Denali National Park gets a lot of the hype when you’re planning your trip to Alaska, and not without reason. The park that contains “the mountain” is a must-visit, and you should make sure that you make the most of your time in Denali so that you see all that you need to see.
However, there is a not-so-hidden gem down on the Kenai Peninsula that is no less of a must-visit. This is the town of Seward and the neighboring Kenai Fjords National Park. Here are the highlights we experienced that make it so you have to include this spot on any trip you take to Alaska.
The highlight: cruisin’ Kenai Fjords National Park.
Normally, we hear “cruise” and we start running the opposite way. We’re naturally skeptical of activities that center on the all-you-can-eat buffet, and we had heard that cruises out into the fjords include an all-you-can-take-down salmon bake.
We did want to see the park from the water though, and didn’t have time for an extended kayak trip to get outside of Resurrection Bay, which is where Seward is located. Our only option was some sort of cruise. With low hopes, we took a second look and learned as much as we could about the cruise options.
There were short cruises with all-you-can-eat components, and there were longer cruises that took visitors beyond the normal sites. The boats for these longer trips were smaller, and that meant less people and potentially a more relaxed and intimate experience. Taken together, the all-you-can-eat trips sounds like something to be avoided and the smaller, longer one’s sounded more compelling. We bit the bullet and signed up for the Major Marine Tour all-day cruise – 8.5 hours of boat time.
This proved to be the right choice times infinity. We knew it was going to be awesome when we saw a family of river otters as we were leaving the harbor. From here, the experience really couldn’t have been better. The professionalism of the crew, their enthusiasm for the nature and scenery, and the epic sites we saw made it one of our favorite days ever. In addition to getting up close to several epic hanging and calving glaciers and an epic cover full of waterfalls that reminded us of Milford Sound in New Zealand, we saw Dall’s porpoises, too many humpback whales to count, endless puffins and bald eagles, and a ton of harbor seals lounging about on ice flows. We’ll let the pictures do the talking, but honestly we wanted the trip to go longer by the time we got back to Seward in the late afternoon.
And the finale, humpback whale-watching like you wouldn’t believe:
Sometimes you have to work for it: Exit Glacier & Harding Ice Field
Another must-do activity in Kenai is the hike alongside Exit Glacier up to the Harding Ice Field. It’s pretty much worth doing in any weather, although it is quite strenuous (4 miles up; over 3000 ft in elevation gain).
Check the weather and plan your itinerary accordingly. If the weather is good (or bad) all day, we recommend doing the hike relatively early in the morning. You’ll have the trail mostly to yourself (we left at 8am and saw no more than 5 people on the way up) and will be almost all the way back down by the time the tour groups begin heading up the trail.
The trailhead is about 15 minutes from downtown Seward, easily found via signage or Google maps.
Soak it in: treat yourself at the Stoney Creek Inn
We camped one night in Seward, but decided that after 5 nights without a shower we should probably pay up for a night so that we could stand to be around each other without plugging our noses. We went with the Stoney Creek Inn just outside of town and had a great experience.
The highlight is the outdoor hot tub that looks out into the woods and creek behind the property. This is a great place to go for a soak after your tackle the trek up to the Harding Ice Field. There’s also an awesome sauna where you can steam some of the soreness out of you. The rooms are great, and there’s a cozy common area with a fireplace to hang out in. All-in-all, a great place to stay and a real treat after days of camping.
To top it off: the Alaska Sealife Center
It sounds like it might be a tourist trap, but the Alaska Sealife Center is the real deal. Great exhibits and awesome marine mammals on display. The sea lions and seals are particularly impressive. When was the last time you regreted going to a great aquarium, anyway? These places always seem to exceed expectations!
These activities combine to make Seward and the Kenai Fjords National Park an Alaskan must-see. Let us know what you think in comments!
Interested in more National Parks? Check out our other posts: