What’s So Special About Alaska’s Glaciers?

Published: May 13, 2021

So, Alaska’s icy glaciers have you intrigued. Maybe you’re wondering; What’s so special about glaciers anyway? Where do they come from? And what’s the best way to experience them?

First of all, Alaska’s glaciers are pretty cool! Very cool in fact. “Cool” as in awesome to experience in person, and “cool” as in cold as ice. Alaska’s glaciers are pretty sure to give you chills – both the ‘Wow!’ kind of chills and the ‘Brrrr!’ kind of chills!

Dynamic Dynamos

These gigantic icy flows might seem like simple acts of nature, but get near one and you’ll quickly realize that they are active, noisy, roiling and as wild and unique as the Alaska landscapes they inhabit. You’ll immediately appreciate the immensity of these iconic wonders, often hundreds of feet tall and wide, many miles long, and seemingly immeasurable in mass. You’ll probably feel somewhat miniscule in their presence! Glaciers are constantly advancing and retreating, so stand in stillness and you will hear a rush of glacial melt flowing under, around and inside of them, while the ice snaps and crackles at varied volumes and to startling effect. If you’re lucky to be on the water on an Alaska cruise, you might actually witness one calve into the water, as a chunk of ice the size of a car, a condo or a city block breaks off of a glacier with a thunderous crash into the water below it.

Glaciers calve with a thunderous sound and a big splash!

Where To Go to See Alaska’s Glaciers

Now you’re probably wondering, “How close can I really get to an Alaska glacier?” Alaska is home to an estimated 100,000 glaciers which blanket more than five percent of the nation’s largest state. One national park’s name is even inspired by glacial greatness: the incredible and incredibly-icy Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in Southeast Alaska. But Glacier Bay isn’t the only Alaska National Park or area packed with glaciers, though. Glaciers are so omnipresent and accessible across so many regions in Alaska that you can reach them by train, plane and helicopter, specialty cruise boat and even kayak. And, yes, you can literally drive up to, walk up to, and even safely walk on and around these amazing Alaska natural attractions.

Massive Matanuska Glacier is Alaska’s most popular drive-up and walk-on glacier experience; Mananuska lies sprawled out and glistening just a few hours’ drive from Anchorage along the sightseer-friendly Glenn Highway. Exit Glacier just outside of Seward, Mendenhall Glacier just outside of Juneau, and Worthington Glacier just outside of Valdez are all also easy-to-reach glacier hot spots and offer close-ups access for visitors. Checking out Kennicott and Root Glaciers requires a longer journey, but the payoff is remote Alaska ice adventure at its finest. And from Anchorage, the Alaska Railroad drops visitors off in the Chugach backcountry just a short walk away from Spencer Glacier, making for a gem of day trip. Portage Glacier is a sight to behold, with views across Portage Lake available after a short-but-sweet hike from Whittier, an even shorter tour boat ride from Portage, or a long and steady kayak cruise. If you’re geared up and in shape, consider taking the longer hike to nearby Byron Glacier, as well.

Seeing one Alaska glacier is great but seeing a whole variety of them, in only a few hours, is both awe-inspiring and unforgettable. And it’s also incredibly easy to do in Alaska, where tour operators offer a wide range of glacier flightseeing tours and specialty boat cruises that provide Alaska travelers with as much quantity and quality of glaciers as they desire.

Kenai Fjords Tours gets upclose to the glaciers of Kenai Fjords National Park.

A glacier cruise on a boat around Prince William Sound, Kenai Fjords National Park or Glacier Bay National Park packs in so much glacial activity, you’ll likely catch yourself shaking your head at the majesty and magnitude of the ice flows. You’ll also likely gasp in nervous wonder at the sight and sounds of a calving glacier, especially if it creates a ripple of waves that groove your boat a few moments after splashdown. And if you’re up for it, some adventure outfits and water taxis will happily gear you up and guide you out on kayaks or into crampons to transport you off on even more “up close and personal” Alaska glacial adventures.

Sea Kayaking with glaciers in view.

Flightseeing glacier tours by helicopter, float or bush plane are equally impressive, as the aerial perspective illustrates just how enormous these glaciers truly are. You’ll see rivers of ice, icefields and individual glaciers weave and carve through and around mountain ranges and out into waterways. Some operators, such as Knik River Lodge, offer the exciting helicopter flight opportunities to land on a glacier for hikes, dog sled rides, and glamourous glacier selfies. Some land near Ruth Glacier in the shadow of Denali where hiking and ice climbing adventures await.

Want a preview? You can get a taste of glacial greatness on your trip to and from Alaska. If you’re flying, just take a peek from your window seat to see ice fields galore. If you’re traveling on a cruise ship, glaciers are a frequent sight along the ride, especially if your route is along the Inside Passage in Southeast Alaska.

So, what’s special about Alaska’s glaciers? The real question might be, what isn’t special about them?