Harding Ice Field Trail: A portal into the past
If you want a glimpse of what Southcentral Alaska looked like about 10,000-15,000 years ago during the Pleistocene Ice Age, hike up the Harding Ice Field Trail near Seward. Starting at sea level and ascending 4,000 feet over roughly four miles, you’ll come upon a primeval landscape-— a 300-square-mile ocean of ice that caps the Kenai Peninsula, receives about 400 inches of snow each year and spawns about 40 glaciers.
To reach the trail, turn into Exit Glacier Road at mile 3.7 of the Seward Highway and travel nine miles to the parking area in Kenai Fjords National Park. Sign posts along the way indicate the locations of the retreating glacier’s terminus dating back hundreds of years. From the parking lot it’s a short quarter-mile hike down a paved trail to the trailhead. Signing the register is a good idea to let park rangers know you’re on the trail, but if you do, remember to SIGN OUT. There is no entrance or camping fee for the park.
The trail is steep in places, but has been engineered and built over many years with switchbacks that make it truly one of the most hiker-friendly trails in the state. The trail’s early builders include the Raliegh Group from the U.K., the Student Conservation Association (high school students); Boy Scouts of America, private volunteers from Seward, members of the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. National Parks Service.
The trail winds through cottonwood and alder forests, passes though heather-filled meadows and ultimately climbs well above tree line to a breathtaking view of the ice field. And for the top half of the hike, you’ll have the heavily crevassed Exit Glacier on your left-hand side for an incredible view. The glacier is named “Exit” because rather than flowing to the ocean, it ends on land and thus offers an egress from the glacier for adventurers bold enough to take on its expanse.
Along the way you’ll have a good chance of seeing mountain goats, bears, moose, eagles, marmots and ptarmigan.
Crossing the ice field: The first known attempt to cross the ice field was by Yule Kilcher in 1936, when he departed from Seward in hopes of reaching Homer, where he planned to live. That and subsequent attempts were unsuccessful until the spring of 1968, when the first documented mountaineering party succeeded. Ten people were involved in the crossing, which went from Chernof Glacier east to Exit Glacier. Expedition members included Bill Babcock, Eric Barnes, Bill Fox, Dave Johnston, Yule Kilcher and his son Otto, Dave Spencer, Helmut Tschaffert and Vin and Grace (Jansen) Hoeman.
Of the 10, only four — Bill Babcock, Dave Johnston, Yule Kilcher and Vin Hoeman — hiked all the way across the ice field. The expedition left Homer on April 17. Eight days later they descended Exit Glacier and arrived in Seward. Along the way, the party made a first-ever ascent of Truuli Peak, a 6,612-foot mountain that protrudes from the northwestern edge of the ice field near Truuli Glacier.
A friend of mine from Seward once flew an airplane across the glacier before skiing it. Along his proposed route he created Global Positioning System (GPS) waypoints. During his ski trip, clouds moved in and reduced visibility to near zero. But GPS led him safely from Bear Glacier to his destination at Exit Glacier.
My first trip up the trail was back in 1998 with my two children, then ages 10 and 14. It was July and we were fortunate enough to have one of those rare, bluebird days similar to what we’ve been enjoying this June. In fact, it was so warm that my son David took up a bet and swam in a glacial pool at the base of the glacier. When he jumped into that ice-cold water, his eyes became larger than McDonald’s cookies. I don’t remember what we bet, but he won.
On a recent trip to the Harding Ice Field, June 13th , I was reminded of how quickly the weather can change in proximity to a glacier. It was warm and sunny for three-fourths of the four-hour trip, but about a mile from the top the clouds and fog crept in, severely reducing visibility. This was followed by rain and wind that made it feel quite cold. For that reason, even on a warm summer day, I always carry along extra gear — rain coat or wind break, rain pants, gloves, an extra layer (polar fleece), lightweight gloves, wool hat and some micro-spikes for my boots. The latter paid off on my recent trip, since three-fourths of the hike was over snow.
When you reach the top of the trail your jaw will drop at the stunning beauty of the ice field. You’ll see small mountains poking above the ice, which are called nunataks. These mountain “islands” are what our Chugach Mountains looked like thousands of years ago, when ice covered the Mat-Su and the Anchorage Bowl to a depth of up to 2,000 feet.
I highly recommend this hike for young and old alike — but preferably after mid-to-late July when all the snow has melted. You won’t see dinosaurs, but you’ll get to see a significant part of Alaska the way it once was — a part that is shrinking before our eyes..
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer and columnist who lives in Eagle River. To contact Frank: [email protected].