One of the most popular glaciers in all of Alaska is also one of the smallest.
Alaska is home to dozens upon dozens of glaciers, and nearly 40 of them reside in the Harding Icefield, the largest continuous stretch of glacier, snow, and cold in the United States. No matter how you measure it, the area is enormous, containing some 300 square miles of glacier (or over 1,000 square miles, if you count all the glacial ice that drains off from the central body). Many of the well-known glaciers live here, but the most well-known of all is easily Exit Glacier, a smaller patch of ice that supplies visitors with both abundant hikes and one of the starkest examples of climate change in the U.S.
The glacier is close to shore and sits roughly 407 feet above sea level. Its height is slowly shrinking each year as the climate warms. Its altitude loss, however, isn’t nearly as great as the obvious overall shrinking, the result of a combination of melting and glacial retreat. Exit Glacier has retreated nearly 200 feet in the past few years, and the lower trails around the ice show a clear pattern of melting and loss over the past century.
You’re probably wondering why you should even visit. The answer, frankly, is that it’s unforgettable – provided you do a little work first.
Reasons to Explore Exit Glacier, Alaska
1. There’s Plenty to Learn
Exit Glacier is one of the best places in the world to see nature overtake ice. The glacier’s retreat is a smooth transition from one ecology to another. But if you guessed that Exit Glacier gets its name from its retreat, you’d be wrong – but good try. The name comes from the first successful expedition across the larger body of ice to which it belongs. Explorers had been trying – unsuccessfully – to cross the Harding Icefield since the 1920s, when population growth and trail expansion allowed people to get a good look at the field itself. And as any good explorer knows, a good look is usually all it takes. All early expeditions to cross the field ended in failure, however, as the ice was simply too dangerous and too massive to cross.
The first successful attempt was in 1968, an attempt that succeeded in part because people finally realized that smaller, one- and two-person expeditions just weren’t going to do the job. A party of ten determined explorers made it across the field in the spring, finally crossing Exit Glacier’s 400-ft. high point to make it to shore on the Kenai Peninsula.
Prior to that expedition, Exit Glacier had been called Resurrection Glacier. The new name stuck.
Any one of the guided hikes around the glacier can teach you about the history, flora, fauna, and ecology of the area. There’s a hike for everyone, no matter your age or physical ability. Some hikes are also wheelchair accessible. No matter your capacity, there’s a way to enjoy the glacier’s beauty.
Speaking of accessibility…
2. You Can Get Here in a Car
This is a bigger deal than you think.
Only three of the eight national parks in Alaska are accessible by car, and one of those three is still so remote that driving there is difficult for anything less than four-wheel drive. Its northern cousins are accessible only by aircraft, and extremely difficult to visit at any time during the year. Exit Glacier, however, is accessible all year round from a paved highway. If you’re looking to start exploring Alaska’s wilderness and national parks, this is the place to begin.
A car, however, isn’t your only option. One of the most popular ways to visit the park and glacier is by cruise. There are several cruise lines that specialize in visiting Alaska’s national parks, and Exit Glacier is always one of the stops along the tour. If you have the money and means, sailing from landscape to landscape, with day stops to hike and take in the views, is the most relaxing way to explore Alaska’s wild.
3. It’s a Hiker’s Paradise
The ease of visiting the park and the glacier has led to plentiful hiking trails and attractions.
Trails are quite literally everywhere, each with ample opportunity to see the local wildlife. Looking for exercise, animals, and gorgeous views? Consider Marmot Meadows, which should tire you out in three good hours of beauty and stamina. Want something more difficult? The Harding Icefield Trail will take a full day, and not simply because it’s long, but because it’s high – you’ll be walking well over half a mile in altitude as the trail arches to its high point, far above Exit’s 400 feet. Don’t be put off if sweat and toil isn’t your idea of a good time, however. Remember, The Edge of the Glacier Trail is accessible to the disabled, and still provides some of the best views.
