Where to See Alaska Glaciers Without Taking a Cruise
If seeing a glacier up close is on your bucket list, Alaska is the place to do it. The state is filled with glaciers, but many tourists mistakenly believe they can only spot them from the deck of a cruise ship. You don’t have to set sail for a week to see glaciers—you can do it on your own schedule and without crowds or midnight buffets. Plenty of Alaska's glaciers are easily accessible by rental car a short drive on the highway, or even by walking a short distance from major towns. These Alaska glaciers are easy to reach provided you go in summer season, which is generally considered to be Memorial Day (late May) to Labor Day (early September). Otherwise, roads may be tough and visitor facilities may be closed.
Pictured: Root Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
This is one of the most popular glaciers close to Anchorage—about a 1-hour drive away. Portage Glacier used to be visible from the Begich Boggs Visitor Center, which was built in the 1980s on the terminal moraine at one end of Portage Lake. But the ice has been receding more than 180 feet every year since Portage Lake formed in 1914. Now it's out of sight. To reach the tip of the glacier today, you can take a 1-hour boat tour with Portage Glacier Cruises. The boat, the mv Ptarmigan, leaves five times every day for the quick journey narrated by a U.S. Forest Service ranger. During the summer months, Forest Service interpreters also host free campfire programs and guided hikes. But you can also see the ice on the short (4 miles round-trip) but taxing trail, which starts on the side of the Portage tunnel nearest to the town of Whittier.
The Boggs Center is also the starting point for the “Trail of Blue Ice” (a 5-mile system of gravel paths and boardwalks that connect nearby glaciers and campgrounds), and visitors can also walk a 1.4-mile path (suitable for all ages) to the neighboring Byron Glacier. Watch for icebergs in the lake, right next to the parking lot. They often bump into shore.
Just a few steps from the road is Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park, 13 miles from Seward. Nearly 51% of this coastal preserve is covered with ice, but this is the only glacier in the park that you can reach by driving yourself. The Exit Glacier Nature Center is filled with exhibits about the area and its unique vegetation patterns (pictured), and from the grounds, the National Park Service rangers offer daily nature walks and maintain a few short trails, including a 1-mile loop to get you closer. The center is also the trailhead for the Harding Icefield, from which the Exit Glacier flows. Icefields can rarely be easily visited on foot, but here, the rugged Edge of the Glacier trail takes you there on an all-day, strenuous 8-mile round-trip hike with a 3,000-foot elevation gain—come prepared for changes in weather. Snow remains on the upper trail through late June or early July.
Visitors sometimes liken a hike on the Root Glacier to a walk among the tide pools of an ocean—melting water carves brilliant aquamarine reservoirs, ravines, and slides in the ice. A glacier hike is a journey into a magical terrain that is constantly changing. This adventure begins at the remote community of Kennecott, in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Both St. Elias Alpine Guides and Kennicott Wilderness Guides book half-day and full-day trips to the ice and provide expertise and mountaineering crampons for safety.
If you’re really adventurous (and careful), you can learn how to ice climb with a guide. If hiking on your own, take the 4-mile-long trail just outside of Kennecott (the town is spelled differently than the river and the glacier—early prospectors made a clerical error). Just follow the main street through town, which turns into a trail that parallels the Kennicott and Root Glaciers, offering grand vistas. It’s a 2-mile walk to the Root Glacier, so wear sturdy hiking boots. If you are on a guided hike, your leader will help you don crampons before the thrill of mounting the ice.
Matanuska is the largest glacier in Alaska accessible by car, just 101 miles northeast of Anchorage on the Glenn Highway. The scenic 2-hour drive is worth it just to gaze on the spectacular ribbon of ice, 27 miles long and 4 miles wide, that stretches from the Chugach Mountains. Enjoy that view for free at the Matanuska Glacier State Recreation Site. Interpretive signs explain what you are looking at and telescopes can zoom in on the details. There's an easy 1-mile walk called the Edge Nature Trail that begins at the rest area and provides a 20-minute tour through the forest to viewing platforms. If you want to get closer, you have to pay a $30 per person entry fee to the owners of the land directly in front of the glacier. There are also guided tours available year-round through Matanuska Glacier Adventures. On its 2-hour tour, you’ll learn the history of the Matanuska Valley and be shown impressive crevasses and other features you'd miss on your own. Trips are tailored to visitors, no experience required.
The drive to the Worthington Glacier is spectacular—and easy. On a clear day, the ice seems to jump out from its mountainside perch along the Richardson Highway, just 28 miles north of Valdez. This area was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1968, and it looks out over Thompson Pass, the snowiest place in the state. From the Worthington Glacier State Recreation Site, the 2.4-mile Worthington Glacier Ridge Trail accommodates all skill levels and passes a beautiful waterfall. The path is steep but well established, winding through alder trees and winding up a series of switchbacks to alpine tundra. The reward is jaw-dropping views and quick access to the ice. The Worthington Trek, out of Valdez, offers a 3- to 4-hour, family-friendly tour beyond the glacier, allowing visitors to get close to, on top of, and even inside the crevasses in the ice.
Spencer Glacier and its iceberg-specked lake are accessible only via the Alaska Railroad’s Glacier Discovery Train, which runs daily from Anchorage between late May through mid-September and removes the stress of driving. Step off at the Spencer Whistle Stop in the Chugach National Forest and find yourself back in time—even though you are just 60 miles south of Anchorage. You can hike a little over a mile to the viewing platform, and then go another 1.7 miles right to the edge of the ice. Hike on your own or join a guided walk with a U.S. Forest Service ranger. The railroad reserves campsites and cabins starting in mid-June. Sign up for a guided kayak trip down the Placer River or, if you'd rather someone else did the paddling, a Spencer Glacier Iceberg Float trip.