|Day hiking, backpacking
|Late June – August
|Moderate (very steep)
|3,070 ft (936 m)
|Seward – Exit Glacier Nature Center
Map of Harding Icefield Trail (red) and Exit Glacier trails (blue) – map disclaimer and information
The Harding Icefield Trail is easily one of the most stunning and photogenic hikes I’ve ever done. From cottonwood forests on the lower trail, the trek takes you through some rocky terrain, to green alpine meadows overlooking the blue, crevassed Exit Glacier, past mountain cascades up to a vista of the endless sea of ice that is the Harding Icefield.
This physically demanding hike climbs about 1000 ft per mile (190 m/km). Snow persists into mid-summer at the higher elevations. In late July, I’ve had to cross about a half-mile in snowfields. It can snow any time of the year, and the local climate is typically very wet. Yet the trail is very well-traveled and flagged. While it helps to be in shape and have strong legs and endurance, I rate the trail moderate in difficulty because it’s only 3.7 miles (6 km) of climbing and is very well maintained.
I highly recommend this trail for anyone that is suitably fit and has some experience hiking and navigating. I do not recommend it as one of your first hikes without someone experienced. Additionally, bears frequent this area, so you must know how to stay safe in bear country! National Park Service Ranger-led walks are available as well as a guiding service through Exit Glacier Guides.
As in all National Parks, and as we should everywhere, follow Leave No Trace principles. There are no trash receptacles or outhouses along the trail, so be prepared to pack everything out or dig a cat hole at least 100 feet from the trail or water source for human waste. Camping is permitted along the trail only 1/8 mile from the trail on bare ground, not on vegetation!
Because of the heavy traffic in this area, walking or camping on vegetation is devastating. Alpine flora takes a very long time to grow, so please stick to the trails. There is a trail shelter high up for emergency use only. You can’t camp there. Be sure to check other restrictions with the National Park Service before your trip!
Fireweed and lupins blooming along the trail
The hike begins at the Exit Glacier Nature Center. Starting on the Glacier Overlook Trail. (If you’re looking for something a little tamer, these are some great walks and may only take a few hours to explore). Even though I would allow for an entire day for the Harding Icefield Trail, it wasn’t difficult to add the Glacier Overlook Trail, which only added a mile out-and-back. If you have time after returning, it’s well worth the quick jaunt out to see the terminus up close.
Following the Glacier Overlook Trail for 0.4 miles (0.64 km), the Harding Icefield Trail branches off to the right (well-marked). The first quarter-mile (0.4 km) is through dense cottonwood and alder passing a few small cascades. The forest slowly opens up as the trail steepens and you start some long switchbacks. Looking back, you can see the enormous glacial outflow plain where this past piedmont glacier once sprawled across 200 years ago.