Pets allowed
Allowed with Restrictions
Elevation Gain
400.00 ft (121.92 m)
Trail type
There-and-back
Distance
4.00 mi (6.44 km)
Please respect the outdoors by practicing Leave No Trace. Learn more about how to apply the principles of Leave No Trace on your next outdoor adventure here.

While only one of thousands of glaciers in the Land of the Midnight Sun, the Matanuska Glacier is one of the state’s finest. This sprawling tongue stretches 27 miles down from its birthplace in the Chugach Mountains to a whopping 4 miles wide at its terminus. This makes “the Mat,” as it is fondly called by locals, the largest glacier accessible by car in the U.S. While the officially retreating, it is one of the slowest shrinking glaciers in Alaska and has moved very little in the last century, though it still flows an average of 1 foot per day.

To reach it, you’ll drive 100 miles north of Anchorage along the incredibly scenic Glen Highway (AK-1). Be sure to stop at the King Mountain viewpoint along the way, just after the tiny town of Chickaloon, to view King Mountain and its perfectly conical profile looming over the Matanuska River (61.788459, -148.439427). At mile marker 102, turn left at the Glacier Access sign and drive down the narrow dirt road to the park office.

While the glacier itself is located on state land, all access roads to the glacier are privately owned, and thus entrance Matanuska Glacier Park is privately controlled. Alaska State Park or America the Beautiful National Park Passes do not cover entry. The entry fee is $30 per person ($25 for Alaska residents) or $100 per person for entry and a full guided two-hour trek (equipment provided). As such, you’ll need to stop here and go inside to pay the park entry fee and sign the park liability waiver. This is also your last opportunity for a flushing toilet, as there are only pit toilets at the parking lot.

From there, get back in your car, drive through the opened gates, and drive another 10 minutes to the parking lot at the foot of the glacier. You can park anywhere and use the picnic tables to gear up.

Gear Needed:

  • Microspikes or crampons: In general, crampons are excessive and a little harder to walk in if you’re not used to them. Microspikes are perfectly sufficient, as long as you keep toes pointed forward when going down any sort of icy slope. This is how the orientation of the spikes are best designed to catch in the ice.
  • Helmet: If you do take a fall on the slick ground, you’ll want some head protection.
  • Trekking poles or ice axe: Not entirely necessary but helpful in gaining balance on uneven, slippery terrain and for testing the stability of the ice.
  • Gloves: Less for warmth and more to protect your hands from sharp ice and rock if you stumble and catch yourself with them.
  • Warm clothes: Even in summer, the glacier can be chilly, especially if catabatic winds drifting down glacier are strong that day. In the winter, it can be especially cold and brutal, getting well below zero on a frequent basis.

Put on all your gear except your microspikes or crampons. The first part of the hike travels across metal grates that are very difficult to navigate with foot spikes. There will be an opportunity to “spike up” later.

This is, however, your last opportunity to go to the bathroom in one of the port-a-potties, as you really shouldn’t go on the glacier unless you plan on packing it out. Before even starting your hike, you can already see the breathtaking beauty of glacier stretching out before you, right from the edge of the parking lot, which is actually the terminal moraine from the Little Ice Age, the last period in which the glacier was in a state of advance.

From the parking lot, follow the wide dirt trail to the left. In the summer, this trail is lined with bright magenta wild sweet peas. You’ll drop a slight 70 feet in elevation to the terminus of the glacier, a wasteland of glacial silt (pulverized rock particles ground up by the movement of the glacier) and large drainage holes that funnel out the meltwater into the Matanuska River. Amid the brown landscape of silt and mud, it won’t feel like you’re on a glacier quite yet, but in fact you are—with about 300 feet of ice beneath the silt under your feet.

This section is guided by a series of orange traffic cones and metal grates that will ease passage over any gaping holes and squishy silt. DO NOT go off trail here. It can be extremely dangerous. The glacial silt alone, when agitated and moist, becomes something like quicksand, and a boot sunken a mere inch in it will become overtaken by suction that makes it physically impossible to pull out. This same phenomenon is how people get stuck in the rising tide on the tidal flats along the Cook Inlet around Anchorage. But it’s pretty fun to poke with your trekking pole!

After about 0.5 mile, you’ll come to a huge pile of what looks like rock and dirt. This is called a conical moraine, or a debris pile. If you scrape away the top layer of silt and gravel, you’ll actually find it is a perfect cone of ice, formed by a landslide somewhere up glacier and insulated by the surface rock. This is where you’ll want to put on your traction footwear, using the off-kilter picnic tables to do so, if needed.

