Glaciers are truly awe-inspiring geological features. The piercing blue sprawls and crawls carving out mountain valleys and leaving behind icy cold lakes makes it impossible to look away. The views are so great that I am always searching for my next great glacier view. Lucky for me, I grew up in a place surrounded by literally thousands of glaciers, so I had plenty of time to scope out easy hikes with the best glacier views. It is one thing to see a glacier from your cruise ship or while driving past on a road trip, it is another to hike up to the base of the glacier and get to know it on an intimate level. As a born and raised Alaskan here are the best hikes near Anchorage for jaw-dropping up-close and personal glacier views.
Every year I return home and hike up to visit my favorite glaciers they are smaller and smaller. My mom has a photo of me as a child playing at the foot of my favorite glacier, now when I go to see Exit Glacier I have to hike for about 20 minutes and I just get a view. Gone are the days I can reach out and touch its icy blue crystals. It is important now more than ever to preserve the arctic enviornment. Please travel consciously and always remember to reduce your impact and leave every destination just as you found it.
I’m going to be that person that starts with glacier safety. Glaciers are no joke, they are powerful and unpredictable entities that can collapse, cave in, or crush you at any given time. We, unfortunately, lose people in Alaska who are not safe around glaciers. Please DO NOT enter ice caves in the summer unless a park employee or official states it is safe to do so. Heed all signs and warnings and remember that no photo is worth dying for.
What To Wear & Pack for a Glacier Hike
It can actually be incredibly hot on a glacier on a sunny summer day, so you don’t need to bundle up in winter gear, which is great. I always suggest a nice pair of athletic clothing, hiking, trail, or tennis shoes based on what you packed, a rain jacket, and maybe a light cover-up. With the sun reflecting off the show you want to pack your sunscreen and a hat. Of course, you want to bring lots of water and a good camera.
The hike to Portage Glacier is my all time favorite hike and if you have time for only one glacier view near Anchorage, this is my top recommendation. What makes this so great? Well, it starts in the quirky town of Whitter and to get there you have to drive through N. America’s longest mountain rail tunnel. You pop out in a small fishing town where just about everyone lives in one apartment building that also contains a supermarket, post office, and doctor. The weather in Whitter can get so bad in the winter that residents don’t leave their apartment and that is why it is self-sustaining. There is even a tunnel that goes from the apartment to the school. Fun fact, my mom lived here back in 1960, and Whitter has been ranked as one of the weirdest towns in the U.S. If that wasn’t enough reason to visit, Whitter is the launching point for the Portage Glacier view hike, where you can see Portage and several other glaciers.
The trail starts at Portage Pass Trailhead and starts out with a steep, but short, uphill climb. Keep looking behind you, as the strange little town of Whitter gets smaller and smaller. Once you reach the top, you’ll have eyesight on several hanging glaciers in the mountains and Portage glacier below. A lot of people stop here, making it a quick, but challenging 30-45 min hike. I suggest continuing on to Portage Lake, where you can touch the glacier water, see floating icebergs and take some awesome photos. You can not reach the glacier as a large and deep river will cut you off. It looks like you can, but trust me, you can’t.
After you hike grab some fish and chips at Varly’s Swiftwater Seafood Cafe before getting the next tunnel out.
Please note: The weather is Whitter is always pretty bad. If it is sunny and hot in Anchorage it is rainy and windy in Whitter. We have a local saying, “The weather is always shitter in Whitter.” Bring a rain jacket and some long hiking pants. The tunnel schedule allows you to enter or leave Whitter every 30 minutes and it eventually closes for the night. Plan accordingly. The cost is $13 to access the tunnel. Full day event with drive, tunnel times and hike. Can pair with Byron Glacier for a nice full day. 4-Mile Hike RT (to the lake). Including an uphill portion and downhill portion.
Just on the other side of the Whitter tunnel is the trailhead to Byron Glacier meaning it can be done on the same day as Portage, if you have enough energy for a small additional hike. It can also be done on its own or paired with a Portage Glacier cruise. This easy trail starts at a convenient parking lot, so you just need to park and walk along the trail for about 20-30 minutes. You’ll come to a glacier bed and the end of the marked trail. You can keep going to get up and touch the glacier, but you need to have steady ankles and the ability to scramble over large boulders. Once you are at the glacier, be careful not to climb on the snow in the summer as it can cave in at any time. This area is also popular to get in ice caves, do not do this in the summer. Someone recently died here as part of the cave collapsed in on them. Admire the glacier from a safe distance.
