Beginner’s Trail Guide: Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park

The three-mile roundtrip hike to Exit Glacier was the most beginner-friendly trek I did during our road trip to Alaska. And don’t worry, beginner-friendly doesn’t mean you lose out on panoramic mountain views and an up-close look at a big ol’ glacier.

The entire hike took me just over an hour, with plenty of photo op stops and breaks to take a breather. Most of the trail is flat (the first half is paved) and there’s really only one steep-ish hill. I hiked it three months preggo and it was definitely the most manageable (pregnancy hack: just use hiking poles all the time) of the hikes we did in Alaska.

How do I get there?

Exit Glacier is conveniently located just outside of the town of Seward. It’s inside Kenai Fjords National Park, so you will have to pay a fee to access it (or be prepared to show your national parks pass!).

The drive there is completely flat and all on paved roads (with stunning views, may I add). I recommend stopping for breakfast crepes at Le Barn Appetit. We were in town early in the tourist season (mid-May), and Le Barn Appetit started out being our last ditch attempt at finding a breakfast place that was open (and, I still wanted breakfast at 11 am). It turned out to be a super cute and delicious stop pre-hiking. Word of warning: the crepes are no lie a foot long, so Billy and I split one and were both full at the end of breakfast.

Go for the massive, delicious strawberry rhubarb crepe. Stay for the eccentric owner’s stories about how much he hates Belgium.

After Le Barn Appetit continue on Exit Glacier Road until it dead ends at the national park. It’s pretty much impossible to take a wrong turn; there are a few campgrounds and overlooks along the way, but just stay on the main road and it will dump you right into the main parking lot.

Where do I go?

There’s only one option from the parking lot, so that makes it easy! The Lower Trail leaves from the nature center (which in Mid-may was unfortunately closed) and continues to the base of the glacier (or, at least, where the base of the glacier used to be). Don’t worry, the bathroom at the trailhead is open year-round!

The Harding Ice Field Trail is a more advanced trek that in May was still mostly snowed in. You can always hike up part of it if you’re there later in the summer; it’s supposed to be beautiful!

The Lower Trail turns into gravel after starting out for the first 3/4-mile or so on a wide, paved path. The map at the trailhead makes it look like the glacier overlook is super far away, but it’s about 1.5-miles of mostly flat trail to the overlook. We stayed on the main trail and didn’t take any turns, following the sign for Exit Glacier Overlook.

On the way back, we took an extra little loop by following signs that said they took you to the parking lot. Admittedly, the trail loop names were a little bit confusing and not consistently marked like they are on the map. Besides the Harding Icefield Trail, everything is a loop that will eventually get you back to the parking lot, so you can’t get too lost.

The other half of the loop we ended up taking went down ti the riverbank, which provides another really beautiful view of the surrounding mountains and forest. Plus, the river water is a super weird, milky color that was cool to see up close!

milky grey water forms the river flowing out of exit glacier in kenai fjords national park beginner-friendly hike
I didn’t get the chance to ask the park ranger on duty why the water looks like this, but I assume it has something to do with all the minerals draining out from the glacier as it melts.

What should I wear and bring?

Most of the hike isn’t in the shade, and we happened to have a beautiful, clear day with temperatures in the lower 50s in late May. I run cold, so I wore a long-sleeve shirt, hoodie, and windbreaker with long pants. You won’t work up too much of a sweat on the trail, since like I’ve said, it’s pretty flat. But the wind seems to always be blowing, so I was very glad I was dressed as warmly as I was. I recommend a windbreaker layer on top of whatever you wear.

I wore trail running shoes, and there’s not really any reason you need hiking boots or any waterproof footwear. The one water crossing has a a nice, wide board for you to walk over and half of the hike you’re on the paved path. I even saw one woman doing it in Uggs!

I brought water and food even though the hike was “only” an hour because I was pregnant and eating every four seconds. You’re probably fine not bringing a backpack or much besides your car keys and phone (and a camera and binoculars). But I’m not an expert, so bring what makes you feel comfortable. Here’s a great list that I’ve put together >>

Is it crowded?

A cruise ship bus dropped off about 50 people right as we were on our way out, and it definitely felt crowded with all of them on the trail at once. I imagine it’s much worst in the main tourist season when there are multiple cruise ships in town at once. That’s why we decided to go in May!

Even early in the season, this was one of the more well-traveled hikes that we did, but I never felt annoyed or crowded until we ran into the cruise ship group. I try to remember that everyone’s just experiencing the outdoors in the way that works for them, and we’re all lucky to get to see this crazy cool place in real life!

Anything else I should know?

Exit Glacier is a prime example of why you shouldn’t procrastinate going to Alaska any more than you have to. The park’s interpretative signage does a remarkable job at highlighting how the glacier has changed, and how those changes have accelerated as our climate changes.

For example, I was wondering why they built this fancy seating area with such a crappy view. Then I read the signs nearby that explained that the benches had a perfect view of the glacier when it was built. It’s receded since then, and the forest grew up in its absence. There are also signs throughout the park that mark where the glacier used to be in previous years – the one from 2010 really threw me for a loop.

exit glacier interpretative sign marks where the glacier was in 2010, about a half-mile from where the glacier starts today

Plus, the Exit Glacier Overlook only keeps getting further away every year. The park used to “chase” the glacier by extending the trail as needed, but at this point they’ve decided to stop. The view is still incredible, but changing all the time! If nothing else, make global warming the reason you prioritize going to Alaska for your next big trip.

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