Beginner’s guide to hiking on a glacier in Alaska

Glacier-related activities are one of the main reasons to go to Alaska, and the absolute highlight of our trip was actually hiking on one. We signed up for MICA Guides‘ Advanced Trek on Matanuska Glacier north east of Anchorage, and despite the name, the only experience you need is a healthy sense of adventure. Time is running out (thanks global warming) to hike on the glacier, so if you’re thinking about a trip to Alaska, make it happen and go with MICA!

What does hiking on a glacier entail?

Walking around on a glacier does require equipment and expertise, but that’s why you go with a guide! MICA (pronounced Mike-uh) provided ice picks (although if you’re preggo they won’t let you carry one lest you trip and stab yourself), helmets, harnesses, and crampons (giant spikes to put over the bottom of your hiking boots) plus all the climbing equipment (ropes, etc) that was needed.

The hike approaching (and partially on) the glacier.

As you may have guessed, that means there is some climbing involved, but again, your guide is an expert. I’d been rock climbing once and ice climbing once, so I at least had an idea of what to do, but my husband had never done either and was totally fine.

The only climbing we did was up (and then back down) a small wall of ice. Going up wasn’t too difficult – I was pregnant and did it pretty quickly. Billy got to use an ice ax so that certainly makes the ascent easier! I did get really nervous having to descend back down, but Lacey talked me down (literally). Both up and down only takes a few minutes – it actually took way longer for Lacey to set up all the rope to belay us safely (which she’s doing, so there’s no way to fall!).

At no point are you teetering on the edge of some massive crevasse. Our guide Lacey took safety super seriously and always scouted out our route ahead of us before we proceeded as a group.

Basically, you hike out to the glacier, put on your crampons, hike around on the glacier as much or as little as you want, and then turn back for home. The Advanced Trek we did was kind of a build-your-own adventure trip. We were ultimately out for three and a half hours and covered just over five miles, but if you want to do less, that’s absolutely an option. This was my Big Activity for the trip that I was most looking forward to, so I went into it wanting to push myself to experience as much as possible.

My legs were VERY tired afterward, but your guide teaches you everything you need to know to actually do the trek. No experience necessary!

Lacey teaching me how to walk in crampons downhill to maintain traction and control my momentum. She was phenomenal!

Why did you want to go hiking on a glacier?

You experience a totally different side of the glaciers – you’re up close and personal, not far away like you are on a kayaking trip or cruise. Those are still amazing options, but I wanted something uniquely Alaska, and this definitely delivered.

I’m not a huge geology nerd, but I still absolutely loved finding out all the different characteristics and parts of the glacier. We got to see this crazy beautiful lake in the middle of the glacier, big ice walls, rushing melting water that formed little rivers under the ice, and all kinds of unique things. All surrounded by huge, lush mountains. What’s not to love?

Not something you see everyday.

Another good reason to go is that glaciers are melting, so you literally won’t be able to see them in the future. In just another few years, it won’t be safe to hike on Matanuska Glacier.

However, glaciers also naturally change all the time. So the insanely cool lake we saw during our trek? Probably gone in the next few weeks. And plenty of people wander elsewhere and never stumble upon it. Your experience is totally unique to you, and maybe just a few other people who happened to take the exact path you did within a few days of you. Pretty amazing.

What should I wear and bring?

Hiking boots. But MICA can provide those for you if you don’t have them. It’s not comfortable to put crampons over boots that don’t cover your ankle, so this isn’t negotiable.

Definitely make sure to have a windproof layer like a raincoat or winter jacket because it will be rainy or windy or both at some point. The glare off the ice is also pretty intense, so bring a baseball hat and wear sunglasses.

Long pants are also a must, and I wore hiking pants because they were my most comfortable option. Normally, I don’t advocate for buying new stuff unless you absolutely have to. But if you’re splurging on a trip to Alaska, you might as well also get some hiking pants and be super comfortable. Whatever fits you that you like is your best option – I tried on basically every pair in REI and settled on the cheapest one I liked the most, which happened to be their Kornati pants. If you also have the build of a tall 12-year-old boy, these might work for you!

Bring a meal to eat for lunch, plus a few snacks. You’re burning a lot of calories and you will get hungry. Fortunately, if you don’t bring enough, or if a random pregnancy craving for Cheetos strikes, you can get some snacks from the MICA office (actually a yurt). MICA also has a little coffee shop on-site if you need a morning pick-me-up.

Bring plenty of water as well – I brought a liter and drank almost all of it. You can pee on the glacier, but you can’t poop on it, so plan ahead 😉 There’s a bathroom at MICA with running water and a port-o-potty at the trailhead for the glacier.

Lodging and dining recommendations

We stayed at Alpenglow right next door, which is a very cool glamping experience that I highly recommend. We didn’t want to drive all the way back to Anchorage all in one day (we were EXHAUSTED after our trek) and glamping sounded intriguing.

Purchase a detailed 11-day itinerary with:

  • Guided excursions
  • Beginner-friendly trails
  • Dining and lodging options
  • Packing list and more!

Alpenglow was way cooler than staying at a lodge nearby thanks to beautiful views of the glacier and surrounding valley, complimentary check-in beer, yummy breakfast, and a hot tub! There are also lawn games and a fire pit to just hang out. We (I) was too exhausted to do that, and it was kind of rainy and cold still in May.

An evening beer at Alpenglow, looking out at the Matanuska Glacier.

I was very nervous about being cold overnight because the tents don’t have heat. I don’t know what magical material the bedding is made out of, but we stayed toasty warm even with the weather in the 40s. I slept in a t-shirt and shorts!

Before settling in for the night, satiate your hunger at the Sheep Mountain Lodge. We followed our guide Lacey’s advice and she was spot on – don’t miss the berry crisp! You can pay to shower here if you want to, but we decided to stay grubby and head back to glamping after stuffing ourselves for dinner. The entire Matanuska Valley is stunningly beautiful, so the lodge is worth it for the drive and berry crisp alone.

Everything you could possibly want after a big day of hiking.

Overall, you don’t need any experience for this must-do Alaskan experience. You just need a sense of adventure! If you do one thing while you’re in Alaska, make it a trek on Matanuska (or any) Glacier and go with MICA Guides.

Published by Laura Cardon

Laura Cardon moved to Colorado as an adult and quickly realized how difficult it was to get started exploring the outdoors in a state full of experts. She founded Outdoor Beginner in 2014 to fill the gap in beginner-friendly content for camping, hiking, skiing, and other outdoor activities. In addition to Outdoor Beginner, she coaches beginner trail runners and works at Runners Roost in Golden, Colorado, where she lives with her spouse and toddler.

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