Kenai Fjords National Park

Kenai Fjords National Park sees more than 320 million visitors each year

Near Seward on the Kenai Peninsula, Kenai Fjords National Park protects the Harding Icefield and at least 38 glaciers and fjords stemming from it. The only area accessible to the public by road is Exit Glacier; the rest must be viewed or reached from boat tours.


In one place eroding into graceful arches, in another withstanding the ocean’s constant blows

The stark beauty of a land shrouded in ice, bordering the ocean, and teeming with wildlife covers a plot taking place underneath it all. Beneath the splendor, larger forces are at work. The movement of tectonic plates and the delivery and formation of various rock types prescribe where birds nest, where Steller sea lions breed, and where glaciers flow. The varying rock of the fjords underwrites the spectacle seen above- in one place eroding into graceful arches, in another withstanding the ocean’s constant blows.

Crustal Collision
Plate tectonics theory describes how the Earth is put together, and how it changes over time. The center of the Earth is a tremendously hot core of iron and nickel. Surrounding this is a hot mantle of liquid rock. On the outer edge of the Earth, where it is at last cool enough for the magma to harden into solid rock, the material forms a crust. Convection currents are at work within the Earth. Boiling magma rises from the mantle, cooling near the crust and sinking back again to be re-warmed. This movement disrupts the crust, breaking it into pieces and moving them around.

Continental plates are pieces of crust visible as the continents of the Earth. Oceanic plates are heavier pieces of crust, sinking lower into the mantle and are covered by oceans. The collision of plates builds mountains at their edges, and the build-up and release of stress at the boundaries causes earthquakes.

Mysteries of Movement
The rocks that make up Kenai Fjords National Park have sometimes been carried great distances. Some rock was once coral reef close to the equator: It was carried along as the Pacific plate rotated counterclockwise, traveling north, transforming en route to stone. In the far western end of the park, a mixture of chert and basalt scraped from the ocean floor is jumbled with blocks of limestone that contain fossils matching those found in China and Afghanistan. These segments of rock moved from their original home are called terranes. The entire coastline of Alaska is made of a mixture of terranes and local igneous material.

In the park, as the North Pacific oceanic plate subducts beneath us, pressue builds up and pushes the edge of the continent upward. Since the 1990’s, GPS measurements record this upward movement along the coast of the park at an average rate of 10mm/yr. When the pressure along the subduction boundary releases in the form of a large eaerthquake, the ground that was being pushed upward rapidly drops. For example, during the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake, the coast of Kenai Fjords dropped between 3 and 8 feet. On a longer timescale, sea level has risen and drowned the coast of the park. In the heyday of the last Ice Age, which began about 25,000 years ago, ice built up in the curve of every peak, gouging out cirques; high valleys that nourished glaciers. A warming climate raised sea level 10,000 years ago and snow falling at lower elevations melted in the summers, no longer transforming to glacial ice. The cirques are now drowned in ocean water and the peaks that edged above Pleistocene ice are now islands surrounded by sea.

Capes and Cliffs
Many visitors to Kenai Fjords National Park take a boat trip out of Resurrection Bay to see the wildlife, glaciers, and scenery. On the east side of the bay, Cape Resurrection presents a massive, sheer cliff to the pounding of the waves. The rock here is pillow basalt, a type of igneous rock that formed when lava flowed out underneath the water and cooled rapidly. It gets its name from the bulbous, pillow-like shapes which form as a result of this rapid cooling. The bubbled texture of the cliff provides an ideal habitat for nesting birds like black-legged kittiwakes and horned puffins.

On the opposite side of the bay, the shore is eroded into spires, cliffs, and coves. Exposed areas reveal buckled layers of ancient sediment. Mud, transformed by heat and pressure, becomes shale, a fine-grained, dark-colored stone with many thin layers. With more time and more pressure, the shale becomes slate. If there is sand mixed with the original mud, it may become greywacke instead. These softer layers crumble into the sea more rapidly than basalt. Arches and spires form from the erosive action of waves.

As you round the corner to the west, moving out of Resurrection Bay, Cape Aialik juts into the tumultuous water. The rock here is granodiorite, part of a massive pluton that extends down the shore, cropping up again at the entrance to Northwestern Fiord. Granodiorite is of a lighter color than the ocean sediment rocks. It is also more resistant to weathering, such as by the action of glaciers upon its surface. Where glaciers have carved the bedrock into impossibly steep cliffs, the slate crumbles once the ice melts away – but the granodiorite stands, its sheer surfaces draped with waterfalls.

Cliffs and islands of greywacke, like Nuka Island, have virtually no seabirds nesting on them because their softer surface is too easily eroded to make a safe home. Granitic islands, on the other hand, are packed with birds. The Chiswell Islands, pinnacles of granodiorite stretching up from the sea floor, are home to tens of thousands of puffins, murres, and auklets. The affinity birds seem to have for granite is one of many ways that bedrock influences the life found on its surface. Sea lions, too, congregate on smooth granitic slabs washed by ocean swells to mate, give birth, and rest.

Seams So Real
The bedrock of Kenai Fjords National Park was carried north by the action of the tectonic plates. It was heated and pressed into a new form. In certain places, it was also broken. The fractures in the rock filled swiftly with jets of superheated water from deep in the Earth. The water carried dissolved minerals such as iron, silica, arsenic, and gold. These precipitated out, forming white and brown streaks across the darker bedrock.

