Distil the essence of coastal Alaska into one place—wild, dynamic, and scenic, rich with the signatures of glaciers, light with the marks of people, unforgiving in stormy seas, unforgettable in warm sunshine—and you have the 607,000 acres Kenai Fjords, the smallest national park in Alaska. Here the south-central part of the state tumbles into the Gulf of Alaska; here the land challenges the sea with talonlike peninsulas and rocky headlands, while the sea itself reaches inland with long fjords and hundreds of quiet bays and coves. The Harding Icefield is the park’s crown jewel, almost 714 square miles of ice up to a mile thick. It feeds nearly three dozen glaciers flowing out of the mountains, six of them to tidewater. The Harding Icefield is a vestige of the massive ice sheet that covered much of Alaska in the Pleistocene era. The ancient ice gouged out Kenai’s fjords, creating habitats for throngs of sea animals. About 20 species of seabirds nest along the rocky coastline; the most charismatic of the birds are clown-faced puffins. Bald eagles swoop along the towering cliffs, and peregrine falcons hunt over the outer islands. Seabirds, by the tens of thousands, migrate or congregate here. Approximately 27 land mammals and 10 marine mammals, including harbour seals, Steller sea lions, and sea otters, live here. Moose, black bears, wolverines, and coyotes roam narrow bands of forest between the coast and icefield. And just above them, on the treeless slopes, climb surefooted mountain goats.
Seward is the gateway to Kenai Fjords. To get to Seward, take the Seward Highway (Alas. 9) south from Anchorage. The 130-mile drive is spectacular. Buses and small commuter planes also connect Anchorage and Seward. You can also charter a flight from Seward or Homer directly to the park. In summer, the Alaska Railroad serves Seward from Anchorage (with connections to Fairbanks and Whittier). The days lengthen; the seas calm down. The road to Exit Glacier generally opens in May and closes with the first snowfall, usually in October. Many winter visitors ski the road into Exit Glacier or snowmobile in. Flight-seeing trips can be arranged in Seward any time of the year, subject to weather.
For recommendations on getting around the park, visit the Kenai Fjords National Park Information Centre near the small boat harbour. The most popular and accessible area in the park is Exit Glacier, 13 miles northwest of Seward. You can drive to it or take a tour bus. Trails offer half-hour hikes to the glacier and a full-day roundtrip hike to the Harding Icefield. Otherwise, hiking is a matter of exploring wilderness shores and ridges accessible only by boat and plane. From mid-May to late September, daily tour boats from Seward offer round-trip half-day and full-day excursions to the fjords and outlying islands. Charter boats take kayakers and campers to any fjord they wish (most often Aialik Bay) and pick them up the same day or days later. Kayaking, fishing, and backpacking guides are available. Ask the park for a list. From Seward or Homer, you can book a breath-taking one-hour flight over the Harding Icefield and Kenai coast. For extended adventures, skip-lanes drop off and pick up skiers on the icefield, and floatplanes do the same for kayakers in the fjords, weather permitting. Kenai Fjords National Park has a name that comes from two very different places: Kenai is adapted from the name of the Athabaskan indigenous group that historically lived in the area, and the fjord is an Old Norse word for a long, glacier-carved inlet. It was established on December 2, 1980. Credit: National Geographic Society.