After an awesome day at Seward harbor and Resurrection bay, Day 4 for us was a herculean task of hiking to the Harding Ice field in the Kenai Fjords National Park.
The Harding Ice field which spans over 300 square miles, is an expansive ice-field that resides in the Kenai mountains which are partially located within the area of Kenai Fjords national park. Hike to the ice-field is said to be 8.2 miles round trip but is very relative as some indicate the trail to be about 10 miles round trip.
We started off very early in the day and reached the Kenai Fjords visitor center at about 9 am in the morning, just when the rangers were getting ready to open up the center. The trails to exit glacier and ice-field start right outside of the visitor center. At the visitor center there was a chart on the wildlife sightings from previous day which was pretty exciting and motivating for us.
Before we headed on to the trail, we passed by the maps on display and came across instructions and information of this trail being a "bear frequenting" trail. I was very scared at that moment, as I was not prepared for a bear confrontation. Also there were not many visitors around, so we decided to wait for sometime. After a little debate, we decided to go forward on the trail.
The pathway to exit glacier and Harding ice-field starts at the nature center and after about 0.5 mile, the trail forks, with the right turn marking to be the official trailhead for Harding Ice field. The walkway here is well marked, and after the initial flat land, the trail quickly turns into a series of switchbacks, witht a good elevation gain as you traverse through each of the switchback. Since we had read the information of this trail being home to black bears, we decided to chatter along the way, so that bears would not come close.
After few switchbacks, we came across a group of people who worked for the forest service, and they gave us some good tips on how to go about on the trail. The uphill hike is quite tiring. After a while we came across a small bridge over the stream. Looking at the map, we then realized that we had covered only 0.8 miles of the trail so far! When we looked down from the bridge, the parking lot was clearly visible, however when looked at the trail behind and ahead of us, it was completely covered in dense growth on each side. It would not be a surprise if a bear shows up from no where. For this very reason, Nikhil and me were constantly calling out "Hey bear!, Hello Bear! How are you dear bear!" Every time I heard a hustle bustle, we would take a pause and look around. The trail has abundance of salmon-berries which is black bear favorite.
After crossing the bridge, the forest growth got denser and trail goes steeper. Eventually we reached a point where we were greeted with a gust of wind which was soothing and much wanted from all that ascend. At this point, the forest growth was not as dense,but it was as if walking on top of a mountain. From this point on, another series of switchbacks started. I was almost so very exhausted, but was motivated again when some of the hikers descending, mentioned about seeing a moose! So here I was now looking for moose.
Finally we reached the point called Marmot Meadows which is said to be at 1.4 miles from the trail-head. This trail is very strenuous and has multiple summit points. We could see the drastic change in vegetation, from dense tree growth to shrubs to grassy meadows with wild flowers all around, over the 1.4 miles that we traversed.
These meadows are home to the Alaskan marmot, which is how they get the name. The meadows have little marked up trails to roam around and get a closer look at the Exit glacier and a subtle view of the ice-field from which it descends. Many hikers call it a day at this point on the trail.
We rested up for half hour at the meadows, while absorbing a 360 degree view of the valley and the glaciers. When we looked at the trail further up we realized that we were no where close to the ice field yet. Back on the trail at this point, we were above the tree line and there was a walkway through the rubble and rocky mountain.
We could see tiny hiker up on the mountain. I had almost given up, but Nikhil kept me prodding and at some point he also volunteered to carry 2 backpacks and huge lens! Hats off to him for that. After regaining my strength, I was back in action reliving Nikhil of the additional weight. By this time we had surpassed top of the cliffs which is a 2.4 mile marker. We also got lucky to get some good pictures of a marmot who willingly chose to be the subject for our camera.
Atop the rocky mountain
Once above the top of the cliffs the topography completely changed. all we could now see was rock, rubble and snow. Yes Its not a typo, we did see snow on top of the mountain and at a distance saw a tiny house, which was the 3.6 mile marker the Emergency shelter.
We crossed 2 small water streams and walked in snow to cover the 1 mile distance to the emergency shelter. I had read that the Harding ice field trail always had snow, but did not believe until we saw it for ourselves.
Hiking this part of the trail was a most unique experience. It was cold and sunny, so the weather jackets did come handy, did not regret carrying them. When we reached the emergency shelter, we overheard some visitors talking about viewing mountain goats. As soon as we heard that, we wrapped up our snacks, to go look at the goats. After a good photo session with the goats, we went further up on the trail, which is said to be the summit
At the summit point, all we could see to the horizon was blue ice, shinning in the sun. It was a very pleasant and beautiful sight, something that I would never forget. We ate lunch at this summit point witnessing and sinking in the beauty of the ice field. Harding Ice field is said to have been existed since the ice age. The view of Harding Ice field is very mesmerizing and truly depicts nature at its best.
After spending an hour on the summit, we started our descend. I got a little lost on the trail but luckily was able to get back on track. I also had difficulty hiking down on the snow, so I just slid thru on that part of the trail. On the way we stopped over to look at the mountain goats and then later at the water streams, and eventually some good amount of time at the meadows as well. The joy and thrill of reaching the summit was so powerful that I forgot about the bears altogether and merrily descended the denser part of the trail.
Hike to Harding ice field in a nutshell starts on the valley floor, passes through dense forest growth, into the meadows and ultimately climbs above the tree line, though the gravel and snow to give a breath taking view of horizon of blue ice from the Ice Age, that is visible as far as the eye can see.
Harding ice field hike although a very strenuous and grueling hike will always have a special place in memory as it was one of our personal best so far. For those who seek adventure should definitely do this hike till the end, its every bit worth of the effort.