Wildlife, fjords, glaciers & one massive icefield - it's the best of Alaska all rolled into one national park.
At the edge of the Kenai Peninsula in southern Alaska lies Kenai Fjords National Park. Here ice is on the move, as nearly 40 glaciers flow from Harding Icefield to meet the sea. The icy waters are rich with wildlife, making it an ideal spot for whale watching. But it’s also a place that is bearing witness to a cautionary tale about the effects of climate change on our planet.
Kenai Fjords, like many Alaskan national parks, can be a challenging place to visit. There are few roads and most of the park is only accessible by air or water. In fact, over half the park is covered in ice. But there are still ways to enjoy its wonder.
Park admission is free.
When to go?
High season at Kenai Fjords is June through August when weather conditions are most optimal. The park’s coastal backcountry is not accessible from late fall to early spring due to rough seas.
In the winter, some roads aren’t plowed, and visitor centers are closed, though the park does allow winter activities like cross-country skiing, fat tire biking, snowmobiling, and more.
Photo courtesy: National Park Service/M. Bradburn
What to do?
Kenai Fjords Visitor Center actually is located outside of the park boundaries in Seward’s small boat harbor. Start your visit there by watching the park video and checking out the day’s ranger programs and hikes. The harbor also is where you can board a boat for a half- or full-day wildlife cruise. While there are several providers, I recommend Major Marine Tours. On most cruises, park rangers narrate and answer questions about the whales, birds, and other marine life that you’ll see.
KidTripster Tip: If you’re prone to seasickness like me, consider a short trip in more protected Resurrection Bay. Also pre-medicate with a non-drowsy, motion sickness medication. I’d also recommend bringing seasickness bands and all-natural ginger candies, just in case. Yes, I have a lot of experience with seasickness!
KidTripster Tip: Dress in layers for a day cruise. Even on a sunny day, it can be chilly and windy on the water. And bring plenty of sun protection for everyone in the family.
Kenai Fjords draws kayakers from around the world. If you’re interested in kayaking, make sure you do your legwork. You shouldn’t kayak from Seward to the park as the waters in that area can be treacherous. Instead most kayakers use a water taxi or charter boat out of Steward. If you’re not an experienced kayaker, it’s recommended that you book a guided tour.
KidTripster Tip: There’s no cell service in the park, so make any outfitter or transportation arrangements prior to your trip.
Having just gotten off a fantastic small ship cruise with Alaskan Dream in the Inside Passage, my family and I decided to head to the park’s other big attraction. While Kenai Fjords is home to nearly 40 glaciers, only one - Exit Glacier - is accessible by road, making it a very popular destination for tourists. Families with young children can hike the easy, one-mile Glacier View Loop Trail that gives you a panoramic view of the glacier spilling down from Harding Icefield. You won’t be alone. This path is how most of Seward’s cruise passengers experience the park.
KidTripster Tip: Keep an eye out for signs with years. These markers indicate where the glacier used to reach no so long ago. Its rate of recession is startling.
KidTripster Tip: Parking at the Exit Glacier Nature Center can be challenging. Try to visit before 10:30 a.m. or after 3:30 p.m. to ensure yourself of a parking spot. Alternatively, if you’re only visiting Exit Glacier, you can hop on the Exit Glacier Shuttle in town. Cost: $15/person round-trip.
KidTripster Tip: Know that the road to Exit Glacier is closed during the winter.
My kids are older - ages 15 and 18 - so we set our sights on the most challenging hike that we’ve ever attempted as a family - the highly strenuous trail to Harding Icefield. While the hike is listed as 8.2 miles round-trip, we recorded it as 10.4 miles round-trip from the parking lot. But more than the length, it’s the elevation gain that will test you - 3,000-plus feet. By the end of the day, my son’s fitness calculator had us at 268 floors; that’s like climbing the Empire State Building more than three times. My legs will attest to that!
Starting on the valley floor at the Exit Glacier Nature Center, the trail winds through a mosquito-infested cottonwood and alder forest to a heather-filled meadow and eventually far above the tree line where the snow doesn’t melt. At this point, you really need to dig in and keep climbing. I was motivated by the fact that my teenagers didn’t think that I’d make it to the top. Take that boys! I did and was rewarded with a jaw-dropping view of the Harding Icefield. Take a break here to catch your breath, because the climb down isn’t much easier. Moving at a fairly good clip, it took us about 3-1/2 hours on the way up and 2-1/2 hours on the way down. It was a difficult yet satisfying day.
KidTripster Tip: Tie a bell onto your backpack to let the bears know that you’re entering their territory. It gives them time to exit.
KidTripster Tip: You’ll want to dress in layers and wear a good pair of hiking boots, especially for the snow. At the summit, we’d worked up quite a sweat and were in short sleeves. Also make sure to bring plenty of snacks and at least 32 ounces of water. Once you reach the snow, you’ll find glacier-fed streams where you can refill your water bottle. The water is safe to drink.
Where to stay?
Coastal Public Use Cabins are available during the summer. These rustic cabins, named Aialik and Holgate, only can be reached by float plane, water taxi or charter boat. While they’re heated, there’s no electricity or drinking water available; you’ll need to haul it in or be prepared to treat natural sources. Cost: $75/night. Reservations are required; the reservation window opens on January 3.
Willow Cabin at Exit Glacier is open in the winter and only can be reached by fat tire bike, cross-country skis, dogsled, snowshoes or snowmobile. While it’s heated, there’s no drinking water; you’ll need to melt snow or carry in water. Cost: $50/night. Reservations are recommended; the reservation window opens on October 15.
Kenai Fjords has a 12-site, tent-only campground in the Exit Glacier Area. It’s first come-first serve. Cost: Free.
In Seward, you’ll find more traditional accommodations from hotels to lodges to bed-and-breakfast spots. Know that many Alaskans also have jumped on the Airbnb wagon and now rent rooms, cottages, cabins, and even yurts. In general, I’d describe Alaskan accommodations as “homey,” which is code for dated.
Seward plays host to thousands of cruise passengers, so you’ll find many restaurants. But you’ll also find tourist pricing. Lunch in Seward for a family of four easily can cost over $100.
The Cookery (209 5th. Ave) is the hottest restaurant in town. The specialty here is oysters which are delivered within hours of being harvested. The salmon and halibut are fresh and locally-sourced. For dessert, try the Dutch Baby with blueberries and cream cheese ice cream. Unfortunately, The Cookery is only open for dinner and doesn’t take reservations. Best to be there when the doors open at 5 p.m.; closed on Mondays. The only criticism of this small restaurant? The staff really works to turn over the tables quickly, so a meal that you’d likely want to savor may feel rushed. However, when you’re dining with kids, that efficient service may actually be a bonus.
Editor Shellie Bailey-Shah has visited 45 national parks with her family with hopes of exploring them all!
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