From there, set off into the year-round winter wonderland, paying special care to the rough and uneven terrain beneath your feet. Plus, if you’re looking down, you won’t miss out on some of the beautiful, blue glacier ice beneath your feet intermingling with silt and stone. Glacial ice appears blue due to its density. The ice is so dense that, when light hits it, long, slower wavelengths (i.e. red) get absorbed; only blue, which has a short fast wavelength, manages to get refracted back out of the ice. The darker the blue, the denser (and generally older) the ice.

Be sure to look for other interesting glacier features as well, like cryconite holes and differential melting that creates cool undercut patterns in the ice. On this trek, you’re aiming for the headwall or as close as you can get, which changes depending on melt (which alters the amount of water at the foot of the wall). Generally, the earlier in summer, the closer you can get. On any given summer day, chances are good that you be able to spot some ice climbers swinging their tools away up the headwall or up the smaller wall just to the left of it.

From there, set your sights on the left-hand side of the top of the headwall. Loop behind the smaller ice climbing wall and begin to ascend up the gradual slope until you can loop down into the opposing gully, filled with meltwater streams and lots of sharp rock. From there, follow a shallow crack in the ice, not much more than a dark blue streak in the ice, that runs along the ground up a narrow ledge below the slope on your right. Zig-zag your way up to the top of that slope and down the other side for one of the coolest features the glacier has to offer: a blue pool.

This particular blue pool (61.772882, -147.745979) is larger and deeper than most, although size changes year to year. It was created by water pooling into an old moulin, a vertical shaft that gives way somewhere at the bottom and acts as a drainage vent for the glacier. The ice refroze at the bottom of the shaft and the entire moulin filled with water. Between the bright blue color and the yawning depths that beg to swallow you, it is truly breathtaking. Who knows what it will look like next year! That’s half the fun of the glacier; it’s totally unpredictable, and there's always something new.

From there, you can’t continue much farther onto the main glacier (1,730 ft), or if you do, you best rope up and carry a full crevasse rescue kit. The top of the glacier from there is riddled with huge crevasses and unstable seracs, requiring far more technical knowledge of glacier travel and rescue systems.

Here, you’ve hiked about 2 miles and will now begin your trek back to the parking lot via whatever trail you want! You can completely retrace your steps of continue straight at the bottom of the icy slope left of the headwall and meander over the crevasse-cracked ice you just left on the way in.

Seasons on the Glacier

The glacier is open year round, even on holidays, but unguided access is restricted seasonally. Winter through spring, you are required to go on a guided excursion with park staff, unless accompanied by a certified guide with an approved tour company. This is for safety and liability reasons as the dangers become hidden during those seasons.

  • Spring and fall (i.e. periods of dramatic temperature change): This is the least recommended time to go. During spring, the glacier melts rapidly, leading to lots of potential hazards and unpredictable trail changes. In the fall, just before the winter snowfall, the glacier has melted out so much that crevasses are at their widest and most difficult to navigate.
  • Winter: In the winter, the hike looks totally different than that described above (which is fine, because you have to follow a guide anyway). The only safely accessible part of the glacier consists of the frozen lake that forms beneath the headwall. The upper part of the glacier is unsafe due to now snow-covered hazards. The crevasses from summer get covered in snow and become unstable snow bridges, so you must not go above the headwall face. But you do get to experience some pretty cool ice caves there, which are different every year.
  • Summer: Summer is great because you can access the glacier unguided. That also means you’ll run into a lot more people out there. However, many of these are tourists who want to see the glacier without really trekking on it, so they’ll stick to the path, which doesn’t even make it to headwall. The “unguided trail” is clearly marked with a very clear endpoint reading, “End of unguided trail. Do not proceed without proper footwear.” If you’re properly geared up and knowledgeable of basic glacier safety, feel free to continue on and explore (you signed the waiver, after all!).

Just be aware, the glacier is constantly changing, and this is never more true than it is throughout the summer months. The safest path one day might be totally different the next, blocked by a new crevasse, flooded by extra melt or rain, or any number of countless things that can change the glacier on a daily basis. Above all, RESPECT THE GLACIER. Glaciers are among nature’s most breathtaking features, but also among its most dangerous and unpredictable.

Logistics + Planning

Preferable season(s)

Summer
Winter

Congestion

Moderate

Parking Pass

Park entrance fee

Open Year-round

Yes

Pros

Interesting geology. Largest car-accessible glacier. Up-close and personal glacier experience. Beautiful landscape. Scenic drive.

Cons

Potentially dangerous terrain. Glacier travel knowledge recommended. Hidden hazards.

Trailhead Elevation

1,650.00 ft (502.92 m)

Highest point

1,730.00 ft (527.30 m)

Features

Family friendly
Vault toilet
Near lake or river
Glacier
Geologically significant
Wildflowers

Typically multi-day

No

Permit required

No

Location

Field Guide

Nearby Adventures

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