A Guide to Visiting Matanuska Glacier: Alaska's Most Accessible Glacier
August 14, 2021
Matanuska Glacier is an incredible place to visit during your trip to Alaska. The glacier is the largest in the U.S. that can be reached by vehicle and makes for a great day trip from Anchorage. The glacier is 27 miles long, four miles wide and has a river running underneath. The glacier is shrinking about a foot per year, but still has a long life span ahead of it. (It is not shrinking nearly as quickly as many other glaciers in Alaska at this time.) Whether it is shrinking or not, the glacier is always changing. A visit here is an amazing addition to your Alaska itinerary.
Please make it a priority to Leave No Trace when exploring the outdoors. This includes leaving nothing behind, respecting wildlife, minimizing campfire impacts, respecting those around you, planning ahead and traveling on durable surfaces. For more details, read about the seven principles at lnt.org.
Matanuska Glacier is located two hours from Anchorage and a little over an hour from Palmer. If you tour with Glacier Tours, you will turn off the Glenn Highway at mile 102 . You will then take a bumpy, windy, unpaved road 2 miles to reach the check-in at the Glacier Tour office. Download offline maps before your trip, as there is not reliable cell service and the road is not well marked. After the 2 miles of potholes, you will reach the office and entry gate to the ticketed road to the glacier.
You can take a tour on Matanuska Glacier year round! In the summer, which is when I visited, the weather can be very warm. You’ll want to wear some layers and be sure to bring sunscreen, sunglasses and hiking shoes.
In the winter, the weather is much colder but you’ll likely be able to explore ice caves! Be sure to dress properly with insulated layers, gloves, wool socks and more to stay warm if you visit in the winter. The highway to reach the glacier is maintained throughout the winter but still be sure to check conditions before making the drive.
In the past, visitors were able to explore Matanuska Glacier without a guide. However, starting in 2021 only guided tours are permitted. My guide explained that previous self-guided visitors would require rescue after entering dangerous areas of the glacier. While it’s unfortunate that a few people ruined it for everyone else, I certainly think it is still worth visiting with a guide!
There are a few different tour companies that operate tours on the glacier. I did my tour with Glacier Tours but other operators include MICA Guides and Nova Alaska. You can book your tour over text but they also were accepting walk-ins during my visit.
When you arrive, you will check in at the office and then drive another couple miles past the gate up to the glacier. At that point, they provided us with micro-spikes and helmets before venturing out on the tour.
The first part of the tour is on dirt before you reach the ice. It looks like you are on solid ground, but the dirt is actually on top of the ice, and the sand can move under your feet. There were also several metal grates to walk over that marked the trail and kept you from stepping on fragile plantlife.
When you reach the bare glacier ice, you will put on your spikes and get to explore. The glacier has many cravasses and areas of thin ice, so it is important to watch where you’re going and listen carefully to the guide. One of the most interesting things about the glacier is that it is always changing. The guides completely change their routes depending on the season and even the day. If you visit in the winter, the landscape is completely different and you’ll likely get to explore ice caves.
Throughout the tour, you will have an opportunity to drink refreshing glacial water, learn about the geology of the glacier and explore the many beautiful ice features that it has to offer. Hiking on a glacier is such a special experience and should definitely be on your bucket list!
- The tour with Glacier Tours lasts about 2-3 hours.
- You should be prepared for an easy to moderate hike of a couple miles. All ages and abilities are welcome on the glacier and the guides may take a slightly easier or more difficult route depending on the abilities of each group.
- Remember to tip your tour guide!
While Matanuska Glacier makes a great day trip from Anchorage on it's own, there are several other fun activities nearby if you have more time!
The drive between Anchorage and the glacier along the Glenn Highway offers many incredible views. You will see the Matanuska River framed by the Chugach Mountains to the south and the Talkeetna Mountains to the north. There are a few opportunities to pull off to the side of the road and take in the views.
The hike to Lion’s Head gives you an amazing view above Matanuska Glacier. The mountain is privately owned by AT&T, so you will need to call to let them know you’re hiking there. There is a phone number on the gate. The trail is 2.1 miles with 990 feet of elevation gain and rated hard. The hike is quite steep and the trail is not super well marked, so come prepared and know your abilities.
Mica Guides offers a few different options for seeing Matanuska Glacier from above and enjoying the area by helicopter. You can take a scenic flight or do a helicopter landing on the glacier and continue exploring by foot. Flying over a glacier in Alaska is sure to make for a memorable experience.
If you’re interested in learning how to ice climb, Mica Guides offers a tour for beginners! This full day tour includes a 5 mile hike and 3-4 climbs per person that will get progressively more challenging throughout the day.
Another tour near Matanuska Glacier is an ATV adventure with Glacier View ATV Tours. They offer 3 hour tours through the trails of the Glacier View on either an ATV or a UTV. UTV’s hold more passengers and are a good option if you aren't interested in driving an ATV but still want to go on the adventure.
The Matanuska River has a range of rapid difficulties, from easy class II to rapids that are class III - IV. Nova Alaska is one company that offers guided river trips that last overnight. This is an incredible way to enjoy the beauty of the Chugach and Talkeetna Mountains and explore the valley that has been carved by glacier ice.
An adventure on the largest North American glacier accessible by car should definitely be on your Alaska bucket list!
If you are visiting the Kenai Peninsula, learn all about the best things to do in Seward, Alaska!
And if you aren't sure what all you want to do in Alaska, be sure to check out my 7 day Alaska itinerary.
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