I have a penchant for exploring seldom-visited, off-the-beaten-path natural destinations, and since most of Alaska is inaccessible by roads, there’s no shortage of adventures I can dream of. Enter Spencer Glacier. I’ve had Spencer Glacier on my radar since we moved to Alaska. It sits 60 miles Southeast of Anchorage, but you have to take a pretty expensive train ride (like $2 per mile) to get up close and personal with the glacier in the summer. A whistlestop that drops you into the secluded nether regions of the Chugach National Forest? Yes, please.
I hatched the scheme to finally make it happen when our friends from New Hampshire, Paul & Kristen, booked their trip for September. If anyone would be up for this adventure, it was them. You can take a day trip to Spencer Glacier, but there’s also the option to camp or book the Spencer Bench Cabin for an overnight adventure. Summer booking for the Spencer Glacier train and cabin opened up at 9am on February 22. Just like the old-fashioned days of calling in for concert tickets, I was pressing redial a lot to get through to an agent with the Alaska Railroad. The whole summer sold out in 40 minutes!
Once that was booked, I began doing more research. The problem was, I hardly found any personal accounts. But don’t the best adventures start with “I don’t know?”
For the most part, I understood that the Spencer Glacier whistle stop was completed in 2007, and will eventually be a part of a network of five whistle stops along what will be the Glacier Discovery Trail into the backcountry. Like I said, most people visit as a day trip. The train arrives around 1:45pm, then another train arrives at 4:40pm for the pickup, giving folks 3 hours, enough time to walk the 2 miles around the lake on a flat, wide and well maintained trail. Instead of just camping overnight at one of the established or dispersed sites, I opted to book us the only public use cabin. The Spencer Bench Cabin opened in 2015, and the name “Bench” alludes to the fact that it is up above the glacier, with an 1800-foot climb up 3 rigorous miles of switchbacks.
The part I didn’t understand was whether we should bring packrafts to explore the terminus lake and get closer to the glacier. It seemed to me that with the train pickup on our second day being 4:45pm, we’d have ample time for a side adventure on the water. I spoke with the manager at Chugach Adventures, who offer the guided glacier float tours, and he gave me solid advice, including the fact that he didn’t think we’d need dry suits to paddle around the lake … as long as we didn’t fall out. Spoiler alert: the lake beckons to be paddled, so it’s definitely worth it to haul the extra gear 2 miles from the train depot (big thanks to Paul & Justin for being the pack mules). And we didn’t fall out! (I”ll get to more details later).
The weather was calling for rain (big surprise), but it turned out beautiful for our hike up! So beautiful, I layered down to short sleeves (barely any bugs this time of year). Most of the trail was muddy and brushy, like even overgrown up to our shoulders, but without rain, it wasn’t a problem. We spent a lot of time gawking—each perspective around every switchback somehow dreamier than the last. The hemlock forest sections enchanted us with the monstrous mushroom displays. Near the top, plentiful berries were still in their prime for snacking. Even with our unhurried pace, it only took us 3.5 hours from the train to cabin (total of 7.2 miles with all the side paths).
At the cabin, we couldn’t believe the airliner view of the Placer River Valley and of course, Spencer Glacier. This is one of those cases where the climb rewards you with a postcard view.
The cabin is minimalist, with no electricity, no water, wooden bunks, benches and a table. The instructions said to bring at least 1 liter of kerosene for the heater, so Paul & I worked on the kerosene heater while Justin & Kristen went to retrieve and filter water from the nearby waterfall. They succeeded, we did not. The forest service must have gotten that kerosene heater donated or something, cause I can’t figure why else they would have such a finicky system. It was frustrating, but it didn’t ruin our night. Thankfully, the cabin never dipped below 45 degrees, basically a few degrees warmer than outside. Nothing a few layers and a good sleeping bag couldn’t combat! Anyway, we enjoyed our delicious dehydrated meals & desserts, then played our new game obsession (thanks to Paul & Kristen): Five Crowns! I’m pretty sure we played like 17 rounds during our time with them. I’m not going to mention who dominated the wins.
As we woke to the cabin cloaked in rain-pounding clouds, we dreaded the thought of leaving the dry (not warm) space. We emerged from our sleeping bags, procrastinated with a few more rounds of Five Crowns, then donned all the rain gear to head back down to the lake. But as we started hiking, the foreboding clouds miraculously moved up glacier and out of the valley!! We still got soaked from the shrubbery prerserving the rain that fell overnight of course.
After a quick 2 hours downhill, we got ready for the packraft portion of our adventure.
Let me take a moment to have a side rant about packrafting. In Alaska, I register as “barely competent” on the outdoor adventure scale, especially without packrafting in my rotation. Justin took a Swiftwater Rescue class in the summer of 2022, which was his first introduction into packrafting. His takeaway from the class: we should get into packrafting. I told him to slow his enthusiasm, as I don’t love water, especially when it involves the super scary roller coaster of our glacially-fed rivers that require dry suits to boot because they are in their 30s. To his point, he thinks we could bring packrafts into the backcountry not so much for whitewater rafting, but for mild adventures, like access to alpine lakes and crossing rivers to get deeper into the backcountry.
After this experience at Spencer Lake, I’m convinced. We were lucky enough to borrow 2 packrafts from our employer, Traverse Alaska. We figured 2 was sufficient because we didn’t want to carry too much gear, and we could tag team our time on the lake. Paul & I were the first to go out, then I switched with Kristen, then Kristen switched with Justin. In retrospect, I probably had enough time to paddle toward the toe of the glacier (about 1.5 miles away from where we put in at the group campsite), but I mainly circled around the icebergs, because they were just blowing my mind. These royal-blue bergs separated (“calved”) from the glacier, leaving a garden of chunks shaped by wind and melting around the lake.
All in all, this trip was indelible. That sense of solitude flipped my Zen switch after being surrounded by tourists all summer. Plus, rekindling our friendship with Paul & Kristen after 6 years of not seeing each other was a gift. And for the record, I want to keep checking glaciers off my list, but well, there are 100,000 in Alaska, so not sure that’s truly attainable!