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Hiking the Harding Icefield Trail

If you are traveling to Seward and want to hike the Harding Icefield trail, then read on to find out what to expect…

Alaska is quite possibly the best place to hike in the world. Well, one of the best places anyway.

The sheer wildness and diversity of the landscape coupled with the emptiness of the state make it a dream destination for nature wanderlusters like me.

The iconic Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords National Park ended up on my radar pretty early on in my Alaska planning. A hike through temperate rainforest, alpine meadows, and high above the mighty Exit Glacier to a viewpoint over a gigantic ice field: Yes please!

Hiking through the meadow on the Harding Icefield Trail

Arriving in Seward I was a bit nervous about doing the hike by myself, mostly because of the abundance of bears that live in the area, so I signed up to do a ranger-led hike which was conveniently taking place the day after I arrived in town.

With the trail being just over eight miles out and back with 3600 feet of elevation gain, I knew I was going to be in for a long day of hiking. And I was bubbling over with excitement about it.

I ended up making friends pretty easily at my hostel in Seward and three of those new friends were also planning to do the ranger-led hike so we booked the shuttle to the Exit Glacier together for the next morning.

Slippery path through the snow on the Harding Icefield hike

Hiking the Harding Icefield Trail on a Ranger-Led Hike

We arrived just as the two rangers who were leading the hike had started their debrief. There were a lot of people that had turned up to do the trail and we all listened intently, laughing nervously when one of the rangers was describing what to do if a bear attacks you. You don’t start fighting back until it literally starts eating you. Hmmm.

After the terrifying briefing, we were asked to split into two groups, one was the fast group and one was the slow group. My friend Ruth and I opted to go with the slow group because we wanted to dawdle and take pictures, while our friends Rachel and Guy went with the fast group.

Setting Out on the Trail

Setting off along a flat paved path was definitely not a sign of things to come. After five minutes, the long ascent to the Harding Icefield began.

The trail led us upwards through cottonwood and alder forest, only a narrow pathway cut through the thick greenery. At clearings along the way, we stopped to regroup and take photos of the unfolding views over the glacier and down to the valley below.

Views from Harding Icefield TrailHiking through temperate rainforest on Harding Icefield trail

Our guide was very informative and pointed out all the edible wild berries along the trail. I tried salmon berries and watermelon berries. Unfortunately, they both didn’t have a lot of flavor.

The trail wasn’t as steep as I had envisaged it to be but it was still an uphill slog. We lost half our group by the halfway point – many just giving up, others falling way behind.

The First Rest Stop on the Harding Icefield Trail

After a couple of miles, we reached an alpine meadow above the tree line that was bursting with colorful wildflowers and had incredible views over Exit Glacier. The scenery was astounding and we stopped for a million photos.

Above Exit Glacier - about half way up the Harding Icefield trail Alpine meadows on the Harding Icefield trail

Conquering the Hardest Section of the Harding Icefield Hike

The hardest part of the hike was still to come: the steep switchbacks on rocky exposed terrain that led up from the meadow.

With small loose rocks and scree, it was easy to slip as we gained altitude. The cascades of glacial water tumbling over the trail allowed me to top up my water bottle. It was some of the best water I have ever tasted, and it was ice cold.

Glimpses of the Harding Icefield in Alaska

Lazy marmots stretched out their furry girth on flat rocks above the path.

The Harding Icefield trail began to pass patches of snow as we neared the top and then we were hiking through it. The pure white was blinding and spectacular under a bluebird sky.

We reached an emergency hut, just a shell to take shelter in if you were stuck up there in a storm. After a short break, we tackled the last part of the hike, through increasingly larger fields of snow to the viewpoint over the Harding Icefield.

Basic shelter on Harding Icefield TrailRock field along the Harding Icefield trail in Alaska

Reaching the Harding Icefield

Endless ice stretched to the horizon in front of us, vast and wonderful: 700 square miles of blue-white punctuated with lonely rock peaks.

The Harding Icefield is one of the largest non-polar icefields in the world and the largest entirely within US borders. It is prehistoric, forming 23,000 years ago at a time when ice covered one-third of the earth.

Rachel and Guy were still up there so we sat with them for a while, silenced by the majesty of it all.

Views from the top of the Harding Icefield in Alaska A couple of ptarmigans, Alaska’s State bird, were hanging around. One of them already had its white feathers which means winter is coming, a bit disconcerting as it was only mid-July.

The groups had split up at this stage so the four of us decided to head back down by ourselves as Rachel and Guy both had bear spray and we hadn’t seen any bears on the way up.

Hiking back down from the Harding Icefield in AlaskaThe Harding Icefield in Alaska

Descending the Trail

It was so much faster coming down. It always is. I slipped over in the snow a couple of times but otherwise, we arrived back to the valley floor unscathed and uneaten by bears. Not being eaten by bears is always a win.

And so ended a fabulous day, hiking one of my new all-time favorite trails.

Incredible valley views on the Harding Icefield trail

The Harding Icefield trail has such varied terrain that truly gives you an idea of the diversity of  Alaska’s incredible environments. Alpine meadows, scree slopes, snow, glaciers, rainforest, waterfalls, and an ice field. And all in an 8-mile hike.

Pretty impressive if you ask me.

Stunning Exit Glacier from the Harding Icefield trail How To Hike the Harding Icefield Trail

Getting to the Harding Icefield Trail

To reach the beginning of the Harding Icefield trail. you can either drive and park at Exit Glacier Car Park or take the Exit Glacier Shuttle which costs $20 return with a few different times to choose from.

Difficulty of the Harding Icefield Trail

If you aren’t much of a hiker then I would rate the Harding Icefield trail as difficult. It was easier than I thought it would be but it still involved a four-mile slog of reasonably steep uphill hiking. And then you have to go back down. My thighs burned a bit the next day.

Top of Exit Glacier at the end of the Harding Icefield trail in Alaska

Length of the Harding Icefield Trail

8.2miles or 13.2km return

Elevation Gain of the Harding Icefield Trail

3600 feet or 1100 meters

Hiking Tip

Check if there are any ranger-led Harding Icefield hikes. When I visited they were from 9 am on Saturdays in July to August. They are free to join.

Trail through the ice on the Harding Icefield hike in Alaska

What To Take For Hiking the Harding Icefield Trail

For day hikes, the Cotopaxi Luzon is an awesome backpack choice and is lightweight and will pack down easily when you’re not using it.

Pack a CamelBak to make it easier to hydrate while you are hiking and to store lots of water in a lightweight way.

Take some trekking poles to help with the downhill – your knees will thank you! And I recommend hiking boots rather than regular trainers for this hike.

Pack a rain jacket in case it rains, and a thermal base layer top, because you never know when the weather will turn cold in Alaska – even in summer!

Where To Stay in Seward

If you are traveling on a budget or are traveling alone and want to meet people, I highly recommend staying at the Moby Dick Hostel which has dorm and private rooms, a guest kitchen, and an excellent location right downtown.

For hotels, mid-range options include the Harborview InnExit Glacier LodgeHotel Seward, and Seward Adventure Lodge. More luxurious options include Harbor 360 Hotel Seward, and Gateway Hotel.

Snowy fields on the Harding Icefield trail in Alaska

For vacation rentals, these options are close to town, affordable, and highly rated:

Would you hike to the Harding Icefield? Do you think you would be up to the challenge of the Harding Icefield trail?

If you liked this post, check out some of my other Alaska content:


What To Expect on the Harding Icefield Trail Harding Icefield Trail Alaska

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