10 days in Seward, Alaska…
Why we came…
To see glaciers and wildlife and to catch salmon!
We stayed at Seward Military Resort. It is one of the few campgrounds in the area with RV hook-ups. We had electric and water. There was also a dump station available. We had a reliable GCI phone signal and wi-fi was available near the lobby. The bathrooms, showers, and laundry were nice and kept clean.
We didn’t care for the campsites. They are oriented back to back and share utilities side by side. When you have neighbors on all sides it’s very cramped. Plus, you hear everything, especially slamming doors and nearby alarm clocks going off at 5:00am to wake folks up for early fishing trips. Speaking of fishing, the row across from us was for boats only. Some would park their boats quite late and many would pull them out early the next morning. The place was only peaceful from roughly 11:00pm to 5:00am. There was a campground host but his responsibilities appeared minimal. There was no enforcement of rules.
We should have checked out the other campgrounds in the area but didn’t.
The Seward Military Resort has nice facilities, but the small RV park is a secondary afterthought
Pic taken when nobody was camped near us. Sites are oriented back to back and share a utility post. It was cramped and noisy with neighbors on all sides.
This is NOT the Seward Military Resort. RVs packed in along the beach in Seward. Most of these camp sites don’t have hook-ups. There are lots of noisy generators and a party-like atmosphere…not our thing.
Seward, population ~2,700, is a fun little Alaska town. It’s situated at the head of Resurrection Bay and surrounded by snow and glacier covered mountains. Seward has a good selection of restaurants, and a decent selection of supplies and services. It’s very busy around July 4th and then again in August during the Silver Salmon Derby.
Soldotna is 92 miles away and Anchorage is 126 miles.
Seventeen years ago, Arleen had hiked only to the Tops of the Cliffs for a quick look at the Harding Icefield. I had visited Exit Glacier many times but had never tackled the challenging hike to the icefield. So we made plans to hike to “The End of Trail” on our first full day in Seward and on what would be one of the few nice weather days during our time there.
Exit Glacier is one of the 40 glaciers descending from the Harding Icefield. It is one of the few glaciers that is easily accessible from a road system. When we visited nearly 20 years ago it was possible to walk on the outwash plain and up to the toe of the glacier.
It was named “Exit” since it served, “as the exit for the first recorded crossing of the Harding Icefield in 1968”.
Because of its popularity the National Park Service (NPS) has a nature center, an Alaska Geographic bookstore, flush toilets, a water-bottle filling station, picnic tables and a12-site, tent-only campground at the end of a spur road to the glacier. In addition, the park offers a ranger-led program.
The Harding Icefield Trail starts at the nature center. The trail was only 4.4 miles to the top however it climbs a whopping 3,500 feet over that distance. The NPS warns, “The trail is strenuous! Hikers gain approximately 1,000 feet of elevation with every mile. Allow at least 6-8 hours for the hike.”
The first mile and a half was through the typical Kenai Peninsula shrubbery of cow’s parsnip, willow, alder and salmon berry. We climbed almost 1,000 feet up rock stairs to that point. Although the trail was difficult, NPS has maintained it well.
We arrived at the flat area of Marmot Meadow with our first clear view of Exit Glacier. We took a break on a glacier-smoothed rock with an incredible view.
From Marmot Meadow to Top of the Cliffs we climbed almost 900 feet. This area was up in the alpine tundra with wildflowers including the bright dwarf fireweed all around. At this elevation, there was even lupine in full bloom while it had already gone to seed in lower areas.
We often paused during the relentless climb to take in the views behind us of Resurrection River and the rugged Kenai Mountains. We could see heavy rain showers forming to the east. Surprisingly, they stayed there and never formed on our side of the valley.
At the Top of the Cliffs we had our first view of the lower reaches of the Harding Icefield. We could see a few of nunataks, which are mountain tops that are peaking above the thick ice that “is thousands of feet thick, but it does not completely bury the underlying mountains.” Nunatak means lonely peak.
From here we saw the trail winding up the side of the mountain. As we climbed we noted that most plant life receded and all that was visible was scree and a few tough lichens and moss. The ice had released its hold on this area within the last couple hundred years.
We passed by a storm shelter, a reminder that the weather in this area can change rapidly and can be fierce. As we climbed the temperature dropped due to the elevation and because of the cold winds coming off the huge sheet of ice.
