Glaciers to Go

Hiking Exit Glacier, Alaska

You know you’re in the company of hardy folk when you hear them describe this portion of Alaska’s Kenai Fjords National Park as a “drive up glacier.” It’s true that Exit Glacier is the only area of the park accessible by road, but to describe it as “drive up” gives a whole new meaning to the expression.

We’ve seen a lot of drive-up stuff during our tour of the lower 48. It’s really amazing the ingenuity we use to serve people who never want to leave their car. There’s drive-up coffee, of course, but also laundry, banking, groceries, and – our all time favorite – drive-up liquor. Because, you know, nothing goes with a fifth of whiskey quite like the soft purr of an idling engine ready to hit the road.

The Hike to Exit Glacier

This is one hell of a drive!

But here in Alaska, a place where many towns aren’t even reachable by automobile, “drive-up” apparently is used a bit differently than in the rest of the country. And while you can see Exit Glacier from a distance without much difficulty, if you want to actually set foot on this particular “drive-up” glacier, well, that requires you to climb the height of the Empire State Building (1,400 feet) over the course of a mile-and-a-half one-way hike. And that’s precisely what we came to Seward, Alaska, to do.

Having zero experience in glacier climbing and an equivalent amount of ice hiking gear with us, we signed up with Exit Glacier Guides to take us where we wanted to go. Not only did they provide the wheels for the drive-up portion of the excursion (true to form, we walked to their offices from our Seward hostel) they also provided all the specialty gear we don’t typically travel with – camelback backpacks, hiking poles, ice axes, helmets, and the all-important crampons.

Donning Crampons

These things are vicious and super cool. Strapping two-inch blades on to your boots makes you as sure-footed on ice as a freaking polar bear. With claws attached, we made our first foray onto the glacier.

One of the reasons to go with a guide for things like this is that the glacier changes from day to day and even from hour to hour. There’s no pre-designated safe path. What was solid ice yesterday may have since been hollowed out by an underground river. What looks like firm ground to the untrained eye can hide a deadly sinkhole.

So our group of about 10 people followed carefully in our guides’ footsteps as they led us up the glacier.

Climbing exit Glacier

Seeking out wonderful mountain views,

Exit Glacier Mountain View

incredible blue glacial ice,

Exit Glacier

and awesome crevasses.

Looking Down A Glacial Crevasse

We learned that glacial ice is different from the types we’re normally familiar with. Years of accumulating arctic snow gets so heavy that it compresses lower layers of ice into a super dense form. That squeezes out the normal oxygen and gives it a deep sapphire color.

Glacial Ice

We spent about an hour tromping around the glacier exploring such wonders before it was time to take off our crampons. Exhausted and thoroughly impressed, we started the long walk back from this amazing drive-up glacier.

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19 Comments on “Glaciers to Go”

  1. CandieTravels December 6, 2013 at 9:09 am #

    Absolutely beautiful photos! Looks like a fantastic day!

    Like

  2. brissioni December 6, 2013 at 10:42 am #

    Nice to have an explanation for why the glaciers are blue. Love the funny drive-up humor. It made me think I have been missing the romance of drive-thru liquor stores. Very funny.

    Like

  3. joyceahood December 6, 2013 at 11:54 am #

    I too liked learning about the colour. I remember Mer de Glace as greener and I also remember that I thought my 10 yr-old son was with his father, who thought he was with me. Total hysteria -kid in a crevass!-for about half an hour until he nonchalantly strolled up.

    Like

    • Brian December 6, 2013 at 12:03 pm #

      The Kid-in-crevass angle adds a whole new layer to “adventure” travel. He probably couldn’t understand what the big deal was all about. LOL.

      Like

  4. Laura Hilger December 6, 2013 at 11:59 am #

    Wonderful! I hope you guys can return to explore other glaciers up here! You are wonderful in capturing their beauty! Btw, you can rent employee housing at Exit Glacier during the winter, and ski in. The cabin is only $35 per night, and comes with modern living like a stove. It’s an amazing winter trip too! Cheers!

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    • Brian December 6, 2013 at 12:04 pm #

      We didn’t know about renting employee housing. That’s a neat tip. And while we’re mostly winter wusses, we do want to get north again in the winter to see the northern lights, so this is definitely an option for us.

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      • Laura Hilger December 6, 2013 at 12:08 pm #

        Awesome! The northern lights have been exceptional the past couple of years. Make sure to check the interior when you do that; it’s better viewing up north.

        Like

  5. laurabecknielsen December 6, 2013 at 12:14 pm #

    This is one of my husbands dreams! Someday… Thank you for sharing this gorgeous exhilarating adventure.

    Like

  6. Barbra & Jack Donachy December 6, 2013 at 3:57 pm #

    We’re always glad to read of someone getting to hike Exit Glacier itself or the excellent trail, though it’s been a couple years since we last went up. Fascinating, too, to observe the historical markers indicating the pace of this glacier’s ongoing retreat. If you’re ever there in the summer, the other absolutely top-rate thing to do when visiting Seward is to go on one of the ocean nature tours. The captain’s are biologists/park rangers who really know their stuff. It’s a great way to see animals and geography and get educated while having fun!

    Like

    • Brian December 14, 2013 at 9:33 am #

      We missed doing any of the ocean cruises; in part because we were going to be traveling around a bunch on the Alaskan Marine Highway and thought it would be similar. I don’t think it was. 😦 Something for next time, though.

      Like

  7. Sam December 7, 2013 at 4:19 am #

    I had no idea there was so much ‘drive up’ stuff in the US. Good to know that in Alaska they’re willing to poke fun at the idea! My partner and I visited a glacier in southern Argentina several months ago (in fact, the only one in the world that is actually growing, apparently), but we didn’t have the chance to walk on it. Looks phenomenal!

    Like

    • Brian December 14, 2013 at 9:29 am #

      Hiking on the glacier is definitely an experience we’d recommend.

      Like

  8. The Miss Adventure Journals December 7, 2013 at 10:59 am #

    Wow so scenic, what an adventure. You are both very brave, Siobhan xx

    Like

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