Harding Icefield Trail in Alaska: The Complete Hiking Guide

If you are wondering how to hike the Harding Icefield trail in Alaska, then you have come to the right place. After my Road Trip to Alaska exploring the best things to do, I am here to share all my best insider tips to help you plan an epic trip of your own!

Located in the Kenai Fjords National Park, which is just a 20-minute drive from the town of Seward, the Harding Icefield is an accessible glacier, and you can easily get to it by car, by driving to the Exit Glacier Area.

The Harding Icefield trail is breathtaking to witness, and its beauty is undeniable. I consider this trail is one of the hardest hikes in the world. The reason is because of the quick altitude gaining of approximately 1,000 feet of elevation with every mile. And the trail is covered in snow, especially during colder months, and it is considered a mountaineering route.

This is the most comprehensive guide you will find on the internet about how to visit and hike the Harding Icefield Trail. This guide is packed with very helpful information. Here you will find all you need to know about the hikes, the best time to visit, what to pack, and all the helpful tips to make your visit easy and safe. So let’s dive in!

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Harding Icefield Hike

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Harding Icefield Hiking Overview

LOCATION: The Harding Icefield is located in Kenai Fjords National Park, just 12.2 miles (19.6 km) from the city of Seward. For this reason, if you’re planning to hike this trail then you’ll want to stay in Seward as it’s a full-day activity!
WHY THE HARDING ICEFIELD: This Icefield is home to 35 glaciers so there are plenty of hiking opportunities including the popular Exit Glacier hike. However, the Harding Icefield Trail is one of the most incredible trails that I’ve ever done as the views are breathtaking!
HIKING LEVEL: Strenuous | Day hiking | Good fitness levels required | If you’re looking for a challenge then the Harding Icefield Trail is for you as it’s extremely strenuous. Just make sure you evaluate your fitness levels before you start as this hike isn’t for the faint-hearted. For an easier hike, I’d recommend the Exit Glacie Hike instead!
HIKING LENGTH: 8.2 miles (13.2 km) round trip | Elevation gain of 1,000 feet every mile, with the summit being at 3,512 feet.
FACILITIES: Aside from an emergency shelter at the top of the trail, there are no facilities along the Harding Icefield. You won’t find any toilets here and there’s no potable water available so you’ll have to bring drinking water with you. The other alternative is to properly treat any water that you come across before drinking it. Pets ARE NOT allowed on trails and it’s likely that you won’t have cell phone service in this area either.
BEST ACTIVITIES: The Harding Icefield is the only part of Kenai Fjords National Park that is accessible by road. The best way to explore this area is to hike the trail, although if that’s too strenuous there are some other easier hikes in the area!
BEST TIME TO VISIT: The best time to hike the Harding Icefield Trail is between May to October as it closes during the winter. The months of June, July, and August are the high season so you’ll encounter the most crowds during this time. The shoulder seasons are May and September, which are much quieter but the weather can be even more unpredictable. The road to the Icefield closes towards the end of October, but the general area is open all year round.
WEATHER: Before you attempt the Harding Icefield Trail you’ll want to check the weather conditions on the NPS website. If it’s forecast to be cold, windy, or raining then you’ll need to pack accordingly and layer up! This website will also give you information on any closures or dangers that you may not be aware of.

Read More: 30 Amazing Things to do in Seward, Alaska

Harding Icefield Hike

How to get to the Harding Icefield

The Harding Icefield is undeniably one of the most beautiful places in Alaska and is a must for any bucket list!

Although the hikes in Denali National Park often steal the limelight, this area is home to some fantastic trails. The Exit Glacier tends to be one of the most popular as it’s an easy glacier hike, but the Harding Icefield is arguably one of the most rewarding.

The Harding Icefield Trailhead is situated in the Exit Glacier Area which is just a 20-minute drive from Seward. It’s a distance of around 12 miles (19.3 km) and you’ll be driving down Exit Glacier Road. This road is also known as Herman Leirer Road and it’s the only road in Kenai Fjords National Park.

