Are you looking for an adventure to add to your Alaskan itinerary? How about ice climbing on the Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park?
This experience, from start to finish, is a blast. The day starts off with a short but tough hike up a portion of the Harding Icefield Trail. Once at the Exit Glacier, you will put on a harness and helmet, strap on some crampons, and head off onto the glacier.
For the next few hours, you will hike on the glacier, get a lesson on ice climbing (if you are a newbie, like we were), and then test out your new skills on the ice.
This excursion is perfect for those who are active and adventurous. You will rappel into deep, blue crevasses, feel a sense of achievement as you climb back up onto the glacier, and all the while, enjoy magnificent views of the Exit Glacier and Kenai Fjords National Park.
This excursion is also great for those with zero experience ice climbing. We have hiked on a glacier a few times, but never climbed one, so we were brand new to ice climbing when we did this. Let me tell you, it’s exhilarating!
Ice climbing on the Exit Glacier is lots of fun, but it is a long, tiring day, so a good level of physical fitness is needed. And there are age minimums, which we cover later in this guide, so if you would like to do this with kids, this is something to be aware of.
We have a lot to cover, so let’s get started.
What is the Exit Glacier?
The Exit Glacier is the most accessible glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park, since it is the only glacier you can get to by car. This glacier is located at the end of Herman Leirer Road (aka Exit Glacier Road), the only road in Kenai Fjords National Park.
To get to the other glaciers in the park, you have to take a boat or helicopter.
The Harding Icefield, which is one of the largest icefields in the United States, is what “feeds” the Exit Glacier. If you look at photos of the Exit Glacier, you can see the Harding Icefield at the very top of the glacier.
Exit Glacier gets its name from a 1968 expedition that crossed the Harding Icefield. This glacier was the exit point at the end of this expedition, hence the name.
Things to Do on the Exit Glacier
In Kenai Fjords National Park, there are several trails that offer great views of the Exit Glacier and its terminal moraine. These are short, easy hikes that start at the Exit Glacier Nature Center, at the end of Herman Leirer Road, and take about an hour or two of your time.
The Glacier Overlook Loop Trail (taken on a different day than our ice climbing tour).
You can also hike the Harding Icefield Trail to a spectacular viewpoint of the Harding Icefield. This is a long, tough day hike, but along most of the journey, you also have great views of the Exit Glacier.
If you want to step onto the glacier, you should do so with an experienced guide. Glaciers are dangerous, with hidden crevasses and shifting ice, and it can even be dangerous to just hike on the terminal moraine. So, if you are hiking the paths around the Exit Glacier, stay on the trails and do not hike to the glacier or the moraine.
With a guide, you can either go glacier hiking or you can go ice climbing. In this guide, we focus on ice climbing.
Companies that Offer Ice Climbing of the Exit Glacier
We chose Exit Glacier Guides for their impeccable reviews. Not only do they offer a fun, memorable experience, but they also place a big emphasis on safety.
We took the Exit Glacier ice climbing trip. It costs $219 per person, takes about 10 hours, and has a maximum group size of 6 people. The cost includes transportation to and from the Exit Glacier, two guides, the technical climbing gear, and lunch. The minimum age is 15 years.
Ice Climbing on the Exit Glacier from Start to Finish
Next we cover what to expect while ice climbing on the Exit Glacier, from start to finish. This is based on our experience with Exit Glacier Guides.
Check-in with Exit Glacier Guides
At 8 am, we checked in at the Exit Glacier Guide office, which is located in Seward. It took about an hour to get fit with crampons, boots, and harnesses, and get our things ready for the day. During this time, we met our guides, Tatum and Liv, who both were young, super friendly, and a blast to talk to. Immediately, we knew it would be a great day.
For this excursion, it was the four of us and a mother daughter group.
Around 9 am we piled into their shuttle van and were driven to Kenai Fjords National Park (about a 15 minute drive).
Hiking the Harding Icefield Trail
Once inside Kenai Fjords National Park, we had one last chance to use the restroom. There are no toilets along the trail or on the Exit Glacier.
To get to the Exit Glacier, you have to hike to it. This hike is not very long, but it’s mostly uphill, so a good level of physical fitness is necessary. You also need to make sure you have enough energy and fitness to hike on the glacier, go ice climbing, and then hike back to the shuttle.
You will also be hiking with a backpack that contains your climbing gear, extra layers, water, and food for the day.
Below are the stats for hiking the Harding Icefield Trail one-way, to get to the Exit Glacier.
Distance: 2 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,400 feet
Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous
Time: 1.5 hours
The trail starts off easy…it’s flat and paved…but this doesn’t last long.