Finally, after a final assault of a knob, we had a tremendous view of Harding Icefield! The word “epic” is often overused. But as we stood looking at the expansive field of ice only broken by the occasional nunatak, EPIC was a very fitting word especially after the 3,500 foot climb in four miles.
“The Harding Icefield and its outflowing glaciers cover 700 square miles of Alaska's Kenai Mountains in glacier ice. Created more than 23,000 years ago during the Pleistocene Epoch, the Harding Icefield was a small piece of the vast ice sheet that covered much of Southcentral Alaska. Indeed, at the time, ice blanketed one third of the Earth's surface.”
We climbed down the knob inching closer to the icefield. We took a break and admired the scenery. We were able to spot a few brave climbers out on the ice, poking into crevasses. In one of the few barren spots a herd of mountain goats feasted on the little plants and lichen that can grow in such a desolate area.
We reluctantly left our perch and began the descent. We’ve never been so thankful for our trekking poles as we made our way back down 3,500 feet. It felt so good to walk on the flat trail near the visitor center. Our knees and backs were a bit sore for the next couple of days.
Hike route to Harding Icefield: 8.8 miles with 3,500 feet of climbing / Various hike routes in the area
First good view of Exit Glacier along the road
Exit Glacier from Marmot Meadows
Ascending the switchbacks between Marmot Meadows and Top of the Cliffs
Flying high above Exit Glacier at Top of the Cliffs
Arleen dwarfed by the vast Harding Icefield
Exit Glacier extends down the mountain to the left. On the right Harding Icefield covers 700 square miles, WAY beyond what is seen here.
We spotted mountain goats feeding along the edge of the icefield
We filtered water for the long hike down / Lots of flowers were blooming along the top half of the trail
The Kenai River…
My Uncle Skip visited me in Alaska 20 years ago. We spent days slowly canoeing down the Little Sisitna River and caught a bunch of feisty silver salmon. He has never forgotten it and vowed to return with his son, DJ. I had my doubts that it would ever happen, but Skip, DJ, and Heather, DJ’s wife, landed in Anchorage while we were admiring Harding Icefield. They were actually in Alaska!
After flying into Anchorage and renting a car, they drove down to Seward where they stayed in a motel for eight nights. The trip to Seward took some time, as they stopped for multiple picture taking opportunities. Heather expressed her feelings after the first day, “My heart is happy!”
Though they wanted to see Alaska scenery and wildlife, fishing was high on Skip and DJ’s priorities. So the next day, Arleen and I picked the whole gang up and drove them down to the Kanai River confluence where I thought my uncle would be the most comfortable and have the best opportunity to catch a salmon.
We boarded the Russian River Ferry, while Arleen took on duties as the trip photographer. We had only been set up a few minutes before a huge silver salmon grabbed the fly and Skip battled it to exhaustion. Arleen, on the opposite side of the river, was able to capture all the action!
We fished hard for six hours. Just about the time DJ got the hang of the Kenai flip, we were all hungry and left for dinner. However, we left with one silver salmon each, and in addition, a sockeye salmon that I caught. We enjoyed the sockeye salmon for dinner the next night.
Arleen enjoyed walking through woods with Heather and pointing out various mushrooms and a couple big piles of bear scat. They took dozens of pictures.
Heather summarized her first full day in Alaska, “Kenai River! It was mostly the guys fishing, an eagle, some goats and some backwoods wandering around. I've been trying new food almost every day. For dinner we stopped in Cooper Landing and we ate Caribou stroganoff.”
Back to the Russian River Ferry / Me, Skip, and DJ fishing the Kenai River
Fish on! That’s a big silver salmon
DJ, Heather, and Skip having a good time on the Kenai River. Love those smiles!
We hooked a bunch and kept three silver (coho) salmon and one red (sockeye) salmon
This bald eagle was keeping an eye on the river / We spotted dall sheep far up a nearby mountain. There are 10 in this picture. (Click for a better view.)
Kenai Fjords National Park and Exit Glacier…
Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate with my family’s visit. We woke up on Saturday morning to find the mountains shrouded in fog and a steady rain thumped our roof. To add to the gloom, Arleen and I woke up with sore throats and congested heads.
