The United States has abundant national parks with unique geological features, but none quite compare to those with glaciers. From the rugged peaks of Montana’s Glacier National Park to the icy fjords of Alaska’s Kenai Fjords National Park, the national parks with glaciers provide incredible opportunities to explore these frozen wonders.
In this article, we’ll take a deep dive into the world of glaciers, explore the top national parks to see them, and provide tips for preparing for your glacier adventure. Let’s get started!
Exploring the Incredible National Parks with Glaciers
Throughout my time traveling around our incredible planet Earth, I’ve found glaciers to be fascinating. Set aside that they’re melting and won’t be around forever, glaciers have shaped almost everything that we see when we explore the outdoors.
Massive valleys. Created by glaciers. Stunning fjords. Created by glaciers.
What we see as we travel has been dramatically shaped by glaciers themselves, and what they leave behind is nothing short of stunning.
Understanding Glaciers and Their Importance
What are Glaciers?
Glaciers are fascinating natural wonders that have been around for millions of years. They are formed from the accumulation and compaction of snow over many years. As more and more snow falls on top of the existing snow, the weight of the snow compresses the lower layers into ice. Over time, this ice becomes thicker and denser, eventually forming a glacier.
Glaciers can range from small ice caps to massive ice sheets covering entire continents. The largest glacier in the world is the Lambert-Fisher Glacier in Antarctica, which is over 250 miles long and up to 2.5 miles thick in some places.
They can shape the land around them, forming valleys and canyons as they move. Furthermore, glaciers can leave behind large rocks and boulders, known as glacial erratics, which can be found hundreds of miles from their original location.
Consiering how incredibly heavy they are, they can cause earthquakes and other seismic activity. For example, scientists use seismometers to track the movement of glaciers.
The Role of Glaciers in the Ecosystem
Glaciers play a critical role in the ecosystem by providing freshwater that otherwise would not exist. As glaciers melt, they release water into rivers and streams, supporting local flora and fauna. For example, many species of animals, such as elk and moose, depend on glacial-fed streams for survival. In addition to providing fresh water, glaciers also help regulate the Earth’s global temperature.
Glaciers are highly reflective and can reflect up to 90% of the sun’s rays back into space. This helps keep the planet cooler and prevents the Earth from overheating. However, as glaciers continue to melt due to climate change, they become less reflective and absorb more heat, which can contribute to further warming of the planet.
Glaciers also play a role in the carbon cycle. When glaciers form, they trap air bubbles within the ice. Scientists can study these air bubbles to learn more about the Earth’s past climate and atmospheric conditions.
The Impact of Climate Change on Glaciers
Unfortunately, glaciers worldwide are melting at an alarming rate due to climate change. Rising temperatures are causing glaciers to retreat, which can seriously affect the surrounding ecosystems. In addition, as glaciers melt, they can release pollutants and contaminants into rivers and streams, negatively impacting aquatic life.
The loss of glaciers can also have significant economic impacts, particularly for those regions that rely on glacial-fed water sources for agriculture and industry. In some areas, such as the Himalayas, the loss of glaciers could lead to water shortages for millions of people.
We must take action to address climate change and protect these critical natural resources for future generations.
Top National Parks with Glaciers in the United States
Glaciers are some of the most awe-inspiring natural wonders on Earth. Their sheer size and power can leave visitors feeling humbled and amazed. The United States is home to several national parks with glaciers that boast stunning views and offer a chance to witness these wonders up close.
Glacier National Park, Montana
Glacier National Park is perhaps the most well-known national park in the United States for glacier exploration. The park is in Montana’s rugged northern Rocky Mountains and boasts stunning glacial valleys, alpine meadows, and crystal-clear lakes.
The park is home to more than 25 named glaciers, with the iconic Grinnell Glacier being the most popular to visit. Visitors can explore the glaciers on guided tours or through hiking and backpacking.
One of the unique features of Glacier National Park is the Going-to-the-Sun Road, a scenic drive that winds through the park and offers breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains and glaciers. The road is only open during the summer months, and visitors are encouraged to plan ahead and book their accommodations early.
Recent rule changes in Glacier National Park mean you have to have a timed entry permit to visit during the busy season.
North Cascades National Park, Washington
North Cascades National Park in Washington is home to around 300 glaciers, making it one of the most glaciated regions in the lower 48 states. As a result, the park is known for its stunning mountain scenery, deep valleys, and cascading waterfalls.
However, it’s one of the hardest to explore National Parks thanks to towering peaks and lack of roads. Most visitors can have to hike or backpack to reach these hidden gems.
Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
Mount Rainier is another of the Washington National Parks with glaciers, but they’re much harder to reach. However, viewing them is easy and unique as they show so much character. The best places to view them are on the northern side near Sunrise Visitor Center.
Most people who hike here will never encounter a glacier. For those who do, you’re likely summiting Mount Rainier.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska is the largest national park in the United States, and it’s one of the most remote and undeveloped. Yet, the park is home to over 60 glaciers and boasts some of the most breathtaking glaciers in the world.
Visitors can take guided glacier tours or venture independently via hiking and trekking trails. The park is also a popular spot for wildlife viewing, with grizzly bears, wolves, and caribou frequently spotted in the park’s valleys and forests.
One of the unique features of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is the Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark, a preserved copper mining town that offers a glimpse into Alaska’s mining history. Visitors can tour the town’s buildings and learn about the daily lives of the miners who once lived there.
Related: Looking to visit McCarthy and Wrangell St Elias? Here’s a three-day itinerary.
Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska
It’s literally named after glaciers, so this is one of the National Parks with glaciers you can’t miss!
Your home base must be out of Juneau or Gustavus, but still, it’s not an easy trip to Glacier Bay National Park. Most people who visit do it on a cruise ship, as they allow a specific number each day. Seeing this magical park will take some work, but it’s highly worth it. (I haven’t been, but hoping to one day!)
Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska
Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska is one of the few places visitors can see glaciers calving or breaking apart. The park is home to over 40 glaciers, including the famous Exit Glacier. Visitors can explore the park on guided tours or via hiking trails that help you explore more of Exit Glacier.
If you take a Kenai Fjords Cruise, you may even spot whales and sea otters in the park’s waters if you’re lucky! (We did, and it was amazing!)
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado is known for its stunning mountain scenery and abundant wildlife, but it is also home to several glaciers. Among the largest are Andrews, Taylor, and Tyndall glaciers, all of which can be seen on guided hiking tours or via self-guided hikes. The park’s glaciers provide crucial water sources for local flora and fauna and help regulate the mountain ecosystems.
The park is also home to several historic lodges, including the Stanley Hotel, which inspired Stephen King’s novel, “The Shining.”
Whether you’re a seasoned glacier explorer or a first-time visitor, these national parks offer a chance to witness some of Earth’s most stunning natural wonders. So pack your bags, grab your hiking boots, and prepare for an adventure you’ll never forget!
Recent rule changes in Rocky Mountain National Park mean you have to have a timed entry permit to visit during the busy season.
Denali National Park, Alaska
You’d be hard-pressed to leave off Denali, home to over 400 glaciers and home to the tallest mountain in North America.
Similar to Rainier, hikers won’t encounter glaciers unless they are summiting the peaks within the Alaskan Range. However, some people may get great views of Denali’s glaciers via a flightseeing tour. Even better, you can elect to do a glacier landing to walk on one.
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Hidden amongst the towering peaks of Grand Teton National Park are 11 stunning active glaciers. While you can see a few from the various viewpoints (Middle Glacier, Teepee Glacier, and Teton Glacier), the rest are tucked away.
The best place to view these is the aptly named Glacier Turnout.
Related: The best hikes in Grand Teton NP
Preparing for Your Glacier Adventure
Glaciers are some of the most awe-inspiring natural wonders on Earth. These massive rivers of ice can be found in many parts of the world, including the United States. If you’re planning on exploring the National Parks with glaciers, there are some essential things you need to know before you go.
Best Time to Visit Glaciers
The best time to visit glaciers is during the summer when the weather is mild, and the glaciers are most accessible. Most national parks with glaciers have a relatively short season for glacier exploration, typically starting in May and ending in early September.
The weather is usually warm enough to make hiking comfortable during this time. However, be prepared for cooler temperatures, even in the summer, as glaciers can create their own microclimates.
If you plan on visiting a glacier outside of this season, it’s important to check with local authorities to ensure it’s safe and accessible.
Essential Gear for Glacier Exploration
If you plan on exploring glaciers, having the right gear is essential.
The most crucial piece of equipment is proper footwear, such as sturdy hiking boots with ankle support and crampons/microspikes. You’ll be walking on uneven terrain, and the last thing you want is to twist an ankle or slip and fall.
You’ll also want to dress in layers to stay warm and dry, as the weather can change quickly in mountainous regions.
- Down Jacket
- Wool Long Sleeve
- Hiking Pants
- Glacial Sunglasses
- Rain/Wind Jacket
Bring plenty of water and snacks to keep your energy levels up, and carry sun protection such as sunscreen and sunglasses to protect your skin and eyes from the intense sun. If you plan on going on a guided glacier tour, check with the company beforehand to see if they provide any gear.
