Alaska has thousands of glaciers. Some are high in the mountains and can only be seen from a distance, some terminate into the ocean best viewed from a kayak or boat, and some are more accessible by land. There are some glaciers you can safely hike to and maybe even walk on the toe of the glacier. However, to see the glacier up close and personal, specialized gear and a guide are highly recommended.
Here are a few suggestions for easily accessible glaciers and the tour companies that guide there.
Exit Glacier lies within Kenai Fjords National Park and is in the only part of the national park accessible by car. You can get pretty close to the glacier by taking a relatively easy hike to the overlook. You can also take the much longer 8-mile round-trip hike alongside the Exit Glacier up to the Harding Ice Field. To set foot on the glacier, you really need a guide and special equipment. Exit Glacier Guides offers ice climbing, ice hiking, and multi-day trips.
Matanuska is probably the most easily accessible glacier for tours. It’s about a 2-hour drive from Anchorage along the Glenn Highway. The glacier itself is on public land but the road to reach it is private, so an entrance fee is charged to get to the glacier. Two tour companies, MICA Guides and Nova offer ice hiking and ice climbing tours.
Root Glacier is found within Wrangell St. Elias National Park, America’s largest national park. The glacier is about a 2-mile hike from Kennecott that takes you alongside the glacier. To get on the ice, St. Elias Alpine Guides offer half and full-day tours as well as ice climbing and ice cave exploration tours.
We did the half-day tour on one of our trips and it was unlike anything I had experienced before! Our trek began in the shadow of the abandoned town of Kennecott with its copper mills and mines. We hiked alongside the glacier and finally reached the edge of the ice. You would imagine an obvious demarcation of ice and ground but the edge of the glacier looked black. It reminded me of the dirty snow that ends up on the side of the street after it’s been plowed. Our guide explained that as the glacier moves, it picks up anything in its path like rocks and dirt. We were outfitted with crampons (metal spikes that fit onto your boots) and began climbing the steep edge of the glacier. When we reached the top, there was ice as far as I could see. Imagine, standing on ice that is hundreds or perhaps thousands of years old, surrounded by shades of blue and white.
Glaciers are always moving at an imperceptibly slow pace, always changing, melting and refreezing, retreating and advancing. We were on the ice for about three hours exploring the different features of the glacier. We discovered blue pools and dipped our hands in to taste the cold, clear water. We saw moulins where the ice had melted and then created a swirly sinkhole into the ice. From a distance, the glacier appears smooth, but once on its surface, you can see hills, valleys, and even ice falls where the ice flowed more rapidly than surrounding areas. This forms a craggy, crevasse-filled section that can be technically difficult to cross. This is where a guide comes in handy. Although the glacier changes daily, our guide knew which areas were safe and which to avoid.
As our tour was coming to an end, I watched other groups further out on the ice and people ice climbing in the distance. We saw so much in just a few hours but there was so much more out there to experience.
These are just a few examples of glacier hikes easily accessible to visitors. Other tours offer flightseeing with glacier landings and even dog sledding tours on glaciers.
Have you ever been on a glacier? Share your experiences in the comments below.