Mount Marathon is not actually in Kenai Fjords National Park, but there is so little hiking available in the park that I would recommend it as something worth doing in the surrounding area. The hike is in the nearby town of Seward and features nearly 3,000 feet of elevation gain in a mile and a half of hiking. You essentially run up a mountain face.
It is especially prominent because it is also an important race. From downtown Seward to the summit and back is 3.1 miles or 5-kilmometers. It was first run sometime before 1915, and it is one of several races that is believed to be the second oldest footrace in America. There is controversy due to not knowing the exact date that the race started. Legend has it that it started as a bar bet with patrons betting that they could make it to the summit and back in under an hour. The first runner supposedly finished in one hour and twenty minutes.
The winners finish the race in over forty minutes and are usually bloodied and covered with mud from descending the scree slopes. Forty minutes may not seem like a lot, but these are runners that can generally run a 5k in fifteen or sixteen minutes. The current racers will go up the hill at 2 mph and back down at 12 mph. In 2012 there was a fatality as a man disappeared during the race, he was last seen approaching the summit and has never been seen again.
Hiking up Mount Marathon is absolutely brutal. You are hiking up a near vertical slope of undefined trail. There are parts that kind of look like trail, but it is mostly just scree (small rocks). As you ascend it feels like every three steps up take you take one step backwards as your foot pushes rocks down the slope. I wouldn’t even call it hiking. You scramble, you crawl, you heave and you sweat, regardless of the outside temperature.
We made it to the top and were rewarded with amazing views overlooking Seward. You can see the entire town and the ocean fjords leading up to the town. If you are going to visit Kenai Fjords, you need to do this hike just to get a scope of the surrounding area and see where you are. I would not recommend doing this hike in bad weather; I can only imagine it being quite unpleasant.
Descending, is absolutely exhilarating. It is probably the closest to flying that I have ever felt. You take a stride and your foot moves two or three times as far as it would on flat pavement. It’s giddy, it’s joyous and I wholeheartedly recommend it.
The trail up and down splits in so many directions that it is hard to follow. On the way up you eventually get out of the brush and onto the scree, at that point you just go towards the summit. The way down is a little squirrelier; it is very much a ‘choose your own adventure’. The signs that say ‘Danger Cliffs’ are quite serious and quite accurate. Heed their warnings and enjoy the views!