Distill the essence of coastal Alaska into one place: wild, dynamic, and scenic, rich with glaciers, unforgiving in stormy seas, unforgettable in sunlight—and you have the smallest (669,983 acres) national park in Alaska, Kenai Fjords.
Here the land and ice tumbles into the Gulf of Alaska with talon like peninsulas and rocky headlands, while the sea reaches inland with long fjords reaching glacier carved valleys and hundreds of quiet bays and coves. This inspiring and magical realm is beyond imagination and descriptions. It fills the senses with awe and leaves the visitor at a loss of words.
Kenai Fjords National Park is a land dominated by glaciers, and the massive Harding Ice Field. To better understand the relationship, imagine the ice field is a highway and the glaciers are off-ramps of that massive river of ice. Nearly 56 percent of the park is covered by ice, but all of this land was once buried beneath the ice and still bears the influence from that era. The dramatic coastal fjords and valleys of the park reveal a long history of glaciation.
“Compare the torrent and the glacier. Both get where they are going.” — Ursula K. Le Guin
Kenai Fjords National Park was established in 1980 to “maintain unimpaired the scenic and environmental integrity of the Harding Icefield, its outflowing glaciers and coastal fjords and islands…” Within the enabling legislation lies the heart of the park’s natural features. This park is about ice and its legacy: glaciers, icefields and coastal fjords.
Kenai Fjords National Park can be divided into three main areas; Exit Glacier, the coastal fjords, and the Harding Icefield. There was such beauty at every turn you will find this post very heavy on photos!
The Harding Icefield is the park’s crown jewel, almost 714 square miles of ice up to a mile thick and is the largest icefield contained entirely within the boundaries of the United States. It feeds nearly three-dozen glaciers flowing out of the mountains, six of them to tidewater. The Harding Icefield is a vestige of the massive ice sheet that covered much of Alaska in the Pleistocene era (about 2.5 million to 11,700 years ago).
The area of the icefield and its outflowing glaciers as of 2005 was 1,903 sq. km (735 sq. mi). It is approximately 50 miles across at the longest point; 20 miles wide across the widest point. 1,367.51 sq. km (528 sq. mi) of the Harding Icefield are contained within the boundaries of Kenai Fjords National Park.
“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” – Lao Tzu
The Harding Ice field is thousands of feet thick, but it does not completely bury the underlying mountains. Nunatak, meaning “lonely peak” is the term for such mountaintops surrounded in ice. These mountaintops create a stark contrast to the miles of ice and snow.
Over 30 glaciers of different size and type flow outward from the Harding Ice Field. Some of these glaciers are tidewater (Northwestern Glacier) or terminate in lakes (Skilak Glacier), and some end on land (Exit Glacier). Ice fields are sensitive to climate change, growing and melting in response to changes in temperature and snowfall. Ice fields also exert their own influence on local and global climate, changing pressure systems and wind directions, serving to keep adjacent land and water cold.
“Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Exit Glacier, like many glaciers in Kenai Fjords National Park, is undergoing rapid recession now. As climate changes and glaciers recede, pioneer plants move in to prepare the land for the forests to come. Seedlings of alder, cottonwood, and fireweed quickly colonize the seemingly barren landscape, exposed by melting ice.
A visit to the glacier is just one snapshot in time but you are reminded of the rapidly melting ice by the numerous signs showing the location of the glacier at various points in history – many of which were not long ago.
I actually visited Exit Glacier twice, once with my friend Sue and her sister who was visiting and we hiked the shorter trail to the glacier viewpoint. They were on their way out of town so time was limited but it gave me an opportunity to plan my next and longer visit.
My second visit to Exit Glacier my friend Mark and I joined a Ranger led hike up the mountain to Marmot Meadow with the idea that we were going to keep hiking even further up the trail to Top of the Cliffs overlook for better views of Exit Glacier and the Harding Icefield. We met a young couple from back east that joined us hiking further up the trail after leaving the Ranger hike.
