Kenai Fjords National Park: The Complete Guide

A kayaker paddles on serene water in front of a ice-blue glacier.

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Kenai Fjords National Park

Alaska, USA
Phone +1 907-422-0500

Alaska is home to eight national parks in total, and each is incredibly beautiful and wild in its own right. One of the more unique and stunning of those parks is Kenai Fjords, a place where the mountains and ocean meet in spectacular fashion. Here, travelers can witness firsthand the incredible landscapes that have been carved over the millennia by the glaciers of the Harding Icefield—an impressive force of nature that continues to shape this part of the world today.

Located on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula—near the town of Seward—the park spreads out across 669,984 acres. Its breathtakingly beautiful landscapes were first protected under President Jimmy Carter in 1978, with full national park status granted just two years later. Since that time, it has grown to become Alaska's most visited park, thanks in part to its proximity to Anchorage. Roughly 350,000 people visit the fjords on an annual basis.

Those who do visit the park find plenty to see and do. In addition to the awe-inspiring scenery, Kenai Fjords offers excellent hiking and kayaking and is one of the best places in the world to spot whales. It is also a place where humans can step foot on a glacier and spot some of Alaska's famous wildlife at the same time.

A glacier stretches down the side of a mountain towards the sea.

Daniel A. Leifheit / Getty Images

Things to Do

The drive into and out of Kenai Fjords is worth the visit alone, as the scenery is utterly spectacular around every bend. But the park has much more to offer visitors who are willing to leave their vehicle behind and explore its landscapes on foot or by boat.

One of the star attractions of the Kenai Fjords is Exit Glacier, which sits in the only section of the park that is accessible by road. One of several glaciers that spring from the Harding Icefield, the ice patch derived its name because it serves as an exit ramp for backcountry explorers and mountaineers, dropping some 3,000 feet over just a few miles. In the past, the glacier ran down to the ocean water itself, but due to climate change, it has retreated up the valley. Still, it remains an impressive location and several hiking trails allow active travelers to stroll up for a closer look.

For a different view of Exit Glacier and other sections of the park, take to the water instead. Kayaking is one of the most popular ways to experience Kenai Fjords National Park, allowing visitors to get a true sense of the scale of the place from sea level. The towering mountains and calving glaciers make for a dramatic backdrop for paddlers with a pension for adventure. The best locations for this type of journey are Aialik Bay, Northwestern Lagoon, and Bear Glacier Lagoon, none of which are directly accessible from Seward. Plan on hiring a guide or a water taxi to shuttle you to the put-in for those places.

Speaking of guides, any visitor who plans on wandering into the park's backcountry, either on foot or by kayak, is advised to hire a commercial guide service. The park is a remote wilderness setting that can be dangerous even for experienced travelers. By taking the proper precautions, travelers can safely take in everything that Kenai Fjords has to offer in a safe and efficient manner.

For a more leisurely approach to visiting the park, book a boat tour instead. Full- and half-day tours set out from Seward on a daily basis throughout the summer, providing access to the surrounding wilderness. Shorter tours tend to stay in Resurrection Bay, but still offer opportunities to spot wildlife and take in the landscapes. The longer excursions require the better part of the day, although these do go deeper into the lesser-visited sections of the park.

Glaciers cover mountains in the background with the sea surrounding a small island in front.

Jaime Espinosa de los Monteros / Getty Images

Best Hikes & Trails

The only maintained trails at Kenai Fjords National Park are in the Exit Glacier Area. Among these, the 4.5-mile Resurrection River Trail is one of the better options for those looking to stretch their legs.

Hikers looking for a longer, more challenging trek will want to give the Harding Icefield Trail a try. The 8.2-mile route tends to be quieter than the Resurrection River Trail and offers even better views of Exit Glacier and the surrounding area. It is quite a strenuous endeavor, however, requiring six to eight hours to walk the entire path. Part of the challenge is the more than 1,000 feet of vertical gain that occurs along the route, but at the highest point, the views are simply incredible.

