National Park Count: 30
Hey there Adventurers! I am pretty awestruck by the fact that I have now visited nearly half of the National Parks of the United States. The first 20 years of my life in Indiana, my travels took me no further than my grandparent’s old vacation house near my current home in the Tampa Bay area, and mostly no further than Indianapolis, Nashville, or St. Louis. The following 15 years did not do much more for me – trips to weddings or the such in NY, TN, GA – mostly those type of things. But the last five years? In that time span I have been very blessed and fortunate to be able to do and see things that so few people get a chance to!
Kenai Fjords National Park is one of the 8 in Alaska, and one of only three that are accessible by road. This park is one of the lesser visited in the country at a mere 350,000 visitors on average, but is only behind Denali and Glacier Bay in Alaska. The part of this park that you can actually step foot in is accessible only by one road about 7 miles long off of the Seward Highway. This is maybe 6 miles short of Seward proper. The other ways to access the park include taking cruise tours or water taxis into the actual fjords of the park, or by taking a couple different helicopter options, all out of Seward.
For this trip I had planned to do a cruise and a hike. The helicopter stuff is relatively short and very pricey, like 400 bucks for 30 minutes! The cruise I selected was the Kenai Fjords National Park Tour operated by Kenai Fjord Tours. This is a 6 hour cruise and very much worth the 150 or so dollars! The captain and staff are awesome and explain all the wildlife seen and explain everything relevant to the trip! It was very soon into the tour that we saw our first humpbacks, and not too long after that we saw orcas, bald eagles, and otters. We also saw a lot of golden seals chilling on rocks on the way out!
The air was super warm for Alaska, but with the speed of the vessel and the water temperature, when we were moving it was COLD! Even though it was brutally hot in my layers on shore, I was very glad I had them on the boat! Also, the waters were very very choppy, and at the speed this boat was going it was a roller coaster! In any event, we did see a lot of wildlife and we eventually got to our destination, the Aialik Glacier, one of the glaciers that meets the sea at the end of one of the fjords in the park. This was really neat! The captain was super knowledgeable in describing everything and explaining how the glacier was retreating and how they can determine age based on when plant life starts growing again along the moraines (the left over piles of dirt and rock left by glaciers in retreat). The glacier itself didn’t actually look all that impressive on approach but as we got closer it is pretty big! It’s about a mile and a half wide, three and a half miles long up to the icefield and about 400 feet above the water where it meets the sea. Our boat got close enough to hear the cracks of the glacier and many chunks of ice broke off while we were there. The entire bay here was filled with floating ice and the crew even captured chunks and brought them up for for use to touch (spoiler alert: felt like ice from my freezer!). One interesting tidbit is that since the glacier is in retreat, a new island is actually being “born” out of the ice! That’s cool to see! A quick check on wikipedia shows an image in 2009 where none of the new island is visible at all…and you can see how much is now visible in my picture! Alarm bells! The only disappointing thing about this trip was we didn’t see the famous Spire Cove. The crew member I spoke to said it was captain’s discretion based on time and sea conditions. I think we spent too much time looking for whales and it was cut. Booo. But all good, still a fantastic trip!
The next day I got up pretty early and went into the park entrance and visitor’s center. The road parallels a glacial outwash basin and the braided rivers running within. The road is about 7 miles long to the park entrance. After the first mile or so there is really nothing at all other than a couple trail heads that are technically part of the national forest there and some access points to the outwash basin. At some point on the drive you can get a good from-a-distance view of the famed Exit Glacier. Alarms bells continue to sound! The last mile or so of the drive into the visitor center parking lot includes signage indicating the glacial extent since about 1890. This glacier has retreated a LOT in a very rapid time frame, more on that shortly.
