The original plan for this weekend was to visit Denali National Park, but when the forecast was all rain, we decided to look for alternatives. I proceeded to google National Parks in Alaska and on a whim picked out Kenai Fjords National Park, since it looked drive-able. Weather forecast was two days of sunshine, so our destination was selected. It turned out to be our favorite National Park yet.
We took off early Friday morning hoping to beat the rush-hour traffic from Anchorage heading to Seward. As we drove by Denali, it started to rain on us, which only solidified that we’d made the right choice for this weekend. The drive through Denali was beautiful, although the most scenic part of the ride was definitely between Anchorage and Seward. The first hour of this portion hugs the coast of Turnagain Arm and gives the feeling of being on Highway 1 near Big Sur. Unfortunately, it also gave us a clear view of rain clouds ahead – what happened to 3 days of sunshine? Oh yes, while I was busy looking up campsites, booking a whale-watching/tidewater glacier cruise, and scouting the best hikes for us, I forgot to read the portion that said Seward was a temperate rainforest!
We arrived in Seward around 5:30 p.m. Hard to believe, but the 8.5 hr drive felt relatively short compared to our trip up to Alaska. Fortunately, we secured the last campsite at Waterfront Park, which is located along the coast of Seward itself. We set up camp and decided to walk downtown. Seward is a port town that appears to draw a large crowd each weekend who are looking forward to fishing, seeing wildlife, and checking out the glaciers. Our site was only a mile away from downtown, which mainly consists of a few blocks of restaurants, stores, and bars.
Our choice for dinner was a no-brainer: Seward Brewing Company. There was a bit of a wait for the main restaurant, so we went upstairs where they only served pizza and beer – what more could you ask for. Both were delicious. Plus, we had some leftover pizza that we boxed up for lunch on Sunday (a nice trick that Leigh’s dad, Mark, taught us).
We woke up early in the morning filled with excitement. Today, we were going on a cruise to hopefully see some whales and glaciers! We booked the 8.5 hr cruise with Major Marine Tours. This cruise was on their smallest ship, which was supposed to provide more opportunities to get close to the wildlife. Needless to say, it did not disappoint.
When the cruise began, it was quite foggy. Perhaps this was the reason that the boat was only half full. As we pulled out of the port, we passed a bald eagle and an otter. Then about 30 minutes in our captain called out a Humpback Whale sighting over the loudspeaker. Everyone raced out to the front of the deck, and the boat slowly maneuvered closer to the whale providing us with spectacular views. The whale was blowing its spout, diving down showing off its tail, and slapping the water with its pectoral fin. Even our captain and his deckhand/assistant were amazed by how good of a show this whale was putting on for us.
It’s hard to describe the beauty of Kenai Fjords. The water is filled with little jagged-rock islands that reminded me of Capri. Sea lions, puffins, and countless other birds all called these islands home. One pair of sea lions was playing a little game of king-of-the-hill, which ended with the smaller lion jumping off the cliff into the water ~10 feet below. The puffins were adorable with their brightly colored beaks. Many people joked that they must have been eating well because as they tried to move out of the boats path, a few looked like they were having a little difficulty taking off.
One of the highlights in the morning was when we came across a sea lion that was swarmed by a flock of birds. It turned out the sea lion had caught a sizeable halibut and the birds were waiting for any chance to get some leftovers. Another highlight was when we came upon a group of Dall’s Porpoises, which are known for being playful. We approached the porpoises, then turned the boat around to put them in our wake, and cranked up the engine to speed away from them. To our amazement, as we peered over the front of the boat they darted into our view and swam alongside and in front of the boat! It was exhilarating.
After seeing so much wildlife, it was time for the second part of the cruise – seeing some glaciers! We entered a fjord and were absolutely amazed by the number of glaciers all around us. Kenai Fjords National Park is home to the Harding Icefield, which covers ~700 square miles and feeds the tidewater glaciers along the coast. As we ate lunch, our assistant described the glaciers we were seeing out the windows and indicated how far they had receded over the last couple hundred years. He pointed out an old terminal moraine, which indicated the maximum extent of the glacier from the last Little Ice Age, that was over a mile away from the main glacier that we were going to see. Imagining the size of these glaciers just a couple hundred years ago was hard to fathom. Instead of being buried underneath hundreds of feet of ice, we were cruising into a beautiful fjord with smaller glaciers on both sides of us now.