To reach the Exit Glacier Area from Seward you’ll see a clear sign indicating the turnoff from Seward Highway AK-9, which is located at around mile 3. The road to the end is around 8 miles long and it finishes at the Exit Glacier Nature Center.

If you’re driving your own car then you’ll park in the parking lot in front of the Nature Center. Just keep in mind that there’s limited parking here, and the busiest hours are between 10:30 am to 3:30 pm.

If you’re planning to visit from Anchorage then you’ll need to set off early as it’s a 2.5-hour journey, and you’ll be covering a distance of around 130 miles (209 km).

No matter where you’re coming from, be prepared for a scenic drive with epic views and the chance to spot wildlife along the way. Some animals might even cross the road right in front of you so just be cautious.

Harding Icefield Hike

Shuttle Service to Harding Icefield

You can always drive to the Harding Icefield but if you’ve not got your own set of wheels then I’d recommend taking the shuttle from Seward to the Exit Glacier Area.

The shuttles leave every hour from downtown Seward, and you can Click here for more information on this service. You could even consider taking a bicycle here but I’d recommend saving your leg strength as you’ll need it for the hike! The other option is to take a taxi.

If you’re planning to use the shuttle service then make sure you organize a return time in advance as you probably won’t get cell service here!

Harding Icefield trail

Start your Harding Icefield hike at the Nature Center

  • OPEN DAYS: from the Memorial Day weekend to the Monday of Labor Day weekend.

As soon as you park up or get off the shuttle you’ll already have seen the Exit Glacier Nature Center. Many people choose to pop in here first to learn about the icefield and glaciers, and to get a grasp of the area’s history. There’s also the Alaska Geographic bookstore that you can check out!

The one thing you’ll want to consider is the time of year you plan to do this hike. I came here at the end of September, and the Nature Center was already closed for the season so I couldn’t go in. However, all the information I needed was displayed outside of the center and there’s a visual map here too.

From the Nature Center, you’ll want to walk along the Glacier View Loop Trail which is found to the buildings left. This trail naturally flows into the Glacier Overlook Trail and if you continue you’ll come to a sign for the Harding Icefield Trailhead. You’ll reach this sign after around 0.3 miles!

Exit Glacier

Hiking to Marmot Meadows

  • LENGTH: 1.3 miles (2.1 km) from the trailhead – it will be further from the parking lot
  • ELEVATION GAIN: 1,200 ft
  • ACCESSIBILITY: The Harding Icefield is very strenuous and steep in parts with uneven terrain

The first section of the Harding Icefield Trail will take you up to Marmot Meadows. From the trailhead sign, you’ll hike through bush and trees for around a mile before the area starts to open up.

As you head path the ‘Birth Canal’ part of the hike, the trail becomes narrow and rocky so you’ll want to watch your footing. However, after you’ve got past this part you’ll be greeted with your first view of the Exit Glacier.

Not far from this point you’ll come to Marmot Meadows, which gets its name from the Hoary marmots that can sometimes be spotted here! From here, you’ll get another stunning view of Exit Glacier and the valley below which makes it the perfect rest stop.

With an elevation of 1,200 ft over a short period of time, you don’t get an ‘easy start’ to the Harding Icefield Trail. If you wish to turn back to the Nature Center then this is a good place to do it!

As you continue along the main trail you’ll see an unmarked trail that heads to the left of the signpost. This trail will take you down to the Exit Glacier and is primarily used by tour operators for ice hiking excursions. Ignore this trail and continue on towards the ‘Top of the Cliffs’.

If you’re up for a glacier ice hiking adventure then this fantastic tour will take you up on the Exit Glacier. It costs around $200 per person, takes an average of 8 hours, and includes professional guides and all the gear that you’ll need for the hike. You can check its availability here!

PRO-TIP: The weather is very unpredictable and can change quickly so make sure you wear plenty of layers and pack warm clothes!

Harding Icefield trail

Hiking to the top of the Cliffs

  • LENGTH: 2.4 miles (3.9 km) from the trailhead – it will be further from the parking lot
  • ELEVATION GAIN: 2,050 ft
  • ACCESSIBILITY: The Harding Icefield is very strenuous and steep in parts with uneven terrain

After spending some time at Marmot Meadows and having a rest, you’ll continue along the Harding Icefield Trail. After around 0.5 miles you’ll reach several switchbacks that you’ll have to traverse although you’ll get some fantastic views along the way.

