No matter how you choose to experience Alaska – by small plane or helicopter, by cruise ship or by automobile – one of the states “must see” attractions are definitely its glaciers.
Alaska’s glaciers are impressive, even from afar. These relics of frozen eras past can appear as rivers of ice that fill massive valleys, sharp icy flows that carve down, across and between mountaintops and mountain ranges, or stories-high walls of ice that calve chunks the size of massive boulders that suddenly splash down into freshwater and saltwater waterways below. To the Alaska visitor, a glacier might initially seem cloaked in a mystique of icy splendor, but on closer inspection, these diverse natural attractions become fascinating journeys into history, geology, climate and beauty.
There are many remarkable ways to view Alaska’s glaciers from day cruises to small-ship cruises, from flightseeing trips on small planes and helicopters to bus tours and self-driving routes, and even as part of adventurous excursions from dogsledding to glacier trekking. Whatever your preference, experiencing Alaska’s glaciers up close is a very special moment for all visitors when you can finally touch a glacier’s ice and feel the cold air breezes gently blowing across it.
Here is a lineup of seven legendary Alaska glaciers that can be seen and explored on tours across the state. Some of these icefields are so close you can drive right up to them, while others require a little more outfitter help to access them.
Matanuska Glacier Near Anchorage
Matanuska Glacier is a mainstay for visitors and locals alike due to its literal drive-up accessibility and proximity to Alaska’s urban travel hub, Anchorage. A two-plus-hour drive down the scenic Glenn Highway gets you there, but you’ll see Matanuska Glacier coming from miles away: its largess and blue-white light shine bright while filling up the Matanuska-Susitna Valley landscape. Take advantage of the vista pullouts along the drive to get some glacier photos and see the massive scale of this glacier. The real adventure begins, however, when you check in at the glacier park’s entrance and drive up to the glacier itself. You can walk on the glacier with your companions and enjoy an easy, family-friendly stroll with snacks, or embark on a more active outdoor adventure such as ice climbing, glacier hiking or even a rafting float trip with a local guide. Enjoy every second!
Exit Glacier Near Seward
Speaking of easy accessibility, Exit Glacier looms just outside of the pretty port of Seward at the end of a nice, short, paved road that takes you into the well-maintained Kenai Fjords National Park. After parking, you can stroll along a paved path which takes you right up to the face of the glacier. Along the walk, you’ll see signs that indicate where the glacier once sat in years past, a sobering reminder of its rapid receding. While Exit Glacier isn’t the largest of Alaska glaciers, it is still impressive once you come face to face with it. And it makes for some super-sweet selfies and group photos. You can also lace up your hiking boots and set off on a moderate four-mile climb up to the overlook of nearby Harding Icefield. Once there, you’ll stand above what seems to be a sea of ice that goes on forever. You’ll never forget seeing this massive expanse of blue and white landscape. It’s worth the effort! Just make sure to bring layers of outerwear and pack some snacks. And there’s plenty to learn about these glaciers from Kenai Fjords National Park signage, local rangers and guides and educational pamphlets.
Spencer Glacier: A Whistle Stop on the Alaska Railroad
Leave the “driving” to the Alaska Railroad if you decide to visit Spencer Glacier just south of Anchorage. The Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop arrives just past Girdwood, after a relatively short but mountain-and-wildlife-filled train ride from Anchorage. After you step off the train, you can enjoy the glacier and day at your pace. Your options include walking to the glacial lake and having a picnic while watching the icebergs bob around Spencer Glacier, or filling the day with action-packed fun hiking or kayaking to the glacier, bobbing along on a raft or joining a Forest Service naturalist guide for an interpretive hike.
Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau
Juneau, Alaska’s capital, has captivating charm and mystique since it’s surrounded by water and is not accessible by Alaska’s road system. And Juneau has one of the most unique and popular glacier experiences just outside of town – Mendenhall Glacier. Take a short drive, bus ride or even a cab/Uber from town to the majestic glacier which has a terrific visitor center. Set at the far end of Mendenhall Lake, Mendenhall Glacier hosts a handful of viewing spots in the summer that are an easy hike for visitors. You can also choose to charge on through the Tongass National Forest to get even closer to the glacier. And you can float up to the glacier on a raft or kayak up to it. In the winter, you can walk or ski directly to it over the lake, which is strewn with icebergs. An Alaska winter experience you won’t want to miss!
Kennicott Glacier (and Root Glacier)
The remote setting around Kennicott Glacier on the edge of Wrangell-St Elias National Park and Preserve is classic rustic Alaska. It’s quite the drive to get there – a full eight-hour day if you are coming from Anchorage. But oh boy, this is one big glacier with many interesting options for experiencing it. Kennicott Glacier can be accessed by an easy walk up to it in designated safe areas or via guided tours that take you further out on the glacier and/or even to another nearby glacier: Root Glacier. And after a fun day spent out enjoying the ice, you can enjoy comfortable local accommodations just above the glacier or a enjoy a tour through local Kennicott-McCarthy mining history.
Worthington Glacier Near Valdez
If your Alaska travels include driving or a bus ride to or from Valdez, Alaska, then Worthington Glacier is a “must-stop” along your way. In fact, of all Alaska’s land-accessible glaciers, Worthington might be the easiest to reach out and touch. The glacier is situated about 30 miles north of Valdez on the Richardson Highway, in the rarefied air of Thompson Pass. Even at the height of summer, it can feel like permanent winter in this area because of the ridiculous amount of snow that falls and accumulates here. Under that snow, and sometimes poking out and showing itself, is Worthington Glacier. You can walk up to it, sit on it and even take longer guided treks on it.
Portage Glacier South of Anchorage
Portage Glacier has receded to the point where it is now hidden itself behind a sharp cliff wall, but if you are willing to work for a view of this grand glacier, it’s there for the taking. In the summer, drive through the famous Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel into Whittier for a short-and-sweet hike of Portage Pass. The views in all directions while on the hike are spectacular, but the big payoff is getting to the end of the path at the Portage Lake shoreline, and seeing Portage Glacier shimmering across the lake. This is the perfect place to picnic or nap under Alaska’s summer sun. When winter arrives and the lake is safely and solidly frozen, bold walkers, bikers, snowshoers or cross-country skiers also often cruise to the glacier for even more incredible views. On a sunny afternoon, this makes for the ultimate Southcentral Alaska winter day trip.
Whatever glaciers you choose to visit while in Alaska, this will be an “only in Alaska” experience you’ll not soon forget. Get it while you still can!