Kenai Fjords National Park

Kenai Fjords National Park

At A Glance

Kenai Fjords National Park is a dramatic glacial landscape of ice, tidewater glaciers, deeply chiseled fjords and jagged peninsulas—607,805 acres of unspoiled wilderness on the southeast coast of Alaska's Kenai Peninsula. The park is capped by the Harding Icefield, a relic from past ice-ages and the largest icefield entirely within U.S. borders. At Kenai, visitors can witness a landscape continuously shaped by glaciers, earthquakes and storms. Orcas, otters, puffins, bear, moose and mountain goats are just a few of the numerous animals that make their home in this ever-changing place where mountains, ice and ocean meet.

The fabled Kenai fjords are long, steep-sided, glacier-carved valleys that are now filled with ocean waters. A mountain platform, one-mile-high, rises above this dramatic coastline. These mountains are mantled by the 300-square-mile Harding Icefield, 35 miles long and 20 miles wide. Only isolated mountain peaks interrupt its nearly flat, snowclad surface. Exit Glacier, spilling off the icefield, is accessible by road.

History of Kenai Fjords

For centuries, Russian and European explorers—intent on developing southcentral Alaska—tended to avoid the Kenai Peninsula's seaward coast. The area's tidewater glaciers at the mouths of deep fjords—alternating with narrow jetties of rocky mountainous outcrop—had few redeeming features for the development of permanent harbors, trading posts or settlement. But during the mid- to late 1890s, a series of interconnected events—the Hope and Sunrise gold strikes, the Klondike gold rush and U.S. Army Capt. E. F. Glenn's expedition—brought dramatically increased attention to Alaska in general and the Kenai Peninsula in particular.

Yet as the 20th century dawned, the vast interior of Alaska still remained inaccessible. Even though the interior was still largely devoid of nonnative settlement, a few visionaries were convinced this interior region would grow and prosper if a railroad route could be constructed there. In 1915, President Wilson announced his choice of the route connecting Seward and Fairbanks; the government agreed to purchase two bankrupt railroads: the Alaska Northern route, north of Seward, and the Tanana Valley Railroad, in the Fairbanks area. This decision helped propel Seward into a new period of prosperity. For the next several years, hundreds of workers invaded town as the old Alaska Northern tracks were upgraded and, in places, rerouted.

In 1923, a road was completed connecting Seward with Kenai Lake. As soon as the Seward-Kenai Lake Road was completed, Seward citizens began to demand that the various road- building authorities construct a seven-mile-long "missing link" connecting the Kenai Lake Road terminus with Moose Pass. However, steep topography along the Kenai Lake shoreline coupled with a lack of funds delayed the completion of this "missing link" until 1938.

The remainder of the Kenai Peninsula's primary road network completion was postponed until after World War II. The extension of the Sterling Highway from Kenai south to Homer was completed in 1950, and a road linking the Kenai Peninsula and Anchorage was completed and dedicated in October 1951. No intercity roads have been built on the Kenai since that time.

Today, most of Kenai Fjords National Park's acreage is roadless, rugged backcountry. The Harding Icefield dominates the inland portions of the park, a vast expanse of snow and ice interrupted only by an occasional "nunatak" or lonely peak. Tidewater glaciers spill down from the Icefield to Kenai Fjords' steep and rocky coast. Much of the park's shoreline is exposed to the rough water of the Gulf of Alaska, although several sheltered bays and camping beaches can be found within the fjords. These protected areas provide visitors with opportunities for kayaking, camping, fishing, beach combing or just enjoying the breath-taking scenery.

Planning Your Visit

Kenai Fjords National Park offers a range of opportunities for visitors, students and scientists to study and explore. The visitor center in Seward offers information, videos, maps, publications and exhibits. The Kenai Fjords visitor center in Seward will open in mid-May and be open through September 30. The Exit Glacier Nature Center is open daily in the summer months. It offers exhibits and information about the glacier and the Harding Icefield, interpretive programs and talks.

Exit Glacier is the only portion of the park accessible by car on a paved road and a short trail (turn on to Herman Leirer Road at mile 3 of the Seward Highway, this nine-mile road leads to the Exit Glacier Nature Center; an easy 0.5-mile walk will take you to the glacier's terminus). The first 0.25-mile of this trail is completely accessible; a steeper trail continues across moraines and bedrock. Visitors may return to the nature center via a nature trail. Most visitors access the coastal backcountry by air taxi (floatplane), water taxi, charter boat service or private vessel. Kayaking from Seward is not recommended except by very experienced paddlers.

Before traveling out along the coast, visitors may pick up a coastal backcountry permit from the visitor center. As part of the permitting process, you'll be asked to give an itinerary and emergency contact information. Inquire about current conditions, hazards or closures before traveling to the backcountry. Since ocean storms can sweep through the Kenai Fjords any time of year, durable rain gear and extra food supplies are a must; weather may delay a charter pick-up for days. It is also a prudent idea to travel with a marine radio.

For more information on Kenai Fjords National Park, write to National Park Service, P.O. Box 1727, Seward, AK 99664, or contact headquarters at (907) 224-7500.