Exploring Northwestern Fjord in Kenai Fjords National Park

I couldn't have asked for a better introduction to Kenai Fjords National Park than spending 3 days and 2 nights exploring the pristine wilderness of Northwestern Fjord!

By: Sonja Saxe + Save to a List

In early May my boyfriend and I headed to Alaska to explore Kenai Fjords National Park and the highlight of the trip was the 3 day/2 night kayaking trip we went on with Miller's Landing. While there are a few trails to hike in the park the best way to see and experience Kenai Fjords is by boat, however, we didn't want to take just a short day cruise. We wanted to really immerse ourselves in the park so we chose to go on Miller's Landing Northwestern Fjord tour with an extra day added. Miller's, like other adventure outfitters in Seward, offer trips to Aialik Bay and Bear Glacier and while they both look like incredible places to explore (and I plan to some day!) they can also see a bit more traffic and I wanted to avoid crowds if possible. Elijah at Miller's Landing assured me that the Northwestern Fjord tour would offer more solitude because the fjord only sees a boat or two a day in the busy season. Since we went during the shoulder season there were actually zero boats a day so our group had the entire fjord to ourselves and it couldn't have been a more perfect experience. 

Alex and I arrived in Anchorage at 9pm on the night before our kayak tour. The drive from Anchorage to Seward is 2.5 hours but thankfully the Alaskan sunsets were already quite late and we were able to complete most of the drive in the light. When we arrived to Miller's Landing around midnight we were supposed to set up camp at any of their open campsites but it was beginning to rain, we were having trouble even finding the campsites, and we were exhausted. We really didn't want to have to set up a tent in the rain so we decided to just sleep in the compact sedan we rented. Needless to say neither Alex nor I got even a wink of decent sleep that night. At 6am our alarms were going off and we had to begin getting ready for our trip. We walked over to the office, checked in, and met our guides Dakota and Chris. They gave us some dry bags and we began stuffing our gear into them. 

The sky was overcast and there was a mist hanging in the air. While the weather was fortuitously forecast to be sunny and clear for the entire duration of our time in Kenai I was worried. Alaska is infamous for its weather that can turn on a dime and I was beginning to fear that the forecast would turn out to be wrong and we would be subjected to three miserable days in the rain but I tried to push those thoughts from my mind.

Once our gear was packed we headed to the beach and boarded a fishing boat that would take us on a two hour journey to the Northwestern Fjord. 

As our boat cruised along Dakota pointed out landmarks like Aialik Bay, Caines Head, and Bear Glacier. We also stopped by a large group of sea lions and took photos and listened as they barked, which was much louder than I anticipated!

When we finally made it to our drop-off point the clouds were beginning to break and it looked like the weather forecast might be right after all. We unloaded our gear and packed it into the kayaks. After a brief demonstration on how to properly hold a paddle ("I want my group to look good in the water," Dakota explained to us with a smile), we were on the water and paddling. 

The water was like a mirror; it was perfectly smooth and reflected the mountains and sky until we sliced through it. The Northwestern Fjord is absolutely breathtaking. I knew Kenai Fjords would be beautiful but I wasn't prepared for just how beautiful it would be. Completely surrounding us were massive 3000-5000' mountains that shot straight up from the ocean and on those mountains were glaciers that shifted, cracked, and calved quite regularly. And then, in addition to the gorgeous landscape we encountered the most curious harbor seals! They would pop their heads above the water about 30 yards from us (the park requests that you stay 500 yards from seals if possible, but the seals were never given this memo so they pop up wherever they please) and curiously watched us. After a few moments they would sink back beneath the water, seemingly bored with us. I always thought they were gone but then, every once in awhile, I would glance behind us and there would be three or four seals following us, watching us with that same curious look.   

We spent the first day paddling to our camp near Northeastern Glacier and then, after we set up camp, to the crown jewel at the head of the fjord: Northwestern Glacier. The glacier was beautiful, however it was sad to hear just how much this glacier has changed recently. Our guide told us that the last time he was in the fjord, just a few years ago, the glacier was still connected on the bottom but now there is a huge separation where rock is revealed. 

We spent the afternoon near Northwestern Glacier, watching the seals that call the fjord home and listening to the calving of the glacier. A few times quite large pieces of ice broke off and fell into the water. The park recommends staying at least a mile from the glacier because sometimes when those large pieces break off they create waves that are extremely dangerous for kayaks.

Finally, we decided to pull ourselves away from the show of seals and glaciers and head back to camp to cook dinner. One of the great aspects of this guided trip was that Miller's Landing provided all of the food for us and Dakota and Chris cooked up some delicious meals! Our first night was jambalaya that we topped with crunched up Pringles, which was surprisingly delightful. 

After dinner Alex and I decided to take a nap before attempting some night photography. Even though the sunsets were late and the sunrises were early there were still a few hours of darkness each night. I woke up to my alarm at 1am and peeked out of the tent to see a sky full of stars twinkling before me. It was also a full moon so the landscape glowed in the bright moonlight. Alex was too tired to get out of the tent so I took a few photos by myself. Even armed with bear spray and on high-alert I was feeling a little uneasy in the dark by myself so I got a few of the shots that I had envisioned and then quickly retreated to the tent for the remainder of the night. 

The next morning we got a later start than the previous day. We had pretty leisurely days planned mileage wise so there was no need to rush the mornings. We enjoyed some oatmeal, a "camp mocha" which is just black coffee mixed with a hot chocolate packet, and good conversation. Dakota went over the plans for the second day which were another visit to Northwestern Glacier as we paddled around the north side of Striation Island and then we would pass Anchor and Ogive (pronounced "oh-jive") Glaciers as we made our way to our campsite under Sunlight Glacier.

The second day was just as perfect as the first. The weather was beautiful, the water was like glass, we still hadn't seen or heard anything man-made, and we saw sea otters!!!! Sea otters are my favorite animal so to say I was excited to see them is a massive understatement. I was so happy that Alex thought he was going to lose me to the otters, he thought that I had found where I belonged and would live the rest of my days as an otter. If I could I probably would, but I was happy to watch them from a distance. We saw a few mom otters with pups on their bellies. It felt like a dream come true!

The views were endless and stunning and while I didn't want the day to end eventually we headed to shore and set up camp. This campsite below Sunlight Glacier is my new favorite campsite. Behind us was Sunlight Glacier and across the fjord we could see (and hear) Northwestern and Ogive glaciers.

On the second night we stayed up for the late sunset. The night before we had been too tired to stay awake but after seeing how pink the sky turned I wished we had! 

We slept in again on the third day. I can't remember when Alex and I have ever had such a leisurely trip, and it was beautiful and remote to boot, how often does that happen?! We spent the day paddling back towards our pick-up point. Initially the plan had been to head out and explore another cove further out but when we were heading towards the cove the waves started to get much bigger. Not wanting to risk capsizing we headed back to the pick-up spot and spent the rest of our time just relaxing on the shore and working on our tan! 

Our pick-up arrived at around 5pm and we quickly loaded our gear and just like that we were leaving the paradise we called home for three short days and were heading back towards civilization. My exhaustion finally hit me on the boat ride home and I slept for part of it. While our pace was leisurely and our physical exertion had been quite minimal the sun had really zapped my energy. It was up for 16 hours each day and there was very little escape from its harsh rays while we were on the water. I actually developed an impressive hand tan line that hopefully evens out soon... But, I'm not really going to complain about the perfect weather because I know we could have just as easily experienced three straight days of rain! 

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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