Beautiful and a must see on your tripThere are three ways to view Alaska glaciers. By air, sea, or land. There are a few Alaska glaciers that you may walk right up to and can touch. The Mendenhall, Byron, and Matanuska glaciers are to name a few. If you go via cruiseship you’ll see towering snow-capped mountains, birds and wildlife, and mile after mile of pristine Alaska coastline.
We have 6 Glacier pages on AlaskaTrekker
Here’s the National Park Service’s glacier page where we got this information.
Learn more about Alaska glaciers here
Ice has been a major force in the Glacier Bay region for at least the last seven million years. The glaciers seen here today are remnants of a general ice advance – the Little Ice Age – that began about 4,000 years ago. True to its name, this advance in no way approached the extent of continental glaciation during Pleistocene times known as the Wisconsin Ice Age. The Little Ice Age reached its maximum extent here about 1750, when general melting began.
The advance or retreat of a glacier snout reflects many factors: snowfall rate, topography, and climate trends. Most glaciers in every mountain range and island group in Alaska are experiencing significant retreat, thinning or stagnation. Today, glacial retreat continues on the bay’s east and southwest sides, but on the west side several glaciers are actually stable or advancing, fed by copious snowfall high in Fairweather Mountains.
What is a glacier?
Glaciers form because snowfall in the high mountains exceeds snowmelt. Imagine a place high in the mountains that catches a vast amount of falling snow every year. This place is so high and so cold that none of the snow melts even in the summer. In fact, whatever precipitation that falls over the course of the year, falls in the form of snow. Over time, that snow pack builds. Soon the weight of the snowflakes in the upper layers of the snow pack presses down deforming the snowflakes beneath. The snowflakes in the pack first change to granular snow – round ice grains – and eventually morph into solid ice.
Glacier ice is different from the ice in your refrigerator. The ice crystals form slowly under pressure and individual crystals can grow to be the size of a football. Air trapped between the snowflakes is also frozen into the ice at pressure. Ice near the bottom of the glacier is under tremendous pressure, which allows it to flow almost like a plastic over the bedrock beneath. Friction between the glacier and the bedrock produces meltwater which further lubricates the bedrock allowing the ice to slide.
If a glacier is fed by enough snow to flow out of the mountains and down to the sea, we call it a “tidewater” glacier – the type many people come to Glacier Bay to see. The park and preserve includes 7 tidewater glaciers that break off or “calve” into saltwater at sea level, and a few others that reach the sea at high tide only. The show can be spectacular. As water undermines some ice fronts, great blocks of ice up to 200 feet high break loose and crash into the water. Johns Hopkins Glacier calves such volumes of ice that it is seldom possible for larger boats to approach its ice cliffs closer than about two miles.
Cruise liners pull close to the “rivers of ice” in Glacier Bay National Park, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Prince William Sound. Smaller boats carry sightseers on day trips to the blue ice of Prince William Sound and Kenai Fjords National Park. These trips are readily available in Valdez, Whittier and Seward. Cruises and day trips are the way to go if you want to hear the legendary thunder of calving glaciers and see huge faces of blue ice.
A number of Alaska Glaciers are within viewing distance of Alaska’s highways, and you can even walk up to (and on) some of them. Alaska has several roadside glaciers where the adventurous can park, walk a short distance and touch the ice. Visitors also can find themselves across a river or a lake from a glacier. They can hike on glacial moraines and admire the U-shaped valleys carved by these rivers of ice.
Sightseeing trips aboard small planes and helicopters provide both an overreaching view and sometimes a glacier landing. Flightseeing companies that land on the ice provide cold-weather gear and guide you on a safe area of the glacier.