This part of the trail is a lot more open and the switchbacks don’t last for very long! Once you’ve made it past this section you’ll come to the viewpoint which is 100% worth the exertion.

There’s no sign for it but you’ll be treated to breathtaking views of the Harding Icefield and the Exit Glacier so it’s impossible to miss. This makes it a great place to catch your breath and have a snack!

Before you start this hike you’ll want to check the conditions of the trail because past this point some of it becomes impassable due to snow. You can check in with the ranger at Exit Glacier Nature Center before you start to give you an idea!

Many people choose to head back once they’ve reached the ‘Top of the Cliffs’ viewpoint as you’ll naturally be feeling pretty tired by this point. However, if you’ve got it in you then I definitely recommend continuing to the end of the trail!

After all, you’re over halfway to the end by this point… (not including the return journey of course).

This is me pointing to the start point of the Harding Icefield hiking up to this point...
This is me pointing to the start point of the Harding Icefield hiking up to this point…

Hiking to the Harding Icefield: End of the Trail

LENGTH: 4.1 miles (6.6 km) from the trailhead – it will be further from the parking lot
ELEVATION GAIN: 3,200 ft
ACCESSIBILITY: The Harding Icefield is very strenuous and steep in parts with uneven terrain

As you continue hiking along the Harding Icefield Trail you’ll still be ascending but the trail isn’t as steep after the ‘Top of the Cliffs’ viewpoint. In fact, it actually flattens out for a while which will be a welcome relief – trust me!

There will be a couple of more ascents in front of you but these are all relatively moderate, and you’ll even be treated to some downhill stretches too. Depending on the time of year you do this hike, you’ll need to be cautious as there’s likely to be plenty of snow in this area.

Just take your time and if you’re lucky you might even get to spot a marmot of two for your efforts. Continue steadily along, and you’ll eventually see the emergency shelter that will give you a good indication of how much further you’ve got to hike.

This shelter is located near the end of the Harding Icefield Trail and just beyond that, you’ll come to your reward… Breathtaking views of the Harding Icefield! After all your exertion, make sure you take some time at the top to simply relax and admire the spectacular landscapes right in front of you.

You will be rewarded with breathtaking views from the top – I literally lost my breath, just like only a few times in my life, by just trying to take the views from being on top of a giant ice field!

Make sure you find the – tiny little – sign that says “Top of the Harding Icefield Tail”. I had to look for a while until I finally find it.

PRO-TIP: Keep in mind that the Harding Icefield can be a very challenging marked trail. At some points of your hike, you may lose track of your trail – especially if you are hiking on snow terrain – in order to not get lost (like I did a few times) make sure you follow the orange flags to ensure that you stay on the designated trail. Don’t follow the path on the snow made by other hikers as you may sink into the snow (like I did)!

Camping at Harding Icefield

The Harding Icefield Trail can be done as a full-day hike and many people choose to complete it this way. However, if you’d prefer to take your time and camp then you absolutely can!

Camping is permitted in this area but there are a few rules you need to adhere to!

For starters, you’ll need to camp at least 1/8 mile from the main trail so you aren’t getting in people’s way. You also have to set up your tent on bare rock or snow so you aren’t damaging the environment.

The other thing to note here is that it’s not permitted to camp at the Emergency Center which is found at the top of the trail! If you do choose to camp then make sure you follow the principles of “Leave No Trace” and be a responsible traveler!

Where to Stay in Seward, AK

If you’re planning to visit and hike the Harding Icefield Trail then the best place to stay is in Seward! There are plenty of great accommodation options here for every taste and budget, and here are my top recommendations:

Photo courtesy: Booking.com

TOP OVERALL PICK: Bear Lake Lodgings B&B

Rated: 9.7 Exceptional

This B&B is one of the best situated and most scenic in Seward. It boasts spectacular views of the lake. With a fantastic breakfast available, and a terrace to relax after a full day of activity such as fishing, hiking, and canoeing.


