Hiking the Root Glacier in Alaska
Last Updated on January 31, 2023
Hiking on the Root Glacier is one of the best experiences you can have in Alaska, for those who are willing to make the considerable effort to get to the trailhead! The stunning mountain backdrop, the blue ice, the blue pools of water, all of it is unforgettable!
I recommend going with a guide if you want to actually go out on the glacier. This is important for safety, including having the right equipment, and it’s also a lot more fun! I spent several years as a hiking guide and I can tell you the guides on the Root Glacier are absolutely world class. The hike itself is about 4 miles round trip from Kennicott, with a couple hundred feet of elevation gain. This doesn’t include any distance hiking once you’re on the glacier (which is slow because you’re wearing crampons).
The Root Glacier is on the land of the Ahtna People.
- Where is the Root Glacier?
- How do you get to the Root Glacier?
- Can you hike the Root Glacier without a guide?
- What is the trail like to get to Root Glacier?
- When is the best time of year to hike the Root Glacier?
- Camping near Root Glacier
- What to wear and bring on the Root Glacier hike
Where is the Root Glacier?
The Root Glacier is located in Wrangell-St Elias National Park in Alaska, near the town of McCarthy and the Kennecott National Historic Site.
How do you get to the Root Glacier?
To get to the Root Glacier, you first have to get to the Kennicott and McCarthy area of Wrangell-St Elias National Park. You can drive there from Anchorage (but not in most rental cars), take a shuttle or fly.
Once you arrive, you’ll need to make your way to Kennicott. If you’re staying at the Kennicott Glacier Lodge, you’ll already be there. If you’re staying in McCarthy, you’ll need to take the shuttle to Kennicott. If you are doing a guided tour they will meet you in either McCarthy or Kennicott and give you a ride.
Once you’re in Kennicott, you walk on the trail through the historic site and old mine structures out to the glacier. It’s about two miles from Kennicott to the edge of the glacier.
Can you hike the Root Glacier without a guide?
There is no “rule” requiring you to have a guide to go onto Root Glacier. And you can definitely hike TO the glacier without a guide. If you are intending to walk out onto the glacier (which is super cool and unique opportunity that I highly recommend) then you definitely want to go with a guide.
A guided tour of Root Glacier is affordable (around $100 for a half day hike) and increases the fun and safety by a huge amount so you definitely want a guide to go on the glacier. It’s absolutely worth it. A few reasons include:
- They provide crampons which are necessary for walking on a glacier safely. Crampons are metal spikes that strap to your feet. They are expensive to purchase, especially for one time use!
- They make sure you have all the gear necessary for a fun and safe adventure (and often loan things if you’re missing them)
- A guide knows how to maximize the time and make sure you get to see the coolest stuff
- Guides know the area intimately and add to your experience with their knowledge and stories
- There is no cell service here and no wifi, making the element of safety even more important
- They take great photos!
I’ve done this hike with Kennicott Wilderness Guides and it was absolutely amazing. Our guide was incredible, knowledgeable and made sure everyone had a great time and didn’t miss a thing. St Elias Alpine Guides offers this guided hike as well and they also do an excellent job (I’ve done other tours in the area with them). I highly recommend both of these companies and I’m a former hiking guide, so you know it takes a lot to impress me and both of these companies do an incredible job. Both companies also provide extensive training for their guides.
You can do either a half day or full day guided hike on the Root Glacier with both guiding companies.
If you choose not to go with a guide, I recommend stopping at Root Glacier and not venturing out onto it, unless you are experienced in glacier travel and have crampons.
What is the trail like to get to Root Glacier?
You’ll start your hike walking through the Kennicott National Historic Site, a fascinating collection of historic mining buildings in various states of preservation and decay. There is an outhouse at the far end of the historic site, the only one along this route. There is a primitive toilet near the trail that descends to the glacier, but I found it easier to just use the bushes on that part of the hike.
In a short distance, you’ll find yourself on a slightly narrower gravel and at times rocky trail.