Skip, DJ, and Heather amused themselves during the day by exploring Seward and the surrounding area and fishing the beach along Resurrection Bay. Finally, in the late afternoon the weather broke up a bit.
After our sockeye dinner, DJ and Heather expressed interest in an evening walk at Exit Glacier. Heather noted, “We decided to go on the hike at 8pm and it doesn't get dark until around 10:45pm.”
Arleen and I gladly joined them, while Skip stayed and relaxed.
The four of us had fun taking pictures at all the scenic stops. The nature center was closed but the trails were still open. The lower and shorter trails include the Glacier View Loop Trail and the Glacier Overlook Loop Trail. They wanted to get as close to the glacier as possible so we set off to the overlook.
The moderate trail rolls over huge boulders that were left behind by the glacier in a previous time. The multiple cross wise scratches were evidence of the glacier’s movements.
After almost a mile, we came to a perfect view of the glacier. Ropes kept us away from getting any closer. “An ice fall hazard zone has been identified at the toe and sides of Exit Glacier, due to tall blocks and slabs of ice.”
Arleen and I were shocked at how high the glacier has retreated up on to the rocks. There was not any ice left in the outwash plain.
We took a few fun photos noting that it would not be possible during the day when the overlook would be crowded with many others congesting the platform for a glimpse of the blue ice. We had it all to ourselves!
Bears are nearly everywhere in Alaska so we were on alert. Especially because there were few other people and the sun was going down. Heather later summarized, “‘HEY BEAR’ were the words to yell! The whole theme of this trip has been ‘Why not? We're in Alaska!’”
We continued the loop and hiked down into the outwash plain, where Resurrection Creek flows from the glacier and cuts several braided streams.
We were thrilled that DJ and Heather were up for an evening adventure and that we were able to take advantage of the break in the weather.
Hike route to the Glacier Overlook / Entering the Park
Rock stars at Exit Glacier
We awoke on Sunday morning to a steady moderate rain. We could expect three inches of rain over the next two days.
Despite the rain, Heather, DJ and Skip started their day off well and got outside. Heather said, “We had Caribou sausage croissant for breakfast, then more fishing in the harbor and some quiet time by a waterfall (not really quiet but very peaceful).”
It was a good day to find something to do inside. So, the five of us headed out to the Alaska SeaLife Center for the afternoon.
“The Alaska SeaLife Center is the only facility in Alaska that combines a public aquarium with marine research, education, and wildlife response.
While primarily dedicated to marine research and education, the Center is the only permanent marine mammal rescue and rehabilitation facility in the state.”
We weren’t the only ones looking for shelter from the rain. The center was crowded!
Our favorite displays include the aquariums where you can touch sea critters such as star fish and Sea Anemones. Another is the bird aquarium where you can see the details of the puffins up close. We have only seen them flying by low and fast over water.
The best displays are the Sea Lion and Harbor seal aquariums where you can go upstairs to watch them haul themselves out of the water and lumber around. Then, you can go downstairs and watch them effortlessly glide, twist, and turn through the water.
They have several recovery pools outside. On this day there was a young otter, that didn’t care about the rain as he played with his toys.
The center also has fantastic educational displays, such as the display on how many minutes different mammals can hold their breath. We humans are good for a minute or two (record is 20 minutes and 21 seconds!) while the sperm whale can hold his breath for 90 minutes at a depth of 10,000 feet! Good luck waiting for him to come back up to take another picture.
Life size dall’s porpoises hang from the ceiling above the lobby
Puffins are one of our favorite birds
Sea lion / A crab getting photo bombed / A seal
The touch tank is our favorite / An informative sign about holding breath and dive depth
Another rainy day…
It rained all day again on Monday. Worse yet, an arctic low and its associated winds were moving through the Gulf of Alaska. Sea states were at 8-12 feet. DJ and Skip had a fishing charter scheduled for the day and Captain Jack wisely cancelled and rescheduled.
Determined, DJ and Skip fished all afternoon from shore despite the rain but without any success. Heather hunted for and captured pictures of eagles, otters, seals, and jelly fish. We had a “responsibility day” - worked on the blog, did laundry, and got groceries.
That afternoon we all met up for dinner at Ray’s Waterfront Restaurant.
