Kenai Fjords National Park protects 669,984 acres on the Kenai Peninsula southeast of Anchorage, Alaska. The park includes the massive Harding Ice Field, which spawns 40 glaciers including the famous Exit Glacier shown above. The glacier got its name for being the exit from the first recorded crossing of the Harding Ice Field in 1968. It’s a popular glacier because it’s one of the largest drive-up glaciers in the world, meaning you can drive your car to within a short walking distance of the glacier.
As you drive and then hike toward Exit Glacier, there are signs along the way that show where the toe of the glacier was in past years. Around 10,000 years ago Exit Glacier advanced all the way to the Seward Highway, 10 miles from its current location. The glacier has retreated about 3 miles since its most recent advance in the early 1800s.
With just a mile hike, visitors can stand along the edge of Exit Glacier. In this photo it looks like I could reach out and touch the glacier, but the glacier is actually about 20 feet behind me, and there is a steep, 40-foot deep gully separating us. Visitors are not allowed to climb down from this point to touch the glacier, because one could easily slip and fall under the ice-cold streams that are formed from the intense weight of the glacier melting the ice at its bottom. Getting stuck under the glacier is likely a fatal event, for if the unlucky victim didn’t drown, they would likely die of hypothermia within minutes.
The Kenai Mountains surrounding Exit Glacier are beautifully covered in a lush green carpet of foliage.
As we hiked to the top of the mountain above Exit Glacier, we could see a team of climbers working their way across the deep crevasses in the glacier ice. Climbing on a glacier requires professional guidance and special equipment. The crevasses and holes that you can see are very dangerous, but what’s even more dangerous are those that you cannot see because they are hidden under snow. The top photo gives you an idea of the size of the glacier. Click on the photo for a larger version and see if you can spot the climbers on the glacier.
The hoary marmot is the largest North American ground squirrel. Mature marmots are 2-3 feet long (including their tail) and weigh on average 15 pounds in September before their long winter hibernation. They are sometimes called “whistle pigs” because of the high-pitched sound they make to warn other members in their colony of a potential threat. Yet this guy didn’t seem threatened by us at all and kept feeding on plants as we walked by.
We had a terrific view of the valley below Exit Glacier. This photo shows the braided river that drains from the glacier and is common for glacier-fed streams. The constant flow of silt from the glacier grinding on the land fills the stream bed and causes the water to meander over a broad plain.
As we climbed higher to the top of Exit Glacier, we could begin to see the Harding Ice Field, the white line of snow at the top of the photo above. The Harding Ice Field is the largest ice field in the United States, covering over 300 square miles, or 1100 square miles if you include all of the glaciers it spawns. The ice field receives over 100 feet of snow each year on average and up to 400 feet in heavy snow years, and it takes 4-10 years for fallen snow to compact into glacier ice.
As we approached the ice field, our gravel hiking trail turned into snow, and our pace slowed considerably. In this photo, you can see Theresa working her way up the steep hill. At one point we heard a large CRACK, then we spotted an oven-sized boulder tumbling down the hill toward us. We realized it would likely miss us but potentially threaten a group of four hikers about 50 feet behind us. We both called out to warn them, so they froze in their tracks. The boulder stopped in front of them just beyond the trail, and they yelled to thank us for warning them. I have the whole incident on video, which I will upload when possible.
As we continued to climb, the winds grew stronger, the temperature plunged below freezing, and the steady light rain turned to driving ice pellets. But the view kept getting better and better.
Fortunately there was an emergency cabin near the top of the mountain (see if you can spot the cabin in this photo). To escape the wind and snow, we climbed into the cabin and enjoyed a quick lunch before returning down the mountain.
Unfortunately the visibility at the top of the mountain was not very good with the clouds and snow. But if you look closely, you can see the “event horizon” of the massive Harding Ice Field, stretching over 20 miles wide from this point.