As far as views go, however, you simply can’t beat the vistas at the top of the glacier. This trail takes about a half hour to complete, and it’s easy enough for hikers of all abilities – including, if you take your time, hikers in their 60s and 70s. Guided by a ranger, it’s one of the most popular trails in Kenai. You’ll have to make that judgment yourself, of course, but the overwhelming consensus of previous visitors is excitement and appreciation.
You’re welcome to wander the trails yourself, but a ranger-led walk is a far better option for anyone wanting to learn about glacial ecosystems. Advancing or retreating ice creates some truly unique ecologies, and the plants and animals that both survive and thrive the snow and cold are more easily explored here than almost anywhere else in the United States. The trails are a bird-watcher’s paradise, providing clear views of warblers, magpies, jaybirds, larks, swallows, and several different types of owls.
As always, however, the biggest animal nearby may well be a bear, so be sure to follow proper safety procedures – make noise as you walk, and don’t wear scented perfume or cologne. Bears are curious, but solitary, and would much rather avoid you than anything else. Constant noise and making sure you don’t present a curious new smell, will keep them far afield of your presence.
4. There’s More to Do than You Can Imagine
If trails aren’t your thing, don’t fret – there are dozens of exciting things to do around the glacier and in Kenai. If you’re looking for a scenic drive, Seward Highway, the main road to and from Exit Glacier itself, has some of the most coveted views in the state. If you’re tired of driving, however, consider…
Everything Fun to do Near Exit Glacier
1. Helicopter tours
These can cost anywhere between $200 to $600, but the views are absolutely unbeatable, and you have the opportunity to see up close areas that would be far too dangerous to visit in person.
A great variant of the helicopter tour is the bear-watching helicopter tour, which offers the same views, but with an eye towards seeing Alaskan grizzlies up close.
2. Kayak tours
Exit Glacier is, as we mentioned, close to shore, and while a hike atop the glacier will give you the best vista, touring the shore from a kayak has sights you won’t find anywhere else.
3. Snow sports
Exit Glacier and the surrounding ice and snow are perfect for cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, or riding – carefully – an ATV. All three are allowed if conditions aren’t dangerous, and few things are better than taking in the views and sights from the comfort and speed of an ATV trail. Certain outfitters offer tours.
4. Alaskan dogsled kennel tours
If you’re simply touring the kennel, prices are cheaper, but if you’re actually riding with the dogs on the ice, you’ll likely be paying anywhere from $500 to $1,000. Mushing with huskies on an Alaskan glacier, however, is not an experience you’ll get anywhere else.
5. Horseback riding
There are few better ways to explore the countryside than on horseback, and a trail ride across the valley is the perfect accompaniment to a hike on Exit Glacier itself.
6. Panning for gold
You probably won’t strike it rich, but you’ll get a glimpse of what hundreds of Americans sought and experienced over a century ago when rumors of riches in Alaska spread through the lower 48.
7. Canopy tours
Certain areas in and near Kenai offer tours along wooden bridges high in the forest. If heights aren’t your passion, this might be one to avoid, but if your idea of adventure is exploring the treetops, this is an affordable option you can’t miss.
8. Railroad tours
This is one of the safest and easiest ways to explore the landscape, and the best way to rest after a long day of hiking Exit Glacier.
9. Boat tours
These offer the same views as kayak tours, with the added bonus of no extra physical exertion. After a day of hiking Exit, this might be just what the doctor ordered.
10. Wait for Too Long, and You Might Miss It
Wildlife hikes, however, account for only half of the glacier’s interest. Its size and accessibility make it perhaps the clearest visible example of glacial recession and climate change available to the average person. Markers have been placed along the lower trail, and visitors can see the effects of over a century of retreating ice, and the step by step process of nature taking over the rocks and cold.
Exit is still shrinking. If you want to see it, the time is now. There’s more than enough ways to enjoy it, but if you wait too long, you might miss your chance.