Our Visit to Kenai Fjords National Park:
Cruising into Natural Beauty
Where can you go on a day trip and see majestic fjords, dramatic waterfalls, whales, eagles, mountain goats, calving glaciers, puffins, harbor seals, and sea lions, all with a hot prime rib lunch and no hiking? Let me show you!
On this late May morning, with bright sunshine and warm but brisk air, Loretta and I headed for the dock at picturesque Seward harbor. Much to our relief, the sea was so calm it reflected the majestic mountains nearby. With the biggest worry about sea sickness gone, we lined up with more than a hundred of our shipmates, mostly on the older side and all with smiles of anticipation on their faces, to board the Glacier Explorer for our 7 hour adventure. The young, friendly crew welcomed us on board and gave us our assigned table. The mood was festive with anticipation of a wonderful day on the water cruising the protected waters of the fjords with the magnificent cliffs carved by glaciers.
Eagles and Whales
We shared the table with a young couple from Seattle on their Alaskan adventure. People walked by with plates of breakfast and hot drinks as everyone got their fill of breakfast while the captain gave us the safety talk and the plan for the day. Soon, the catamaran pulled away from the dock as it made light ripples in the water, slowly traveled out of the harbor. A couple of bald head eagles perched on a pylon and watched us with their steely, piercing eyes as we passed by while camera shutters went off like a chorus. This trip was off to an excellent start.
The captain excitedly told us to look on the port side even before the boat left the harbor. I immediately went outside, camera in tow, and watched as sprouts of water went into the air and the back of the whale came above the surface before the tail came out of the water. She toyed with us several times, playing hide and seek. Wow, eagles and whales even before we left the harbor!
Animals in the Ocean and on Land
Resurrection Bay was calm with beautiful blue water as the boat sped up towards the open ocean. While warm by late May Alaskan standards, the brisk wind at the bow of the boat can still bite as many retreated back into the warm cabin. Then the boat slowed down again and I went outside to check out what was going on. A couple of otters were by the side of the boat, lazily laying on its back, looking back at us as if to say “what are you looking at? I’m just enjoying the sunshine after a hard winter.”
Soon after, the captain pointed out some white dots on the cliffs nearby as people took to binoculars to see several mountain goats hanging on rocky ledges. These amazing animals avoid predators by going where others can’t. I know they have adapted to the environment, but I still worry they would lose their footing and fall off the cliff but hey, who am I to worry about them?
Glacier in Motion
The sea got a little rougher as we left the protected waters of Resurrection Bay, but it was still one of the calmest days of the year. The boat wasn’t in the open ocean for very long before it made the turn back into the protected waters of Aialik Bay and the water became still again. Sandwiched between Aialik and Harris Peninsulas, each with a peak of around 4,000 feet, Aialik Bay scenery is majestic with tall mountains on either side. The water became as still as glass as we approached the left arm of the bay where Holgate glacier greeted us. Large chunks of ice litter the water right in front of the glacier. The boat stopped and just about everyone came outside to the deck to absorb the magical scene of the glacier with glass like water reflecting the mountain sides. The scene was quiet except for the hum of the engine as everyone whispered in hushed voices to marvel at the natural beauty.
All of a sudden, loud, thunder like cracking sounds punctuated the air as large chunks of ice calved into the bay in a show of force that looked like a waterfall with ice that lasted 15 seconds. The oohs and aaahs came out of people’s mouths, followed by the announcement to hang on because the wave caused by the calving was going to hit the boat soon.
Prime Rib with a View
Time for lunch! Each table was called up to get the prime rib and seafood lunch as we continued to enjoy the beautiful fjord scenery. The boat headed towards Aialik Glacier in water as calm as glass while we enjoyed the delicious food. The mile wide Aialik Glacier, like Holgate Glacier, is an arm of the massive Harding Ice field and nearly as grand. The blue ice formed by the massive weight of accumulated snow shone like gems in the sun. The boat stopped as we enjoyed the last glacier view on this trip. People were in awe of the beauty of nature.
We started our way back to Seward, relaxed and satisfied. The boat slowed down as we passed puffins, whales, and many sea lions hanging out on a rock outcropping in the bright, warm afternoon sun. Some sea lions spread their flippers outward to catch the rays while others slip in and out of the water, shaking their heads. Large birds, including bald head eagles fly around a tall 150 feet ledge, with their wings spread as if to welcome us to this wonderful show of their habitat.
I talked to a young crew member as we headed into Resurrection Bay for the final leg of our trip back to Seward. She, like just about everyone else we met, came to Alaska to work for the summer because of a sense of adventure. People who come to Alaska have a tough and independent streak about them. They seek adventure and are restless. Many found kindred spirits in others who also seek adventure. This young lady worked in Florida for the winter and she was in Alaska for her first season here. She loved the pristine beauty, the scale of Alaska, and midnight hikes with her new found friends. The living conditions can be tough for these seasonal workers but that just adds to the sense of adventure.
Meet the Naturalist
The meeting place to start our naturalist guided hike the next day was more than a mile away from our hotel. Should we walk, take the city bus, or a taxi? Of course, we walked and saw most of the main drag of Seward on this late May afternoon. Along the way, we stopped by the Seward National Park Visitor Center and took care of our national park business (stamp, map). The sign was kind of weird but it will have to do for now.