Northwestern Glacier, the main destination of our cruise, was spectacular. The sun finally started to break through the fog allowing us to have some excellent views of the surrounding peaks. The glacier descended down the steep valley ~300-500 ft before reaching the water. It’s technically a tidewater glacier because a small portion of the end of the glacier reaches the water. At first everyone rushed to the front of the boat to take their photo with the glacier. Once all the photos were captured the front of the boat cleared, and we were able to relax and savor the view. We heard the glacier creaking and cracking, and got to see a small “calving” event, i.e., a small part of the steep portion of the glacier falling into the water. It was quite small, but exciting to see nonetheless.
After 30 minutes, it was time to start heading back to Seward. Most people headed back into the boat during this time, so the outside areas were empty. Leigh and I opted to savor the views of the fjord, so we took a seat outside on the back of the boat and slowly watched Northwestern Glacier fade into the distance. Before leaving the fjord completely though, the boat made a quick stop into Crater Bay. This was a smaller side fjord that was incredibly deep! So deep in fact that the boat came within 10 ft of the coast. The rock face both above and below the water was more-or-less completely vertical. Coming down the vertical rock face was a series of waterfalls. Here we also saw a new marine animal – the star fish! It was clinging to part of the vertical wall, although I doubt it lasted too long because it appeared to be slowly peeling off.
After we left the fjord, we stopped briefly for one last humpback whale on the way back, but it turned out this one was a bit shy. They can hold their breath for upwards of 30 minutes, so when they don’t want to be seen they can go away for a quite a while. The nice thing by this point and time was the clouds completely parted and the sun graced us with its presence. This was welcome, since it was cold out on the water by Northwestern Glacier (~45°F). As we sat on the back of the boat, we both found ourselves enjoying a short power nap under the sun. We woke up 15-20 minutes later and decided to shift to the front of the boat. This allowed us to get a nice view of Seward and Mount Marathon as our cruise came to an end.
Looking back, I think 8.5 hr was just the right amount of time on the cruise. By the end, we were ready to head into town for a good bite to eat. Our venue for dinner was the Salmon Bake restaurant, which is known for its seafood as one might expect. It was our first “fresh” seafood meal in Alaska, and the salmon and halibut were delicious! We finished dinner fairly early, so we decided to head into Seward to see what the entertainment was like on Saturday night. The highlight was definitely the Yukon Bar, which was described to us as an old fishing bar. The ceiling was filled with dollar bills that people have written messages on. When I asked the bouncer how much money he thought was on the ceiling, he guessed a couple thousand dollars! Besides the interesting atmosphere, the live music made for a nice way to end the night.
Today we had a lot of driving ahead of us to get back to Fairbanks. But first, it was time to hike to a glacier! The actual visitor center for Kenai Fjords National Park is fairly small and located just a short drive from Seward. We got an early start in order to make sure that we could get on the road in the early afternoon. Today’s hike was up the side of Exit Glacier to the Harding Icefield. Exit Glacier is easily accessible via a short hike from the visitor’s center. Hiking to the Harding Icefield is a bit more of a challenge. It’s an 8.2 mile out-and-back hike that gains 3,500 ft. We highly recommend it if you have the time.
The fascinating portion of this hike is how the surroundings change with the elevation. The trail starts beyond the Visitors Center and dives right into the temperate rainforest. At times, the trail becomes single track and you can’t see far in any direction. Normally, this wouldn’t bother us, but 0.8 of-a-mile into the hike we ran into a couple that had already turned around… the young woman had turned a corner just a 0.1 of-a-mile in front of us and was face-to-face with a grizzly. Fortunately, as she started talking to the grizzly and slowly retreating, the grizzly didn’t follow. Nonetheless, just hearing about the encounter spiked our nerves. At the same time, we’d come all this way down to Seward, and this was the one hike we were planning to do. Turning around would be very disappointing, yet we also didn’t want to make the headline of the next day’s paper. We decided to stay put, talk loudly to one another, and wait ~20 minutes before proceeding.
