Hidden Gems

This Ethereal National Park Is Home to Ancient Glaciers and Unmatched Wildlife

The Last Frontier's immense mountains, tundras, and valleys need no introduction.

Noppawat Tom Charoensinphon/Getty Images
Noppawat Tom Charoensinphon/Getty Images
Noppawat Tom Charoensinphon/Getty Images

Welcome to National Parks Uncovered, where we’ll help you discover the beauty of America’s most underrated-and least-crowded-national parks. from sweeping landscapes where you can get up close and personal with mountains, glaciers, and volcanoes to sunny paradises hiding out near major cities like Chicago and LA. To find out what natural wonders you’ve been missing out on, check out the rest of the package here.Whittled into existence by the movement of glaciers over the course of several millennia, Kenai Fjords National Park in south central Alaska is a cocktail of steep fjords, temperate rainforests, scraggly coastline, and-the park’s best-known feature-the dozens of 23,000-year-old, otherworldly-blue glaciers spilled out across roughly 670,000 acres.

More than 50 percent of Kenai Fjords is covered in glacial ice, but the 700-square-mile Harding Ice Field is what earned the area national park distinction in 1980-it’s now only one of four ice fields left in the United States. It might be worth getting there soon, as signs of its climate change-induced melt are everywhere: At Exit Glacier, one of the ice fields’ frozen fingers, trail markers note where the face of the glacier once sat, illustrating how the ice has melted thousands of feet over the decades.

Still, despite the onset of global warming, Kenai Fjords’ unique ecosystem has allowed wildlife to thrive. More than 191 species of birds have been documented here, including puffins, eagles, and ptarmigan. There are also roughly 30 types of land mammals-think moose, mountain goats, and wolverines-and about a dozen marine mammals swim in the waters off the coast; on any given day, you might see humpback and killer whales, sea otters, and harbor porpoise passing by.

There are two ways to experience the ethereal landscapes of Kenai Fjords: by land or by sea. By land, it’s possible to drive up to Exit Glacier and, from there, hike further out into the wilderness; by sea, you can see where the ice fields meet the coastline by boat. Both will require a little effort, but it’s worth it to see this criminally underrated slice of the 49th state.

Tomasz Wozniak/Shutterstock
Tomasz Wozniak/Shutterstock
Tomasz Wozniak/Shutterstock

How to get to Kenai Fjords National Park

From Alaska’s largest city, Anchorage, Kenai Fjords is about 2.5 hours by car or just over four hours on the Alaska Railroad to Seward, the nearest town. Many visitors tend to cram the park into a day trip from Anchorage. Maybe that’s because they have a jam-packed Alaska itinerary; maybe it’s because Kenai Fjords doesn’t have the same name recognition as, say, Denali, and they’re just not aware of how much there is to do. Whatever the reason, they’re missing out. While a day trip is doable, it’s hard to grasp the magnitude of the place in just a few hours; if you can, stick around for a few days for the best experience.

Also worth noting: Because it’s such a wild landscape (and because so much of the park is inaccessible), unless you possess the kind of wilderness skills that could land you a spot on Alone, it’s a good idea to sign up for a tour.

The best time to visit Kenai Fjords National Park

The good news is that Kenai Fjords is free to enter and open 24/7/365 (although the Visitor Center and the Exit Glacier Nature Center close in the winter). Still, hands down, the best time to visit Kenai Fjords is between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Summer in the 49th state is divine-the sun barely sets, the temperatures are Goldilocks-approved, and every restaurants’ seafood was probably caught within the last 24 hours.

It’s also really the only time you can visit the park easily. Day cruises generally run regularly from mid-May to early September (with a few select sailings in March, April, and October), so unless you have your own boat or know a guy, it’s not possible to access the park by water in the winter. Going the land route is also a challenge during the cold weather months: Herman Leirer Road, the only road into the park, is closed to cars from October to whenever the snow melts, usually by April or May. Of course, if you want to cross country ski, snowmobile, or dogsled in, by all means, go ahead.

