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Best Glaciers to See in Alaska

With more than 100,000 of these ice masses, many in retreat, Alaska’s glacial wonders are hard to miss—for now.

 

Pebbles of ice tumble from frigid blue spires, showering the silty water below. With a boom and a thundering crash, chunks shear from the wall of ice, sending sprays of water hundreds of feet into the air.

It’s a dramatic display—one that’s sure to impress visitors of any age. But Alaska’s booming, crashing glaciers also tell a compelling tale of climatic change. For families focused on environmental awareness, a tour of Alaskan glaciers makes for a fun-filled educational adventure.

Ice on the move

More than 100,000 glaciers creep and crawl along the mountains of Alaska. Most of them are retreating, which means that they’re losing more ice to melting and calving than they gain through the build-up of seasonal snowfall. Scientists are divided about whether the current trend of glacial retreat is due to excessive carbon emissions or whether it’s the tail end of a hundred-year cycle of glacial coming and going.

Glacial ice is a far cry from the frozen water in your freezer trays. If you were to drop a cube of ice from a glacier’s core into your drink, the pressure released would shatter the glass. The ice is so dense that it reflects only blue light, giving glaciers their haunting azure hue.

The transformation from snowflake to glacial ice takes nine years, and 30 feet of snow must fall to yield one square inch of glacier. Glaciers carve an incredible path through the landscape, dropping rocks, shaping lakes and shedding silt. The best way to grasp this phenomenon is to see it firsthand, with a tour of Alaska’s most accessible glaciers.

Facing the glaciers near Anchorage

If you’re pressed for time, you can easily find an impressive glacier experience within a few hours of Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city and the jumping-off point for most Alaskan adventures.

An hour’s drive to the south is the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center, built on the remnants of a terminal moraine left by Portage Glacier. This is a fast-moving glacier that has receded 25 to 30 feet each year since 1914, forming a lake 800 feet deep as it retreats. In fact, Portage has pulled back so far that you must take a boat to approach its face, but it’s an easy and informative one-hour ride from the center.

Begich, Boggs offers hourly screenings of the award-winning film Voices From the Ice, and on Fridays, you can join rangers on an Ice Worm Safari to search for these tiny cousins of the earthworm that live only on glacial ice.

Another great glacier-viewing option is the 26 Glacier Cruise out of Whittier. Whittier is a 90-minute drive from Anchorage, including a spin through the longest highway-access tunnel in North America. Alternatively, you can opt for a rail/cruise package, which entails a scenic Alaska Railroad ride to and from your cruise ship.

Once aboard the 300-passenger catamaran, you’ll sail into some of the most beautiful fjords in Prince William Sound to get up close and personal with calving glaciers. There’s also a good chance of spotting whales, sea otters and sea lions swimming in the open water or bobbing around the icebergs in the bay. There’s a no-seasickness guarantee on this trip, and the all-female crew is a great reminder that girls can be captains, too.

Treading on thick ice

If the open water is not your thing, you can drive right up to several Alaskan glaciers, including the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, Exit Glacier in Seward, the Matanuska Glacier on the Glenn Highway and Worthington Glacier north of Valdez. At Mendenhall and Exit, great trails take you up toward the ice fields where the glaciers are formed. If you want to walk on the glacier itself, it’s best to go with an experienced guide who can keep you from slipping into a crevasse. Even if you’re staying on terra firma, exercise caution near these massive hunks of ice: Ice shed from dry land calving will crush anything in its path.

The granddaddy of all Alaskan glacier experiences is at Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. Sixteen gigantic saltwater glaciers and an ice-carved landscape of valleys, fjords and glacial moraines make this an incredible stop on your glacier-viewing itinerary. Some 60 miles west of Juneau, the park is accessible only by plane or boat, but it’s well worth the trip. Arrange your sightseeing from Gustavus, the tiny community adjacent to the park.

Whether you’re able to fit just one glacier or dozens into your Alaskan vacation, you’ll remain in awe of these massive natural wonders long after you return. Plus, the next time you hear about global warming, you’ll have a dramatic visual to go with the story.

Planning your trip:

  • Portage Glacier: Gray Line of Alaska (tel. 907-277-5581, 800-478-6388; www.graylinealaska.com) hosts one-hour cruises from the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center to Portage Glacier for $29. Ask about their walk-up specials.
  • 26 Glacier Cruise: Hop aboard the Klondike Express, operated by Phillips Cruises and Tours (tel. 907-276-8023, 800-544-0529; www.26glaciers.com) to see more glaciers than you’d ever thought possible in a five-hour cruise. Ask about their rail/cruise packages for $139 plus tax.
  • Mendenhall Glacier: Pearson’s Pond Luxury Inn (tel. 907-789-3772, 888-658-6328; www.pearsonspond.com) features private entries and decks, robes, slippers, kitchenettes and fireplaces. They have a barbeque, hot tub, rowboat, bikes and kayaks for guests to use. Rates start at $329 per night.
  • Exit Glacier: Enjoy lodge-style accommodations just down the road from Exit Glacier at Seward Windsong Lodge (tel. 907-224-7116, 877-777-4079; www.sewardwindsong.com). Rates run from $129 to $215 per night.
  • Matanuska Glacier: You can see the glacier from Majestic Valley Wilderness Lodge (tel. 907-746-2930, www.majesticvalleylodge.com). Rates start at $105 per night; meals can be arranged in advance.
  • Worthington Glacier: Nice accommodations at Wild Roses by the Sea B & B Retreat (tel. 907-835-2930; www.alaskabytheseabnb.com) on a bluff overlooking Anderson Glacier. Rates start at $128 per night. While you’re in Valdez, hop aboard Stan Stephens Columbia Glacier Cruise (t866-867-1297; www.stanstephenscruises.com) for a look at one of Alaska’s largest tidewater glaciers. The all-day tour runs $130 per person and includes a light meal.
  • Glacier Bay: Opt for the three or four-night Glacier Bay Highlights cruise through Cruise West (tel. 888-851-8133; www.cruisewest.com), departing from and returning to Juneau. Expect to see lots of marine life in addition to glaciers. Rates begin at $1749 per person.

Destinations: Alaska

Themes: Ecotourism, Family Travel, Cruises

Activities: Sightseeing


User Comments

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Ice Worm Safari I was an adult, and it was 15 years ago, but I remember a Ranger's talk about ice worms vividly--very cool that anything can live like that, right on the ice, and only if the ice's surface temperature stays within 2-3 degrees, I believe. A decent number of kids (8-12, maybe?) were there, and interested, I recall.

Best Glaciers It shows Astounding views of Glaciers.

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