The majestic scenery and wildlife of Kenai Fjiords National Park draws visitors from around the world to enjoy this pristine wilderness. Prepare yourself for the beauty of seeing humpback whales, puffins, sea otters, towering glaciers and rugged fjiords of this gem of the National Parks system with our list of must-see sights and activities.
Table of Contents
- Introduction To Kenai Fjords National Park
- What to Expect on a Kenai Fjiords Boat Tour
- Wildlife Viewing Opportunities
- Glacier Viewing
- Other Activities in Kenai Fjiords National Park
- Kenai Fjords National Park Visitor Center
- Hiking to Exit Glacier
- Other Things to Know
- Where to Eat in Seward
- More Alaska Travel Posts
Introduction To Kenai Fjords National Park
When I was planning our Alaska itinerary, I wanted to visit as many of Alaska's 8 national parks as we could during our time there. But given how vast the distances are and the enormity of the different parks, we quickly realized we had to pick and choose just a few for this trip. I'm so glad that Kenai Fjiords National Park was one that we were able to make happen.
The boat harbor town of Seward, Alaska is the gateway to Kenai Fjiords National Park and the best way to see the park itself is by boat. A number of different tour operators offer a variety of different day cruises to see calving glaciers (if you are lucky) and spot wildlife.
There is a cruise option for pretty much every budget and preference, whether you want to spend more time whale watching, more time at the glaciers, or more time photographing other wildlife. While there are other ways to see parts of the park that I will talk about, a day cruise is the most popular option that most visitors choose to do and probably the first thing you want to consider if planning a trip to Kenai Fjiords National Park.
What to Expect on a Kenai Fjiords Boat Tour
Several companies at various price points offer guided tours that take you out into the park where you can get up close to glaciers, see marine wildlife, and take in the breathtaking scenery on wildlife cruises. You can choose partial or full-day excursions geared toward your preferences for glaciers, wildlife, or a mix of both.
Either way you go, you'll have breathtaking views of towering cliffs, rugged coastline, glaciers cascading down mountainsides and turquoise waters to enjoy. We were there on a day that was pretty wet and gray and even with that it was still one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.
Most boat tours of Kenai Fjords National Park are guided, with knowledgeable naturalist guides providing commentary about the park's geology, ecology, and wildlife. Our boat captain frequently pointed out features and wildlife, sharing fascinating facts about the glaciers, fjords, and the plants and animals that call the park home.
Wildlife Viewing Opportunities
Kenai Fjords is home to sea otters, harbor seals, sea lions, and bald eagles, as well as whales such as humpback whales, orcas, and gray whales. We were astonished by the sheer numbers of creatures we saw and learned about.
Puffins are fascinating seabirds that can be found in Kenai Fjords National Park, particularly during the summer months. Puffins spend much of their lives at sea, coming ashore only to breed and raise their young. They nest in colonies on rocky cliffs where they use the craggy crevices for shelter.
Kenai Fjords provides ideal nesting habitat for puffins. Its rugged coastline and numerous islands offer plenty of good nesting sites for these adorable birds.
The most common species of puffin found in Kenai Fjords National Park is the horned puffin. You can easily identify them by their colorful bills, which have a bright orange stripe during the breeding season. You might see some out on the water, but we had the most luck spotting them on the cliffs and rocks.
Tufted puffins are another species of puffin found in Kenai Fjords, but we only saw one of them and they are less common. The puffin you see below with the bright orange beak and striped feathers going down the back of its head is a tufted puffin and the only one we saw. It was very exciting when we spotted him!
Orca Whales & Humpback Whales
Kenai Fjords National Park is home several species of whales, although we only saw humpback whales while we were there in early August. Humpback whales are the most commonly sighted whales during the summer months when they migrate to the cold Alaskan waters to feed.
But orcas (killer whales), gray whales, minke whales, and fin whales all make the waters of Alaska their home at various times of the year as part of their seasonal migrations where they travel thousands of miles between feeding and breeding grounds.
Humpback whales, for example, migrate from their breeding grounds in warm tropical waters to their feeding grounds in colder, nutrient-rich waters like those found in Alaska's coastal waters.
If you are lucky, you might even see whales breaching by leaping out of the water and crashing back down, fluke diving (raising their tail flukes before diving - we saw a lot of this behavior and there is a picture of it below), puffing spray as they take a breath, and spyhopping which is where they their heads vertically out of the water to look around. Observing these behaviors in the wild is super exciting and you can feel the energy on board the ship as even gasps and oohs and ahhs in unison.
