Exit Glacier

One of my favorite day hikes in all of Alaska is the Exit Glacier trail.  Have you ever had the chance to walk up and put you hand on a glacier?  People pay hundreds of dollars to fly in to see glaciers or take boat trips to admire the spectacular beauty and marvel at towering ice.   Few will be able to say they walked right up to a glacier and put a hand on it, or admired the blue crystals up close.  Exit Glacier is your opportunity. 

To find this glacier, head out of Seward on the Seward Highway toward Anchorage.  Make a left turn on Exit Glacier road and follow it all the way to its end.    There is a fee station just before you enter the park, but when we entered last on July 1, 2006, there was no fee.  Also, as you near the fee station you will start to see brown wood signs about two feet off the ground with dates carved into them.  These represent the edge of the glacier as history recorded them in those specific years.

There is now a brand new visitor center and brand new rest room facilities. The rest rooms are now fully plumbed. Sweet! No more outhouses! Next to the visitors center find the paved trail to the glacier.  Along this trail there are exhibits explaining the history and activity of the glacier, as well as maps of the trails.  The main trail is a twenty minute walk up to the face of the glacier.  It is paved halfway, and completely flat up to the last five minutes of the hike.  It is an easy walk that almost anybody can accomplish.  There is signage indicating that the trail to the glacier is washed out. For those who don't mind getting their feet wet, it is not difficult to walk from sandbar to sandbar out to the glacier anyway. There is also a loop overlook trail. This trail used to also go up to the face of the glacier, but over the years, the glacier has receded quite a distance. But the loop overlook still provides a gorgeous view of the glacier.

The park service has placed ropes along the face of the glacier to warn people of the dangers of falling ice.  We have heard a story that in the mid 1980s a newlywed couple visited the glacier on their honeymoon.  The groom asked his new bride to stand under an outcropping while he took her picture.  The ice calved and the woman was crushed to death.  So the warning signs must be heeded.  Falling ice really can kill.  Never walk under ice.  Choose places to touch and examine the ice where there is no danger of it falling on you or anybody else.

For a more challenging hike, take the trail up to the top of Exit Glacier to the Harding Ice Field.  On your way to the face of the glacier there will be a side trail leading to the right indicated by a sign.  A few yards beyond on the trail is a sign-in sheet and a bulletin board posting adverse conditions on the trail.  Be sure to sign in and indicate the length of your trip and a contact phone number, and sign out when you return.  Also, be sure to bring along plenty of food and clothing.  Bring clothing so you can strip down when you start to sweat on the lower trail, and warm clothing for the upper altitudes.  You will be reaching areas that have snow year round, so warm clothing is a must.  But if it is wet with sweat, it will work against you.  You will be crossing snow patches, so your boots need to be waterproof.  Finally, be sure to bring rain gear.  Rain clouds can and often do arrive unexpectedly.  Seward is considered a northern rainforest and this classification is well deserved.  Also, I recommend wearing noisemakers such as jingle (“bear”) bells, as there are black and brown bear in the area.

The trail is most difficult at the bottom.  As you climb up exposed bedrock there will be times when you may need to use your hands and feet.  The trail is well maintained and for the most part very easy to follow.  The trail will wind in and out of glacier viewing areas so a camera is highly recommended.  I have spotted ptarmigan families and curious hoary marmots along the trail.  My cousin Lynn and her husband Joe were startled by a 300 pound brown bear as it crossed the paved trail not 200 yards from the visitor center. When they told the park ranger, she said, "Oh, you met Gertrude!"

It takes me about two and a half to three hours to reach the observation cabin near the top of the trail.  Although the trail continues out to the glacier, I only followed it about ten more minutes beyond the observation cabin to a point where I could look out over the Harding Ice Field  The clouds had rolled in by this time and were hovering just above the miles and miles of glaciated valleys.  Only the bases of the nunataks (tops of mountains protruding through the glacier) were visible.  Huge blue lakes dotted the top of the glaciers and I wandered down off the trail to view a waterfall below the trail.

As I descended I ran into three groups of ice climbers and campers.  They had about twenty people per group and they all carried oversized backpacks to accommodate a several day trip.  I did not go far enough to get onto the ice field, but some people do give themselves enough time to enjoy this part of the trip by packing for an overnight or two. 

Last visited: July 2006

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