Top 10 Glacier Experiences in Alaska from an Alaska Guide
Posted On February 7, 2024
Is seeing Alaska’s glaciers a must do on your Alaska trip? People from all over the world come for epic glacier experiences in Alaska but it can be hard to sort through so much information about so many beautiful glaciers and ways to see them.
I’m here to help – I’m a former Alaskan and still spend several weeks in Alaska each year working as a guide. I also help travelers plan their trips and host the Alaska Uncovered Podcast and I love to help people find the perfect glacier experience for them.
These are my Top 10 glacier experiences in Alaska for travelers. Every glacier is beautiful and unique but what you really care about is the experience you will have with Alaska’s glaciers. Whether it’s an epic flight to land on a remote glacier, a guided hike walking on ice, a view of a calving tidewater glacier from a boat, a unique perspective on one of Alaska’s National Parks or a view from a trail, I’ve got you!
One glacier that you won’t find on this list despite its popularity is Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau. While Mendenhall is a wonderful place to visit for hikers and kayakers, it can be challenging to get to and just to look at from the parking lot it does not rise to the top 10 for me. If you’re a hiker or doing a kayaking tour, then definitely add Mendenhall to your list. The visitor center there is also one of the best forest service visitor centers I’ve been to.
College Fjord 26 Glaciers Cruise in Whittier
The 26 Glaciers cruise from Whittier through Prince William Sound to College Fjord and Blackstone Bay is easy to get to from Anchorage and an unforgettable day in calm water no matter the weather. This is my top overall pick for the best glacier experience in Alaska for most visitors because it’s so convenient to get to and so much payoff for the effort and cost.
Best for: Anyone with limited time who has Anchorage on their itinerary as well as those who want to do a boat tour but are worried about getting seasick.
How to get there: You can drive yourself to the dock in Whittier (pay attention to the Whittier Tunnel schedule) or you can book a bus ride or train ride from downtown Anchorage.
Best time of year: May through September
Activity Level: None, you’ll be on board a comfortable boat with indoor seating for everyone and big outdoor decks with plenty of room
Tour required? Yes, this area is only accessible by tour boat. Some cruise ships visit College Fjord as well.
Accessibility: The boat is wheelchair accessible – however the exact details of the types of ramps vary for different boats so make sure to let them know at the time of booking if you will be using a wheelchair or other mobility device. There are ADA restrooms on board. The second level of the boat is stairs only, but there is no need to go upstairs.
Exit Glacier and Harding Icefield – Kenai Fjords National Park
Best for: For Harding Icefield – hikers who want to do a challenging and epic hike in Alaska. The Exit Glacier trail is not steep, much shorter and is paved for a portion of the trail.
How to get there: The Exit Glacier area and visitor center is just outside of the town of Seward. You can drive here (free parking) or take a shuttle from Seward.
Best time of year: June through September
Activity Level: A shorter hike up to a very challenging 9 mile round trip hike
Tour required? No
Accessibility: The Exit Glacier Visitor Center is fully ADA accessible including restrooms. There is a one mile trail that is ADA accessible also that goes to a view of the glacier. The Harding Icefield trail is steep with plenty of rocks, roots and mud in places.
Matanuska Glacier – Glenn Highway
Matanuska Glacier is a must stop along the Glenn Highway between Anchorage and Valdez or Wrangell-St Elias National Park. You can take a tour to go for a hike on the glacier if you want to get closer and have more time.
Best for: Anyone looking to see a glacier from the highway in a beautiful setting. If taking a tour, an opportunity to walk on a glacier without a helicopter or plane or long unpaved road.
How to get there: Matanuska Glacier State Recreation Area is about a two hour drive from Anchorage. You can drive yourself or book a tour that provides transportation from Anchorage.
Best time of year: You can see the glacier from the highway anytime of year. Generally there are summer and winter tours offered with no tours available in the shoulder season (spring and fall)
Activity Level: None if you are just taking a look from the highway. There’s a short nature trail and if you are doing a tour then you will be hiking for several hours.
Tour required? No, to see the glacier from the highway. Yes to walk on the glacier.
Accessibility: There are ADA pit toilets at the viewpoint. Taking a tour onto the glacier requires walking on uneven terrain with spikes on your feet.
Byron Glacier – Portage Valley
The Portage Glacier area is a wonderful day trip from Anchorage or stop along the Seward Highway. Byron Glacier is my favorite spot here since you can get out on a trail and see a glacier that’s not too long or very steep.
Best for: Those who want a mellow hike or walk and want to see a glacier on their own
How to get there: The Byron Glacier Trail is about a mile from the Visitor Center at Portage Lake. You can drive there just off the Seward Highway.
Best time of year: July through September
Activity Level: An hour or two of mostly flat walking (3 miles round trip)
Tour required? No
Accessibility: The trail is gravel, well maintained and not steep, though it rolls up and down a bit. Nearest restrooms are at the Portage Visitor Center.
Take a helicopter to Knik Glacier
This is the only glacier experience on this list I haven’t personally had the chance to do (yet!). I’ve had quite a few clients who have done it and absolutely loved every minute, whether it was a short glacier landing or a longer hiking or paddleboarding adventure.
