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Tidewater glacier 

Glaciers in Alaska

Icefields and an estimated 100,000 glaciers cover 5 percent of Alaska's surface and they are easily viewed by visitors to Juneau, Valdez, Whittier, Seward, Anchorage or the Matanuska Valley. Cruises that take visitors close to the face of tidewater glaciers offer visitors the opportunity of watching them calve icebergs into the sea.

Glacier calving ice floesColumbia Glacier, one of the largest tidewater glaciers in the state, can be viewed from boats departing from Valdez or Whittier, or from a water taxi or helicopter based in Valdez. A terminal moraine keeps boats some distance from the glacier's face. The glacier can also sometimes be seen from the air on flights between Seattle or Juneau and Anchorage. On flights north, request a window seat on the right side of the plane.

The Harding Icefield in Kenai Fjords National Park covers 300 square miles. Its tidewater glaciers can be viewed from tour boats that depart from Seward's small boat harbor.The face of an inland glacier, Exit Glacier, can be approached on trails from a parking lot at the end of Exit Glacier Road, which intersects the Seward Highway just north of Seward.

Portage Glacier. Several hanging glaciers can be observed in the mountains surrounding the community of Girdwood, which is about a 45-minute drive along the Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet from Anchorage. Another 10 minutes takes you to Portage and the turnoff to Portage Glacier. Two hanging glaciers – Explorer Glacier and Middle Glacier – can be seen at the right during the six-mile drive to the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center beside Portage Lake. Portage Glacier has begun to recede from the further shore of Portage Lake although much of its face still extends 100 feet down into the lake. It is most easily seen nowadays from a cruise boat on the lake. Burns Glacier, a hanging glacier just to the left of Portage Glacier, can be seen from the visitor center and is often mistaken for Portage Glacier. Nearby Byron Glacier can be hiked to from a parking lot just off the road between the visitor center and the boat launch building.

Mendenhall Glacier, just north of Juneau, is the most accessible of the glaciers in the 1,500-square-mile Juneau Icefield. It can be reached on the Glacier Highway. Other glaciers in the area can be viewed on boat or flightseeing tours or by helicopter.

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, about 50 miles from Juneau, includes 12 tidewater glaciers that calve icebergs into the bay. Visitors can arrange a boat tour from Juneau or a flight to the airport at Gustavus, the gateway community for the park. It is the largest water-area park in the United States. The National Park Service site for the park has detailed visitor information.

Malaspina Glacier is the largest glacier in the state, with an area of 1,500 square miles and extending 50 miles from Mount St. Elias toward the Gulf of Alaska.

Matanuska Glacier is a 27-mile-long glacier that is an easy two-hour drive from Anchorage on the Glenn Highway. There are good views of the glacier from the highway and from the Matanuska Glacier State Recreation Site. A privately owned park allows visitors to hike to the four-mile-wide face of the glacier.


Glacier vocabulary

Tidewater glaciers -- Glaciers that reach the sea.

Freshwater glaciers -- Glaciers that end in a lake.

Valley glaciers -- Glaciers that end in a ... yes, you guessed it.

Hanging glaciers -- Glaciers that descend partway down mountain sides.

Receding glaciers -- Glaciers that are melting faster than they are advancing. One of the glaciers in Glacier Bay National Park receded 65 miles between 1794 and 1916.

Terminal moraine -- the ridge of soil that marks the furthest advance of a glacier before it began to recede. Portage Lake was formed behind the terminal moraine of Portage Glacier.

Sometimes a dark stripe can be seen running down the middle of a glacier. That is pulverized rock that was pushed up between two merging glaciers.

Glacier dangers

Snow can mask deep crevasses in glaciers. McKinley mountain climbers rope themselves together not just to reduce the danger of falls from steep slopes but also to reduce the risk of falling into one of these hidden pits in the glaciers on the lower slopes of the mountain.

Ice crumbling off the face of a glacier also can be dangerous. A visitor to Exit Glacier several years ago was killed when ice fell on her. Paths at that glacier are now roped off to prevent visitors from so closely approaching the glacier.