It's worth the work to hike up to the other-worldly Harding Icefield in south-central Alaska.
KENAI FJORDS NATIONAL PARK, Alaska — The first thing I noticed was the feeling of an ice-cream headache. It meant we were getting close.
But the chill off the massive Harding Icefield and wind funneled through the surrounding mountains was part reward for the sweat-inducing hike to get there, and part reminder that we were entering a foreign landscape.
To many travelers, Alaska represents adventure. And in Kenai Fjords National Park in south-central Alaska we climbed rocks, hop-scotched across boulder fields and creek beds and traversed snow and ice to get to the glaciers.
The highlight of the trip for me was the park’s Harding Icefield, which I’d read about from other backpackers online and was determined to experience. Hiking up with a friend, we met hikers who turned back early, unable to keep going but who felt rewarded by what they did take in of the valley views and ice in the distance. Those that did make it all the way raved about it. “It’s worth it,” one woman said, smiling.
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Getting to Harding Icefield takes some doing. It’s nearly an 8-mile round-trip hike, one the National Park Service brands strenuous because it gains about 1,000 feet of elevation for each mile. Some stretches are fairly steep but the trail is in excellent condition, which helps with footing.
The change in elevation also brings dramatic changes in scenery.
Starting out, the surroundings were lush, vivid-green vegetation, with a fair share of pesky bugs in the late summer when we did our hike. Farther up, there were flower-filled meadows — I felt like Heidi traipsing up the trail. Then came much starker landscapes: alpine tundra, stretches of soft snow and barren brown rock leading to edge-of-nowhere cliffs. The cliffs overlooked the ice field and seemingly everything else — clouds, lakes, the valley, mountain peaks.
The only word that came to mind was other-worldly. I half-expected a pterodactyl or something else prehistoric to swoop down from one of the distant rocks. It was wonderfully desolate, stunningly quiet, except for the roar of falling water that we were able to hear in certain areas.
It was hard to leave — the payoff was so great — but the waning sunlight sent us on our way.