Alaska’s mountains are legendary. Whether you’re gazing at Denali as you’re flying to Fairbanks or watching the sun set behind Mount Susitna from the Coastal Trail, the peaks give us pause. They are big and we are very, very small.
Not all of us are destined to ascend to the tops of these mountains. But the rivers of ice that flow off the peaks are a little more accessible. “Ice is nice,” you might say. In the case of Alaska’s glaciers, really big ice is really nice.
Whether it’s on foot, on skis, or by boat, plane or helicopter, there are many paths to some of Alaska’s most scenic glaciers.
Up on Denali, there are two glaciers that get the most traffic: Ruth Glacier and Kahiltna Glacier. If you’re going on a flightseeing trip from the Talkeetna Airport, chances are good that you’ll fly up the Great Gorge of the Ruth Glacier, landing in the Don Sheldon Amphitheater. Three companies fly the route: K2 Aviation, Talkeetna Air Taxi and Sheldon Air Service.
If you’re on a mountain climbing expedition, you’ll fly with all of your gear to Kahiltna Glacier to prepare for ascent.
Planes and helicopters are the quickest way to reach the ice. But it’s not the only way. The Matanuska Glacier, 100 miles northeast of Anchorage, is a drive-up glacier. But, the folks at Matanuska Glacier Park charge $30 to drive to the parking lot near the toe of the glacier. Inexperienced hikers are encouraged to book a tour with a guide. Several companies, including MICA Guides and Nova Alaska Tours offer guided glacier hikes and ice climbing adventures.
Closer to Anchorage, the Knik Glacier is famous among fat-biking circles. But the trails might start getting mushy soon. In the summer, Knik Glacier Tours will take you in an airboat to see the glacier up-close.
Knik River Lodge is 54 miles from Anchorage at the end of Knik River Road. Alaska Helicopter Tours parks a couple of helicopters in the front yard. Choose from a glacier landing flight — or go for a dog-sled ride with one of Dallas Seavey’s dog teams.
Heading south from Anchorage, there’s plenty of big ice once you get to Portage. In the winter, Alaska Wild Guides will pick you up at the Hotel Alyeska to get outfitted for a snowmachine adventure. That means tough-duty bibs, jackets, helmets and boots. Then there’s a van ride to Portage, where your guide is waiting with your machines.
It’s a pretty flat ride up the Placer River valley to reach Spencer Glacier. But there are huge icebergs (and ice caves) in the middle of the frozen lake. The guides keep a close eye on the ice — it changes every day.
In the summertime, take the Alaska Railroad from Portage to the Spencer Glacier stop. You can hike up to the edge of the lake and get a good view of the glacier. But for an up-close experience, get a package with Chugach Adventures (it includes the train ride and a float trip on the Placer River).
Once the guide gets the boat ready, you hop in and the guide paddles out to the floating icebergs. Then, you float under the railroad bridge and down the river for a few miles.
Over in Whittier, there are several opportunities to see the ice. The 26 Glaciers Cruise by Phillips Cruises offers a fast, smooth ride up College Fjord for a good look at an incredible array of ice rivers tumbling off the surrounding mountains. Daily cruises start in May.
Lazy Otter Charters offers glacier and sightseeing tours from Whittier to the Beloit and Blackstone Glaciers between now and April 30. These glaciers are less than an hour from Whittier. Lazy Otter’s boats are bow-landers, so the captain will nose in to shore so you can take a walk.
In Seward, you can go on one of the glacier cruises from Kenai Fjords Tours or Major Marine Tours. Depending on the itinerary, you’ll see some of the glaciers in Resurrection Bay — or perhaps deeper into Kenai Fjords National Park for a peek at Aialik Glacier or Northwestern Glacier. You’ll almost certainly see big icebergs calving off the face of the glacier into the sea before you.
Seward also is home to another walk-up glacier: Exit Glacier. The glacier is retreating rapidly though. So you have to walk farther and farther from the parking lot to get to the ice.
Down in Homer, take Mako’s Water Taxi from the Homer small boat harbor across to the Grewingk Glacier trail head. It’s an easy hike from the beach to the lake, where you’re likely to see huge icebergs from the glacier. Bring a lunch and eat it on the shore before heading up and over “the saddle” to get to your pickup location in Halibut Cove.
In the heart of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, St. Elias Alpine Guides will take you on a hike from McCarthy up to the Root Glacier. It’s a 2-mile hike from their office in nearby Kennicott. The guides offer crampons so you won’t slip on the ice. They offer half-day hikes on the walk-up glacier, or longer ice climbing classes.
Travelers in Anchorage may not realize that Alaska Airlines flies to Glacier Bay National Park. Well, they fly from Juneau to Gustavus, which is just 60 miles away. You can use your miles — it’s 12,500 miles each way.
The Glacier Bay Lodge, inside the park, was closed last year due to COVID-19. But it’s opening this year on May 28. Stay overnight at take the glacier and wildlife cruise that leaves from the dock in Bartlett Cove. Watch for bears, whales, sea lions and lots and lots of ice.
On your way out of Gustavus, stop over in Juneau and see the city’s drive-up glacier: Mendenhall Glacier. Actually, it’s tough to walk up on the ice. But there’s a great hike out to a waterfall that tumbles into the lake from the ice field above. The best way to get up on the ice is in a helicopter. It’s a quick ride from the Juneau Airport to the ice with TEMSCO Helicopters.
There are many more opportunities to see glaciers up close in Alaska. Whether it’s on a boat or hiking on your own, don’t forget your hat and gloves. There’s always an icy wind coming off the glacier!