Noppawat Tom Charoensinphon/Getty Images
Noppawat Tom Charoensinphon/Getty Images
Noppawat Tom Charoensinphon/Getty Images

Scale ancient glaciers and towering peaks

The crown jewel of Kenai Fjords National Park, Harding Ice Field, feeds more than 30 glaciers, covers 700 square miles, and is estimated to be roughly 4,000 feet deep. However, seeing it in all its stark, otherworldly glory is no easy task: the trail, albeit popular, is strenuous. For just over 4.5 miles, hikers on the Harding Ice Field Trail gain 3,641 feet of elevation on a 6-8 hour trek (not to mention the National Park Service warns hikers to keep an eye out for bears). The trail starts on the valley floor before snaking through alder forests and fireweed-filled meadows before crossing above the tree line. Even in peak summer, the trail’s terminus is often covered in snow.

If you’d like to get up close and personal with a glacier, but don’t care to spend all day hiking, consider the Exit Glacier Overlook Trail, instead. The two-mile loop has a paved path and negligible elevation gain but still gets you close enough to touch a glacier. During the summer, Park Rangers lead walks on that trail (lasting 1.5 hours), where they talk about the flora, fauna, and how the glacier-carved the valley. The first part of the walk follows the trail to the Glacier View lookout and is wheelchair accessible.

While it’s not technically in the park, you can see the protected land (as well as all of Seward, Resurrection Bay, and many neighboring mountain ranges) from a distance from the top of Mount Marathon. Fair warning: it’s a humbler. There are two routes to the top, the first being called The Runner’s Trail because, each July 4, elite athletes come from all over the world to race to the top and back, a three-mile dash that includes a vertical gain of about 3,022 feet in a single .9-mile section.The fastest time to date was just over 41 minutes. People say if you’re not bleeding when you finish, you didn’t try hard enough (which is why the race has been dubbed the toughest 5k on the planet). For mortals, there’s the (slightly) easier Jeep Trail. It’s a less treacherous 4.1-mile loop, which usually takes hikers about four hours to complete.

If you want to get to a glacier without hiking, fear not, there is a way: Dog mushing. For nearly three decades, Mitch Seavey and his son Dallas have been the top dogs in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race-they’ve won seven races between the two of them, six of which were in the last nine years. That’s all to say: they know dog mushing, and they’ll teach you, too. From late April until the snow melts, participants can mush an actual Iditarod team, from a dog sled, to Exit Glacier. Once the snow is gone, the Seavey’s hitch the team up to a wheeled cart-it’s how they stay in racing condition year-round.

Visiting Kenai Fjords in the winter? You can still visit Exit Glacier with local company Adventure Sixty North. They lead two-hour Snow Cat tours to Exit Glacier, with the option to add on an additional two hours of snowshoe hiking. They also offer a snow machine tour (that’s “snowmobile” to Lower 48ers) on the same route. Depending on conditions, you won’t always see the glacier, but the quiet ride down the birch tree-lined road is magical all the same.

mtnmichelle/Getty Images
mtnmichelle/Getty Images
mtnmichelle/Getty Images

Watch whales leap through the air on a wildlife and glacier cruise

Boat tours are easily the most popular day trip within Kenai Fjords, and for good reason. During the half- and full-day tours, pleasure cruisers can witness glaciers calving off chunks the size of sedans, spot sea lions perched out on rocky outcroppings, watch breaching whales hurl themselves out of the water as a big fuck you to gravity, and hear the soprano squawks of seabirds as they soar overhead. Usually, there’s a salmon buffet meal and margaritas made with glacier ice that accompanies the longer sailings.