Although we saw little wildlife the namesake “Marmot Meadows” proved to be correct and we ran across these critters as we climbed the trail.
The hike was considered strenuous gaining about 1,000’ of elevation for every mile but the views were certainly worth the effort. At the top, the view was unlike any other: peaks enshrouded with ice stretched out into the distance and the magnificent Harding Ice Field dominated the landscape.
On the way back down the trail we were determined to find the “secret trail” that we heard about that could lead us to actually be able to walk out on the glacier. There are tour companies that contract with the NPS to take folks out on glacier hikes and they didn’t do a great job at hiding their “secret route”. With a little bushwhacking and some steep sections we found our way down and out onto the glacier itself. Not having the proper equipment the slippery ice prevented us from getting too far but I did make it out on the ice and took advantage of the opportunity to eat some glacier ice.
The park is famous for the fjords it contains, which are valleys that were created by glaciers that are now below sea level. In 1978, United States President Jimmy Carter designated Kenai Fjords as a national monument. In 1980 it was re-designated as Kenai Fjords National Park, following the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act passing.
The ancient ice gouged out Kenai’s fjords, creating habitats for throngs of sea animals. About 20 species of seabirds nest along the rocky coastline; then there are the myriad of marine mammals like seals, sea lions, and a variety of whales.
The coastal fjords are best visited by water and there are a number of companies that provide everything from scenic cruises to kayak trips. I went with the longest cruise out of Seward, a 9 hour cruise going 75 miles into Kenai Fjords visiting Northwestern Glacier. Reached only by boat or plane, Northwestern Fjord (home of the Northwestern Glacier) is also home to two other amazing tidewater glaciers and numerous alpine glaciers blanketing the surrounding peaks.
Tidewater glaciers are glaciers that flow down to the ocean, meeting the water. These glaciers calve ice as they surge forward, creating icebergs which in turn provide resting places for a variety of marine animals.
Nine hours may seem like a long ride but the trip went quickly as our captain was a great narrator as she piloted the vessel to some of the most amazing scenery. Rain forests, mountain islands, glaciers, waterfalls, massive granite cliffs and rock spires will were just a few of our sights. Once we turned toward into Northwestern Fjord we entered a land that returned us to the days where glaciers ruled the landscape and created the stark and rugged beauty of the Kenai Fjords National Park.
As we watched and listened at the face of Northwestern small waterfalls of ice would fall from the face into the icy waters. A woman next to me on the boat commented “look at that crack, I wonder if that piece is ready to fall off?” and my response of “it’s probably been that way for weeks” was quickly followed by the large section of the glacier cracking and falling into the bay. Fortunately I had my camera at the ready and filmed the calving.
“Without the ice, the earth will fall.” – Emma Thompson
On the ride back the captain got word of an Orca and we took a slight detour to find the killer whale. It was a solitary whale that was described as one of the transient orcas.
We were treated to a tail slapping display as it cruised past the rocky outcropping and out toward the open sea.
Several humpback whales also put on a show surfacing and showing their tails for excited visitors. Where else can you capture a humpback tail with a puffin in the frame!
It was a great day on the water visiting Kenai Fjords National Park.
“We are the first generation that can put an end to poverty and we are the last generation that can put an end to climate change, so we [must] address climate change.” –UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
There seems to be no better indicator for the non-scientist of global warming than the melting of these massive glaciers and ice fields. It is reassuring to know that our National Parks have pledged to address these issues and help the public to understand the reality.
From the Kenai Fjords National Park website:
We, at Kenai Fjords National Park, as part of the greater National Park Service, are committed to the following:
- Climate change is happening and human activities are contributing to and accelerating it.
- Climate change has consequences for parks, people, and the planet.
- The National Park Service is responding with practices that address climate change.
- The choices that we make now may help to avoid catastrophic impacts in the future.
When you visit amazing places like Kenai Fjords NP you can’t help but want to preserve them for future generations. These places are the very best gifts we can give to our children and their children and on down the line.