You may not think that a regular old house cat like me would have any interest in glaciers in Alaska, but you would be wrong. Cats are very curious creatures and figuring out where to see glaciers in Alaska turned out to be one of my favorite Alaskan adventures. Once I started learning about the glaciers, I was hooked!
So, what makes them so special? They are old (up to 30,000 years in Alaska), powerful (literally reshaping the land), and beautiful (did you know ice can range in color?). No matter which area you visit, you are sure to be within driving distance of some of Alaska’s glacial stunners. Read on to learn more about where to see glaciers in Alaska.
Pro Tip: For a comprehensive guide to traveling in Alaska, check out: the 10 day Alaska Itinerary.
Table of Contents:
Explore Alaska’s favorite roadside glacier: Matanuska
Matanuska stretches 27 miles in length, 4 miles in width, and nearly 13,000 feet in height. This is the largest glacier, viewable by car in North America. Easily seen from Glenn Highway, this roadside glacier is a quick stop on the way to Denali.
While you can get some stunning pictures from the highway, the best way to see Matanuska is to book a glacier hike. Yes, you read that correctly, you can actually experience glacier trekking on Matanuska!
Due to safety reasons, you’ll need to participate in a guided tour. In the summer season, they generally take place at the top of each hour and run 1.5-2 hours in length. These glacier tours typically cost approximately $125 per person and you can expect the tour company to provide helmets and crampons (shoe spikes) to safely navigate the ice.
This is the perfect opportunity to see a glacier up close. During my tour the guide let us fill up our water bottles from a stream of glacier melt. How much closer can you get, than actually drinking straight from the glacier? If you only have time for one glacier, I’d recommend this one.
Take an hour-long boat tour to Portage Glacier
When figuring out where to see glaciers in Alaska, Portage Glacier is a common answer. Just a 1.5-hour drive through the Chugach national forest, you can visit the Begich Boggs Visitor Center and enjoy a one-hour cruise which will take you within 300 feet of the face of the glacier. These short tours cost approximately $45 per adult, making Portage Glacier a relatively inexpensive and easy glacier to see.
Please note the glacier is not viewable from the shore of Portage Lake. You’ll need to plan time to take one of the short day cruises or hike to a viewing point.
There are also plenty of hiking trails in the area that will take you close to the glacier, however, there are no guided tours (or accessible trails) that allow you to walk on top of the glacier. This is a beauty to admire from afar!
If you have time, explore some of the pull-outs on Portage Glacier Road. Here, you will find pristine rivers and lakes formed by the melt from the Relic icefield. An added bonus to this glacier is its proximity to Whittier, known for its stunning views of Prince William Sound.
Pro Tip: Make seeing Portage Glacier and visiting Whittier a day trip from Anchorage!
Kayak on a glacial lake to Spencer Glacier
Visiting Spencer Glacier is truly a special experience. This glacier, only accessible by train via the Spencer Whistlestop is so far off the grid, it almost brought tears to my eyes. One of the coolest parts of Spencer Glacier is that it melts into Spencer Lake. Due to wind and weather patterns, this lake is almost always littered with amazing icebergs. Ever seen those stunning pictures of adventure travelers kayaking next to an ice-blue iceberg? This is the spot!
While you can technically hike or kayak unguided in this area, I’d recommend joining a tour to get the most out of this experience. I booked a day-long tour with Chugach Adventures. The entire package includes train fare, lunch, and 3.5 hours of kayaking and hiking around the glacier. The total cost was $430 per adult. For planning purposes, you should note that even though the glacier is only an hour outside of Anchorage, the limited train schedules make this outing an all-day affair.
Hike to Exit Glacier
Exit Glacier, located just outside of the lovely town of Seward, is easy to visit. Only a few minutes off of the highway there are several well-documented trails that take you close to the glacier. If you are looking for a short (30 minutes or less) walk in the woods, with stunning views, then this is your place!
As a bonus, you can spend some time exploring Seward after seeing the glacier. A lovely afternoon could include a walk through Waterfront Park, a visit to the Alsakan Sea Life Museum, and dinner at the marina. Seward is a popular destination in Alaska for a good reason!
Visit Kenai Fjords National Park for tidewater glaciers galore
If you are interested in seeing some tidewater glaciers (the kind that terminates in the ocean), then a boat tour of Kenai Fjords National Park is the way to go. The entire tour, leaving from Seward, lasts approximately 6 hours. You will travel past multiple glaciers and do an extended stop at least one glacier so that everyone has time to take pictures.
A popular stop on this tour is Aialik Glacier, a picturesque glacier known for its jagged face. In addition to glaciers, you may see whales, bears, puffins, seals, and a host of other loveable Alaskan animals.
As a bonus, you can also spend some time in the lovely town of Seward and catch Exit Glacier on the way out. This tour costs approximately $170 per adult.