This section is mostly flat and starts in the forest, crossing a couple of small streams on small wooden bridges. As you get closer to the base of the Root Glacier, the trees start to open a bit, with your first views of the Root Glacier. You’ll also be walking along the gravel covered Kennicott Glacier the whole way.
Approximately a mile and a half from Kennicott, you’ll come to a trail junction. The trail straight ahead of you continues to parallel the glacier for a few more miles, but to go to Root Glacier you want to go left and downhill here.
The next half mile between the turn off the upper trail and the glacier itself is a bit steep and there are lots of loose rocks. Take it easy and keep your eyes on where you are putting your feet.
Once you get to the edge of the glacier, your guide will help you get your crampons on and adjusted correctly. Turn around here if you are not with a guide and you do not have crampons!
Now that you’ve got your crampons on, your guide will lead you out onto the Root Glacier! Walking in crampons can be a little awkward at first, but they will help you get a feel for it.
From here, your guide will take you around the glacier, keeping track of your safety and making sure you stay away from the many hazards involved in glacier travel. They will also take you to different parts of the glacier. Depending on whether you are doing a full day or half day hike will determine where exactly you go and how long you spend on the glacier. The exact distance you travel on the glacier varies based on the group and the guide.
When you get back to the edge of the glacier, you’ll take off your crampons and store them in your pack before hiking back to Kennicott. The first half mile up from the glacier to the main trail is uphill this time, so take it easy and watch your step and you’ll be back to the flatter trail soon. When you reach the trail at the top, you’ll turn right and retrace your steps back to Kennicott.
When is the best time of year to hike the Root Glacier?
You can hike with a guide on the Root Glacier from sometime in June through early September. I think July is the best time for this adventure since August can be a bit rainy in most of Alaska. You need to be ready for rain any time however! I did this hike in July and though it didn’t rain, it was very cloudy.
Guides start operating tours to Root Glacier once the snow has melted from the top of it and stop in early to mid September. Our guide let us know that September was her favorite time of year at the Root Glacier.
Camping near Root Glacier
Wrangell-St Elias National Park does not have traditional campgrounds. There are places where bear bins are provided (which is really nice to have, then you don’t need the bear bins also). The closest place to camp to Kennicott and the Root Glacier is Jumbo Creek, which has a water source (filter or otherwise treat your water like all water in the backcountry) as well as a bear safe food storage cache.
There are no specific sites, but there are plenty of places to set up your tent with a stunning view of the Root Glacier, Kennicott Glacier and surrounding mountains.
What to wear and bring on the Root Glacier hike
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My advice for what to wear for a hike in Alaska and what to bring with you is good advice for this hike (except you do not want to wear rubber boots for this hike – see below). You do not need to bring crampons with you as your guide will provide them for your trip (if you are going on your own then you will need them).
A few things to call out specifically for this unique adventure are:
- Rain gear: This is absolutely essential. In addition to rain protection rain gear can also protect you from bugs. This rain jacket and rain pants from REI are ideal (and both come in plus sizes). This rain jacket available on Amazon is also really good and very similar to the REI one (although it’s not available in plus sizes).
- Hiking Boots or shoes: You’ll need boots or shoes you can wear crampons with. Any hiking boots or hiking shoes will work great. Rubber boots are NOT a good option on this hike since they don’t work well with crampons.
- Warm clothes, including a hat and gloves: temperatures are chilly compared to most of the US during the summer, you don’t want to be cold! It tends to be colder when you’re on the glacier than along the trail to get there
- Light weight clothes: lighter layers for warm days and especially for walking back up from the glacier to the main trail on the way back
- Sun Protection: Even if it’s not a sunny day, the sun can get really intense on the glacier and if the suns comes out you’ll really need good sunglasses and a hat. Make sure to put sunscreen on the bottom of your chin and nose, those are easy places to miss and easy places to burn on a glacier!
- Snacks and/or lunch and plenty of water