Jeanning, our guide for the afternoon, looked every bit the part. Fit, trim and just the right shade of tan. This was her first trip of the season, but I can tell, she is no novice. I told her that we saw a mama bear and two cubs on our last guided hike at Mendalson Glacier, so close to the trail we could not pass and had to turn around. The only way for her to top that was for a moose sighting. She laughed and said that she can guarantee that we’d see moose poop, but don’t hold out much hope for actual moose sighting. Three other “hikers” joined us but we were worried. One of them had a very difficult time just getting into the van.
After the 15 minutes drive to Exit Glacier through very picturesque Resurrection River, surrounded by snow capped mountains, we spotted the traditional national park entrance sign and begged the driver to stop so we can take the required picture. He happily obliged and that set the stage for the accomplishment of a goal that has eluded us since we started the national parks journey.
Long Sought After Goal Accomplished
We saw lots of wildlife on our national parks journey, but no moose. Even in moose rich areas like Isle Royale and Rocky Mountain, we only saw grass tamped down by a moose taking a rest, but never the actual moose. I’m convinced that our quick stop at the national park sign created the perfect timing to accomplish our moose sighting goal, and for Jeanning to top the bear sighting. As we got close to the Exit Glacier visitor center, a moose walked leisurely across the road! While it’s not the same as a moose sighting while hiking, I still can’t believe we were that close to a moose! The trip had a great start!
Exit Glacier is the only real hike at Kenai Fjord National Park. On this warm, partly sunny day, we took the short 1.5 mile loop to the Edge of Glacier Overlook. The weather is perfect for a hike to the glacier, a big surprise for us and Jeanning. There were signs along the way that showed the year the glacier was at that location. A visitor in the 1990s could touch the glacier with just a very short walk from the Exit Glacier Nature Center. Even in 2005, the path overlooked directly down on the glacier. Today (2018), the glacier retreated so far it was a half mile away from the end of the trail. This glacier retreated a half mile just since 2010, the result of smaller snow fall and warmer summer temperatures. Even from a half mile away, I felt the power of the glacier pushing down and melting away at the same time. The river of melted glacier was grey and grimy, full of fine particles ground down as the glacier flowed down the valley.
The hike was very rewarding, and our hiking mates made it, although a little slower than what we would have liked. The slower pace removed any guilt I had about stopping to take plenty of pictures. We probably could have done this hike ourselves by taking the $15 shuttle and the ranger led hike, but Jeanning gave us a great tour with patience and great answers to our many questions.
Harding Icefield, about the size of Rhode Island, is the source of 38 glaciers in Kenai Fjord National Park. It is over 1,000 feet deep. Exit Glacier is the only glacier in the park reachable by road. Other glaciers in the park are only accessible by boat or air.
Harding Icefield Trail branches off of the Exit Glacier trail to reach the top of Exit Glacier. This would be an 8 hour round trip hike that got right next to the glacier but it was still snow covered, not to mention we didn’t have enough time for it. Maybe next time.
Thought for Kenai Fjords National Park:
Provide shelter to others in the storm, just like fjords provide calm water refuge in rough seas.
Impressions of Kenai Fjords National Park:
Glaciers, fjords, wildlife, majestic mountains that reach right to the coast, are what makes this park so enjoyable. The park is accessible mainly by boat tours, where most of what made this park special can be seen. Hiking for mere mortals like us is pretty much restricted to Exit Glacier, but that is a beautiful hike well worth the time. Planes or helicopters can take you to the glacier for a nice hike right on the glacier for another experience. This is an immensely enjoyable park to visit.
Kenai Fjords National Park Rating:
(Note: Ratings are on a bell curve, which means there are as many 5 star ratings as 1 star ratings. All National Parks are wonderful, which makes this a very strict rating scale)
|Element||Rating (out of 5 Stars)|
Guide to Kenai Fjords National Park:
Top Attractions at National Park:
- National Park Boat Tours
- Exit Glacier
One Day Visit Plan:
If you only have one day, you have two options:
- Take the full day (7 or 8 hour) boat tour. We used Major Marine Tours which was great and highly recommended. There are other tour operators as well. Your experience can vary depending on the weather. Be prepared to have some rough seas.
- Take the half day boat tour. You will not see the glaciers but you should see some wildlife. Spend the other half of the day hiking at Exit Glacier.
In the summer time, if your energy allows, take the full day boat tour, and hike Exit Glacier after you return. There is plenty of daylight to do the hike after the boat tour in the summer.
Practical Info for Visiting Kenai Fjords National Park:
- The season is short. May through September.
- Plan ahead. Boat tour tickets can be hard to get in peak season.
- Dress in layers. The weather changes rapidly.
- Be prepared for rough seas, especially if you are prone to seasickness. Take Dramamine or wear one of those wrist bands.
- Seward is a nice town with plenty of services. Be prepared for higher prices. Like all of Alaska, prices are ~25% more than the lower 48.
- Spend two or three days. Boat tour one day, Hiking the second, and when in season, hire a fishing boat and go for salmon or halibut fishing.
Kenai Fjords National Park Facts:
- Size: 669,982 acres, ranked 17th
- Visitors: 303,598 in 2017, ranked 46th. Record was 346,852 visitors in 2011
- Peak Month in 2017: 100,682 visitors in July, nearly 1/3 of total yearly visitors
- Low Month in 2017: 12 visitors in November
- Entrance Fee: None
Date Visited: May 27, 2018