A glacier is defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary as a very large area of ice that moves slowly down a slope or valley or over a wide area of land – A fairly bland description of a breathtaking sight! A common Alaska definition of a glacier is a river of ice. Glaciers common to Alaska include tidewater glaciers, hanging glaciers and valley glaciers. Tidewater glaciers flow down mountains and end in the sea, hanging glaciers rest on mountain sides and only descend a part of the way down the mountain and valley glaciers fill mountain valleys.
Glaciers are one of the top Alaskan attractions. Alaska is home to 100,000 glaciers, two-thirds of all of the glaciers on earth. Whether seen from the air, from the water or on a hike, your first sight of a glacier can be an awe-inspiring, humbling experience. It is amazing how accessible these massive rivers of ice can be! Below is a guide to the glaciers of South-central Alaska.
Portage Glacier, located fifty miles south of Anchorage, is one of the most visited glaciers in Alaska. Drive an hour on the scenic Seward Highway before turning onto Portage Valley Road. On this road you will see two hanging glaciers – Explorer Glacier and Middle Glacier. Take time to visit the Begich-Boggs Visitor Center for more information on Portage Valley and the Chugach National Forest. Twenty years ago Portage Glacier could be seen from the Visitors Center but it has since receded so an hour long boat tour on Portage Lake is required to see the face of the glacier. Byron Glacier can be seen from the road in route to the Portage Lake and is accessible by land. We recommend hiking to the face of this glacier. It is a great hike that gets you up close to the glacier and offers great views of the rugged mountains that surround the glacier. The Byron Glacier Trail is located in between the Visitors Center and the Portage Glacier boat launch. The trail is 1.4 miles and is considered an easy hike.
Exit Glacier is located in Seward and is the only glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park that is accessible by road. Turn off of the Seward Highway and travel about 8.5 miles to the Exit Glacier trail-head. Follow a one mile loop trail to get close to the face of the glacier. Ranger-led walks are available. If you do not have a car in Seward, we recommend taking the Exit Glacier tour that includes transportation from Seward and a naturalist guide. For the more active Alaska visitors consider the Harding Ice Field trail, an 8.2 mile strenuous, full-day hike with fabulous glacial views.
North of Anchorage the most spectacular and accessible glacier is Matanuska Glacier. This is the largest glacier in Alaska that is accessible by road. This valley glacier is 26 miles long and about 4 miles wide. Matanuska Glacier Park is located at mile 102 of the Glenn Highway, about a two hour drive from Anchorage. You will have many views of the glacier as you drive along the highway in route to the park. From the parking area at Matanuska Glacier Park you can hike up to and on the glacier. The views are amazing and will give you a clear perspective on the size and scope of glaciers.
Valdez, Alaska is about 300 road miles from Anchorage. It is a small community that features access to Prince William Sound and serves as the terminus for the trans-Alaska oil pipeline. Twenty-eight miles north of Valdez on the Richardson Highway, is another road accessible glacier – Worthington Glacier. This glacier is the site of a State Recreation area which features interpretive signage and trail access to the glacier. Worthington Glacier is situated in Thompson Pass, the snowiest place in Alaska.
There are two spectacular areas in South-central Alaska for viewing glaciers via a day cruise – Kenai Fjords National Park and Prince William Sound. Seward, Alaska (130 miles from Anchorage) is the departure point for cruises into Kenai Fjords National Park and Prince William Sound can be accessed via Whittier (60 miles from Anchorage) or Valdez (300 miles from Anchorage).
The full day wildlife and glacier cruises into Kenai Fjords National Park range in price from $149 to $184 per person depending on how far into the park your tour goes. These cruises spend time at the face of a tidewater glacier and watch for calving ice. For the best glacier viewing, choose a nine hour cruise that travels to Northwestern Fjord, home to three tidewater glaciers and many alpine glaciers.
There are two day cruises offered into Prince William Sound from Whittier. The Surprise Glacier cruise offered by Major Marine Tours features the beauty of a tidewater glacier, marine wildlife and a visit to a fish hatchery and offers a prime rib and salmon buffet on board. The 26-Glacier cruise offered by Phillips Cruises travels 140 miles through Prince William Sound to see 26 named glaciers and more that are not named. You will see a variety of tidewater and hanging glaciers.
The day cruise from Valdez features a visit to Columbia Glacier, South-central Alaska’s largest tidewater glacier. This cruise also features marine wildlife and some history of the area as well!
The Alaska Railroad rail trip between Anchorage and Seward offers incredible glacier viewing through Grandview Pass. You will enjoy the spectacular views of Trail Glacier, Bartlett Glacier and Spencer Glacier. The train passes slowly through this area so you will have time to take pictures and soak in the beautiful scenery. The Alaska Railroad also offers Whistle Stop service to Spencer Glacier. This trip gives you the opportunity to explore this glacier and its icebergs. You can choose to go explore on your own or take a guided hike, a rafting trip or for the active adventurer, take an ice-climbing trip on the glacier. You can return to Anchorage at 4:30pm on the same train you arrived on or later that evening on the train returning to Anchorage from Seward.
Flight-seeing provides yet another perspective on Alaska’s glaciers. We recommend either the Prince William Sound flight-seeing from Anchorage or the McKinley Glacier Landing flight from Talkeetna. The tour from Anchorage gives you a chance to fly over the Chugach Mountains and see some of the tidewater glaciers of Prince William Sound from the air via a float-plane. The tour from Talkeetna offers a spectacular view of the Alaska Range and its glacier-filled valleys and the chance to land on a snow-covered glacier near Mt. McKinley.
Alaska’s glaciers are exceptionally beautiful and unique no matter how you choose to view them. Alaska Tour & Travel is proud to offer so many ways in which to explore the magnificent blue ice of the glaciers in South-central Alaska.