Glaciers have always fascinated me – maybe because they’re shrinking and have become an endangered species of sorts – but also because you’re walking on ice. And coming from Arizona, you don’t get a lot of ice there! So when we visited Alaska in 2021, walking on the best glacier in Alaska was high on my list of priorities. After looking at various resources for glacier hiking in Alaska, we figured the unique approach would be to trek on the Root Glacier Trail near McCarthy, Alaska, in Wrangell St Elias National Park.
While most people chose Matanuska as the best glacier in Alaska to hike, it’s primarily due to its proximity to Anchorage. However, for those looking to escape the crowds, the Root Glacier should be number one on your Alaska glacier hike list.
When it comes to glacier hiking in Alaska, it’s somewhat straightforward, but there are a lot of risks too, which is why I recommend going with a guided service that will adequately equip you and make sure to lead safely. We’ll dive more into this below, but I wanted to make sure it was also stated at the top.
Related: How to plan a trip to McCarthy
Hiking the Root Glacier in Alaska
Whether you’re an experienced hiker or just looking for a new challenge, an Alaska glacier hike will surely be a highlight of your trip. The trail is about 4.5 miles round trip to the Root Glacier. But, once there, it’s a free for all for where you’ll want to go. We dive into everything you’ll need about an Alaska glacier hike below.
Alaska Glacier Hike
Being on a glacier hike in Alaska is something out of another world. You’re walking on snow that’s been frozen for potentially millions of years. But it’s also a wonderful experience you’ll remember for the rest of your life! In my view, getting on the Root Glacier Trail is the best glacier in Alaska (that you can visit easily).
Best time to visit the Root Glacier
Summer all the way. The town doesn’t really open up until the end of May, so June through September are the most popular months for hiking on the Root Glacier, along with other activities. The phrase “summer starts Memorial Day Weekend” is treated as gospel in Alaska.
What to Bring on the Root Glacier Hike
You’ll start your Alaska glacier hike from Kennecott Mine, which requires you to hike about 2.3 miles before you reach the glacier. (Unless you’re coming from McCarthy, you must hike or bike this if not going with a guided service.) This part will be much warmer than once you step onto the ice. If you’ve never walked on a glacier, it’s hard to fathom how much colder it is. You’ll want extra layers to stay warm.
- Mid-sized day pack
- Hiking Pants
- Crampons or Microspikes (if going with a guide, you’ll have crampons, if you’re going yourself, definitely bring crampons)
- Down Jacket or Down Vest
- Long Sleeve shirt
- Gloves to protect your hands in case you fall
- Sunglasses to decrease the glare of the sun off the ice
- Camera or GoPro10
Related: 10 things to do in Wrangell St Elias National Park
Can you hike the Root Glacier without a guide?
Yes, you can, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Getting on the Root Glacier with a guide is safer as you’re better equipped, and you’ll learn about the history of the National Park and area. If you do go alone on an Alaska glacier hike, make sure to come fully equipped with the above gear and make sure you know how to walk on a glacier.
How do I get to the Root Glacier?
Getting to the Root Glacier is what makes it so unique. It’s way out there in Wrangell St Elias National Park. Yet, it’s stunning. Overall, it’s about a seven-hour drive to the east of Anchorage. The last 60 miles are on a less-than-ideal gravel/dirt/semi-paved road that leads you from Chitina to McCarthy.
You’ll be driving through some of the most pristine forests in Wrangell St Elias and be privy to fantastic wildlife opportunities. Drive slowly and carefully (both for wildlife and potholes). I did it in mid to late May and found the road in pretty decent shape. However, others get flats, so it’s truly hit or miss.
If you don’t want to drive (which is understandable, and not every rental car place allows you to), you can fly with Wrangell Mountain Air. But, regardless of the way you get in, it’s so worth it to visit McCarthy.
After that, you need to get yourself into the smaller town of Kennecott which is where the Root Glacier Trail begins. From there, you’ll venture 2.5 miles on a decent path toward the head of the glacier.
How do you hike on a glacier?
Carefully. With how uneven the glacier can be, it’s crucial to watch your step and ensure you’re making solid contact with your crampon or microspike spikes. There’s no rushing while glacier hiking in Alaska. I would estimate we only walked half a mile to a mile on the Root Glacier trail, but it took us a couple of hours. However, we were doing a lot of meandering and photography, which also sucked up a lot of time.
Additionally, as I mentioned about walking, I thought we’d cover much more distance than we actually did. So temper expectations about how far you’ll go and enjoy the time hiking on the best glacier in Alaska.
How cold does it get while hiking a glacier in Alaska?
You’ll notice the temperature change while hiking down the Root Glacier trail. And by the time you get to the beginning and strap on your crampons, you’ll want to add some layers. I think the day we went, it was cloudy and maybe 50 degrees, but it was pretty cold on the glacier. So I wore a long sleeve and a vest plus a beanie.
Safety tips for walking on the Root Glacier Trail
Safety needs to be paramount when hiking on the Root Glacier. I personally recommend going with a guide. We chose St. Elias Alpine Guides for a half-day walk on the Root Glacier. But if you don’t, bring crampons or microspikes (if you don’t have traction, don’t go).
For the most part, it’s pretty self-explanatory. However, stay away from large crevasses, pools, and moulins. If you do that, take careful steps, and pay attention to your surroundings and what direction you’re headed in.
Related: Best places to camp in Alaska
What else is there to do near the Root Glacier?
Activities Near McCarthy
- Flightseeing with Wrangell Mountain Air
- Whitewater Rafting with St. Elias Alpine Guides
- Tour the Kennecott Mine
- Visit the McCarthy Museum
- Get dropped off in the backcountry
- Ice climbing
On an Alaska glacier hike, you’ll feel like you’re walking on another planet, surrounded by towering ice formations and stunning views. So enjoy your experience of glacier hiking in Alaska, and I hope you create numerous memories!
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Until next time adventurers, take care and be safe.
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