Glaciers are one of Alaska’s most treasured natural wonders. With over 100,000 glaciers in Alaska (over 600 named), getting up close to these spectacular formations is more than just possible – it’s one of the most sought-after experiences for locals and visitors alike! Whether you’re setting out for glacier trekking, hiking, or simply looking for an epic photo opportunity, there are so many ways to experience all that Alaska’s glaciers have to offer.
Alaska’s Glaciers by Road, Rail, Water, and Air
There are many ways to see glaciers across the state, including by road, rail, water, and air. Each mode of transportation boasts their own unique experiences, offering not only sweeping views of glaciers, but different ways of exploring these beautiful masses of ice. Most glacier excursions are best done in the summer and early fall months, typically May through September, but some glaciers offer year-round recreation opportunities.
Exploring Road-Accessible Glaciers in Alaska
Many glaciers are easily accessible by road, with some allowing you to drive relatively close to the base of the glacier for hiking, sightseeing, and glacier trekking.
The biggest and most accessible glacier by road is Matanuska Glacier. Located just about two hours north of Anchorage, this 26-mile long and four-mile wide formation is very popular and offers many guided tour experiences where gear is provided. Tours are offered daily year-round, and lodging catering to those looking to see Matanuska Glacier are close by. While Matanuska Glacier is a great option for inexperienced hikers looking to spend the day on and around the glacier, it’s also a popular destination for experienced glacier trekkers.
The Exit Glacier area in Seward is unique as it is the only area of Kenai Fjords National Park that is accessible by road. In the summer months, there are many hiking trails, a nature center, a bookstore, and on-site park rangers to help explain the history of the glacier and amplify your experience. Several short trails leave from the nature center that feature views of Exit Glacier and take you near the glacier's face. If you’re looking for more of a challenge, the Harding Icefield Trail climbs steeply along the side of the glacier and ends with a panoramic view of the massive icefield. The road to Exit Glacier is closed to cars in the winter and is a popular destination for those looking to cross-country ski, snowshoe, fat-tire bike, dog sled, and snow machine.
Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau offers a stunning view of the Mendenhall Valley and has a several short trails from the visitor center that lead to views of the glacier and the impressive Nugget Falls. There are many trails and hikes in and around the Mendenhall Glacier area ranging from easy to moderate, making it a great option for both experienced and novice hikers. While Mendenhall Glacier is accessible by trail, it is also popular with seasoned kayakers who traverse the lake to the shore. Please note, traveling by water should only be attempted by experienced kayakers. Dressing for this experience requires waterproof clothing and layers, as temperatures and weather can change quickly.
Worthington Glacier in Valdez is a breathtaking option located right off the Richardson Highway. Though views of the glacier are stunning from the road, make sure to visit Worthington Glacier State Recreation Site at Mile 29 where a short hike will lead you to a viewing area located close to the face of the glacier. The glacier was designated as a National Natural Landmark in 1968.
Root Glacier, located in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, is accessible by a short hike from Kennecott Mines National Historical Landmark during the summer months. During your hike, you’ll be able to see views of Mt. Blackburn, Regal Mountain, and Donoho Peak. For those interested in glacier trekking, gear rentals and guided tours are available from McCarthy, ranging from easy day trips for newbie glacier trekkers to multi-day backcountry trips. The easy hike out to the edge of Root Glacier is a great way to take in views of the glacier even if you’re not joining a guided glacier hiking trip.
The Portage Area, located just off of the Seward Highway south of Girdwood, is home to alpine glaciers and the beautiful Portage Glacier that spills into Portage Lake. Visitors to Portage can experience the area’s glaciers by trail and by boat, and can learn about the local ecosystem and the power of glaciers at the interactive Begich, Boggs Visitor Center. Several trails lead to glacier views, including the Byron Glacier Trail, the paved Trail of Blue Ice, and the Portage Pass trail (accessible on the other side of the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel in the nearby town of Whittier). A short cruise offered in summer will also take you up to the face of Portage Glacier.
Rail Trips to Alaska’s Glaciers
The Alaska Railroad offers an incredible Glacier Discovery Train day tour that travels south from Anchorage, down to Girdwood, Whittier, Portage, the Spencer Whistle Stop, and Grandview. With routes running May through September, riding these rails offer hassle-free travel, spectacular views, and a memorable itinerary! You’ll view alpine glaciers along the route and have the option to disembark at the Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop for guided and unguided hiking, or join a guided kayaking or rafting trip to get even closer to the glacier and its impressive icebergs. While the train doesn’t run in winter, you can view Spencer Glacier on snowmachine tours from tour operators based out of Girdwood or fat tire bike trips.
