Destinations

Head to Kenai Fjords National Park for the perfect Alaskan adventure

The majesty and magic of Kenai Fjords National Park is on full displayThe majesty and magic of Kenai Fjords National Park is on full display — Photo courtesy of Chansak Joe / iStock Via Getty Images

Alaska has eight national parks, each incredible in its own right. But Kenai Fjords National Park stands apart.

When Mother Nature created Earth, she placed Alaska at the top like a crown: a shining, perfect example of her handiwork. The Alaska wilderness was so vast it seemed like a world unto itself, and that remains today. Alaska feels remote, but not just due to geography; it’s simply too big and special to be contained.

Exploring the Kenai fjords should be at the top of every Alaskan adventure. Here’s a guide to help you plan your visit.

What is so special about Kenai Fjords National Park?

The Harding Icefield is the heart of Kenai Fjords National ParkThe Harding Icefield is the heart of Kenai Fjords National Park — Photo courtesy of pabradyphoto / iStock Via Getty Images

At the heart of Kenai Fjords National Park is the Harding Icefield, which blankets over 700 square miles with a sheet of ice up to a mile thick. The icefield created almost 40 glaciers and carved narrow fjords over thousands of years. Snow and ice cover more than half of the park, so Kenai Fjords is best explored by water.

There are numerous Kenai Fjords tours available. Boat tours depart from downtown Seward, carrying visitors into the park to marvel at wildlife like seals, puffins, and whales against the spectacular backdrop of mountains and glacially carved scenery. The park can be reached by car or train, too.

How to get to Kenai Fjords National Park

No need to go to Norway with the Kenai fjords in our backyardNo need to go to Norway with the Kenai fjords in our backyard — Photo courtesy of Tamara Gane

Seward, the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park, is an easy 2.5-mile drive from Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport (ANC). This is one of the most scenic drives in Alaska, which says a lot, given the entire state is filled with jaw-dropping vistas. Seward Highway weaves between the sea and the Chugach Mountains — you might catch sight of moose, bears, or whales along the way.

From mid-May through the end of September, the Alaska Railroad Coastal Classic Train travels from Anchorage to Seward. The train winds through the backcountry, rewarding passengers with dazzling views of glaciers, waterfalls, and mountains before arriving at Resurrection Bay.

Wildlife in Kenai Fjords National Park

Witness resident sea lions lounging in Kenai Fjords National ParkWitness resident sea lions lounging in Kenai Fjords National Park — Photo courtesy of Tamara Gane

There are almost 200 varieties of species of birds in Kenai Fjords National Park, including puffins, bald eagles, falcons, and auklets. The park is also home to land mammals like grizzly bears, black bears, lynx, gray wolves, and mountain goats.

Kenai Fjords National Park is probably most famous for its marine life. This is one of the best places for whale watching in the world: orcas, fin whales, gray whales, humpback whales, minke whales, and sei whales swim in these waters. Other types of marine mammals include sea otters, Dall’s porpoises, harbor porpoises, Stellar sea lions, and harbor seals.

Tour the Kenai fjords on the water

Boat tours are the best way to explore Kenai Fjords National ParkBoat tours are the best way to explore Kenai Fjords National Park — Photo courtesy of Tamara Gane

The majesty of Kenai Fjords National Park is best seen from the water. Kenai Fjords Tours offers several excursions varying in length and budget. The company takes you deep into the park where ice crystals melt across your face, the air cracks, and bright blue glaciers tumble into the ocean. The captains are pros at spotting wildlife and willing to steer off course to get closer to mountain goats climbing the fjords or whales splashing in the ocean.

Kenai Fjords Tours also partners with Sunny Cove Kayaking to provide cruise and kayaking excursions. Kayaking in Kenai Fjords National Park is a true adventure, offering the opportunity to get close to glaciers, fjords, and wildlife.

How to hike to Exit Glacier and the Harding Icefield

Hiking to Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park is not for the faint of heartHiking to Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park is not for the faint of heart — Photo courtesy of Tamara Gane

Exit Glacier is the only part of Kenai Fjords National Park accessible by land. Start your visit here at Exit Glacier Nature Center, where you’ll find exhibits, brochures, and rangers to answer questions. During the summer, guided ranger hikes and other free programs are available. The trailhead to Exit Glacier and the Harding Icefield starts here, too.

The trail begins with a wheelchair-accessible, 1-mile loop leading through a forest of cottonwood trees to views of the massive Exit Glacier. In the past 200 years, the glacier has retreated more than 1.5 miles, and the rate is increasing. For instance, Exit Glacier has retreated more than half a mile since 2000. Along the path, signs mark the year and place the glacier once reached. It’s an eerie reminder of climate change.

The trail continues to the Harding Icefield. Elevation gains for the strenuous, 8.2-mile, out-and-back hike is 1,000 feet per mile. If you have the stamina, the panoramic views of the ice field are worth it.

Where to stay in Kenai Fjords National Park

With gorgeous views and all the amenities, Windsong Lodge serves as basecamp for many visitorsWith gorgeous views and all the amenities, Windsong Lodge serves as basecamp for many visitors — Photo courtesy of Pursuit / Seward Windsong Lodge

Windsong Lodge in Seward is the only lodging that offers discounted packages, including cruises to the glacier and fjords. Located on a wooded property with magnificent views of the Chugach Mountains, amenities include a full-service restaurant, bar, and shuttle service to the train station, the cruise terminal, and downtown Seward.

Luxury travelers should opt for Kenai Fjords Wilderness Lodge on Fox Island, a boutique resort with eight cozy waterfront cabins. Stays here include meals, glacier cruises, guided kayak excursions, and transportation to and from the island.

Camping is available at Exit Glacier on a first-come-first-served basis. There are 12 walk-in tent sites, two of which are wheelchair accessible. Camping is free, and amenities include pit toilets, a pump for drinking water, and a shelter for shared dining, food preparation, and storage.

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