Most companies provide crampons, ice axes, and other equipment that you’ll need for glacier exploration.
Safety Tips for Glacier Hiking and Trekking
Glaciers can be dangerous, and it’s essential to take safety precautions. Always hike with a partner or group, and carry appropriate gear for self-rescue. This could include a first aid kit, whistle, headlamp, or flashlight.
Be aware of crevasses, which can be challenging to spot, and never approach the edge of a glacier. Crevasses are deep cracks in the ice that can be hidden by snow or ice bridges. If you fall into a crevasse, it could be deadly. Additionally, be aware of the potential for falling ice and rock, as glaciers constantly shift and change.
Always follow the posted rules and guidelines, and never attempt to explore a glacier beyond your skill level. If you’re unsure about your abilities, consider going on a guided tour with a professional guide who can help you navigate the glacier safely.
Now that you know the best time to visit glaciers, the essential gear you’ll need, and the safety tips you should follow, you’re ready to plan your glacier adventure. Whether you’re a seasoned hiker or a first-time explorer, a glacier is an unforgettable experience you won’t want to miss.
National Parks with Glaciers: Activities for a fantastic experience
Guided Glacier Tours
Guided glacier tours can be a great way to explore glaciers safely and learn about their unique geological features. Many national parks offer guided tours led by experienced guides who can provide insight into the park’s glaciers, flora, and fauna.
Guided tours are often offered in various formats, including hiking, kayaking, and helicopter tours.
Walking on Glaciers
For the more adventurous, hiking on glaciers can be an incredible experience. Many national parks offer hiking and walking trails that allow visitors to see glaciers up close and personal.
Be aware that glacier hiking and trekking can be physically demanding and require a certain level of skill and experience. Therefore, always follow the park’s rules and guidelines, and never attempt a hike or trek beyond your skill level.
National Parks with Glaciers – Ice Climbing
For the truly daring, ice climbing on glaciers can provide a unique perspective on these frozen wonders. Many national parks with glaciers offer ice climbing tours led by experienced guides who can provide instruction and guidance on climbing techniques and safety.
If you’re interested in ice climbing, research the company’s safety record and ensure they have proper safety equipment.
Book an Alaska Ice Climbing Excursion
Wildlife Spotting in National Parks with Glaciers
Visitors to national parks with glaciers can expect to see various wildlife, from grizzly bears to mountain goats. Many national parks offer wildlife viewing tours led by experienced guides who can provide insight into the park’s flora and fauna.
Be sure to bring a camera with a telephoto lens and binoculars, and always respect the park’s wildlife rules and guidelines.
Hop on this Kenai Fjords Cruise for glaciers and wildlife
FAQ: Things to know about the National Parks with Glaciers
How quickly are glaciers melting?
In most places, the national parks with glaciers are melting quite rapidly. For example, Glacier National Park has lost much of their glaciers, while others in Alaska are shrinking at a rapid rate. There are, however, some glaciers that are expanding. But those are abnormal in the current climate.
Related: Alaskan Wildlife photography tips
What is the southernmost glacier in North America?
Can people walk on glaciers?
Yes! With the right equipment and safety precautions, anyone can walk on glaciers (if they’re accessible). In addition, Alaska and Canada have multiple places to book a tour to walk on glaciers.
Related: Read my trip report about hiking the Root Glacier in Wrangell St. Elias National Park
Which state has the most glaciers?
Alaska has the most glaciers left in the United States by a wide margin. Its northern proximity helps keep them cold year-round. Unfortunately, though, they are melting rapidly due to a changing climate.
How many glaciers does Yosemite have left?
Yosemite only has two remaining glaciers – Lyell Glacier and Maclure Glacier. Both are at very high elevations and require a many-mile hike or backpacking trip to visit. Not many national parks with glaciers have easy accessibility outside of Alaska.
If all the glaciers melted, how high would the sea rise?
According to the USGS, if all glaciers and ice caps on Earth melted, the sea would rise some 230 feet. Not great!
Wrapping up – National Parks with Glaciers
Exploring national parks with glaciers can provide a unique and unforgettable experience. From the stunning views to the special geological features, the nation’s parks offer endless opportunities for exploration and adventure.
Pead and prepare appropriately if you’re interested in a guided glacier tour, hiking, trekking, or ice climbing. And, as always, remember to follow the park’s rules and guidelines to ensure a safe and enjoyable visit.
Until next time adventurers, take care and be safe.
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