Glaciers by Water
Kenai Fjords National Park & Prince William Sound
Glacier & wildlife day cruises are one of the most popular ways to see glaciers in Alaska. There are many locations that offer daily cruises that take you right up to glaciers for incredible views, photo opportunities, and well, just plain awe and wonder!
Cruises into Kenai Fjords National Park, departing from Seward, and Prince William Sound, departing from Whittier and Valdez, are popular areas for glacier viewing in Southcentral Alaska. You’ll be able to sail through open waters of fjords and bays, spotting marine wildlife as you travel out to the faces of towering glaciers to watch for calving. This means, you’ll spend time in front of the glaciers to watch large chunks of ice break off and crash into the sea – which is an awesome sight to behold!
Kenai Fjords National Park and Prince William Sound are also fantastic destinations for glacier kayaking, where water taxis will drop you off in protected bays to paddle among the otherworldly formations of icebergs that have calved off of tidewater glaciers. One of the most popular glacier kayaking destinations in the area is Bear Glacier, the largest glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park. Tour operators from Seward offer water taxis that will take you out to Bear Glacier Lagoon where you will kayak through the protected waters among icebergs against the backdrop of the impressive glacier.
Glacier Bay National Park
Located in Alaska’s Inside Passage within Tongass National Forest, Glacier Bay National Park (aptly named of course!) offers exquisite glacier viewings. This almost other-worldly area is home to 1,045 glaciers that cover 2,055 miles of the park, including the Grand Pacific and Margerie Glaciers, that carved the entire bay leaving stunning fjords. Half a million people visit Glacier Bay by cruise each year, but kayaking through this area is also a fantastic option.
Hubbard Glacier is a popular destination for those traveling by cruise line, with most cruise itineraries stopping near the glacier. The glacier flows 75 miles and is the longest tidewater glacier in North America. It begins at Mt. Logan in the Yukon Territory of Canada, ending in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska. It can only be reached by water, usually by cruise ship, or by air from the nearby town of Yakutat.
Many other glaciers offer the opportunity to kayak, raft, packraft, and explore by water taxi, even if they are not accessible exclusively by water, so be sure to check local tour guides and visitor information centers to find out where else you can enjoy each glacier by water!
Flightseeing Alaska’s Glaciers
Denali National Park and Preserve boasts over 400 glaciers and is one of the best locations for a fly-in glacier experience! With several flightseeing tours and air taxis available (many year-round, depending on weather conditions), you can travel by helicopter, bush plane, or fixed-wing plane to enjoy several hours of aerial views of Denali National Park and Preserve, and land on one of its many glaciers. You’ll enjoy stunning views of the alpine tundra, Don Sheldon Amphitheater, Great Gorge (the world’s deepest), and the Taiga Forest. Both Ruth Glacier and Kahiltna Glacier are popular landing spots, with most flightseeing trips departing from Talkeetna, Healy, Anchorage, Fairbanks, or Kantishna.
Knik Glacier, located on the northern side of the Chugach Mountains in Palmer, offers incredible helicopter tours, some of which also feature dog sledding! Flight tours are offered year-round and are available to people ages two and up. Many of these trips feature glacier landings, where you can get off the helicopter for a short walk on the glacier and some amazing photo ops. You can up the adventure with a glacier dog sledding tour, available May through September, where you get to ride your very own sled-dog team on the surface of the glacier.
Located between the Gulf of Alaska and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is Bering Glacier, the largest glacier in Alaska, covering 1,900 square miles. This glacier is remarkable not only for its size - it actually stabilizes the fault line underneath it, preventing earthquakes! You can see this glacier for yourself on a flightseeing day trip of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park from McCarthy.
Flight tours also boast heli-hiking, heli-camping, heli-packrafting, glacier paddle boarding, heli-fat tire biking, heli-rock climbing, heli-mountain running, heli-winter ice climbing – and even heli-proposal and wedding venues! All gear and guiding will be provided, so you can take the anxiety and stress out of your planning. Many glacier flight charters offer private and multi-day custom heli-tours, as well.
An Unforgettable Experience
With hundreds of glaciers to explore, and more active glaciers and icefields here than anywhere in the world, glacier trekking, hiking, camping, rafting, sightseeing, and so much more are available just outside your door in Alaska. Whether your travels to Alaska’s breathtaking glaciers take you by road, rail, water, air – or all of the above – it is sure to be an incredible experience!
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