Explore Geology
geology fieldnotes title

Kenai Fjords

National Park


cover of park brochure

park geology subheading
Kenai fjords photo from above
Kenai National Park, Alaska

Glacier-carved Valleys Filled with Ocean Waters
The Kenai Fjords are coastal mountain fjords whose placid seascapes reflect scenic icebound landscapes and whose salt spray mixes with mountain mist. Located on the southeastern Kenai Peninsula, the national park is a pristine and rugged land supporting many unaltered natural environments and ecosystems. The land boasts

  • an icefield wilderness,
  • unnamed waterfalls in unnamed canyons,
  • glaciers that sweep down narrow mountain valleys, and
  • a coastline along which thousands of seabirds and marine mammals raise their young each year.

Kenai Fjords National Park derives its name from the long, steep-sided, glacier-carved valleys that are now filled with ocean waters. The seaward ends of the Kenai Mountains are slipping into the sea, being dragged under by the collision of two tectonic plates of the Earth's crust. What were once alpine valleys filled with glacier ice are now deepwater mountain-flanked fjords. The forces that caused this land to submerge are still present. In 1964, the Alaskan Good Friday earthquake dropped the shoreline another six feet in just one day. As the land sinks into the ocean, glacier-carved cirques are turned into half-moon bays and mountain peaks are reduced to wave-beaten islands and stacks.

Though the land is subsiding, a mountain platform one mile high still comprises the coast's backdrop. The mountains are mantled by the 300-square-mile Harding Icefield, the park's dominant feature. The icefield was not discovered until early this century when a mapping team realized that several coastal glaciers belonged to the same massive system. Today's icefield measures some 35 miles long by 20 miles wide. Only isolated mountain peaks interrupt its nearly flat, snowclad surface. These protruding nunataks-this Eskimo word means "lonely peaks"-rise dramatically from the frozen clutches of the Ice Age.

The mountains intercept moisture-laden clouds, which replenish the icefield with 35-65 feet of snow annually. Time and the weight of overlying snow transform the snow into ice. The pull of gravity and the weight of the snowy overburden make the ice flow out in all directions. It is squeezed into glaciers that creep downward like giant bulldozers, carving and gouging the landscape. Along the coast eight glaciers reach the sea, and these tidewater glaciers calve icebergs into the fjords. The thunderous boom of calving ice can sometimes be heard 20 miles away.

The park's wildlife is as varied as its landscape.

  • Mountain goats, moose, bears, wolverines, marmots, and other land mammals have re-established themselves on a thin life zone between marine waters and the icefield's frozen edges.

  • Bald eagles nest in the tops of spruce and hemlock trees.

  • Steller sea lions haul out on rocky islands at the entrances to Aialik and Nuka Bays.

  • Harbor seals ride the icebergs.

  • Dall porpoises, sea otters, and gray, humpback, killer, and minke whales ply the fjord waters.

  • Halibut, lingcod, and black bass lurk deep in these waters, through which salmon return for inland spawning runs.

  • Thousands of seabirds, including horned and tufted puffins, black-legged kittiwakes, common murres, and the ubiquitous gulls, seasonally inhabit steep cliffs and rocky shores.

Exit Glacier, the remnant of a larger glacier once extending to Resurrection Bay, is one of several rivers of ice flowing off the icefield. Active, yet retreating, it provides the perfect setting to explore. Here are found newly exposed, scoured, and polished bedrock and a regime of plant succession from the earliest pioneer plants to a mature forest of Sitka spruce and western hemlock.

Humans have had little lasting impact on this environment, although the park includes a few Native American archeological sites and isolated gold extraction locations. The park's overwhelming significance is as a living laboratory of change. Plants and wildlife subsist here amidst dynamic interactions of water, ice, and a glacier-carved landscape relentlessly pulled down by the Earth's crustal movements. The Harriman Expedition, a steamship-borne venture visiting the fjords in 1899, predicted this area's future value as a scenic tourist attraction. To protect this life and landscape, a national monument was proclaimed in 1978, and the 580,000-acre Kenai Fjords National Park was established in 1980.

park maps subheading

The General park map handed out at the visitor center is available on the park's map webpage.

For information about topographic maps, geologic maps, and geologic data sets, please see the geologic maps page.

photo album subheading

A photo album for this park can be found here.

For information on other photo collections featuring National Park geology, please see the Image Sources page.

books, videos, cds subheading

Currently, we do not have a listing for a park-specific geoscience book. The park's geology may be described in regional or state geology texts.

Please visit the Geology Books and Media webpage for additional sources such as text books, theme books, CD ROMs, and technical reports.

Parks and Plates: The Geology of Our National Parks, Monuments & Seashores.
Lillie, Robert J., 2005.
W.W. Norton and Company.
ISBN 0-393-92407-6
9" x 10.75", paperback, 550 pages, full color throughout

The spectacular geology in our national parks provides the answers to many questions about the Earth. The answers can be appreciated through plate tectonics, an exciting way to understand the ongoing natural processes that sculpt our landscape. Parks and Plates is a visual and scientific voyage of discovery!

Ordering from your National Park Cooperative Associations' bookstores helps to support programs in the parks. Please visit the bookstore locator for park books and much more.

geologic research subheading

Information about the park's research program is available on the park's research webpage.

For information about permits that are required for conducting geologic research activities in National Parks, see the Permits Information page.

The NPS maintains a searchable data base of research needs that have been identified by parks.

A bibliography of geologic references is being prepared for each park through the Geologic Resources Evaluation Program (GRE). Please see the GRE website for more information and contacts.

selected links subheading

NPS Geology and Soils Partners

NRCS logoAssociation of American State Geologists
NRCS logoGeological Society of America
NRCS logoNatural Resource Conservation Service - Soils
USGS logo U.S. Geological Survey

teacher feature subheading

Currently, we do not have a listing for any park-specific geology education programs or activities.

General information about the park's education and intrepretive programs is available on the park's education webpage.

For resources and information on teaching geology using National Park examples, see the Students & Teachers pages.
updated on 01/04/2005  I   http://www.nature.nps.gov/Geology/parks/kefj/index.cfm   I  Email: Webmaster
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