Glacier Hiking and Four Wheel Driving
With a few days off from flight training I went out to go hike a glacier. What I didn't expect was to find an offroad trail that followed a glacier as well.
Alaska has a lot of glaciers. Glaciologists estimate that the state of Alaska has over 34,000 square miles of ice (about the size of Maine). So when thinking about going out and choosing a glacier hike you have options. I decided to try out Gulkana Glacier as it was on the way to meet up with some friends later that weekend and seemed like a pretty accessible hike. The road out to the trail head is a fairly easy dirt road but the last 1/4 is quite rough and the very last bit requires high clearance but you can park before that section and just walk. I went all the way as I arrived late and wanted some privacy to camp.
After waking up around 7am I started the hike early. Just a few minutes into the hike you're met with a super cool suspension bridge. It's quite wiggly and fun to cross over the glacial melt below! The first mile or so there is a defined trail but after that you're basically following the stream up to the glacier. Some basic rock scrambling that's not too hard and you can't really get lost as you are just following the stream. After 3 miles you make it to the edge of the glacier. Unlike other glaciers there isn't a giant wall of ice you have to figure out how to get around. You can literally walk onto it and the slope isn't too bad.
Before starting the ice portion of the hike I wanted to see where the stream originated and I'm glad I did. Off to the right there is an amazing ice bridge and the source of the raging water. One thing to realize as you are close to the glacier you might think you're standing on rocky dirt but in fact you're already on ice just slightly covered in debris. I had to be super careful of where I placed my footing.
After looking around the ice bridge and huge ice chunks I found my way up onto the glacier. At this point I put on my newly purchased aggressive ice cleats. These are made by Grivel and go by the model "Ran". They are somewhere between a normal ice cleat and crampons. They were way more affordable than a proper crampon and seemed a bit more appropriate for a basic glacier hike. I'm suuuuper impressed with them. They are easy to put on, they stay completely secure and are easy to pack. Check 'em out here.
I've only hiked one other glacier so I'm an absolute noob but this glacier seems like a great first solo hike option. The slope of the glacier is fairly easy but more importantly it's really flat. It was also easy to avoid the larger crevasses and hike on solid ice. It was an absolute surreal experience being on a massive glacier all alone with no one insight.
The first major point of interest is the Gabriel Icefall. [An excerpt from Wikipedia] An icefall is a portion of certain glaciers characterized by relatively rapid flow and chaotic crevassed surface, caused in part by gravity. The term icefall is formed by analogy with the word waterfall, which is a similar phenomenon of the liquid phase but at a more spectacular speed. When ice movement of a glacier is faster than elsewhere, because the glacier bed steepens or narrows, and the flow cannot be accommodated by plastic deformation, the ice fractures, forming crevasses. Where two fractures meet, seracs (or ice towers) can be formed.
Another really interesting thing you notice while hiking up the glacier is all the pink snow and ice. It's really a stark contrast in all the greys and blues that dominate the area. After the hike I had to look up what it was about. The pink color is actually algae that grows specifically on glaciers around the world and is speeding up the melting process of the glacier. The red color absorbs heat and melts the ice/snow which provides water to the algae. These algae blooms are active during the spring and summer months but go dormant in the winter when snow covers them apparently.
My end goal was to hike to a USGS hut way up the glacier but I hadn't marked it on my gps and the fog had started to roll in so I decided since the visibly was so poor to just turn around at this point. All in all a super cool hike totaling just under 12 miles. With so much flat ice you could hike for hours up here on a clear day. For anyone interested here's my GPX file from the hike. You can also follow me on Strava.
Offroading to Another Glacier
After the long strenuous hike I had plans to meet up with some friends further north. On the way up to meet them I turned down this rough dirt road and boy I'm glad I did. This road soon turned into an ATV trail and just kept climbing and climbing.
Steep cliffs just inches away, glacier ice below, swift creek crossings with the trail dead-ending at 5000ft of elevation I couldn't have asked for a more incredible trail to find. As far as the trail goes there are a few very steep sections with loose larger rocks. I had to pretty much crawl up a large portion in 4 low and decided to kick in the rear differential for a section that was particularly fun. For the last section of the trail you have an awesome view of the glacier below. I also met two other Toyotas on the trail at one of the water crossings and spoke with them for a quick minute.
Once at the top you've reached 5000 feet of elevation and have an even better view of the glacier. I actually was just short about 300ft of the end of the trail due to a very steep snow bank I just couldn't overcome. If the weather had been better I'd probably have hiked up to one of the close mountain tops but that will have to wait till next time. There are some other off shoots from this trail I can't wait to explore next time I come back.
I thought about posting the GPX file for this trail but have decided against it. My site doesn't drive any traffic but I'd hate to ruin such a beautiful area with internet tourists. If you're ever in Alaska with a sweet overland/offroad rig please hit me up and maybe we can hit the trail together! Till then happy trails.