When planning my trip for two nights in Alaska this past weekend I wanted to see something different. I’d been in Anchorage and on the Kenai Peninsula towards Seward before and I was looking for something new. Maybe Dutch Harbor, Fairbanks or Nome. Unfortunately the prices and schedules conspired against me on that front and I was stuck with a repeat of part of our trip from 7 years ago. Turns out that was just fine by me.
The natural beauty of Alaska is hard to put into words. Even the photos (most of which I think came out pretty well) fail to fully capture the color and size of the surroundings. Driving south on Highway 1 out of Anchorage the road parallels the water and the Alaska Rail Road tracks for about an hour. It is easily in the top five of scenic drives I’ve undertaken.
Throughout the drive there are turn-outs and parking lots available. Some are just oversized passing bays and others are full trail head facilities. Pretty much all of them have stunning vistas available. As I was traveling on my own and had no schedule to adhere to stopping whenever I wanted for more photos was completely acceptable. And I stopped a lot.
I was up early thanks to jet lag and some of the worst sleep apnea I’ve ever heard from a bunk mate in the hostel. Such is life. It gave me the opportunity to take in sunrise over the water. I’m nearly convinced that it was a worthwhile trade.
Heading further south the road splits, with one arm continuing on to Seward and the other arm heading west across the peninsula towards Soldotna, Kenai and Homer. One day I’ll make that western turn and see more of the region but Homer is a full two hours farther than Seward each direction and for a day trip that’s pretty rough. My destination for the day would be Seward and Exit Glacier.
Seward serves as the base camp for most visitors to the Kenai Fjords National Park as well as a major cruise ship port of call. There is a cute little downtown area about 5 blocks long and 3 blocks wide with diners, bars and bric-a-brac shops. It looks pretty much exactly like what a tourist outpost should be, with a rustic Alaskan feel to it. Some of the shops most certainly haven’t changed in 30-40 years and they fit in just fine.
The town doesn’t have a lot to recommend it beyond the convenient access to nature but that’s hardly a bad thing given just how amazing the surrounding nature is. With more time in the area a kayaking trip around the fjords is highly recommended. So is hiking the longer trail at Exit Glacier up to the ice field. We did both of those on our previous trip to the area and loved nearly every minute of it.
For this trip, however, I was only going to hike the shorter (and much flatter) path to the base of the glacier and the outflow area. The walk is paved for a decent chunk and is only about 2 miles round trip. The outflow area allows for access to the face of the glacier when water levels are low. They were nothing close to low during this visit. I made it out into the area a tiny bit but nowhere close to the face from that approach.
The shorter path also heads up to a viewing area quite close to the side of the glacier itself. Parts of the path in that area are roped off and parts are not. Either way, this is the easiest way to get up close with the glacier.
I’m not entirely sure if the path I took was off limits or not. There were some areas quite clearly roped off and marked and I didn’t cross those. But lacking direct markings and seeing some evidence of previous use of a "path" I was reasonably confident I was OK. Plus, I wanted the better views. That’s how I ended up standing on ice at the face of the glacier.
I scrambled a bit, over and around the rocks. The footing was not especially stable in parts, with each step mostly a controlled slide down the gravel slope. It worked out well, however, and eventually I found myself at the base of the glacier, touching the ice at its face. It is hard to describe just how enormous the glacier is without actually being there yourself. It is a block of "living" ice that is constantly moving, flowing, melting and calving. And it is huge.
After a couple hours with the glacier it was time to head back to Anchorage. I considered staying the night in Seward (and had originally planned to do so) but not having to make the drive back in the morning seemed like a good idea. The drive was slightly less beautiful thanks to some rain showers passing through, though that did also make for some enjoyable cloud cover later on in the ride after I got ahead of the storm.
I started the trip apprehensive about repeating what was a wonderful vacation from 7 years prior, worried that it wouldn’t live up to my memories. I needn’t have been concerned.
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