2 mile RT 40 min-80 min depending on how far you go. An easy and accessible trail to start.
Looking for more adventures around Anchroage, check out the best way to see brown bears in the wild, with this memorable trip to Lake Clark National Park.
My second favorite glacier hike is really more of a walk that combines a train ride for the best of both worlds and is a great day trip from Anchorage. You can only access the Spencer Glacier by taking the Glacier Discovery Train operated by the Alaska Railroad. You can hop on the train in Anchorage, Girdwood, or Whitter and take it to Grandview before returning. I like to call this the slow train. It stops and goes based on animal sightings and allows for time at each glacier stop to get out and stretch your legs. If you choose, you can get off at the Spencer Glacier stop and hike out to the glacier. You can let the train leave without you, as long as you catch it on its way back through the Spencer Glacier stop. If you have any questions about timing ask the train crew, but you should have plenty of time to make it out to the glacier and back to catch the train home.
All day event with the train ride included.
Kink glacier is the source of a stunning braided river that cuts between the Anchorage and Mat-Su Valley area. To get a view this glacier you hike up the Butte. The Butte is a short popular 45-minute hike just outside of Anchorage. Once you’re at the top you get stunning views of Knik Glacier, the Kink River valley, Mt. Susitna (Sleeping Lady), and several other mountain ranges, including the Talkeetna Mountains. This is a pretty dusty hike, so it helps to bring some sunnies and maybe even a light scarf.
2 mile RT 1-2 hours.
Half day event, including drive time.
Possibly the best bang for your buck, this option gives your views of seven glaciers. Drive out to Girdwood and either park at the hotel or one of the trailheads. If you’re a hiker who is looking for a challenge, you can hike from the base to the top of the tram for a panoramic view of the Turnagain Arm and the chance to see multiple hanging glaciers. If you are interested in an easier adventure, you can take the tram up the hardest part of the mountain and then spend some time hiking and walking on smaller trails with glacier views. Some of the glaciers are hidden by clouds, and they are shrinking, making them are quite small, but whether you see one glacier or seven the view and tram ride or hike alone are worth it!
Full day including drive time. Easy and accessible with the tram. Long and difficult if hiking from the base.
A bit of a drive from Anchorage, this option is for those with some extra time on your hands. You can get a great view of the glacier from the road if you’re just interested in a scenic road trip. You can also jump out of the car with some crampons or a pole and head out to the glacier. This is one of the few places you can relatively and safely get on a glacier without a guide. You must pay an entrance fee of about $30, unless you’re a resident, and then you can head out to the glacier. You can just walk up and touch it or attempt to get on it. If you prefer to go with a guide, you can book an excursion with a guide before you head out there. The trail is about .5 miles to the glacier and from there you can spend as much time exploring as you want.
1 mile RT. All day including driving. A great side trip to pair with a trip to or from Valdez or McCarthy.
BONUS: Exit Glacier
This is a bit of a drive from Anchorage, but if you’re an ambitious person, like me, you can do this on a day trip. Or perhaps you’re taking the train to Seward and you plan on staying overnight. Even though Exit glacier is about 2.5 hours one way, if you ask a local it really isn’t all that far from Anchorage. So, if Seward is on your list of places to visit or you have some time to kill and want to head out on one of the most scenic road trips in Alaska, hit up Exit Glacier and the Harding Ice Field in Kenai Fjords National park.
This glacier holds a special place in my heart. My mom has photos of me playing at the foot of the glacier and now you have to hike to get a view and you can no longer touch it. If you park at Exit Glacier Visitor Center you can access the trail to the glacier. Along the way, markers show how much the glacier has receded over the years. The trail is about a mile and has a moderate incline. If you have a lot of time in Seward and are an experienced hiker with glacier safety knowledge, you can hike up to Harding Ice Field which is the ice field that feeds Exit Glacier. This is about an 8-hour hike and will take most of your day.
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As always, if you need any help or more insider tips, feel free to shoot me an email! I love helping people see my home state like a true local!