Glaciers

Glaciers
Observation trail at Mendenhall Glacier
offers great views. © Kris Graef, staff

Alaska-bound travelers interested in viewing glaciers are definitely headed in the right direction. Alaska has an incredible number of glaciers—estimated at more than 100,000—with most concentrated in the Chugach, St. Elias, Alaska and Coast mountain ranges. And if you’ve seen one glacier, you haven't seen them all. There are several types, occurring in a variety of settings, including alpine, which form on the high slopes of mountains; valley, flowing in U-shaped channels from ice accumulated in basins of mountains; and piedmont, which form when two or more valley glaciers unite into a broad lobe as the base of mountains or at tidewater.

Several of Alaska's best-known glaciers are visible from the highway system, while others are most often viewed from the deck of a cruise ship or sightseeing boat. Scheduled and charter flights offer a bird's eye view of Alaska's icefields and glaciers.

Accessibility to glaciers along Alaska's highways varies. A paved public pathway at Worthington Glacier State Recreation Site, located near Thompson Pass on the Richardson Highway, leads to close-up views of that glacier. Or visitors can hike a more primitive trail up to the glacier. Access to the face of Matanuska Glacier on the Glenn Highway is through Glacier Park Resort. Nearby Matanuska Glacier State Recreation Site does not provide access to the glacier's face, although it does provide scenic views of the glacier and viewing telescopes. About an hour's drive south of Anchorage is the Byron Glacier, just off of the Portage Glacier Road. Its 0.8 mile to the glacier viewing and offers excellent views. Exit Glacier is a short drive west from the Seward Highway, then an easy walk from the parking area to the glacier's face.

Two glaciers accessible by highway but not connected to the highway system are Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau and Childs Glacier northeast of Cordova via the Copper River Highway. Mendenhall Glacier has a large visitor center and a busy schedule of interpretive programs in summer.

Portage Glacier, less than an hour's drive south from Anchorage via the Seward Highway, has the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center, which focuses on the Portage Valley and its resources. Once one of the most photogenic of Alaska's road accessible glaciers—with the glacier face calving off plenty of icebergs—Portage Glacier has retreated so far in the past decade that it is no longer visible from the visitor center.

The majority of Alaska glaciers are in retreat mode, some of them dramatic. Prince William Sound's Columbia Glacier is the world's fastest moving glacier, retreating at a speed of 80 to 115 feet per day. Columbia Glacier has receded more than 6 miles since 1982, but it is still one of the largest tidewater glaciers along the Alaska coast. Tidewater glaciers are generally viewed by boat, and Prince William Sound is a popular destination for glacier viewing, with sightseeing boats out of Valdez and Whittier offering day trips to Columbia Glacier and College Fjord. There's even a Prince William Sound day cruise that takes you to 26 glaciers.

Tidewater glaciers are also a feature of Kenai Fjords National Park, which is named for the deep, ocean-filled fjords left by retreating glaciers. Several day cruises are offered out of Seward for sightseeing Kenai Fjords National Park.

The state's largest concentration of tidewater glaciers is in Glacier Bay National Park. The park’s stunning scenery is most often viewed from the water, either from a cruise ship or by tour boat or charter out of Gustavus—the nearest community—or Juneau. The only land route to Glacier Bay National Park is a 10-mile road connecting Gustavus airport to Bartlett Cove, site of the park’s ranger station, visitor center and Glacier Bay Lodge. The park excursion boat departs from the lodge. Park naturalists also conduct daily hikes from the visitor center at the lodge. Additional information is available on Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.

Hubbard Glacier, tucked into the corner of the Alaska coastline as it curves around the Gulf of Alaska between the panhandle and the main body of Alaska, is a popular port of call with cruise ships. The largest tidewater glacier in the state, Hubbard flows for 92 miles from Canadian icefields to its terminus in Yakutat Bay.

Tracy Arm, located 50 miles southeast of Juneau, and adjoining Endicott Arm are long, deep and narrow fjords with active tidewater glaciers. Large and small cruise ships and day charters include Tracy Arm and Endicott Arm in their itineraries. It is also a popular destination for sea kayakers.

Cruise ship and airline passengers are rewarded with views of the two largest piedmont glaciers in the state, immense Malaspina Glacier and Bering Glacier, both located along the coast of Southcentral Alaska.

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