This park is very pretty, but it is very primitive. There is a visitor center and one bathroom (running water oddly enough!) There are no snacks, drinks, etc to purchase either. Make sure you use the restroom and bring plenty of water. Probably best to come with a full belly as well. This is extreme moose and bear country. Bears have a hell of good nose and I wouldn’t even let food in a car out here! When I got there, the parking lot was filled with my car and 2 others! Eek! I started walking the trail past the visitor center and there was a sign that said there was an injured grizzly in the area and to be smart. It was utterly silent and there were no signs of people anywhere! I actually went down the path a bit and turned back due to being spooked! I was not really sure what to do, but I was going to wait to see some people! When I got to the visitor center again, a tour bus filled with people, including the lady I met on the cruise the previous day, got off. They were only there for like 30 minutes, but I decided to tag along and we all went along the tourist friendly trail.
This trail is pretty accessible and flat. Part of it is even paved if you want to walk that direction (it’s a loop). There is a simple viewing shelter set up that has a view of nothing but brush but if you read the information signs there you can see that the shelter was built in 1987 and at that time the terminus of the glacier was literally right there. Now it’s nowhere near there! The signage indicating the years the glacier reached that particular point continued all along this trail. This entire hike took maybe an hour to explore.
I had a reservation in Seward for the sealife center for around 2 and it was now only about 9.30. There was one other trail, the “legit” trail that leads all the way up to the icefield, called the Harding Icefield. I wasn’t really prepared to do it. The day before someone working the visitor center when I stopped in for some recon (looked like a volunteer) said I would need snow gear, which I didn’t have. However, on this morning, I spoke directly to a ranger. He looked at my trusty Columbia hiking shoes, said they were good enough, make sure I had a hiking pole, and I could make it about halfway to a spot called the Marmut Meadow which gives the best up close views of the glacier at just a little above eye level. This trail….gorgeous vistas. Stunning really. This hike is not easy by any stretch. The entire length that I did was uphill. And eventually you are hiking through some pretty sketchy snow areas. The mileage to this point was about 3.5 miles with 1300 feet of elevation gain. And, because it was in the 70s, it was melting. Of course, the snow is not actually on the ground, it’s on top of bent over plantlife, so your foot can easily go through not only the snow, but then the rest of the way until it hits something hard and stops, which includes things that are not flat and easy on the old legs! Anyway, eventually I made it to that Marmot Meadows spot. I stopped a bit early and didn’t think going further was smart, but then about 10 or 15 people passed me and I saw how they went, so all was good and I continued. The meadow spot was a rock outcrop with great views of the glacier and, I assume, a beautiful meadow under all the snow. I stopped, had a beer, took many pictures and videos and just soaked it in for a moment! From this spot, it was turn around or continue up the mountain to the icefield, which would be about 2 more miles and entirely under snow. Nope. No thanks. The hike down through the snow was not pleasant at all but I made it with no injuries, somehow. And that was it for exploring the park, mostly!
I did return to the visitor center later that evening, and also early the following morning. Coming back through at about 10 PM I saw a moose running through the outwash and, well, that’s not normal, so I stopped, got out and watched as mama moose apparently decided to be a better mom and was running to rescue her baby who was stuck in the rocks in the rushing river, VERY FAR AWAY, and was in quite a bit of trouble. There were some people across the street at a KOA who were out there as well and we all kinda followed a bit. The mama and baby eventually made their way up to the road right in front of me and I hurried my butt back to my car before mama got annoyed. Then I got some nice pictures from the safety of the car :). The following morning, as I came toward the entrance of the park I saw a moose come out in my rear mirror. I pulled a quick turn around and tried to get a shot, but she went into the brush. I turned around again to go back toward the entrance and it happened! TWO grizzly kids came running out across the road RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME. I got the best national park sign ever with those two, and so made a perfect ending to my adventure in Kenai Fjords National Park!
Overall impressions: It’s Alaska. It’s remote. It’s wild. It’s amazing. Part of the awesomeness of this area is that which is Alaska. The whole area is phenomenal. That being said, you are limited to two hikes, one of which is pretty easy and the other which is pretty hard, and to boat tours. The park is gorgeous to be sure, but you will probably find yourself doing as many or even more things outside the park area than in the park proper. And that’s ok, the whole area is awesome!
The Adventurer Final Word:
Giving this one 4.5 stars! It’s phenomenal but a little small in scope of activities for the run of the mill tourist!