After I saw how dejected DJ was, I went back out with him that evening and we checked out a few spots including the Lagoon outlet and the beach. Heather in the meantime tried to get pictures of her waterfalls.
It was still raining on Tuesday morning. However, sea states were down to 6-8 feet so DJ and Skip headed out on their fish charter.
After I saw the small boat they went out on, I was glad I did not go! There is no way I would have been able to hold down my breakfast. I have a reputation for being an expert chummer! They had prepared with motion sickness patches which worked and though DJ felt a little nauseous, Skip was fine and neither chummed for halibut.
They caught two small halibut each. Skip caught two silver salmon and DJ caught one. They were both happy.
However, if they come back to Alaska, I’d recommend they go to Valdez and go out with Captain Will on Valdez Saltwater Adventures who has two larger boats. We both worked with Will in the Air Force and folks are always returning to port loaded down with large halibut and a lot of salmon on his charters.
While DJ and Skip were out on the charter, Arleen and I had Heather over for lunch and the three of us went for a hike.
We drove south on the only road to the Lowell Point State Recreation Site. At the end of the sometimes rough dirt road, are two State Park parking areas including the trailhead for Caines Head State Recreation Area.
We parked at the lower area and hiked the two miles from Lowell Point to Tonsina Point. Since we were at the lower area, first we had to hike to the upper parking area.
The short hike from one parking area to the next is a steep rocky trail that was often covered in a soft carpet of spruce needles through a lush rain forest. From there, we had to walk a gravel road through private property to get to the main trail.
The main trail was wide, gravely, and easy to walk with waterfalls in a Sitka Spruce and Red Alder forest. We saw a variety of mushrooms on beds of moss. The trail was lined on either side with Salmon berry/devil club. Nearly all of the ripe salmon berries had been plucked by previous hikers, but we found a couple and plopped the tasty treats our mouths.
Along the way we helped Heather with her new camera and her new water filter. She was a very eager student excited to learn and hear about outdoors survival methods.
Once we started the drop to the beach, the trail became rocky, steep, and narrow - more like what we are used to. It was muddy in places and crossed a few small streams. Heather did great for a novice hiker!
Heather, “We went on a 4 mile hike (yes, I said 4 miles!). This hike was pretty advanced for me and I was slow but I did it! I'm so excited and thankful I did because I saw so many things I wouldn't have seen if I didn't go.”
Unfortunately, it rained the whole way to Tonsina Point. Once at the beach, we crossed Tonsina Creek on a nice bridge. Eagles were everywhere in the trees and on the rocky beach that had been left exposed by the receding tide. The whole scene was back dropped by steep mountainsides that were licked by wisps of stratus.
The rain finally stopped while we were out on the beach. At the same time, Heather got a text from DJ. They were nearly back to the harbor. We were excited to hear all the details, so we picked up our pace.
After meeting up, we had dinner at the corner of 4th Ave and North Harbor. There we had the choice to eat Mexican, crab, or pizza. What fun food fusion! Even the fussiest eater could find something that they liked.
Hike route to Tonsina Point / Area map
Heather and Arleen appreciating the dripping foggy rainforest
Devils club growing on a branch well of the ground / A yummy salmon berry
Looking at the spawned out salmon in Tonsina Creek. / Just two of the 10 eagles we saw in the area
Fishing the beach…
Thursday was once again a cloudy, windy, rainy day. However, it was our final day together.
So the whole gang loaded up for a day of fishing at Lowell Point. According to talk around town, the silver salmon fishing was starting to pick up there.
We parked in the lower parking area and walked out to the beach. We could see a number of boats grouped in the area and I spotted a few people fighting fish.
An even better sign was salmon consistently jumping out of the water. As the salmon near their spawning grounds, they feed less and less, but the jumping fish gave us high hopes.
Skip selected a spot to set up a chair and began fishing. DJ and I followed the pattern of the nearby boats and jumping fish. The boaters use their fish finders to stay with the schools. By moving up and down the beach we were increasing our odds of catching one.
I caught two silvers in the morning. DJ or Skip did not catch anything. Heather captured pictures of us fishing, the last of the fireweed, and some kayakers. Arleen hiked a portion of the Tonsina Point Trail.
DJ, Heather, Arleen and I all took a break for lunch. But not Skip!
