When it comes to boast-worthy scenery, it seems hard to compete with Norway. Yet while Norway gave us the word “fjord” and has more of these stunning inlets flanked by towering mountains or cliffs than anyone else, you might be surprised to know we have a few of these topographical treasures right in the US.
Kenai Fjords National Park is one of the most beautiful and geographically unique national parks in Alaska. It might take more time and effort than a day trip to visit this remote part of the country, but it’s actually just a 2.5-hour drive from Anchorage, the state’s largest city. The park is basically a US version of the Arctic landscape, with glaciers, icefields, wildlife like seals and bears, and plenty of opportunity for adventure on the water. Alaska might not be in your backyard, but it’s certainly closer than Norway. Here’s how to get the most out of a trip to Alaska’s Kenai Fjords.
Take in the wildlife
You know that motivational poster of the brown bear catching a salmon in a raging river? That might as well be the welcome sign for Kenai Fjords. The area is famous for its wildlife, particularly its black and brown bears, sea otters, whales, and birds. Bears can frequently be found fishing and hunting around the park’s coastline — which is bad news for the fish — and there are over 191 species of birds in the park, including bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and even puffins. The waters are full of sea otters and sea lions — often visible right in Seward Harbor — and orca, fin, gray, humpback, minke, and sei whales also call the park home throughout the year.
The best way to see the most wildlife in Kenai Fjords is by boat. Sightseeing tour boats will usually bring you up close and personal with whales, seals, sea lions, and, if you’re lucky, bald eagles. There’s even a special half-day wildlife cruise that departs from Seward Harbor and explores nearby Resurrection Bay, where you’ll see not only an abundance of birds and marine life, as well as mountain goats on the slopes above, but also the area’s rugged glacial geography. To see puffins, your best bet is probably visiting the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, unless you want to venture out to the less-accessible Beehive Island.
If a bear encounter is on your bucket list (socially distanced, of course), you can take a guided tour. From fly-in day trips to overnight camping in the brown bears’ natural habitat, these tours will get you closer to Alaska’s most famous predator than you bargained for.
Marvel at majestic glaciers
Just as Norway doesn’t have a monopoly on fjords, Iceland isn’t the only place with epic glaciers. There are over 40 glaciers in Kenai Fjords National Park, sloping down to the Harding Icefield before emptying into the ocean. Kenai’s glaciers are a mix of tidewater and alpine glaciers. Tidewater glaciers flow from land to sea and then terminate below the water’s surface, while alpine glaciers form in mountain basins, from which snow and ice build and expand down the mountain.
The park’s most famous and dramatic glacier is Exit Glacier, an alpine glacier just a 15-minute drive from Seward. Despite its imposing form, it’s actually relatively easy to hike. A network of well-maintained trails extend from the visitor center to the toe of the glacier, and the Glacier Overlook Trail climbs up to an overlook where you’ll get a view of the glacier itself. Along the way, you’ll find interpretive signs with information about the surrounding plant life, and there’s even a self-guided audio tour on the Alaska App for those interested.
For a slightly more arduous hiking experience, check out the Harding Icefield Trail, an 8.2-mile round trip trail that parallels the glacier’s northern edge. The icefield is a 700-square-mile remnant of the ice mass that once covered half of Alaska; from the icefield, glaciers pour down into the ocean, creating fjords and icebergs. The trail is a difficult 1,000-foot ascent, but it will reward you with incredible views of the glaciers and mountains. To really channel your inner mountaineer, you can take a guided hike on the glacier itself. This more technical hike includes scaling ice walls and navigating crevasses and moulins (deep holes in the ice).
Get out on the water
Perhaps the best part about Kenai Fjords is that you don’t actually have to exert physical effort to enjoy it. Expert hiking ability might sound like a prerequisite for enjoying a national park in Alaska, but despite what the mountaineers would say, taking a leisurely boat tour might be the best way to see Kenai Fjords. Tours departing from Seward’s harbor will guide you through the fjords and glaciers of Resurrection Bay and the Gulf of Alaska, and it might be the best way to appreciate the surrounding mountain views. While there is a range of different cruises offered, wildlife tours are among the most popular. These cruises will allow you to see puffins, orcas, gray whales, sea lions, sea otters, harbor seals, and a variety of marine birds including bald eagles. Other cruises focus on the more remote, inaccessible areas of the park, exploring the fjords and tidewater glaciers.
A more adventurous way of exploring the park’s waters would be to rent your own kayak. It’s not for the inexperienced or faint of heart, however, as the waters of the Gulf of Alaska are rough, there are very few protected coves, and wind and rain can often be excessive. If you’re up to the challenge, though, you can rent a kayak in Seward and venture to Resurrection Bay, Caines Head, and Thumb Cove, which is known for its camping and rock climbing. Indeed, if you’re set on exploring much of the park by kayak, you might want to consider camping overnight at various locations along the shoreline. Make sure to read the National Park Service guidelines before choosing a camping spot.
For inexperienced kayakers who still want to get out on the water, it’s safest to take a guided kayak or paddleboard tour. These excursions, ranging from half-day to multi-day in length, will take you close to glaciers and hopefully even a few whales, all with the aid of an experienced guide.
Explore the town of Seward
Seward, a town of just under 3,000 residents, is the perfect base for your adventures through one of the most unique national parks in Alaska. But whether you’re taking a day off from glacier hiking or simply returning to the hotel at night, Seward itself has plenty to keep you busy. One of the town’s main attractions is the SeaLife Center, a nonprofit research institution and public aquarium. Here, you’ll be able to see creatures that may have eluded you in the wild, like puffins, sea lions, harbor seals, and giant Pacific octopuses. You can also take an animal encounters tour that allows you to feed the marine life and get closer than you ever could in the wild.
You don’t have to hike a glacier for epic sightseeing, either. Seward’s waterfront park, which extends from the small boat harbor to the SeaLife Center, contains tent and RV camping, a picnic area, beach access, and a trail with historical landmarks. From the waterfront, and especially the hiking trail, you’ll have views of the mountains across the bay and the harbor where boats sail in and out all day. One of the most notable trail markers is Mile 0 of the Historic Iditarod Trail where the first-ever Iditarod race was held.
Southern Alaska might not strike you as an artistic hub, but the Last Frontier impresses in more than just nature. Seward is called the “Mural Capital of Alaska” for a reason. In 1999 a group of local artists came together to paint murals on panels of the high school gym floor. Since then, the group has grown from a spontaneous collection of volunteers to a society of dedicated muralists. The Mural Society’s goal is to bring life to Seward’s historical characters and events and celebrate Alaska’s beauty through art. Now you can take a walking tour and visit over 20 colorful murals.
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