Kenai Fjords National Park is home to two primary species of sea lions Steller sea lions are the larger of the two species, with males reaching weights of up to 2,500 pounds, although you might also see smaller California sea lions.
Sea lions can be seen lounging along the rocky coastlines and islands of Kenai Fjords National Park. They haul their bodies out onto the rocky shores and cliffs to bask in the sun and rest.
Sea lions are social animals that form large colonies, especially during the breeding season. They are also vocal animals, communicating with each other using a variety of barks, grunts, and other vocalizations, which you might hear if you come across a large group of them sunning themselves on the rocks.
This national park is a paradise for birdwatchers. In addition to the puffins that we already mentioned, you might also see common murres, which are sleek black and white seabirds with distinctive long, narrow bills. They nest in large colonies on coastal cliffs and islands and are often seen diving for fish in the park's waters. Here's an image of a common murre we saw on the rocks just above the water.
Black-legged kittiwakes are elegant gulls with gray wings and striking black legs. They nest in large colonies on steep cliffs and sea stacks and can often be seen wheeling and calling in the air above the park's coastline. I'm certainly no ornithologist, but I'm fairly certain the birds below are black-legged kittiwakes. Feel free to correct me in the comments below if I'm wrong!
The black oystercatcher (pictured below) is easily recognizable by its entirely black plumage, long orange-red bill, and bright yellow eyes. These birds inhabit rocky shorelines and coastal areas where they feed primarily on shellfish, particularly mussels and limpets, using their strong bills to pry open shells.
Double-crested cormorants are large, dark seabirds with long necks and hooked bills. They are often seen perched on rocks or cliffs with their wings spread out to dry. Cormorants nest in colonies on coastal cliffs and islands and feed primarily on fish, which they catch by diving underwater.
Arctic terns are graceful seabirds with a distinctive black cap and long, pointed wings. They undertake one of the longest migrations of any bird, traveling from their breeding grounds in the Arctic to their wintering grounds in the Antarctic and back again each year. Arctic terns nest in colonies on coastal beaches and islands in Kenai Fjords National Park.
There are many other bird species that you might see in the park, but these are the ones that we saw or heard about most on our boat tour.
Kenai Fjords National Park is home to sea otters, although the only one we saw was hanging out in the bay right outside of Seward. We saw her just floating on her back within 5 minutes of leaving the dock and she was still hanging around later in the day when we returned. This cute creature got more "awwwwws" than any other animal we encountered the whole day.
Sea otters are marine mammals that spend their entire lives in the ocean and are commonly found along the rocky coastlines and kelp forests of Kenai Fjords National Park, where they feed on a variety of marine invertebrates such as sea urchins, clams, crabs, and mussels.
Sea otters are often seen floating on their backs in the water, using their chest as a table to crack open shells to get at their dinner. The sea otters have rebounded from near extinction in the past due to hunting for their fur, but they still face threats from habitat loss, pollution, and disturbance from human activities.
Bald eagles are magnificent birds of prey and one of the most iconic symbols of American wildlife. You will likely see them all over Alaska if you spend much time there, but a bald eagle sighting never got old for us.
In Kenai Fjords National Park, bald eagles can be found along the coastline and near rivers and lakes in forested areas. They nest in tall trees near water, where they have easy access to the fish that are their primary food source.
Bald eagles typically mate for life and return to the same nesting site year after year. They build large stick nests, called aeries, in tall trees near water. Breeding pairs may add to their nest each year, resulting in massive structures that can weigh hundreds of pounds. Bald eagles usually lay one to three eggs per clutch, and both parents take turns incubating the eggs and caring for the young.
Bald eagles are an iconic species in Kenai Fjords National Park, and seeing these magnificent birds in their natural habitat was a highlight for us.
Harbor seals are one of the most common marine mammals found in Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska. They can be found in the coastal waters, fjords, and tidewater glaciers throughout the park and are known for their sleek, torpedo-shaped bodies, which are typically gray or brown with light spots or rings.
Harbor seals feed on the plentiful fish, crustaceans, and mollusks in the Alaska waters, and they are often seen hauling out on rocks, ice floes, or sandy beaches to rest and digest their food. They give birth to pups on ice or rocky shores typically during the summer months.
Our boat captain explained that harbor seals are sensitive to noise, especially loud or sudden noises, which can disrupt their normal feeding, resting, and communication. Because of that, everyone on board was asked to be very quiet and the boat didn't get too close so we wouldn't disturb this group of resting seals.
