A wide range of trips throughout Southcentral Alaska.
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Fairbanks: -4°/11°/Partly cloudy
Some glaciers you can literally reach out and touch, some you can walk on or climb across and some you want to observe from a very safe distance. Here are a few of the top ice capades around Southcentral Alaska.
Anyone can harvest ice from Alaska's 28,800 square miles of glaciers.
ON THE LEARNARD GLACIER -- Dusk was falling in a bowl above the entrance to the car-and-train tunnel at Whittier, and the ice worms were rising.
Glaciers are created when decades upon decades of snow compact themselves into ice. As the ice crystals grow, they push out the air.
Worthington Glacier is an easy-off, easy-on stop at Mile 28 of the Richardson Highway northeast of Valdez.
Drive up to these rivers of blue ice
Alaska has several roadside glaciers where the adventurous can park, walk a short distance and touch the ice.
Visitors also can find themselves across a river or a lake from a glacier. They can hike on glacial moraines and admire the U-shaped valleys carved by these rivers of ice moving at, well, glacial speed.
In addition, landlubbers in Southcentral, Interior and Southeast Alaska can observe a double handful of glaciers that are unreachable without a lot of effort but that are notable for their grandeur and earth-shaping ability.
Of the five most accessible glaciers, Byron, Exit, Matanuska are within three hours' scenic drive of Anchorage. Kennicott and Worthington glaciers are a half-day's trip away.
From Anchorage, the closest glaciers are at Girdwood and Portage.
A favorite dining spot of Alaskans and visitors is the Seven Glaciers Restaurant on Mount Alyeska, overlooking Girdwood. Tram cars from the Alyeska Prince hotel lift diners, sightseers and wintertime skiers to the restaurant; it's a short but thigh-testing hike from the restaurant to the glacier. The glacier is covered by snow except for late in the summer. Girdwood is a half-hour's drive south of Anchorage on the Seward Highway.
The snow at Portage melts much sooner and arrives later, so Portage and Byron glaciers are visible longer. Portage Glacier can be seen from the lake vessel Ptarmigan, which tours the lake in the summer, and from a viewpoint on the access road to the Whittier tunnel. Often, small icebergs wash up near the visitors center. The turnoff to Portage Glacier is a 45-minute drive south of Anchorage on the Seward Highway.
From Juneau, the closest glacier is Mendenhall. A U.S. Forest Service visitors center at Mendenhall Lake, north of Juneau, has trails and interpretive exhibits. It's an easy drive from Juneau. Many tour companies provide bus service.
Cruise ships remain the best way to see Glacier Bay National Park's icy buffet, Wrangell-St. Elias' Hubbard Glacier and Prince William Sound's Columbia Glacier. Smaller tour boats, especially in Whittier, Valdez and Seward, visit tidewater glaciers. A sightseeing boat also traverses Portage Lake to Portage Glacier.
For those who want the flexibility of land travel, however, Southcentral is where the action is.
Southcentral Alaska is blessed with lots of ice even though it's not in the coldest part of Alaska. Moisture-laden storms move off the Gulf of Alaska and drop their precipitation as snow when they collide with the high mountains of the Chugach, Alaska, Wrangell, St. Elias, Fairweather and other ranges. Thompson Pass, east of Valdez in the Chugach Mountains, gets hundreds of inches of snow; in the 1952-53 winter, 974.5 inches of snow fell.
The Alaska Range has big visible glaciers -- the Ruth, Kahiltna and Muldrow glaciers coming off Mount McKinley in Denali National Park being three examples. The mountains north of the Alaska Range hold a lot of ice, but they're not in the league of the coastal Bering, Sargent and Harding icefields of Southcentral and the Juneau Icefield of Southeast.
Piedmont glaciers accumulate great piles of rocks and dirt at their snouts as they scrape down through the mountains. Sometimes the rocks cover several miles of a glacier's lower end, and vegetation growing in the moraine hides the glacier pretty well. A good example of this is the Muldrow Glacier. Visitors at the Eielson Visitor Center near Mount McKinley often overlook the expansive glacier because the glacier's usual white or blue ice isn't visible at the lower elevations.
Some people are disappointed to find the glacier's growling, cracking face covered with rocks and mud, when they expected a National Geographic-type glacier calving large blocks of ice. But without an ocean to dump the rocks into, as tidewater glaciers do, the glaciers keep their moraine.
Exit and Worthington glaciers have clear views of the ice. Matanuska and Kennicott glaciers, with snouts covered by moraine, require either a longer view or a short hike out of the riverbed to see the ice. Byron Glacier is more of an icefall as it descends into the Portage valley.
Close inspection of some glaciers may require actual physical exertion. Byron Glacier, for example, is a three-quarter-mile hike off the road along Portage Lake. Reaching the small glacier on Mount Alyeska requires a ride up the tram and then a hike up a service road. You may need a boat or plane ride to reach isolated Cordova before motoring or biking to Childs Glacier.