If you look at a relief map of Alaska, it’s clear it’s a massive land full of glaciers and mountains. In fact, there are 30 different mountain ranges and 100,000 glaciers (only 616 are officially named)!
Justin and I are lucky enough to live outside of Denali National Park with the Alaska Range in our hood. Since we officially became Alaska residents in 2019, we pretty much stayed local, for obvious reasons. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have a very LONG list of places we’d like to explore.
We finally decided to go somewhere this winter, and tied it to our second vaccine shot. Mind you, we could have received our vaccines within our community (at a later date than worked for us), but we decided, why not travel and make a “vaccine vacation” out of it?
So we went south about 5 hours last week, treated on the drive to a bluebird day showcasing our Alaska Range and its crown jewel: Denali.
After leaving the Alaska Range, we drove through the smaller Talkeetna Mountains (8,849 feet is the highest), which includes the quintessential Hatcher Pass in the southwest corner of the range. There’s a seasonal highway that takes you up the pass to tons of trails, as well as Independence Mine State Historical Park. Many people were out “shredding the gnar” on the hills and some of the lines left behind gave me heart palpitations.
We continued our drive southeast along the Glenn Highway and spent the next few days sandwiched between the Talkeetna and the Chugach Mountains. There’s hardly any development along the Glenn Highway, so it’s a very big playground. We went XC skiing around the groomed trails of Sheep Mountain on the southern side of the Talkeetna Mountains, which gave us constant views of the Chugach Mountains.
One of the main reasons we ventured down to that area is we wanted to get up close and personal with Matanuska Glacier. It’s the largest glacier in America accessible by car, but being it’s a whopping 27 miles long, there’s only so much you can really get into.
The glacier is accessible year-round, but obviously ever-changing thanks to nature’s best sculptors, like the sun, water, wind and earthquakes. It surges and retreats, but overall has been shrinking steadily approximately 32 feet annually since 1960. During the winter, snow cover hides dangerous features (like huge cracks in the ice, which are called crevasses), yet the cold allows you to safely navigate the labyrinth of ice, which is why the tours are guided in the winter. And as an Alaskan resident, the guided glacier tour is discounted!
The glacier follows gravity. The origins of this alpine glacier includes the northern ice fields of Mount Witherspoon (12,023 feet) and Mount Marcus Baker (13,176 feet). It advances its way down into the valley, leaving a geologic claw mark until it reaches the river (which was once glacier) into what’s called the terminal moraine, or deposits of boulders, gravel, sand and silt. The force and weight of the glacier creates pressure ridges, especially when pitted against frozen water. So you have river ice which “grows” upwards—even up to 15 feet—into frozen waves and shark fins, and you have water running through the glacier creating tunnels, caves and crevasses.
The tour takes you inside the “walls” of the glacier, and the guide was quick to point out that things change weekly, even daily, so they monitor what’s safe and unsafe for exploring. The upended river ice structures will fall back into the river as the sun warms and the glacier is “calving” all the time. There used to be this famous “worm hole” tunnel of ice that you can get inside. However, an earthquake on Feb. 27 deemed the structural integrity unstable.
But there’s always a multitude of features to wow over. The most striking thing to me is the blue color. As far as I understand it, this color is the result of the chemical bond between oxygen and hydrogen in water, which is absorbing the light. The contrast is especially appealing when the fluffy snow drapes the blue ice. Less oxygen means the ice can appear clear. Black ice means there’s a mix of gravel in there. Sometimes you can see the air spaces compressed in the layers of ice, or crystals forming off it. I suppose I should stop trying to describe it and just show you the artsy photos, courtesy of amazing Mother Nature.
So it was a great “vaccine vacation.” Obviously, we want to return in the summer to both the Talkeetna and Chugach Mountains for backpacking, but the winter scenic tour was well worth the taste.