking back, you can see the enormous glacial outflow plain where this past piedmont glacier once sprawled across 200 years ago.

Fireweed flowers in the Chugach Mountains over the Exit Glacier outwash plain.
Looking over fireweed and the outwash plain
CamelBak New Arrivals

Soon you step out of the alder, willow, and cottonwood and find yourself surrounded by flowers and other tall plants. The flora shrinks the higher you climb until there’s nothing but alpine meadows, towering mountains, waterfalls, and a behemoth of a blue and white glacier below you. This is one of the most stunning sections of trail I’ve ever seen.

Green alpine meadows over the Exit Glacier along the Harding Icefield Trail
Green alpine meadows over the Exit Glacier along the Harding Icefield Trail | Purchase Prints

Upper Trail

Depending on the time of year, you may be crossing some snowfields. Early in the season, there may be avalanche risk. Be sure you know what you are doing if venturing out on steep snow! Late July, I had to cross some snowfields, but the path was obvious and flagged with orange markers through the snow. My foot punched through into water a few times. But, since it had been raining all day, I was already soaked. The Kenai Peninsula tends to be wet, so definitely be prepared to deal with rain (or snow).

Streams over rocky slopes and snow lead down to the Exit Glacier
Streams over rocky slopes and snow lead down to the Exit Glacier | Purchase Prints

Green meadows give way to rocky alpine terrain. A trail shelter sits atop an outcropping. It was worth a pause to get out of the rain. You can go inside, but it is not permitted to camp here as it is an emergency-only shelter.

Trail shelter along the Harding Icefield Trail.
The trail through the snowfield is fairly well-seen from above the emergency shelter

Eventually, you come to the end of the maintained trail. The vista is difficult to soak in. The expanse of ice and snow seems endless. This is the turn-around. I usually don’t love out-and-back hikes, but I can say I looked forward to the return trip, not just because it was downhill.

Looking out over the Harding Icefield
Looking out to where the Exit Glacier branches off the Harding Icefield | Purchase Prints

If you are particularly adventurous (and well-experienced), you can access the icefield from here. Be prepared and know your skill level, the glacier is heavily crevassed and dangerous! Often these crevasses are snowcovered, so there’s no indication of what you are walking over. However, the walk down to get a closer look at the ice is worth it. Make sure to keep an eye on the time!

If you have recently hiked the Harding Icefield Trail, please feel free to leave info about the conditions in the comments below. Be sure to include the dates of your hike!

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