Alaska has eight national parks. Only four of them are accessible to cars, and of those four, two only have roads accessible to their edges. Kenai Fjords National Park, located along the western edge of the Gulf of Alaska and 13 miles northwest of Seward in the south-central region of the state, is one of these parks. The park, the smallest of Alaska’s national parks, was designated in 1980 to preserve its crown jewel, the Harding Icefield, and its nearly 40 glaciers flowing out of the mountains. Today, dozens of sea mammals, land mammals and sea birds make this coastal region and the thick forest between the coast and the massive sheet of ice in the Harding Icefield their home. A 130-mile drive south from Anchorage gets visitors to the only road into Kenai Fjords National Park, where a trailhead provides access to Exit Glacier and the Harding Icefield.
Coastal Alaska weather is unpredictable, damp and cloudy, but a beautiful, sunny day will make a visit to Kenai Fjords National Park unforgettable. Winter typically arrives by early October and can stay until May in the Kenai Fjords region. More than 80 inches of snow falls in Seward each year, causing travel to the region to be a little more limiting in winter but stunning for photography, especially from late December to early February, when the landscape is a fresh sea of white. Layering is important in these varying temperatures and weather conditions, including for your gear. During summer months, expect a wide range of weather possibilities—from lows in the 40s on a cloudy day to the 70s on a sunny day. Rain is common, with an average of 72 inches a year. It’s this abundance of moisture that allows the area’s vegetation to grow thick and tall during the long days of summer—up to 19 hours of sunlight near the summer solstice.
During each trip to Kenai Fjords, I envisioned capturing a photo of this massive river of ice with a colorful sunset above Exit Glacier as the ice disappears over the crest of the ridge leading to the Harding Icefield. But on each trip I never saw that sky. I again hiked up the one-and-a-half-mile trail through thick brush full of alder bushes at 9 o’clock at night—90 minutes before sunset—to try my luck again for the photo. As I started on the trail, several other hikers warned me about a black bear sow and her two cubs hanging around the trail. “Excellent,” was my response, much to their surprise. Just as I came out of the thick brush and onto the overlook at the end of the trail, a gust of wind came up the glacier and blew off my hat. So that I wouldn’t lose my hat down the glacier, I quickly reached down for it. As I stood back up, I saw the bear. It wasn’t the family of bears I had been warned about but a single black bear strolling up Exit Glacier. He paused for a moment to look at the crazy hiker chasing her hat and then continued on his stroll up the ice. The experience didn’t last long—maybe 10 minutes—before he reached the ridge and sauntered onto the Harding Icefield. Since I was there to photograph sunset, I only had my wide-angle lens and my 80-400mm lens, and no time to set up the tripod. I found photographing the bear at 210mm—rather than wishing I had my 500mm lens and teleconverter—provided a much better sense of scale to demonstrate the immense size of Exit Glacier.
During the winter, the six-mile road to Exit Glacier is closed at first snowfall (usually in October) and becomes a popular cross-country skiing route. The trail to Exit Glacier remains open through winter with packed snow, so spikes are recommended to reach the glacier. The road reopens in May to vehicle travel. Summer is the most popular season to visit Kenai Fjords National Park, with visitation peaking in July. A large variety of services are available in the area from June to August, reduced services in May and September, and minimal services from October through April.