Though some whales, like belugas, can be seen year-round, the best time for whale watching is between March and October (with peak season being June through August) when whales migrate from warmer climes to feast in the krill-rich waters off Alaska’s shores. Gray whales head north first in March and April, orcas become more common in May, and finally, the humpback whales arrive in June.Kenai Fjords Tours is the most senior glacier and wildlife tour operator in the area. They have six tours options, including a 5.5-hour glacier dinner cruise and an 8.5-hour wildlife tour that culminates with dinner on Fox Island. Their boats are bigger and generally able to handle rough waters better. Major Marine Tours has a similar roster of cruises, with the exception of a 3.5-hour budget cruise. If you’re looking for something more intimate, you might consider Alaska Saltwater Tours. Though their vessel could take 30 guests, they limit it to 15, so you’ll have plenty of elbow room while snapping photos.

If you’re not keen on being on a boat, another alternative is seeing where the ice, forest, and water converge from above on a scenic flightseeing tour of Kenai Fjords. It’s hard to fully grasp just how superlative Alaska is until you see it from the sky-and even then, it’s still unfathomable.

For those looking to get a bird’s-eye view of the remarkable landscapes of the 49th state, there are a handful of tour operators that offer scenic flightseeing tours of Kenai Fjords, including AA Seward Air Tours (a bush plane company that offers flights to four different glaciers, with an optional glacier landing), Marathon Helicopters (where every seat is a window seat and tours range from 30 minutes to an hour), and Exit Glacier Guides (which drops guests on Harding Icefield, so they can ski down).

James + Courtney Forte/Getty Images
James + Courtney Forte/Getty Images
James + Courtney Forte/Getty Images

Kayak amidst tidewater glaciers

Alaska’s Indigenous people have long paddled the waters of what is now Kenai Fjords National Park-granted, their boats were probably much different from the polyethylene ocean kayaks used by outdoor guides today. Myriad sea kayaking companies operate out of Seward and can take adventurers deep into the park to paddle amongst bobbing bits of iceberg, into protected coves, and in the company of sea otters and whales.

Sunny Cove Kayaking zooms adventurers out to Kenai Fjords in their private catamaran, where they can noodle around tidewater glaciers. Liquid Adventures does full-day expeditions to Aialik Glacier, where guests can paddle in the electric-blue waters. And Kayak Adventures Worldwide makes custom trips geared towards families.

Where to stay near Kenai Fjords National Park

Unless you plan to day-trip in from Anchorage, you’ll want to anchor yourself in Seward. Once you’re there, where you stay depends on how close to activities you want to be and how upscale you prefer your digs.

If you’re looking for something budget-friendly, there are oodles of places to camp. Exit Glacier Campground is the only established campground within the park, but backcountry camping-not for the faint of heart!-is allowed anywhere else. Miller’s Landing is a perennial favorite campground on nearby Resurrection Bay; just be sure to reserve one of the tent spots or rustic cabins ahead of time.

If you can’t be without private bathrooms and electricity, you might consider Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge, whose 16 Alaska-chic cabins have the closest real beds to the park entrance. In downtown Seward, there’s Harbor 360 Hotel and Gateway Hotel Seward, both of which are conveniently close to the Small Boat Harbor, where most of the day cruises depart from. For something more middle-ground, there are also a smattering of Airbnbs and locally-owned cabins for rent, including joints like Salted Roots or the Domestead.

Matt Champlin/Getty Images
Matt Champlin/Getty Images
Matt Champlin/Getty Images

Things to know before you go

All over Alaska, you’ll see tourists wearing head-to-toe Gore-Tex just to noodle around the shops downtown. Although you don’t need to refit your entire wardrobe, do come prepared for any kind of weather. Summer temperatures can fluctuate anywhere between 40 and 70 degrees, and while it might be a bluebird morning, fog and rain can roll in quickly. Trust us: you don’t want to be caught several miles down a trail in a T-shirt and shorts when that happens. A common refrain in Alaska is “cotton kills” because the fabric takes a long time to dry. Instead, opt for garments made with wicking materials, like polyester or nylon.

