Despite being a destination that everyone should see, Kenai Fjords National Park is hard (but ultimately rewarding) to explore.
The Kenai Peninsula is a relatively small part of Alaska’s landmass but a huge part of its tourism industry.
Known as Alaska’s Playground, the peninsula boasts some of the world’s best fishing, myriad tall peaks, seemingly endless hiking trails and campsites, and beautiful fireweed as far as the eye can see.
In fact, summer on the Kenai Peninsula is so nice that it’s easy to forget this is a wild place with a cold-weather climate, the proof of which lingers year-round.
Few places in Alaska show off both side’s of the state’s two-faced personality better than Kenai Fjords National Park.
Where is Kenai Fjords National Park?
On the southern side of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, Kenai Fjords National Park is “where mountains, ice, and oceans meet.” That’s a chillingly beautiful description, National Parks Service.
The park is centered around the Harding Icefield, the largest ice field in the United States from which nearly 40 glaciers flow.
Here’s another map of the park with the Harding Icefield easily identifiable.
How were the Kenai Fjords formed?
The Kenai Fjords, like much of Alaska’s landscape, were formed by two incredibly powerful but seemingly opposite forces: tectonic activity and glaciers.
Tectonic activity did the building
We think of Alaska as a chillingly cold place, but that cold belies its volcanically active past, present, and future.
Alaska’s southern shore, where Kenai Fjords National Park is located, marks the meeting point of two major tectonic plates: the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate.
There are three important notes to make about this tectonic intersection.
- Mountains form as the Pacific Plate pushes beneath the North American Plate, forcing it upwards.
- Friction from this motion releases itself in the form of devastatingly powerful earthquakes.
- Magma escapes between the plates, resulting in volcanoes.
All three have had an instrumental role in creating the tall peaks of the Kenai Fjords.
Glaciers did the carving
Alaska’s high latitude and cold climate mean some areas are constantly covered in snow and ice. These areas are typically found at the tops of mountains and in the valleys between them.
As snow compounds over decades, centuries, and even millennia, they form glaciers–thick sheets of ice, some thousands of feet thick.
Over time, repeated snowfalls compact at the top of the glacier, slowly inching the massive icefield forward. This slow and steady progression carves out rock, deepening the valleys.
The end result of the simultaneous mountain-building and valley-carving is the jagged landscape you see in the Kenai Fjords. Here’s that Google map again, except this time biggified for effect.
You can’t drive or walk through this National Park
Most National Parks, like Denali, have ample driving and hiking trails so you can explore the park’s many wild places. Kenai Fjords National Park is different.
Covered in constantly changing, unstable glaciers, there are precious few places you can venture. The Exit Glacier Area along the northeastern edge of the park is the only place where trails are maintained.
The best way to see Kenai Fjords National Park is by water
Even though the park’s official boundaries don’t stretch beyond the coastline, the water is where it’s at. In fact, legislation was specifically enacted to protect marine life despite it not technically residing in the National Park.
Speaking of marine life…
Get ready to see some amazing animals
“I hope we see an orca!” That was Dawn as we were boarding our tour boat, the Callisto Voyager.
Dawn got her wish. We saw 10!
(There are plenty more orca pictures below!)
We also saw Steller sea lions, harbor seals, sea otter, the very tip of a fin whale, and about 10 million puffins.
Animals we didn’t see (but you could!) include Dall’s porpoise, harbor porpoise, Pacific white-sided dolphins, gray whales, minke whales, humpback whales, and sei whales.
Did You Know? The orca, or Killer Whale, isn’t even a whale. It’s a dolphin! There’s a complex scientific reason for this classification, but the most easily identifiable difference between whales and dolphins is that only dolphins have a melon for echolocation. This includes Killer Whales.
While you probably won’t see them in the water, Kenai Fjords National Park also has a few species of land mammals. They’re Alaska’s usual suspects:
- Black bear
- Brown bear
- Mountain goats
- Hoary marmots
And then, of course, are the 191 species of birds found in the park.
Wait, I forgot to mention the glaciers!
The wildlife is amazing, yes. But what about the landscape!
Our six-hour tour took us 120 miles round trip, culminating in an up-close-and-cold view of Holgate Glacier.
Tours are available through Kenai Fjords Tours
We booked our Kenai Fjords National Park tour through Kenai Fjords. They’re conveniently located on 4th Ave in downtown Seward.
They offer a variety of different tours, so there’s something for just about everyone.
Dawn and I took the first tour listed there: the six-hour Kenai Fjords National Park Tour. We chose it for a few reasons:
- Six hours is long enough to be on a boat.
- The tour emphasizes seeing the park and its wildlife.
- A simple chicken wrap is good enough for us.
We loved our tour, but here are some tips to make the most of it.
Tips from the Nomadlyweds for your Kenai Fjords National Park tour
- Get there an hour early to check in.
- Dress warm! It gets to near-freezing temperatures by the glacier.
- The boat hits speeds of up to 27 knots, so beware your hat.
- The “fresh chicken wrap” is pretty tasteless.
- But after lunch, they put the extra wraps out for free.
- There are enough seats for everyone, but only barely. If you want to sit inside (instead of on the deck) or you’re in a large group, be ready to board early.
Oh, and as promised, more orcas
And for good measure, more pictures from our Kenai Fjords National Park tour
If seeing glaciers and orcas is high on your to-do list, a trip to Kenai Fjords is an absolute must. If you have questions about the available Kenai Fjords National Park tours, comment below!