Got glaciers? Alaska does. Scientists estimate that these rivers of blue ice cover some 34,000 square miles of the state—and they can be a stunning high point to any visit, no matter how you’ve made your way here.
Keep reading for my four picks for the best glaciers in Alaska. But don’t stop there—the state has many more glaciers than I could include in this list, and you can read about more of them in Moon Alaska.
Note: As of May 2020, Alaska requires visitors from out of state to immediately quarantine themselves for 14 days upon arrival. The current order is set to expire in mid-May, but may well be extended—or reinstituted—if our infection numbers start going up again.
If there’s one benchmark for choosing a “best” glacier, it’s the one I’d reflexively take visiting guests and family members to see—and that’s Exit Glacier. Located just up the road from Seward, the visitor center for this glacier is within easy reach of almost anywhere on Southcentral Alaska’s gorgeous road system. Sure, you might have to drive a while to get there, but the scenery along the way is astoundingly beautiful.
There’s just one catch: You can’t see the glacier from the visitor center. Instead, you get the best views by walking a 2-mile loop of flat, easy trail, with benches along the way for resting. Only the last stretch up to the designated viewing platform sports some uneven ground and stairs.
Glacier View, Alaska
The Matanuska Glacier is a true roadside beauty, and it’s well worth the drive to get there. It’s about two hours from Anchorage—a little less if you’re staying in Palmer or Wasilla. Or, make this a superb sightseeing stopover on your way to Anchorage from Tok or Valdez.
One of the biggest draws of this glacier is that you can walk on a portion of it during the summer, no guides required, as long as you pay a modest entry fee and stay within the marked area. But if you’ve come this far already, why not spring for a once-in-a-lifetime guided trek or ice climbing adventure?
Pro Tip: If you’re a close relative of an Alaska resident, have them make the reservations. In some cases, Alaska residents are allowed to “sponsor” parents, children, grandparents or grandkids (including “step” relations and in-laws) for a greatly reduced rate, as long as the resident comes on the tour with you.
This is one of the most active tidewater glaciers in Alaska. It’ll take most of the day to get there and back with one of the midsize boat tours out of Valdez—which of course includes plenty of time spent loitering near the face of the glacier, waiting for house-sized chunks of ice to slough off into the sea. Or, join one of the day trips that boats up to the edge of the glacier’s shifting skirts of icebergs, then sets you free to paddle a kayak among the chunks of drifting ice. If you’re very lucky, you might come eye-to-eye with seals and sea otters hauled out on the icebergs.
Although the Mendenhall Glacier is one of the biggest cruise attractions in Juneau, everybody is welcome to visit. Either hop on one of the shuttle buses that depart from the cruise docks—you can buy your tickets there, no matter how you arrived in town—or drive yourself to the visitor center. If you’re carless and on a budget you can even take a public bus most of the way there, although you’ll have to walk the last stretch.
But walking is one of the best things to do here: If you’ve had your fill of using well-placed telescopes for close-up views of the glacier, why not choose from the miles of hiking trails nearby? Depending on your choice and the season, you’ll be in for an easy stroll to the base of gushing Nugget Falls—which includes some great views of the glacier face—or a challenging uphill scramble for views from the top of the falls.