BEST COASTAL STAY: Resurrection Lodge on the Bay

Rated: 9.4 Superb

This stunning lodge faces the beachfront in Seward and mountain and glacier views, making it a perfect stay if you want to connect with nature. The rooms are very comfortable, and if you are lucky, you can see humpback whales from the deck.


BEST BUDGET: Seward Adventure Lodge

Rated: 9.5 Exceptional

If you are looking for a great place to stay that fits your budget, you will love this lodge. It is spotlessly clean, nice, modern, and in a great location. Quiet, but right in town close to attractions and restaurants


MOST UNIQUE: Tiny Home

Rated: 10 Exceptional

If you are looking for an entire place to stay in Seward, this tiny home is the best option for you. This adorable house is in an excellent location and offers a fully equipped kitchen, making it an ideal place to enjoy the mountain views for a memorable stay.


Read More: The Ultimate Alaska Road Trip Itinerary

What to wear for your Harding Icefield trail

It will depend on what time of the year you’re going to hike the Harding Icefield trail. Either way,

  • you’ll want to wear comfortable clothes and layers – I love to wear Merino for layers
  • Make sure you have a warm jacket
  • Hat, buff, and gloves
  • I recommend wearing good-quality hiking leggings
  • Sturdy hiking shoes/ boots
  • Carry a comfortable day pack
  • Water bottle with at least 2 liters
  • Pack some high-energy food for hiking
  • Bear Spray

If you’re visiting during summertime, you’ll want to carry sunblock and a hat with you as there’s limited shade along some areas of the trail.

For a full list of what to pack in Alaska check this detailed guide, plus get a FREE Printable Packing List for Alaska to make your plans easy.

CLICK HERE: Packing List for Alaska + FREE Printable

Safety Tips before you go hike Harding Icefield

SIGN THE BOOK: You will find a sign-in book at the beginning of the hike, where you are encouraged to sign in your name and add your contact information, in case anything happens.
BRING WATER: Bring plenty of water with you, and keep sipping your water during your hiking, even if you are not thirsty. It’s very important to keep hydrated during any outdoor activities, it doesn’t matter if it is summer or wintertime.
BRING FOOD: Before you start the Harding Icefield Trail you’ll need to make sure that you’ve got plenty of food with you! The trail can take between 6-8 hours and requires a lot of exertion as it’s extremely challenging. You might want to stock up on some electrolytes too!
SAFETY AT THE GLACIERS: If you want to experience the glacier from a closer distance, and/or go hiking or ice climbing the glaciers you must hire an experienced guide. Glaciers are very dangerous, with hidden crevasses and shifting ice.
BE BEAR AWARE: Don’t forget that you are in the wild and animals live here. Carry bear spray with you, talk loudly and never surprise a bear. Just the day I was hiking the Harding Icefield, we had a report of a solo hiker who was surprised by a black bear only 10 ft from her.
WATCH YOUR STEPS: You will notice that at the beginning of the trail, next to the signs and sign-up spot, some bushes on the ground. It is recommended to brush off your boots before heading out on the trail to help stop the spread of non-native plants. A small effort on all of our parts makes a bit of a difference in keeping the Harding Icefield pristine.
best hikes in Alaska

Harding Icefield Hike Conclusion

If you’re visiting Alaska then I strongly recommend that you add the Harding Icefield Trail to your itinerary! Although it’s a challenging hike for sure, the views that you’ll be rewarded with are unparalleled.

Unlike the Exit Glacier Hike, this trail isn’t suitable for everyone as it’s incredibly strenuous. However, if you don’t mind the exertion I can guarantee that this will be one of the best experiences you’ll have in Alaska.

Not only will you get incredible views of the Harding Icefield and Exit Glacier, but you’ve also got a chance of spotting wildlife along the way. Just make sure you keep the bear spray on hand as bears are known to frequent this trail.

If you have any further questions, leave a comment below!

Have you visited Alaska before? What was your favorite thing in Alaska?

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