Skip has looked forward to this trip since I told him years ago that Arleen and I were returning to Alaska in our RV. He did not want to miss a minute of his final day despite the rain.
So he held his spot, lit up a fresh cigar and cast some salmon bellies out to see if anything would bite. Skip did not lure any silver salmon with the bait but he did catch an ugly Lord Fish and a few other odd things and had a great time! By the time we returned from lunch, Skip was shivering from the damp cold but still didn’t want to give up.
I caught two more salmon that afternoon. Four good-sized salmon in one day would definitely fill our little freezer.
Unfortunately, DJ did not hook any salmon that last day. It was not for lack of trying! The trip has fueled his desire to return to Alaska in the future and he’s already planning the next trip!
We had a final delicious meal together at Chattermark in downtown Seward. Arleen and I had beer battered halibut and it was good! But still not as good as what our friends, John and Gail, brew up.
We parted with big hugs all around. As Heather said, “This was definitely a trip to remember!”
Lots of folks hoping to catch a money fish for the Silver Salmon Derby. Top prize is $10,000 for the heaviest salmon and a whopping $50,000 for the only tagged salmon.
We didn’t catch any the first day we fished the beach, but we made some otter friends.
A group of kayakers paddling back to the beach
DJ, Skip, Heather, and me in the distance, fishing the beach near Lowell Point
Skip wondering if a bass lure will work on salmon / I caught four silvers from the beach
Kenai Fjords tour…
Arleen had set up the Kenai Fjords Tour back in March when she was able to get an exceptional deal through the military recreation facility.
We decided to do the Northwestern tour which was the longest but it promised, “Traveling further into Kenai Fjords than any other tour, this is a journey to the remote Northwest. Home to three tidewater glaciers, the Northwestern Fjord is unlike anywhere else on earth.”
Our original scheduled day looked crappy weather-wise so we rescheduled for the following day - a great call!
The five of us were at the Kenai Fjord Tour terminal by 7:30am to get our boarding passes. The sun had just poked above the nearby mountains and the fog quickly dispersed. As patches of blue sky replaced the dreary low clouds, we got more excited for a beautiful day! Heather said, “Finally some sunshine for our Kenai Fjords Tour!”
We all boarded the Glacier Explorer with Captain Sherry and Captain Greg and about 60 other passengers. We pulled out of the harbor and into Resurrection Bay by 8:30am.
Resurrection Bay was named by early Russian explorer, Alexander Baranov, when he took shelter there. Resurrection was the closest word to Sunday.
We knew it was going to be a glorious day when we saw an otter right away. It was as if the engaging critter had come out to wish us “bon voyage”.
As we moved into the Gulf of Alaska, the swells increased and we had to take care as we moved about on the boat. They pointed out Pilot Rock, a major landmark, and a bald eagle that posed on the jagged shore cliffs.
We landed at Fox Island to discharge a few kayakers. There we saw the first of our puffins for the day. Everyone rushed to the starboard side to get a glimpse!
The first large glacier we spotted was Bear Glacier. Bear looks more like a skunk glacier with two black stripes running down its length. Those striped are gravel bars or medial moraines. Bear is 3 glaciers that came together. It is the largest glacier coming off the Harding Icefield, but stops a few miles short of the ocean.
The four to six foot swells continued but we didn’t notice them when we spotted a few humpback whales! The Glacier Explorer slowed and tried to maneuver while keeping the required distance, 100 yards from the huge creatures, and out of their path.
Surprisingly, we turned into Aialik Bay to look at Holgate Glacier and Aialik Glacier. It was Capt Sherry’s birthday so she was treating herself to a view of the huge Aialik Glacier show and we were included! A bonus was, as we moved into the Bay, the waters calmed and the swells dissipated.
At the toe of Aialik we slowed and finally cut the engines so we could listen to the sounds of the glacier. The crashes of the calving ice reached us seconds after the ice fell so it was important to scan continually for movement along the huge aqua-colored wall.
Next, we cut through Granite passage near Granite Island. The water here was only 36’ deep!
On the other side we were in the Northwestern Fjord and we had full view of Southwestern Glacier. As we approached, another boat was pulling away from the toe of the Southwestern and it gave us a good perspective as to the size of the immense glacier.