One of the highlights of a boat tour is getting up close to the park's magnificent glaciers. The number of glaciers you see will depend on the tour you go on as longer tours have more time to up into more fjiords and further into the park to see more glaciers while shorter tours may only see one or focus more on seeing wildlife instead.
You may even have the opportunity to see glaciers calving, where massive chunks of ice break off and crash into the water below, creating dramatic splashes and waves. This is both incredible to witness but also sad in some ways and can leave some feeling conflicted as they both want the glaciers to calve while simultaneously not wanting it to happen.
Holgate Glacier, where we went, is a tidewater glacier located in Aialik Bay, known for its stunning blue ice and dramatic calving events. It's another spot where you can see chunks of ice breaking off and crashing into the sea and it is surrounded by rugged coastline and towering cliffs.
Kenai Fjords National Park is home to multiple glaciers, each with its own unique characteristics and beauty. The Harding Icefield is a massive expanse of ice covering more than 700 square miles at the heart of Kenai Fjords National Park and it feeds many of the park's glaciers.
The Aialik Glacier is another one of the most impressive tidewater glaciers in Kenai Fjords National Park, stretching for over six miles as it flows down from the Harding Icefield into Aialik Bay. This is a popular one with boat tours because they can get up close to glacier to witness calving events and hear the thunderous roar of ice breaking off into the bay.
We happened to be there on a very wet, very gray day so the pictures we have just don't do justice to the brilliant blue and white of the glacier ice. But you can imagine how stunning they are when the sun is shining and the skies are brilliant and clear.
Other Activities in Kenai Fjiords National Park
Another popular way to experience Kenai Fjords is by kayaking. You can rent kayaks or join a guided kayak tour to explore the coastline and get a unique perspective on the park's beauty. Kayaking allows you to access more secluded areas that larger boats can't reach.
There are several hiking trails in the park that offer stunning views of the glaciers and fjords. Some popular trails include the Harding Icefield Trail, which takes you to an overlook of the massive Harding Icefield, and the Exit Glacier Nature Trail, which offers a close-up view of Exit Glacier.
For a truly unforgettable experience, consider taking a flightseeing tour over the park. These tours give you a bird's eye view of the glaciers, fjords, and mountains, allowing you to see the park's beauty from a unique perspective.
This is a super popular experience that you can do in many parts of Alaska as reaching the wild and rugged terrain is inaccessible by any other way than air.
Kenai Fjords National Park Visitor Center
There are 2 visitor centers for Kenai Fjiords National Park. One is at Exit Glacier and the other is actually in the town of Seward. You can watch the park film and look at the exhibits in the visitor centers to learn about the landscape and wildlife in the parks. There are also helpful rangers who are happy to answer questions and are a wealth of knowledge.
Hiking to Exit Glacier
Exit Glacier is one of the most accessible glaciers in Kenai Fjords National Park. It is just a short 10 to 15 minute drive from the park's entrance near the town of Seward. A paved trail leads to various viewpoints of the glacier, and one of the most interesting things about it is seeing the markers indicating the various points where the glacier has retreated or advanced over the years. It really gives you a feel for how the glacier is moving and changing over time.
Exit Glacier is a popular destination for hiking and guided walks with park rangers and you can learn a lot about glaciers as well as the park's natural history. Our 4th grader ended up studying glaciers just a month after we got home from our trip and it was so great that she had first hand knowledge that was so fresh for her to share with her class!
Other Things to Know
Be prepared for changing weather conditions, as it can be quite variable in coastal Alaska. Dress in layers and bring rain gear, as rain showers are common, even in the summer months. Additionally, be aware that tours may be canceled or altered due to inclement weather or unsafe sea conditions.
Weather and Climate
The weather in Kenai Fjords can be unpredictable, with rain, wind, and fog common, even in the summer months. Dress in layers and bring waterproof clothing, regardless of the season.
Kenai Fjords National Park is accessible by road from the nearby town of Seward. Many cruise ships stop here so some people only visit for a day. If you're flying into Alaska, Anchorage is the closest major airport and the drive from Anchorage to Seward is absolutely breathtaking and one of our most memorable experiences all on its own.
You can also take the Alaska Railway from Anchorage to Seward during the summer, which would be a great way to travel so you can enjoy the view. It's a great option if you don't want to rent a car or you are traveling with kids and want them to be able to stretch their legs more.
Where to Eat in Seward
We didn't try every place in Seward since there are quite a few options to choose from, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention Firebrand BBQ. We got smoked ribs and brisket with coleslaw and beans and it was some of the best food we ate in Alaska. I highly recommend it!
Have you been to Seward? We would love to hear your experiences or if you have other tips or highlights that we didn't mention.