Once on the Harding Icefield Trail, the trail starts its climb. It’s unrelentless, with very little flat or downhill sections, so be prepared for a constant, uphill hike. You will also be hiking up and over boulders and rocks on the trail.
About every 20 to 30 minutes, your guides will pause to give you a break and to enjoy the view. The higher you go, the better the views get of Kenai Fjords National Park.
View from the trail.
The Harding Icefield Trail.
Another view from the trail.
Once at Marmot Meadows, you leave the Harding Icefield Trail. At this point, you will follow your guides on a slightly sketchy trail, through brush and forest, towards the Exit Glacier. Now, it’s a mostly downhill hike, and once out of the trees, the view is awesome. Soon, you will be hiking on that glacier!
Once you make it to the Exit Glacier, you get a quick break. This is the point where you get to sit down and get geared up. The temperature will also be a lot cooler here, now that you are next to the glacier.
PRO TRAVEL TIP: I recommend bringing lots of layers. You can really work up a sweat on the hike to the glacier, so a short-sleeved shirt makes a great base layer. But once on the glacier, it can be very cold, so you will also need several more layers, as well as hats and gloves, to stay warm. We have lots of suggestions on what to wear in the What to Bring section of this guide.
Hiking on the Exit Glacier
It takes between 15 and 30 minutes to put on your extra layers, harness, helmet, boots, and crampons. Make sure you put on all of your layers now, because it is much harder to do so later, once you are wearing your harness.
We wore either a short or long-sleeved shirt, a heavy sweatshirt or fleece, and a rain jacket. We also wore gloves and a hat. Even with all of these layers, there were times when we were chilly, once on the glacier.
The guide to hiker ratio is low (1:3), but there will be times when you will be standing and waiting for your turn to ice climb, and this is when your body temperature will cool down.
After a quick lesson on how to walk with crampons, we hiked to our spot for ice climbing lessons.
Ice Climbing Lessons
This was our first experience ice climbing, but it definitely won’t be our last! Ice climbing is tons of fun…and to be lowered into crevasses and then climb your way out of them is a very unique experience.
But first, we had to learn the basics.
On a gentle slope of the glacier, Tatum and Liv demonstrated how to ice climb. It takes some strength and coordination, to whack the ice axes into the wall, drive the crampons into the ice, and work your way upwards. They made it look very easy!
With some practice, we all got the hang of it. Then it was time to hike up higher onto the glacier, where our guides scouted out our first real ice climbing crevasse.
Tyler’s first time ice climbing.
Tim ice climbing.
We spent roughly 3 hours on the Exit Glacier, hiking to cool viewpoints of crevasses and moulins, as well as ice climbing. During this time, we hiked three separate crevasses, each one harder than the one before it.
Once at a crevasse, Tatum and Liv would set up the ropes. Then we would each take turns ice climbing.
Tatum and Liv setting up the ropes at our first crevasse.
Rappelling into the crevasse was the hardest part. To step over the edge of the glacier and rappel into the crevasse is a bit unnerving. But once down there…wow. The blue ice is so vibrant and clear. And to look through the crevasse, out to the snow-capped mountains of Alaska was amazing!
View from inside the crevasse.
Climbing out of the crevasses was a lot harder than the easy climbing wall we started on. The blue ice is very dense, and takes some strength, and a good technique with the ice ax, to get it to hold in the ice. I was sore for days after doing this.
Once Tyler and Kara got a hang of it, they raced each other. Kara was the winner, but I think her years of rock climbing gave her an advantage.
Here are photos of the four of us ice climbing.
Kara just before rappelling into the crevasse.
Tyler rappelling into the crevasse.
Kara and Tyler racing up the wall.
Tim ice climbing
Kara looks pretty thrilled to be holding those ice axes, don’t you think?
Tim and Tatum
View from the Exit Glacier.
Another view from the Exit Glacier.
At the end of the three hours on the Exit Glacier, we hiked off the glacier, removed our gear, and repacked our things into our backpacks.
Completing the Tour
From the Exit Glacier, it’s a short climb up to Marmot Meadows and then a mostly downhill hike back to the parking lot. This hike goes faster, now that you are hiking downhill.
From the parking lot, we hopped back into the shuttle and 15 minutes later we were back at the Exit Glacier Guides office in Seward. By now, it was 6 pm. That’s about a 10 hour day. It’s a long day but it is awesome, and it just might be one of your most memorable days in Alaska.
About Our Experience
We did this on July 6, 2021.