Book a helicopter tour of Knik Glacier
If flying over Alaska’s rugged landscape in a helicopter is on your to-do list, then Knik Glacier is one of the best destinations you can choose. Situated in the Chugach Mountains, outside of Palmer, you’ll have a few choices for helicopter tours.
Nearly every tour offers the experience of a glacier landing, where you can get out of the helicopter and explore on foot. Landing on top of a glacier is a totally different experience than approaching one on foot or by boat. As such, helicopter tours are one of the most expensive ways to see glaciers, but also one of the most memorable.
The crown jewel of the Juneau Icefield: Mendenhall Glacier
If you find yourself in the lovely town of Juneau during your Alaskan vacation, Mendenhall Glacier is a must-see. Located a short drive from downtown Juneau, visiting Mendenhall should be on any traveler’s agenda.
When you first arrive, take some time to stop at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. This modern building, built on the side of a hill is beautiful in its own right. Inside you’ll find stunning views of the glacier as well as educational resources on the history of the Juneau Icefield. Please note that the visitor center requires a small entrance fee of $5.
Aside from relaxing in the visitor center, you can also view the glacier from the shore of Mendenhall Lake, located a short walk from the parking lot. Here you can get a closer view of the ice-blue icebergs that frequent the area.
There are also several trails in the area, but Nugget Falls Trail is the best-known, taking you close to the face of the glacier, with stunning views of Nugget Falls, which feeds into Mendenhall Lake. If you have time, Steep Creek is another great trail to check out. It’s an easy 20-minute loop and provides a good representation of the Tongass National Forest and plenty of opportunities for wildlife spottings.
See the ice caves of Byron Glacier
One of the most picturesque features of Alaska’s glaciers are their ice caves. If you are looking to see one up close, Byron Glacier is a great choice.
Starting from Portage Lake, the hike to Byron Glacier is 1.4 miles, one way. It’s a fairly easy hike, with major rewards. Once you are on top of the glacier, it should be easy to find ice caves, as they frequently form in this area.
It is not recommended to enter the ice caves as there is a risk of falling ice or a total collapse. Instead, you can admire the blue ice and unique formations from afar. Exercise extra caution in the late spring and early summer as this time of year experiences the most drastic changes in weather.
Alaska’s best-protected glaciers are at Glacier Bay National Park
Glacier Bay restricts boat traffic to protect the local wildlife, so the only way to see the area is via the National Park Services boat tour, which lasts approximately 7 hours. Aside from stunning tidewater glaciers, like Margerie Glacier, the area is great for viewing wildlife like wild mountain goats, coastal grizzlies, sea otters, steller sea lions, and puffins.
Due to warmer days in this part of the state, you are most likely to witness calving on this boat tour. Calving occurs when parts of the glacier crack and fall into the water. It’s a truly amazing sight to witness.
Get off the beaten path to see the glaciers of Wrangell – St Elias
While many would argue that the whole state of Alaska is “off the beaten path” to really experience untamed wilderness, a trip to Wrangell – St Elias National Park should be on your itinerary. Welcome to the largest National Park, spanning over 15,000 square miles of pure wilderness!
Here you’ll find Hubbard Glacier, the longest tidewater glacier in North America, running 75 miles in length, with a face that is 6 miles wide. The best way to see this glacier is to book a boat tour out of the nearby town of Yakutat. Experienced backpackers can get closer with a little planning and preparation, but there are no marked trails in the area.
If you are looking to hike to a glacier, however, Root Glacier is the most accessible in the park. Roughly 1.5 miles down Root Glacier Trail, starting at the historic town of Kennecott, you can actually hike onto the glacier. Of course, there is some inherent risk when going onto the glacier, so it’s advised to stop when you get to exposed ice.
And, finally, Wrangell – St Elias’s best-known glacier is Kennicott glacier, overlooking the historic mill town of Kennicott. Located in the heart of the park, this ghost town is National Historic Landmark and offers plenty of opportunities to explore. Viewing points for the Kennicott glacier are located throughout the area, but you can really see it from anywhere within the town.
Another take on where to see glaciers in Alaska – from the comfort of a cruise ship!
For travelers with lower mobility or those who simply prefer the ease and comfort of an Alaska cruise, you always have the option of viewing glaciers from a cruise ship. All of the major cruise lines offer some form of glacier viewing for their Alaskan cruises. If seeing glaciers are a priority for you, then look for a cruise on a smaller ship that will be able to get closer to the face of the tidewater glaciers.
If you are able to take excursions from your cruise, look for boat rides around the Kenai Fjords and Glacier Bay. These excursions take place on smaller boats and allow for closer views.
Late spring to early summer is the best time to view glaciers via a cruise in Alaska, as the weather is changing rapidly and you are most likely to experience calving, where pieces of the glacier break off into the ocean.
Conclusion on where to see glaciers in Alaska
In conclusion, the variety of glaciers in Alaska is astounding. From hiking to kayaking to relaxing on a yacht, Alaska has a glacier experience for everyone. So the real question is not where to see glaciers in Alaska, it’s which ones will you visit.