Also, remember that this is bear country-both black and brown bears are found within Kenai Fjords. While you certainly don’t need to worry if you’re just going on a cruise, it’s a good idea to pick up some bear spray (and to know how to use it!) if you plan to do any camping or hiking. Most grocery stores and gas stations in Seward sell cans. That being said, bears want to avoid you as much as you want to avoid them. So long as you make your presence known as you walk along the trails (singing or talking is fine) and properly store your food (keep leftovers at least 100 feet from your campsite overnight to avoid attracting critters), it’s unlikely you’ll need to bust out the bear spray on your trip.

Last but not least, if you plan on spending time in Kenai Fjords without a guide, it’s a good idea to bring a paper map since there’s no cell reception in the vast majority of the park.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat.

Bailey Berg (@baileybergs) is an Alaska-based journalist covering travel, beer, the outdoors, & more.

Hidden Gems

Get Refreshed on This Tranquil Florida Island

Come for the beaches, stay for the shrimp festivals and pirates.

The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island
The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island
The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island

Between Key West, Everglades National Park, Miami, and an adorable rodent named Mickey Mouse, Florida reigns as the quintessential summertime vacation destination. But amidst all the well-trod destinations, one comparatively quiet island on the state’s northernmost coast is an oceanic sleeper hit with all the “fun in the sun,” minus the hordes. In fact, Amelia Island is so far north-about 45 minutes north of Jacksonville-that it’s practically Georgia, with native flora that looks more Savannah than South Beach and with historic lore and nautical noshes to match.

Part of the same string of barrier islands that hug Georgia’s coast, Amelia Island is the first of that chain to cross the state line. Considering its geographic proximity, it’s no wonder that the 13-mile-long island is draped in Spanish moss and is refreshingly cooler than the rest of the sweltering state. It’s a place of Native American stories and swashbuckling history, of tortoises and gingerbread pirate ships, and of shrimp festivals and CBD-infused spa treatments. Amelia was populated for centuries by the Timucua people before Spanish explorers, pirates, and Civil War fortresses came barging in, and long before the island’s Fernandina Beach became a bastion of brick-lined sidewalks, Victorian buildings, fudge shops, and saloons.

Unlike the palm tree-lined calamity of South Beach, the swarming theme parks of central Florida, the burnt rubber of Daytona Beach, or even the surprising New Orleans-y vibes of Pensacola, the serenity of Amelia Island, woven with trout-filled waterways and lined with luxury hotels, feels like a slice of Floridian life all its own.

The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island
The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island
The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island

Where to stay on Amelia Island

Rising like a castle on the sandy shores, The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island is the queen of the island. And like any regal queen, the property celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2021 in style, with a thorough glow up. The crown jewel of Amelia Island glistens even more brightly these days, with refreshed balcony-equipped rooms, design touches and tones inspired by the surrounding natural landscape, and enough high-quality restaurants to cater a jubilee.

Steps from the beach, the property is the ultimate oceanfront oasis, equipped with Floridian essentials like an 18-hole golf course, a fully loaded spa with CBD-infused massages and their signature zero-gravity touch therapy in hand-woven hammocks, and heated pools with chic, shaded cabanas. Guests can embark on the resort naturalist program, taking a leisurely walking tour around the property to learn about the flora and fauna, including the rare chance to see both sand-digging gopher tortoises and marsh rabbits on the same dune, surely contemplating a footrace. With a big concentration on the culinary (more on that later), the hotel offers monthly “chef’s theater” cooking demonstrations, as well as “Hook, Line & Cruise” outings, where guests embark on fishing excursions, culminating with ceviche prepared by a chef back on the dock.

For something a bit more intimate, Amelia Island boasts quaint inns like Elizabeth Point Lodge, a Nantucket-style cottage B&B right on the beach. Their smattering of suites and guest rooms are equipped with four-poster beds, balconies, and a charming front porch lined with rocking chairs. Closer to downtown Fernandina Beach, Williams House is a B&B that oozes romance and charm, with two-course breakfasts each morning and 10 rooms scattered across three carriage houses and Antebellum mansions.

