Do you want a memorable trip for you and your visitors? Here’s a tip: find a glacier.
Earlier this week, I hiked with my family through the remnants of the Kennecott Copper Co.’s processing plant near the town of McCarthy. Our destination: the Root Glacier. Our guide, Violet, with McCarthy River Tours, packed our crampons and a first aid kit for the journey. Each of us packed water and a lunch for the journey. It was a two-mile hike to get to an access point on the glacier, even though the whole valley is covered in ice from the Kennicott Glacier.
We knew it was going to be an awesome hike after parking the car and walking across the footbridge into McCarthy. It crosses the Kennicott River. On a clear day, you can see the peak of Mount Blackburn (16,390 feet) and follow the ice fall which feeds the glacier and ultimately flows into the river. It’s an incredible sight.
If you arrive by air in McCarthy from Chitina, you get a different view. It’s no less impressive. Wrangell Mountain Air offers two flights a day on the 60-mile route. If the weather is clear, your pilot may fly through 4th of July Pass, so you can get a bird’s-eye view of the giant ice fall on Mount Blackburn, as well as the massive mash-up between the Kennicott Glacier and the Root Glacier. You can also see all of the old copper mine buildings on the mountains from 100 years ago.
Whether it’s by land, by sea or by air, a journey to get up-close to a glacier has to be on your Alaska bucket list. There are lots of operators to help you check the box. Some destinations are remote, but others are pretty close to Anchorage.
In addition to guided treks on the Root Glacier in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, you can walk up on a couple of glaciers, including Matanuska Glacier. Both MICA Guides and Nova Alaska Guides offer treks on the Matanuska Glacier, about 100 miles from Anchorage on the Glenn Highway. The cost for a basic tour is about $90, plus a $25 entrance fee to the glacier. You also can choose a longer glacier trek — or even some ice climbing.
Down in Seward, Kenai Backcountry Adventures offers daytrips and overnight excursions on Exit Glacier. The company rates this trip as “strenuous”, because to access the glacier you have to climb up the mountain! These trips are a little longer, up to eight hours. Cost is $189 per adult. The park entrance at Exit Glacier is the only road access to Kenai Fjords National Park.
From LeConte Glacier near Petersburg to Prince William Sound, there are lots of options to see glaciers. Typically, the smaller the boat, the closer you can get to the ice.
Chugach Adventures in Girdwood offers a combo trip with the Alaska Railroad to get up close to the Spencer Glacier. First, you hop aboard the train in Portage to ride up to the Spencer Glacier stop. Along the way, the train stops to pick up rafts for the float trip portion of the trip.
On arrival at the Spencer Glacier stop, guides pull the boats off the train on to a trailer. Rafters hop in a van for a short ride up to the put-in spot. The guides get the inflatable boats set up and then you hop in for the trip. Depending on glacial activity, there could be lots of icebergs in the lake and you can get close enough to touch them. After some time checking out the glacier and icebergs, you continue on the seven-mile float down the Placer River. Then, the train comes by on the return trip to pick you up!
For a closer view of the glacier itself, Chugach Adventures also offers guided kayak tours.
On the way to Whittier, you can stop at Portage Lake and go on the Ptarmigan, a boat that was specially-built to take travelers to the face of Portage Glacier. The trip lasts about an hour — and it’s a great way to get close to the ice.
In Whittier itself, you can hop aboard the Yukon Express for a high-speed trip up College Fjord. And yes, you can see 26 glaciers, which is why Phillips Cruises calls the tour the “26 Glacier Tour.”
If you have a group of at least four people, go on a guided kayak adventure with Lazy Otter Charters. First, the crew loads the kayaks on the water taxi. From there, it’s off to Blackstone Glacier for a couple of hours. Lunch on the beach is included, after which the crew leads the kayakers to nearby Beloit Glacier. All safety gear is included.
In Seward, there are several choices for glacier cruises, with a healthy dollop of wildlife included.
One of my favorite cruises is the National Park Cruise, offered by both Major Marine Tours and Kenai Fjords Tours. Depending on the specific itinerary, you’re likely to get an up-close look at some hanging glaciers in Thumb Cove or Humpy Cove. Along the way, watch for otters, puffins and eagles.
The big ice comes up when you reach Aialik Bay. Aialik Glaicer looks big from a distance, but your captain can take you so close that the ice fills the entire horizon. You might see some harbor seals on the small icebergs near the face of the glacier.
Both Major Marine and Kenai Fjords Tours offer trips deeper in to the park to Northwestern Fjord. It takes longer, but the glaciers are completely different. In Northwestern Fjord, the glaciers have receded more rapidly, leaving the barren rock exposed.
Captain Eric Simpson was at the helm of Kenai Fjords Tours’ “Orca Voyager” last month as we entered the fjord. “These glaciers have changed dramatically even since I first started sailing here seven years ago,” he said.
The Orca Voyager is a high-speed catamaran that cruises at 25 knots. That extra speed came in handy since we stopped to watch a couple of humpback whales breaching and slapping their tails just outside the fjord.
Over in Valdez, Stan Stephens Cruises operates two tours: one to Columbia Glacier and a longer tour to Meares Glacier. Both tours offer changes to see wildlife in addition to big ice!
If you want to kayak among the icebergs in Valdez, check with Pangaea Adventures. You can’t miss their kayaks — they’re lined up right next to Stan Stephens’ boats in the harbor. Take a water taxi to nearby Shoup Glacier or take a longer trip to Columbia Glacier.
Most of the available glacier trips by air use a helicopter. Alpine Air in Girdwood flies to nearby 20-mile Glacier. Alaska Helicopter Tours departs from Knik River Lodge, 54 miles from Anchorage. The lodge is literally around the corner from Knik Glacier, Colony Glacier and several others. Depending on the tour you choose, you could go for a dogsled ride with dogs from Dallas Seavey’s kennel!
One of my favorite glacier trips is on a ski plane that takes off from Talkeetna Airport for Denali. Three operators offer trips from the airport up to the Ruth Glacier: K2 Aviation, Talkeetna Air Taxi and Sheldon Air Service.
Actually, there are several glaciers on which to land in case the Ruth Glacier gets fogged in. On a clear day, you’ll enjoy a trip up the Great Gorge of the Ruth Glacier, surrounded on both sides by huge mountains. It’s amazing.
Whether it’s by land, by sea or by air, you still have time this year to get up close to a glacier. Remember: ice is nice. Just don’t forget your crampons!
Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based marketing consultant, serving clients in the transportation, hospitality, media and specialty destination sectors, among others. Contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter (@alaskatravelGRM) and alaskatravelgram.com. For more information, visit alaskatravelgram.com/about.