World’s best day hike – Harding Icefield Trail – Alaska

Alaska is an American State hard to beat. It’s one of the worlds remaining bastions of designated wilderness areas, there are more bears than people and incredible views are served up by the bucket load. Then in walks the Harding Icefield trail.

It is also a hikers paradise and it doesn’t take long after leaving Anchorage to be surrounded by cascading glaciers, wildlife ambling along trails and meadows woven with wild flowers. The 8.2-mile out-and-back hike up to the Harding Icefield is a spectacular day out and apart from a few sore knees, is worth every step.

The Harding Icefield Trail

The walk beside Exit Glacier to the Harding Icefield is easily my favourite day hike. Why? Because unlike many trails where the reward comes at the top, this trail is the gift that just keeps on giving. Although the initial portion is steep and challenging, it becomes easier later or perhaps the views just become more distracting.

What makes this trail so awesome? On one side are the electric blue crevasses and moraines of Exit Glacier, the other side is blanketed with wild-flowers, ambling bears and marmots, plus views over Kenai Fjords National Park. The good portion of the trail is above tree line so vistas cascade further out, until reaching the top when the immense Harding Icefield almost fills the entire view.

Harding Icefield Trail Description
This 8.2 mile trail is quite strenuous and you’ll gain approximately 1,000 feet over every mile. It begins on a paved surface along the valley floor, meandering through alder and cottonwood forest. Very quickly the path climbs through the forest and ultimately ends up well above tree line to a spectacular (yes I did use that word) view of the icefield. In my opinion, the initial hike is the toughest part so stick with it. The peak of the trail is uninterrupted views of the Harding Icefield which gives you a glimpse back in time to the ice ages. It is also the perfect place to stop for lunch (on a good weather day).

Allow 6-7 hours for the return hike and lunch stop, but different weather will alter your experience dramatically so plan accordingly. You return along the same trail so if the weather is rubbish, just hike as far as you feel you need to.

The higher elevations of the trail are regularly snow-covered through late June/early July with avalanche hazards noted previously. Be prepared for strong winds, possible storms, intense sunlight and extreme temperature changes. Be prepared with layers, rain clothes (top and bottom), sunscreen, sunglasses and plenty of water. You can use iodine from the streams if you really want but it’s probably easier to just carry enough for the day. No dogs are allowed on the trail and there are no bins along the trail, so rubbish needs to be taken back out with you.

Camping along the trail
If you’re a fan of camping then you’re in luck. You can set up camp along the trail however, you must pitch no nearer than 1/8 mile from the trail, on bare rock or snow. There is an emergency hut towards the top but you cannot camp inside. The usual precautions regarding bears and keeping food and smelly toiletries in your tent apply.

The simple bear necessities
This is bear country and they can run faster than you, but very rarely at you. Make lots of noise, especially when you’re turning corners. Bears caught feeding on salmonberries tend to be more surprised by humans, and will only attack if they feel threatened so let them know you’re coming and they’ll typically move to of your way. Be respectful of their space as you’re in their playground.

Top tips
Every Saturday throughout July and August, ranger-guided hikes depart from the ranger station at 9.00am and you don’t need to pre-book. If you want company or to learn about flora and fauna, these are the people for you. Keep in mind that alpine plant life is fragile so making your trail causes erosion.

Fancy reading a few more of my blogs about Alaska? Well then, it’s your lucky day!
The Alaskan Wilderness – Getting back to Nature
Alaskan Midnight Sun – 24 hours of Daylight
Alaska – A Smack of Jellyfish

Happy hiking folks.

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2 Comments

  1. October 29, 2017 / 12:58 pm

    Hi ,Iain! This is an amazing article! You`re a great writer and you really brought a magic of this hike to a reader. I hope more people will feel motivated to go on this trail. These breathtaking photos will surely help the inspiration flowing. I was wondering, in your opinion, how much one needs to be physicaly prepared before going on this hike?

    • October 29, 2017 / 7:19 pm

      Thanks buddy. This hikes certainly ticked a lot of boxes for me 🙂 When I hiked this trail, I was with a group of people who were fit but I wouldn’t say we’re physically prepared. It starts off really tough but gets easier. I had done no training and I was fine, although with inclement weather, I imagine it is a different hike altogether. Thanks for reading.

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