As the 20-minute mark approached, we heard a few more people coming. It turned out to be an ice-climbing guide with a group of 3 people. When we told him about the bear, he smiled and said we were more than welcome to follow their tracks – terrific! I imagine that as we hike more up here our “bearanoia” will settle, but for the present time it seems better to be safe. We asked the guide about bears around here, and there was no mistaking that we were in bear country. He told us that one summer, there was a bear and her cubs living by the trail that their company saw every day for more than two weeks straight. He reassured us that they don’t want to see us just as much as we don’t want to see them, and as long as you let the bear know you’re there and don’t run, they will leave you be. Sounded great to us, but we were still more than happy to have him blazing the trail.
After the first 1.5 miles, the environment changes from temperate rainforest to meadows. This is also when Exit Glacier comes into view! Fun fact: this is “the glacier” President Obama visited on his trip to Alaska. It is quite fascinating to see the signs denoting the extent of the glacier over the last 200 years as you enter the park. Once again, it’s quite hard to fathom what the area looked like when the glacier was several hundred feet thicker and extended miles down the road. Nonetheless, it’s still a beautiful glacier today, and wonderful that it’s so accessible to the public.
Here the guide’s group took a different route to get onto the glacier, while we continued hiking uphill along the side of the glacier. Without the guide’s bravado, we used a couple songs to alert the bear of our presence: “Ohhhh were halfway there, ohhhh haven’t seen a beaaar” and “Bear check bear check one two one two”, the latter proceeded by some wonderful freestyling by whoever was on “alert-the-bear” duty. Hikers around us must have thought we were insane. Most people simply say “Hey bear” every so often.
The meadows were beautiful and there wasn’t a cloud in sight. After a mile in the meadows, my favorite portion of the hike began. We had ascended above the tree-line, so the next couple miles provided unimpeded views of Exit Glacier and the Harding Icefield. The Columbia Icefield was the first icefield I had ever seen on our drive up to Fairbanks, but to be hiking to one was simply awe-inspiring. When we got to the top of the trail, the view of the icefield went on as far as the eye could see. With all the glacier retreat that you see on the way up, it’s hard to grasp how much ice is still present. Obviously, the ice field isn’t as healthy as it used to be, but it’s still incredible to see.
We took a break at the top and ate our lunch overlooking Exit Glacier and the icefield. This was when it finally started to sink in that we still had an 8.5 hr drive ahead of us. After we finished lunch, it was time to descend. The first two miles of the trail down were just as wonderful. In fact, hiking downhill made it even easier to look at Exit Glacier along the way. By this point and time though, the trail was becoming a bit more crowded. It’s not particularly wide, so every time you see someone, one of the groups has to step aside. The amazing thing about the way down was when we passed a guy that looked incredibly familiar. I’m not very shy about these things, so I blurted out “you look so familiar”, which was reciprocated. After a minute, we figured it out… he had been parked in an RV in front of us for the 8 hr delay outside of White Horse on our way up here! Small world.
By the time we made it back to the car, we were exhausted. It felt good to hop in the car, roll the windows down, and get started driving back to Fairbanks. The beautiful thing on the way out was there wasn’t a cloud in sight allowing us to see some of the views that we missed on the way in. About an hour into the drive, we passed a car that was on fire. Every looked like they were safe, so we continued onward. Shortly thereafter, a flurry of firetrucks passed us. They ended up closing the two-lane highway for 3.5 hours. Glad everyone was alright, but even more glad that we were able to continue onward. 8.5 hrs later at 11:30 p.m., we arrived back in our home in Fairbanks with our minds filled with fond memories of the whales, sea lions, puffins, glaciers, and ice field. It’s hard to believe all these things are just a day away.
Leigh joins me in writing about our adventures living in Alaska.