Harding Icefield Trail to Top of the Cliffs
(5 miles, +2,500/-2,500 feet).
I have been looking forward to this hike for a very long time. When we started planning our trip to Alaska, this was the first trail to make the “must do” list. And today didn’t disappoint.
We started out very early at the trailhead. In fact, the trail register showed we were the first hikers of the morning, even though the sun had already been up for several hours. One of the very weird things about Alaska in June is that the sun never really sets (or at least we could never stay up long enough to see it happen after midnight!). But humans need an 8 hour break, so mornings are still pretty crowd free.
Everything was green and densely vegetated, and we did feel just a little worried about being alone in Grizzly Bear country. We conversed loudly and around every corner I shouted “Yo, Bear!” loud enough to be heard above the ubiquitous crashing streams.
Fortunately, all we encountered was a surprised marmot!
The Park Service does a good job of hammering home the point that the glaciers are dramatically shrinking. On the road to the trailhead there are signs marking the extent of the glacier in previous decades. One sign for 1899 is about two miles away from the present day glacier! As we climbed higher I imagined what the now-gone part of Exit Glacier must have looked like 100 years ago.
Above Marmot Meadows the trail switchbacks on a cliff and the views get better and better. Also, we didn’t have to worry so much about surprising a bear!
Around 1800 feet we started hitting snowfields. The Park Service marks the trail with orange flags and when we called them they said it was safe up to Top of the Cliffs except for a couple of snow bridges where we should be careful. So we continued on.
I got very excited when I started seeing glissade paths I could take on the return.
At Top of the Cliffs we had one of the finest views I have ever seen in my life. It was awe-inspiring.
I originally wanted to keep going to the end of the trail but the park ranger said there was still avalanche risk above 2500 feet. So we wandered around for a bit and then headed back.
As promised, I glissaded a few times on the way down.
Below Marmot Meadows we started passing tons of hikers, many of them locals who were enjoying their Sunday time off. That greatly reduced the likelihood of surprising a bear in the Alders and increased our enjoyment of that part of the trail.