Hike the Harding Icefield Trail and be transported to another world

On hikes, a little motivation goes a long way.

Maybe it's the prospect of a slice of pizza on your next break, or friendly encouragement from fellow hikers. Perhaps that nudge forward comes in the form of the stunning view you know is waiting at the end of the trail.

And sometimes, you buzz along the trail, eager to get back to your car because you forgot to bring socks, your feet are marinating in a 70/30 combination of snowmelt and sweat, and all you can think about is taking your shoes off. (Trying not to think about the ensuing stench.)

Of all the hikes on which you might forget to bring socks, the Harding Icefield Trail should not be one of them.

Located in Kenai Fjords National Park just outside Seward, the Harding Icefield is a 700-square-mile expanse of white and blue that feeds more than 30 glaciers, including Exit Glacier, according to the National Park Service.

You can see only a fraction of the ice field at the top of the trail, but that doesn't make the view any less dazzling.

Getting there, though, is an exercise in patience. The National Park Service says hikers gain about 1,000 feet of elevation per mile, while Backpacker Magazine puts the elevation gain at 3,366 feet. Either way, it's a steady churn uphill to the ice field.

[Headed out for a hike? Our interactive Southcentral map can help.]

Getting started

Hikers begin at the Exit Glacier Nature Center on Herman Leirer Road, located at Mile 3 of the Seward Highway. The paved main trail by the center's entrance quickly leads you to a marked turnoff onto a gravel and dirt path.

As you sign the trail ledger, check the kiosk for any alerts and notices. Recently, a sign warned hikers about a defensive black bear with cubs who had been spotted in the area.

It should go without saying, but this is bear country. Bring bear spray and remain aware of your surroundings.

The trail winds through a lush forest, steadily gaining elevation with views opening up periodically. Expect to see plenty of cow parsnip here, though the trail is maintained well enough that you can dodge those itchy stalks with ease.

A creek spanned by a small bridge, at Mile 0.8, offers a great place to cool down and fill up on water. Past this point, water sources consist of snowmelt runoff and snow.

Climbing higher, the dirt trail gives way to more rock leading to Marmot Meadows at Mile 1.4. Large boulders form steep steps in some spots, requiring some creative maneuvering or light scrambling for less experienced hikers.

The clearing at Marmot Meadows brings you to the side of Exit Glacier and makes for an excellent photo op and snack spot. Above tree line, the views of the glacier's outwash plain and surrounding mountains are breathtaking.

On a recent Saturday, bright wildflowers — notably lupine and Western columbine — dotted the lush green of the meadows, enchanting tourists who paused to marvel at the flora.

Marmot Meadows is a popular destination, though, so consider yourself lucky if you manage to have the clearing to yourself. An estimated 21,142 people hiked the Harding Icefield Trail in 2015, according to Laura Sturtz, acting chief of interpretation at Kenai Fjords National Park.

A betting person would say that most of them stopped here to admire the same view of Exit Glacier — as they should.

[At more than 6,000 feet, Pioneer Peak offers a punishing but worthwhile climb]

A taste of winter

Soldier on to the next phase of the hike as the trail switchbacks up in the alpine, over a jumble of rocks acting as nature's staircase and through snow patches and snowmelt.

The top of the cliffs, with an overlook at Mile 2.4, is typically where the snow field begins and extends out to the ice field, visible at the top of Exit Glacier. The wind often picks up at this point, so bringing a jacket and dressing in layers is advised.

The snow on the trail, which cuts across a slope, was well packed on a recent hike. Stay on the trail for dry feet; otherwise, expect to sink into a foot of snow or more.

Depending on a hiker's level of experience, traction devices or shoes with a hefty tread may be useful. And trekking poles may help if you want to avoid accidentally glissading downhill.

Plenty of hikers were on the trail without either, though, and they didn't seem to mind slipping around a bit and chugging along using extra caution.

An emergency shelter stands about 1.5 miles past the top of the cliffs and signals your approach toward the end of the trail. Continue farther, and after two-tenths of a mile, you'll reach the end.

At first, the terminus of the Harding Icefield Trail may seem anticlimactic. No surprises await you here. The ice field has been in sight since you reached the top of the cliffs.

But the vastness of the ice field finally registers in the brilliant ribbon of snow, ice and peaks in front of you. Somehow, there's always a certain hush, a stillness, that sweeps over everything. A friend of mine compares the experience to feeling like you're on the moon.

The hike to the end of the trail is only 4.1 miles long, but you are a world away from everything else.

So, revel in the quietude. Eat that slice of pizza. Imagine that you are the last person on Earth.

Even without socks, the hike up the Harding Icefield Trail is incredible.


Length: 1.4 miles to Marmot Meadows, another 2.7 miles to the Harding Icefield; 8.2 miles total round trip

Elevation: About 1,000 feet per mile, according to the National Park Service, but Backpacker Magazine puts the total elevation gain at 3,366 feet.

Parking fee: None.

Camping fee: None. Camping is allowed off the Harding Icefield Trail on bare rock or snow at least 1/8 mile off the trail but is not permitted at the shelter, which is for emergency use only. A free campground is also located off the road just before the Exit Glacier Nature Center.

Directions: From Anchorage, head south on the Seward Highway and take the turnoff toward Seward. Turn right on Herman Leirer Road at Mile 3 of the highway and continue for 8.4 miles. The road ends at the nature center.