Fed by the 700 square miles (1813 square km) Harding Icefield in the Kenai Mountains, Exit Glacier is one of the most accessible glaciers in Alaska. It’s only a 15-minute drive from downtown Seward, a popular tourist destination and cruise ship port. As a result, it is an incredibly popular attraction. An easy 1-mile, wheelchair-accessible loop affords a glimpse of the glacier. The Park Service offers Ranger-led walks to the Glacier in the summer season. At the time of this writing, the tours are available at 10 am, 11 am, 1 pm, and 2 pm daily and last about an hour or more. But, check times with the Park Service before going.
Professionally guided tours are available as well. Exit Glacier Guides offer everything from a low-key nature walk to ice climbing. They also do fly-in and aerial viewing trips as well. Exit Glacier Shuttle provides transportation services between Seward and the parking area, which is small and frequently full.
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Both trails begin in a beautiful, lush green cottonwood forest. A steeper, but still comfortable, well-maintained trail, offers a better view of the glacier. Unfortunately, both options only leave you with a small glimpse of the terminus (photo above). More sweeping vistas are to be had on the strenuous 8.2-mile Harding Icefield Trail (below).
Glacier View Loop
Nevertheless, the nature trails around the Exit Glacier Nature Center are much tamer. The most accessible path is the Glacier View Loop (green and red on map). This loop is 1-mile, flat, and wheelchair accessible. It meanders down to the creek-bed where you can view the glacier.
You can access the glacier toe from the glacier viewing area by hiking out on the outwash plain (approximately 0.5 miles). But, there is no trail, and braided rivers can be tricky to cross if you aren’t familiar with them. If you aren’t an experienced hiker, I suggest sticking to the trails. Approaching the ice at the toe is incredibly dangerous. There is often loose rock, talus, and ice falling off, sometimes from directions you couldn’t fathom.
Glacier Overlook Trail
The Glacier Overlook Trail provides a much more magnificent sight of the Exit Glacier. The hike has some moderately steep sections, but I still classify this as an easy hike. Hiking the main trail out-and-back is 1.8 miles, and adding the Glacier View Loop adds about 0.2 miles. There is a total elevation gain between 330 and 400 ft depending on the route and how far out on the overlook you go.
Year markers line the trail displaying the historical extent of the glacier. The glacier has been retreating for 200 years, 1.55 miles (2.5 km) from its Little Ice Age Maximum. It’s also drastically changed shape from a piedmont glacier (large lobal glacier) into a wide valley glacier. The retreat has accelerated to 27 ft/yr (44.5 m/yr) from 2011 to 2015 from 18 ft/yr (29.4 m/yr) during the 5-year prior period [200 Years of Terminus Retreat at Exit Glacier]. It’s shocking to see where the ice had been just a decade ago when staring at the massive glacier face.
Nature Center and Season
If you are heading to Seward and want something to do for a few hours or most of a day, this is a great area to explore. I highly recommend these hikes. The Nature Center is beautiful and there is an Alaska Geographic bookstore. More information on the Nature Center on the NPS website here. If you are feeling more adventurous, check out the Harding Icefield Trail (guide forthcoming – in a day or two. Check back!).
The operating season is roughly May through November. The park and trails are open in the winter, but the 8.4-mile road is closed. It’s a great opportunity to get out on skis, snowshoes, dogsleds, or snowmachine!