The high temperature in Seward on this day was 58° Fahrenheit. Rain was in the forecast, but fortunately, at the Exit Glacier, it did not rain. In fact, the skies cleared up, which you can see in our photos.
Our guides told us that the weather tends to be clearer over the Exit Glacier than in Seward. So, if rain is in the forecast, do not despair. Hopefully you will get lucky like we did.
How Fit Do You Need to Be?
Over the course of the day, you will hike about 4.5 miles with 1,400 feet of elevation gain and loss. On the glacier, you will hike up and down hills with crampons. It takes a bit more energy, since you will be walking differently and using muscles that you normally don’t use as much while walking or hiking.
It takes a bit of strength to use the ice axes and to kick the crampons into the wall. My forearms and shoulders were sore for the next day or two, and I wasn’t the only one in my family complaining of this.
If you can hike 5 miles while wearing a backpack, you should be fine on this excursion.
Judging by the others in our group, the hardest parts were hiking the Harding Icefield Trail and the more advanced climbing walls.
What to Bring
It is much colder on the glacier than it is in Seward or on the Harding Icefield Trail. You can wear a short-sleeved shirt on the hike but you will need lots of layers to stay warm once you are on the Exit Glacier.
- Lots of layers: both a short and long-sleeved shirt, a fleece or sweatshirt, and a jacket.
- Long pants: Kara and I wore thick, water resistant pants. Tim and Tyler wore rain proof pants over their hiking pants.
- Two pairs of socks
- Hat and gloves
- Hiking shoes or boots
- Insect repellent
- Sunglasses: These are a must!
- At least 1 liter of water. You can refill your water bottle on the glacier or have the guides top off your water.
- Camera and/or GoPro
- Hiking poles: if you prefer to use your own. Otherwise, they are provided by the tour company.
Exit Glacier Guides provides a backpack, crampons, hiking poles, helmet, climbing boots, harness, and lunch.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is Ice Climbing on the Exit Glacier Worth It?
Yes. We had a lot of great experiences in Alaska, and this was one of the best.
In Kenai Fjords National Park, we also hiked the Harding Icefield Trail, took a cruise to the Northwestern Fjord, and went kayaking in front of Aialik Glacier. We all unanimously agree that this was our favorite experience in Kenai Fjords National Park, although Tim and I also really liked the Northwestern Fjord Cruise.
When is the Best Time to Ice Climb on the Exit Glacier?
Ice climbing tours typically are offered from early June through early September.
Can I also Hike to the end of the Harding Icefield Trail on the same day?
This is something that we strongly considered doing.
On this ice climbing tour, you hike halfway up the Harding Icefield Trail to get to the Exit Glacier. Once finished hiking on the glacier, why not hike the other 2 miles to the top of the trail, for an awesome view of the Harding Icefield?
We planned to do this and then changed our minds for several reasons.
The hike to Marmot Meadows + ice climbing is a long, strenuous day. By the time we started hiking back to the parking lot, it was 4:45 pm. That’s late in the day to hike the rest of the way up the Harding Icefield Trail, especially after everything we had done. Plus, we would have to hike with all of our layers and climbing gear, which is quite heavy.
Hiking to the end of the Harding Icefield Trail adds another 4 miles (out-and-back) and 2,000 feet of elevation gain to the day.
Still, it is doable. You will need to get approval from the tour company to return the gear the following day. Plus, you will need to drive your own vehicle to Kenai Fjords National Park, bring extra water and food, and bear spray.
LEARN MORE: How to Hike the Harding Icefield Trail
If you have any questions about ice climbing on the Exit Glacier, or if you want to share your experience, let us know in the comment section below.
More Information about Alaska
KENAI FJORDS NATIONAL PARK: Check out our Kenai Fjords National Park Travel Guide for important travel planning tips, sample itineraries, advice on when to go, where to stay, and more.
BEST OF KENAI FJORDS: Top things to do include hiking the Harding Icefield Trail and cruising the Northwestern Fjord. For the full list, read our article best things to do in Kenai Fjords National Park.
ALASKA ITINERARY: Take the guesswork out of planning your trip to Alaska with our Alaska road trip itineraries.
DRIVING IN ALASKA: The Seward Highway connects Anchorage and Seward is one of the most popular scenic drives in Alaska. We also have a detailed guide to driving from Anchorage to Valdez, yet another amazing road trip.
KATMAI NATIONAL PARK: In our article Best Things to Do in Katmai, we cover the top experiences in the park.
NATIONAL PARKS: In our Guide to the US National Parks, get the full list of national parks with important travel planning information, such as things to do in the parks and sample itineraries.
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