As park glaciers retreat, more bedrock is exposed. Signs of past events are visible in the white seams of quartz shooting through the dark greywacke and in layers of upended slate which give silent testimony to the slow, inexorable compression of plates. Ice has left its scouring marks across every surface. Once the ice is gone, these signs of the past are quickly engulfed by a verdant wave of life which flows across the landscape, rushing forth to fill every conceivable niche and to hide the larger forces at work.

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Native American History

Home of the Sugpiaq peoples

The Sugpiaq (also known as Alutiiq) are a maritime people who traditionally hunted and subsisted on the outer Kenai Peninsula coast. Archeological evidence indicates they have used the Kenai Fjords area for more than a 1,000 years.
The Port Graham Corporation was formed under the Alaska Native Settlement Act of 1971 to represent the Sugpiag people inhabiting the Kenai Fjords. Some of the land along the coastline of the park is owned by the Port Graham Corporation.
Learn more about the Sugpiaq and other Alaska Native cultures by visiting:

Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska, which is on permanent exhibit at the Anchorage Museum through a partnership with the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center.
The Alaska Native Heritage Center, a renowned cultural center and museum in Anchorage, is an exciting place where all people can come to expand their understanding of Alaska’s Indigenous people.
Sugpiat of the Lower Kenai Peninsula Coast (2004) by Ronald T. Stanek
Connected to the Land: The Alutiiq of the Outer Kenai Coast

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Park History

How Kenai Fjords became a National Park

The story of the Kenai Fjords is not just one of geology and landforms, but also of people. Archeological evidence indicates the region has been home to Alaska Natives for thousands of years. In more recent times, hunters, fishermen, fox farmers, miners, and more have made use of the fjords.

Within Kenai Fjords National Park, a representative piece of the north Gulf Coast of Alaska, stories of people and places abound; from the Sugpiaq, whose camps dotted the coastline, to the mining camps that once operated in the Nuka Bay area. Remnants of former times are abundant. They are worthy of protection as much as any natural feature, as they are invaluable links to the past.

We work to document the people in the park, past and present, and help preserve places with special history. The park maintains an extensive museum collection, of more then 250,000 objects, representing the history of this area. As part of our mission to preserve and protect the natural and cultural history of this special place, archeologists survey and analyze the remains of sites throughout the park, as well as, sites from historic Seward.

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The best things to do at Kenai Fjords National Park

As you can see, adventures in your National Park abound. Alongside the above opportunities, you may want to consider looking into experiencing Kenai Fjords (the park and surrounding area) through such experiences as fishing tours, flight seeing tours, and mountaineering endeavors. Although much of the park is rugged wilderness, there are ways to explore for all interests and abilities.

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The maritime climate and abrupt, glacially carved peaks of the Kenai Fjords are home to a diverse array of plants

The maritime climate and abrupt, glacially carved peaks of the Kenai Fjords are home to a diverse array of plants. From the largest Sitka spruces, ancient and immense, to the smallest shoots of sprouting fireweed and the soft and verdant blankets of moss covering the forest floor, the plants of Kenai Fjords thrive in a harsh land of ice, rock, snow and rain. The sheer cliffs, jagged peaks and steep valleys of the ice-carved landscape create huge variations in habitat and plant communities over short distances. Lush and highly productive temperate rainforests can be found less than a mile or two from nearly desolate mountain ridges which support only a thin layer of alpine vegetation.

Kenai Fjords National Park is a truly dynamic place. Some of the changes are natural. Others are not. As glaciers retreat since the last ice age, plants colonize new areas and ecosystems grow and change through ecological succession. Anthropogenic climate change is speeding this process, and humans are further modifying the natural order by introducing invasive plants. The plants of Kenai Fjords are a perfect lens through which to see the forces of nature at work, remaking the landscape and its inhabitants, and to understand the growing role of human decisions in shaping the natural world.\

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Animal Life

The array and adaptability of Kenai Fjord’s creatures is astounding

The array and adaptability of Kenai Fjord’s creatures is astounding. A sheer mountain cliff is a trail to a 2 week old mountain goat. Birds here are notably better at swimming with their wings than using them in the air. Glacial ice is home sweet home to an ice worm. Whales take flying lessons and black bears enjoy sledding without equipment down steep snow chutes. It seems nearly magic but it is just nature at its most resourceful, adapting to the local extremes.

A total of 191 species of birds have been documented in the park and many pelagic (open sea) birds can be found in the waters or nesting on or near the park.

Land Mammals
The following land mammals can be found at Kenai Fjords National Park: black bear, brown bear, beaver, coyote, mountain goat, river otter, snowshoe hare, little brown bat, lynx, hoary marmot, marten, mink, moose, meadow jumping mouse, northern bog lemming, porcupine, shrew (5 species), red squirrel, vole (4 species), short-tailed weasel, gray wolf, and wolverine.

Marine Mammals
The following can be found in the waters and coast line near Kenai Fjords National Park: sea otter, Dall’s porpoise, harbor porpoise, Steller sea lion, harbor seal, orca (killer whale), fin whale, gray whale, humpback whale, minke whale, and sei whale.

In addition, the following marine mammals are on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s threatened or endangered species list: humpback whale, sei whale, gray whale, and Steller sea lion.

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Hiking Trails

The best hikes in Kenai Fjords National Park

The only maintained trails in Kenai Fjords National Park are those in the Exit Glacier Area. These include:

Several short trails on the valley floor.
The Harding Icefield Trail.
Backcountry Hiking
Most of the backcountry is trail-less wilderness. Off-trail hiking is not recommended.The terrain is steep and rugged, and often requires scrambling through dense vegetation.

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