Where to Camp

Inside the park, there is only one designated campground located near Exit Glacier. It has 12 campsites in total, which are available on a first-come, first-served basis. During the busier times of the year, the sites fill up quickly, so visitors planning on camping will want to get there early. There is no infrastructure in place for RVs at this campground.

Where to Stay

Most visitors to Kenai Fjords stay in Anchorage and make a day trip to the park. Others book accommodations in Seward, which gets bonus points for being close by. The town of 2,800 people is relatively small, however, so options are limited in terms of hotels and restaurants. For visits during the peak summer season, you'll want to book a room well in advance and expect to wait at the area restaurants.

Travelers who would like to stay in the park, but don't want to camp, can book a reservation at the Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge instead. Located on a wildlife preserve owned by Native Americans, this eco-lodge is only open during the summer and only accessible by boat. The lodge and its private cabins are naturally integrated into the park setting, offering a comfortable place to eat and stay while visiting. The staff can assist guests with booking activities as well, including kayaking and rafting adventures, day hikes, and fishing excursions.

Alternatively, there are two public-use cabins available during the summer months and one other available during the winter. Each can be reserved via at a cost of $75 per night. Unsurprisingly, these cabins book up quickly, although the Park Service indicates that there are frequent cancellations throughout April and May. The cabins are lightly furnished and travelers are advised to bring sleeping bags and pads, a stove and food for cooking, drinking water, and their own personal toiletries.

A while breaches the water with towering mountains in the background

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How to Get There

Travelers who are driving to Kenai Fjords National Park from Anchorage will take the Seward Highway (aka AK-1) south for 126 miles. Roughly 35 miles into the journey, AK-1 will become AK-9, which heads straight on into Seward. The drive is easy to follow and is very scenic, but when the road is busy it can take extra time to complete the commute.

The state-owned Alaska Railroad makes daily runs between Anchorage and Seward between May and September. It is also a beautiful journey—and often more relaxing than driving by car—although it can be quite pricey.

The largest airport in Alaska is Ted Stevens International in Anchorage, and the vast majority of visitors arrive and depart from there. Others come and go aboard cruise ships, many of which begin and end their voyages in Seward.

Mountains line the sea with white glaciers stretching down their faces.

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Due to the remote and rugged nature of most of the park, there are only a few limited sections that are accessible. Still, the National Park Service has done its best to accommodate as many guests as possible.

The park's visitor center (located in Seward) is wheelchair accessible, as is the Exit Glacier Nature Center. As you would expect, the restroom facilities at those locations are also configured for wheelchair access.

Other facilities that are accessible include all boat tours and the public use cabins. There are two campsites in the Exit Glacier campground that are also designated as being wheelchair friendly. There is even a 1-mile loop trail near Exit Glacier that is partially paved, offering panoramic views to visitors using wheelchairs.

Two hikers stand above a sprawling ice filed in Kenai National Park

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Tips for Your Visit

  • Kenai Fjords is one of the few national parks in the U.S. that doesn't charge an entry fee. This means you can come and go as much as you like and not be charged.
  • There is a lot of wildlife to be found inside Kenai Fjords National Park, including bears. If you plan to hike any of the trails, always be on the lookout for these animals and make sure you know what to do in case you encounter one.
  • Hiking, paddling, and boating are three great ways to experience the park, but for something different try an aerial tour instead. A scenic flight will give you a true sense of the scale of the park, its mountain peaks, and glaciers.
  • The weather in the park can be somewhat unpredictable, even in the summer. Pack an extra layer for warmth and a waterproof jacket to help you stay warm on kayaking and boat tours (or in case inclement weather strikes).
  • The park is open all year round, although the road between Anchorage and Seward will sometimes get closed due to poor weather conditions. During the winter, the park is much less crowded, although there are fewer options in terms of guided tours and activities.
  • The park itself does not have any restaurants or shops for picking up food, snacks, and drinks. Visitors can get supplies in Seward, although that isn't always quick and convenient. Be sure to pack at least some snacks and water for any visit to Kenai Fjords.
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Kenai Fjords National Park: The Complete Guide