Best for: Anyone who wants to get up close (or on!) those gorgeous blue pools with limited time on their Alaska itinerary.
How to get there: Alaska Helicopter Tours departs from Palmer, which is about an hour drive from Anchorage. They also offer a shuttle if you don’t have a rental car.
Best time of year: All year! Although to do paddleboarding or kayaking it has to be summer or early fall. But you can get up onto Knik Glacier year round by helicopter.
Activity Level: Varies based on the tour – only a bit of walking for the glacier landing, but much more activity if you do one of their big adventures like paddleboarding or helihiking.
Tour required? Yes, this is a flightseeing tour in a helicopter
Accessibility: There are a few stairs to get onto the helicopter, if you have limited mobility or use a wheelchair – contact them directly for your options. They are very creative in helping people have this experience!
Ruth Glacier Landing with Flightseeing in Denali National Park
Best for: Anyone who wants to get deep into Denali National Park and get a unique perspective on this enormous park.
How to get there: Tours start in Talkeetna, off the Parks Highway between the Denali National Park entrance area and Anchorage.
Best time of year: For the Glacier landing (highly recommended), June through September. Flightseeing is available all year, weather dependent.
Activity Level: A bit of walking around on the glacier in snow (boots for this provided)
Tour required? Yes, this is only possible on a flightseeing tour from Talkeetna
Accessibility: Each passenger does need to get up the short ladder to get into and out of the plane. If you will need help doing this, it’s really important to contact K2 in advance and let them know the kind of help you need to take part in this experience. They will do everything possible to make this adventure happen for you if you let them know ahead of time.
Glacier Bay National Park
Glacier Bay National Park absolutely lives up to it’s hype, whether you’re spending a day here on a cruise ship or traveling on your own into Glacier Bay’s backcountry by tour boat (pictured) or kayak.
Best for: Cruise ship travelers OR independent travelers that want to get off the beaten track – this park is perfect for getting away from it all as large cruise ships do not go ashore anywhere in the park.
How to get there: Either on a cruise ship or head to Gustavus and Glacier Bay Lodge from Juneau by ferry or plane.
Best time of year: Late May through June
Activity Level: None to see glaciers from the day boat or a cruise ship
Tour required? To see glaciers you either need to do the day boat tour (if staying at the lodge) or be on a cruise ship
Accessibility: Cruise ships are fully ADA accessible. The Glacier Bay lodge is NOT fully wheelchair accessible, though it does have ADA rooms.
Tracy Arm Fjord day trip cruise from Juneau
A day trip to Tracy Arm from Juneau is a must do for those with time to spend a whole day going into Alaska’s vast coastal wilderness.
Best for: Independent travelers who are up for spending the day on a boat in remote Alaskan waters
How to get there: The tour departs from downtown Juneau
Best time of year: June through September
Activity Level: None – you’ll be on a boat
Tour required? Yes
Accessibility: The boat is wheelchair accessible for manual wheelchairs, though many motorized scooter style wheelchairs may not have the minimum clearance to get through the doorways. Call them and check if in doubt.
Winter hike to Castner Glacier
Castner Glacier is an adventurous winter trip for those who like road trips to remote areas, hiking and epic winter landscapes.
Best for: Winter travelers to Fairbanks and those who love the outdoors in winter
How to get there: It’s about a 3 hour drive from Fairbanks each way. You’ll need a rental car or to book a tour that provides transportation from Fairbanks
Best time of year: Winter (November through March)
Activity Level: You’ll be walking in winter weather to get to the glacier from the highway
Tour required? While not technically required, I highly recommend going with a guide – this is important for safety around glaciers, especially if you want to enter the ice cave.
Accessibility: It is a one mile walk to the glacier which may have deep snow, ice or creek crossings.
Root Glacier Guided Hike in Wrangell-St Elias National Park
A guided hike on the Root Glacier is an amazing and affordable adventure with the change to walk on the ice surrounded by vast mountain landscapes.
Best for: Adventurous hikers who want to get away from it all
How to get there: Getting to McCarthy is a challenge, but it’s worth it! You can drive there from Anchorage if you rent your vehicle from a company that allows you to drive the McCarthy Road (most do not). You can also fly there from Anchorage or Chitna, or take a van shuttle from Anchorage.
Best time of year: June through September
Activity Level: You will be hiking for several hours, though it is not particularly steep, it is uneven and rocky with ice.
Tour required? You can walk on trails in the area without a guide. I do not recommend going onto the ice without a guide and proper gear (provided in tour)
Accessibility: This tour does not have any restrooms and there is hiking over rocks and on ice involved.
Hi! I'm Jennie. I’m a fourth generation Seattleite who lived in Alaska for 7 years and I still spend lots of time there every year. I've been a tour guide for many years in both Alaska and Washington and am a field editor for the Milepost. I love to share the places I love with visitors, newcomers and my fellow locals. I’m so glad to have you along on the journey to experience your best adventure in Washington, Alaska and Western Canada!
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