Timoti's Seafood Shak
Timoti’s Seafood Shak
Timoti’s Seafood Shak

Binge on shrimp and blackened fish tacos

Say what you will about Florida, but the state has good seafood-some of the best in the country, in fact. Amelia Island in particular is the kind of nautical nirvana where chefs go fishing early in the morning and then serve their catch at lunch, or even fillet it on the marina dock right before your eyes.

On the casual end of the spectrum, Timoti’s Seafood Shack in downtown Fernandina Beach is the kind of place that slings Spongebob-worthy crab patty burgers, fried oyster baskets, hush puppies, and blackened mahi tacos-and hangs signage that reads “No shoes, no shirt, no shrimp!”

Nestled under a bridge at a marina, Down Under has become a dockside institution all its own. Formerly a fish camp that sold bait to fishermen before being turned into a seafaring restaurant in 1982, it’s become an iconic stopover. Anglers looking to drop anchor at the dock hunker down on the huge deck for creamy crab dip, peel-and-eat shrimp, and grouper Monterey, broiled under a layer of molten Monterey Jack cheese and caramelized onions.

Salt at The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island
Salt at The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island
Salt at The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island

On the higher end, seafood shines at the myriad restaurants at The Ritz-Carlton. Coast is the most locally inspired, offering an elevated take on Florida’s bounty. They source fish and seafood from local fishermen for dishes like shrimp Louie salads, garlic-buttery shrimp boules (basically a kind of shrimp chowder in a fresh bread bowl), and blackened flounder sandwiches, alongside pimento-filled arancini and fried green tomatoes slathered in gooey Burrata. Poolside Coquina takes a Latin approach, with bracingly fresh catch-of-the-day ceviche, spicy shrimp aguachile, and whole roasted fish wrapped in banana leaves and spritzed with lime.

Then there’s Salt, the ritziest of the restaurants at The Ritz, so named for its emphasis on infused sea salts. Expertly deployed by seasoned chef Okan Kizilbayir, the regal restaurant features ever-changing tasting menus inspired by both land and sea, served up in artful presentations with sauces poured table side and dainty scoops of ice cream gilded with edible gold. Whether a la carte or prix fixe, Kizilbayir’s menu changes constantly, from a squid ink paella with lobster soffrito to a schnitzel-looking blackened skate with a lustrous butternut escabeche broth. If you can snag a reservation, it’s all best enjoyed at the two-person chef’s table in a wine-filled room inside the kitchen.

For something more sugar than salt, hit up the aptly dubbed Fernandina’s Fantastic Fudge. This cute and kitschy sweet shop is still stirring fudge, pralines, caramels, and other treats the old fashioned way. They churn the goods with long wooden paddles, then fold and flip the cooled concoction with so much gumption that there are fudge stains on the ceiling.

The Palace Saloon
The Palace Saloon
The Palace Saloon

Drink with buccaneers and ghosts

Indoor-outdoor bars with live music are a popular pastime on the island, exemplified by local cornerstones like Green Turtle Tavern. The huge bar looks like a lowcountry cabin, or like a real life version of True Blood‘s Merlotte’s. But instead of vampires and bottled blood, it’s country bands and reggae musicians with a side of frozen strawberry margaritas.

Just around the corner, Palace Saloon peddles a different kind of kitsch-the type that involves boozy punch and ghost stories. Established in 1903, it’s one of the oldest continuously operating bars in Florida, even discreetly making sales through Prohibition. In its earliest heyday, this rustic watering hole was a veritable Cheers for thirsty ship captains. Nowadays, it’s a preserved-in-time relic outfitted with a dusty jukebox, mosaic-tile floors, and an ornate wood bar that looks like something out of Hill House-which makes sense, considering the saloon may or may not be haunted by the booze-loving ghost of a former bartender. The drink of choice? The deceptively boozy Pirate’s Punch, made with banana liqueur, triple sec, white rum, Amaretto, grenadine, orange juice, and pineapple juice.

Back at the encompassing Ritz-Carlton, The Lobby Bar, despite its modest name, wows with meticulous mixology. Their roster includes old fashioneds smoked in an elaborate glass box that looks like an A+ science project, alongside jaw-dropping sushi platters large enough to satiate a great white.

