Landing on a glacier in a plane was an incredible experience, but equally amazing was the opportunity to strap on crampons and walk through the heart of a glacier, exploring its cracks and crevasses, and drinking some of the cleanest water imaginable from its countless running streams.
Felip and I found it hard to comprehend just how old this ice and rock and water must be as we plodded our way over, around, and through the Matanuska Glacier.
This was truly one of the most exciting moments of our Alaska adventure.
About Matanuska Glacier
Matanuska Glacier is the largest glacier in Alaska accessible by road. It’s a couple hours northeast of Anchorage, at Mile 102 on the Glenn Highway.
The glacier is 27 miles long, and typically only the portion near the road is explored. Because the land is privately-owned, visitors must pay an entrance fee of $15, which supposedly goes toward maintaining the entrance road.
Matanuska Glacier is explored by people of all backgrounds and outdoors skill levels. Tourists come here to snap pics and get the rare thrill of walking around on the glacier. Trekkers come here with crampons to go deeper into the glacier and explore its incredible sights. Climbers bring axes and ropes to practice glacier climbing.
Occasionally people get hurt here, and a few have even died in falls on this glacier over the years, but you’re probably ok if you stay in the part near the entrance with the other tourists. The best option is to go with a guide who knows which areas are safe and which parts to avoid.
Approaching Matanuska Glacier for a hike
This is the most common shot of the glacier, with the lone picnic table sitting in the foreground and the ice further back. Those mounds of dirt were created by the glacier over the years, when it surged forward and then retreated. The spot where the table sits was covered by glacial ice decades earlier.
Felip was convinced the purple flowers growing in these dirt mountains were the ones that supposedly killed Christopher McCandless, the subject of ‘Into the Wild’ who famously retreated into the Alaskan wild to get in touch with nature and sadly died of starvation.
I was skeptical – why would they allow such toxic plants to exist right there in the open? – but our guide said they were indeed the poisonous plants that some suggest led to McCandless’ demise. That was a sad realization, as ‘Into the Wild’ is one of my favorite books of all-time and his story has been a great inspiration.
Those of us taking the Ice Fall Trek with MICA Guides were given crampons, which were necessary to climb across some of the exposed ice and walk through some of the narrow corridors with flowing water. It’s my first crampon experience! I’m a real climber now. Bring on Everest.
The magic happens inside Matanuska Glacier
When I say “inside” the glacier, I really mean it. You trek into the interior of the giant moving ice mountain, surrounded on all four sides by white.
I had no idea how much activity goes on inside a glacier. From the outside, it looks like nothing more than a giant, solid hunk of ice, but inside, there are flowing rivers, mini-lakes, dirt mountains, deep crevasses and narrow caves created by the constant melting ice and running water as the glacier shifts around.
Our guide told us that if she goes away for a week and then comes back, she’s not able to lead tours right away, because she has to learn what the glacier looks like now. Everything has completely changed in one week’s time.
She’s even had to adjust her route within a single day from the morning tours to the afternoon tours, because the glacier has shifted in just a few hours. That was the most eye-opening part of the tour for me – seeing the magic of nature as the living glacier moves right before our eyes.
The sights inside Matanuska
Much of the hike looked like this, as we walked over large sections of water and rocks that opened up between the ice.
Of course, one of the coolest things about an ancient glacier like this is that the water is totally pure. Visitors are encouraged to fill up their water bottles with the fresh, cold water. It’s better than any bottled water you’ll find.
Here’s me negotiating a narrow channel along a pool of water… right before Felip failed to watch where he was going and plunged knee-deep into a puddle of frigid slush. (Sadly, we didn’t capture that part on film.)
The interior of the glacier was full of large pools of water. Who wants to go swimming?!
We could see the glacier’s movement before our eyes when some of the ice crashed into the water.
Some of the flowing water is moving fast. It’s like an actual river inside the glacier.
Why you should choose a guided tour when visiting Matanuska Glacier
Initially, when I read that you can drive right up to the glacier, I thought I would do just that, hiking to the site and exploring on my own. But thank goodness I ended up going with MICA Guides, because it turns out that trying to visit Matanuska Glacier on your own is much more difficult than I was led to believe.
For one thing, the sole entrance is a 10-minute drive down a gravel road with more craters than the moon (so much for putting that $15 entrance fee to good use.) If you’re driving a rental car, as most Alaska visitors are, you’re not even allowed to drive on gravel or dirt roads, so you’d have to violate the terms of your rental agreement to visit the site.
On top of that, you can’t actually walk very far onto the ice without crampons. There’s mud, slush, snow and ice, and to see the really good parts, you’ll want to have the appropriate gear and a guide who knows where to walk.
Tours of the glacier aren’t super expensive, so it’s worth paying to avoid all of these extra hassles, not to mention having the knowledge of a trained professional. A few different companies lead guided tours on Matanuska. As for my experience, I can vouch for the quality and reliability of MICA Guides.
Different kinds of tours are available depending on how much intense physical activity you’re up for. I’d recommend at least taking the Ice Fall Trek, which takes you deeper into the glacier than the basic hiking option.
Hiking on the Matanuska Glacier was one of the highlights of our entire Alaska trip, so don’t pass up the opportunity.
How would you feel about hiking on a glacier?
Note: We received discounted admission from MICA Guides for the Ice Trek tour.