As the wall of ice approaches the fjord, it curves, splitting the tall columns of ice. From our view point it looked like giant aqua knife edges. The striations of sediment and debris in the ice from thousands of years of formation added to the imagination.
Near there was a red rock island. It was a large eradicate. A glacier had pulled it there centuries ago. It was the only red rock in the area.
We had to cruise in 12 miles in the fjord to approach the even larger Northwesten Glacier. As we pulled closer we saw many harbor seals perched peacefully on icebergs.
Finally, we were able to see Northeastern glacier on the way out of the fjord.
Captain Greg briefed us that the trees we could see on the islands and in the little area not covered with ice were part of the temperate rain forest that stretches from here and all the way to northern California. It is composed of Sitka Spruce and Western Hemlock. It is the climax in the hierarchy of plant successive growth. Such forests require a lot of rain. The Kenai Fjords National Park coast line receives 60 to 100” of precipitation a year.
As we exited through Granite Pass and into the swells of the gulf again, I had a feeling of being unwell. Crap. This was the reason I did not go on a fishing charter. Arleen hoped that I would be okay on the much larger boat, but it didn’t matter. DJ, Heather, and I moved to the rail of the cruise boat to take in the view and the fresh air. Arleen and Skip felt just fine!
Now we moved onto the final treat: the Chiswell Islands. Here we saw and photographed Horned Puffins, Cormorants, Common Murres, Harbor Seals, and Stellar Sea Lions. It was incredible!
Heather summarized the day, “This was definitely one of my favorite days in Alaska! We saw about 12 glaciers, 2 eagles, 3 humpback whales, puffins, seals, a sea otter and sea lions. They fed us breakfast and lunch and with a patch and some Dramamine I didn't lose any of my lunch!”
Arleen and I took almost 900 pictures between the two of us. It would take us a few days to sort through them and wean them down to a few hundred, and even more time to get it down to the few select pictures in this blog. The cruise will be in our memory for a long time.
We did the 9 hour long Northwestern Fjord tour and got a bonus side trip to Aialik Glacier because it was the boat captain’s birthday. / Me and Skip about to board the Glacier Express.
Leaving the harbor with calm winds, flat seas, patchy fog, and lots of sun / See the Bald Eagle?
Distant view of Bear Glacier, the largest glacier in Kenai Fjords NP. It is not a tide water glacier.
We spotted two humpback whales shortly after we left Resurrection Bay
Approaching Aialik Glacier. We’re still about five miles away.
When we neared the huge glacier, the captain cut the motor and we listened to the glacier creak and moan. Falling pieces of ice sound like thunder and the sound rumbles in the narrow fjord.
See the calving ice splash in the water?
Another chunk of calving ice
About to enter the spectacular Northwestern Fjord
About half way into the long fjord, there are glaciers everywhere
Approaching Northwestern Glacier. We’re still about five miles away.
There were a bunch of seals hanging out on the ice bergs
Seals near the colorful terminus of Northwestern Glacier
Impressive knife-edged seracs of Anchor Glacier
A flying puffin and one trying to fly. It’s common for them to struggle to get off the water because they are so well fed and fat. / Puffins hanging out on a rocky island.
Common murres / Cormorants
Sea lions hanging out on one of the Chiswell Islands
Don’t you want to join them?
Seals hanging out on a rocky island
It was a fantastic day exploring a most incredible place!
Alaska weather can be soggy in the summer, but you always hope for the best. And we really wanted it to be nice for Skip, DJ, and Heather’s visit.
We started tracking a big weather pattern change nearly two weeks out. Unfortunately the forecast stayed consistent and it rained nearly every day we were in Seward. A flood watch was even issued for a three day period. Thankfully we took advantage of the best day for our Kenai Fjords Tour!
Moisture streaming into south central Alaska from nearly Hawaii equals a lousy forecast.
We left Anchorage AK on 29 August, and have traveled nearly 1,600 miles to Dawson Creek BC. We expect to be in Great Falls MT in a few days and will then spend roughly a month with family in Montana and Colorado.
Skip and DJ spent a long day fishing on this boat in rough seas. They caught salmon and halibut.
We don’t see too many painted dumpsters / A bunch of RVs parked at Kenai Fjords National Park
Cute signs in the Seward area