Length: 9.2 miles
Elevation gain: 3,200 feet
Route type: Out & Back
During my visit to Alaska in the summer of 2018, I was rather excited about a few things: bears, the Arctic Ocean, glaciers, and the Harding Icefield! Fortunately, I could knock out three of these goals in just 1 hike! The Harding Icefield is an area of ice encompassing roughly 700 square miles of land and ranges in thickness up to 4000+ feet deep! Pretty impressive numbers until you find nothing more than the peak of a mountain, called a nunatak, or lonely peak, barely sticking above the surrounding ice, then it really does hit you just what exactly it is you're experiencing. This giant field of ice is the starting place of more than 40 individual glaciers that spill between the mountains in all directions. The Harding Icefield trail takes you along Exit Glacier, one of the 40 glaciers flowing from the icefield. This trail passes through several very different ecosystems first starting in the valley rainforest below before ascending to lush meadows and finally above the tree line and into the tundra and icefield.
The trail is strenuous! On this trail, hikers will gain approximately 1,000 feet of elevation with every mile. The view from the top is well worth the effort and you will be treated to rewarding vistas and other ecological treasures along the entire trail. Even a short hike up the trail affords impressive views of the valley floor and Exit Glacier's terminus.
Be prepared! Check on trail conditions before starting out - the upper portion of the trail is often covered with snow through early July and there may be avalanche danger. Be prepared for storms, high winds, intense sunlight, and sudden temperature changes. Bring warm clothes, rain gear, sturdy footwear, sunglasses, and sunscreen. Carry plenty of water (at least 2 liters per person), or bring along a filter - untreated water from streams along the trail may contain Giardia, a parasite that can cause severe abdominal distress.
This is bear country! The vegetation along the trail is dense and passes through thickets of salmonberries, a favorite food of black bears. Black bears are spotted almost everyday from the Harding Icefield Trail. Take precautions and be aware of your surroundings at all times. Make noise when you hike to avoid surprising a bear. Be especially on the lookout for mother bears with cubs. You may see the cubs first, possibly up a tree, but the mother will be close by. Never get between a mother bear and her cubs.