The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island
The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island
The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island

Lounge on beaches full of history

In addition to aforementioned ocean-to-table fishing excursions, Amelia Island is teeming with outdoor recreation for the naval historian, the paddle boarder, and everyone in between. Naturally, beach-going is a primary pastime here, with 13 miles of sandy shoreline and more than 40 public access points with free parking. (Pro tip: If you have a Florida license plate, you’re allowed to drive your vehicle right onto the beach in select areas, for optimal sunrise vibes.)

The island’s beaches are divvied into three main sections: the Main Beach, Central Amelia Island, and American Beach. The former is nicknamed the “family zone” for its beachfront restaurants, mini golf, volleyball courts, playgrounds, and picnic shelters. Whereas Central Amelia Island has more recreational options, like paddle board rentals, kayaking, and walking and biking trails through marshy Egans Creek Greenway. Then there’s American Beach, a parcel of shoreline set aside in 1935 by the Pension Bureau of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company to combat the state’s segregation laws. Over the years, it served as an oceanic getaway for famed sunbathers like Ray Charles and James Brown, and today it’s a stop on Florida’s Black Heritage Trail.

On the very northern tip of Amelia Island, Fort Clinch State Park is a mashup of nature and ironclad Civil War lore. Nestled along the St. Mary’s River that separates Florida from Georgia, and lined with rows of olden cannons, sits a brick fortress that was initially constructed in 1847 to defend the US against foreign invaders, a la the War of 1812. Following the start of the Civil War, the fort began under Confederate control until Union troops took over in 1862. Today, visitors can explore the fort’s various labyrinthine rooms or branch out and hike along oak-lined trails throughout the 1,400-acre park.

Amelia Island
Amelia Island
Amelia Island

Party like a pirate

As evidenced by the kitschy taverns, fudge-flinging candy shops, and the omnipresence of wooden pirate statues scattered throughout Fernandina Beach, Amelia Island isn’t shy about getting eccentric. Indeed, it’s prime territory for some of the quirkiest fetes in Florida, like the wildly popular Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival. A celebration of one of the island’s most popular provisions (as seen on every restaurant menu in the vicinity), the festival is like Lollapalooza for shellfish. Celebrations are comprised of parades, art shows, artisan vendors, elaborately decorated shrimp boats, pirate-themed costume contests, and the Miss Shrimp Festival Pageant. Held annually in late-April and/or early-May, it’s not uncommon to see giant shrimp floats roving through downtown Fernandina Beach and dogs trotting by in shrimp costumes, past a sea of food vendors slinging all manner of shrimpy specialties.

Speaking of pirates, their swashbuckling lore inspires another seasonal pastime here on the island. The deep waters at Port Fernandina were once an easy retreat for pirate ships, and therefore used to be a haven for the likes of Blackbeard and Luis Aury. The island is now a haven for another kind of pirate ship-one made of gingerbread. The S.S. Amelia is an annual holiday tradition at The Ritz-Carlton, where a giant gingerbread pirate ship drops anchor in the lobby for the season, complete with cookie cannons, a candy-filled treasure chest, masts and sails, and of course, a pirate captain who is technically edible.

Other happenings include the annual Right Whale Festival, held every November as an altruistic celebration of the whale that comes to northeast Florida to give birth. The family-friendly event is designed to raise awareness for the endangered species, offering edutainment elements alongside food trucks, live music, and ocean-themed activities for kids.

Then, come new year, you won’t be surprised to learn that instead of a ball drop, Amelia Island hosts a shrimp drop in downtown Fernandina Beach. A giant bedazzled shrimp is lowered at the stroke of midnight, beckoning a whole new year of fishing, ceviche-eating, and gingerbread piracy.

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Matt Kirouac is a travel writer with a passion for national parks, Disney, and food. He’s the co-founder and co-host of Hello Ranger, a national parks community blog, podcast, and app. Follow him on IG @matt_kirouac.

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