The power of Alaska’s glaciers moves mountains, carves rivers, and stirs the imagination. From tidewater glaciers, to mountain cirques, to enormous icefields spanning across the horizon, Alaska has more active glaciers than anywhere else in the world. Many of them are surprisingly accessible by land, air, or water.
With nearly 100,000 glaciers, 5 percent of Alaska is covered by ice year-round. Much of the remaining landscape shows evidence of a glacier’s passing. From U-shaped river valleys to huge boulders (called glacial erratics) randomly scattered along otherwise flat plateaus, glaciers have left their mark across the state.
Glaciers are located throughout the Inside Passage, Southcentral Alaska’s coastal waters, and the high mountains of Interior Alaska. One quarter of Alaska’s glaciers - more than 4.5 million acres - can be found within Alaska’s national parks.
Bigger, Higher, Stronger
In a land of superlatives, Alaska’s glaciers reign supreme. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is home to the country’s largest glacial system. The Malaspina Glacier, a National Natural Landmark, is the world’s largest piedmont glacier (and covers an area larger than Rhode Island). Hubbard Glacier is the longest tidewater glacier in Alaska, and the Nabesna Glacier is the world’s longest interior valley glacier. The Bagley Icefield, comprised of multiple glaciers, is the largest non-polar icefield in North America. The Bering Glacier, just outside the park boundaries, is the largest glacier in North America.
Glaciers are still slowly carving Alaska’s landscape. The pressure of the glacier itself, moving down mountains and valleys, scrapes down to bedrock. Moraines at the middle, sides, and end of the glacier are the remains of debris picked up by the glacier’s movement. Today, most Alaska glaciers are retreating, but some occasionally surge forward when more meltwater reduces friction at the glacier’s base. As they melt, these rivers of ice become the headwaters for many Alaska river systems.
If you see blue ice, you are looking at history. Cool summers and abundant snowfall in winter, especially at higher elevations, transform snow into ice, building layer on layer over hundreds or thousands of years. Compressed by layers of ice and snow, glaciers’ gorgeous blue ice is the densest ice of all. Younger, less compressed white ice contains many tiny air bubbles. And, if you’re lucky, you may even see an ice worm! These tiny creatures, related to earthworms, thrive at 32 degrees F (0 C). Iceworms tend to hide during sunny days when the surface of the glacier warms, but they are perfectly at home below the glaciers’ surface where the temperature remains just below freezing.
Glaciers may be big, but they are accessible. Whether you’re driving along on of Alaska’s Scenic Byways, on a cruise, flightseeing, or hiking, it’s easy to see Alaska’s glaciers. Visitors can try kayaking near the mouth of a tidewater glacier, take a guided hike across a valley glacier, or drive to Southcentral Alaska’s easily accessible Exit and Worthington glaciers. Several tour companies provide flightseeing or helicopter glacier landings, while boat cruises in the Inside Passage, Prince William Sound, and Resurrection Bay take you through berg-y waters to the glacier’s face. Feel the wind blowing off the glacier and be inspired.
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