“What a big blue glorious Saturday,” I thought to myself as I girded my outdoor gear, gathered some snacks, plenty of H2O, and the remainder of my morning coffee. My pup Paxson and I were preparing for a great adventure! How exciting! We had our sights set on the Castner glacier. An ice cave extraordinaire deep in Alaska’s Interior, 144 scenic miles (232 km) from Fairbanks.
We headed southeast out of Fairbanks on the Richardson Highway for the 2-1/2 hour drive. First, we drove past nearby North Pole, “Where the Spirit of Christmas Lives Year Round,” giving a wink and a nod to the world’s largest Santa statue. Next, we passed through lake country… Chena, Harding, Birch, Lost and Quartz—all worthy of ice fishing expeditions, snowshoeing quests or photo treks. Next, Delta Junction, about 90 miles out, brought the first glimpse of civilization back into focus. Here, the famous Alaska-Canada Highway hooks up with the Richardson. In Delta, you can visit a quirky and well-stocked grocery, grab a bite to eat at a local restaurant or top off your tank on your way to more remote destinations.
From Delta, you take a right to continue south on the Richardson Highway. As the trees fade back from view, the eastern Alaska Range dominates the landscape. Even for an old-timer like me, Alaska still leaves me in awe regularly. I was struck by the raw beauty of the majestic Alaska Range and the seemingly endless wilderness. Pro-tip, one needs to slow down a bit through this territory as the road shadows sometimes harbor slippery patches of ice.
As the Black Rapids Lodge came into view, I knew the Castner Glacier was getting close! I have stayed at the historic lodge in the past and it was a true pleasure. The wooden beams are magnificent, the hospitality and food are outstanding, and the location and viewpoints are superb.
Just a few miles beyond the lodge I came upon a large number of cars parked in the middle of nowhere and I knew I had arrived. The day, at - 10°F (-23°C), was chilly but comfortable by Interior Alaska standards. After putting on appropriate layers and boots for me, and felt booties for Mr. Paxson, we were off!
The 2.6-mile round-trip hike to the Glacier is straightforward and almost entirely flat. Do stay on the packed trail though—if you step off you may find yourself in snow waist-deep. If there is fresh snow you may want to consider snowshoes or Nordic skis. Paxson and I were cruising along happily when out of nowhere the yawning cavernous mouth of the Castner glacier ice cave opened onto our snowy trail.
The glacier ice cave was unexpectedly captivating, exquisite and curious. It was immense, larger and more dynamic than I expected. I had the feeling I was in the belly of a whale, or something alive and organic. What an extraordinary natural phenomenon!
Spinning in a 360-degree fashion, every surface and view changes—from a ceiling filled with sparkling white ice crystals to striated walls with blue, brown and clear ice, to the opening orifice that lets in the blinding sun and the bluebird-sky day outside.
We made the hike back to our vehicle, shed our icy clothes, cranked up the heat, and started the beautiful drive home. And indeed, it was an enchanting drive. The Alaska Range loomed stark against a brilliant blue sky and blue-tinged snow, but the crowning touch was the alpenglow that bathed the mountains in ethereal pink.
By now the sun was setting on the Alaska Range, Paxson was curled up next me, and I was already reminiscing about my trip to the Castner Glacier—a truly spectacular day well spent.
Interior and Eastern Alaska Glaciers
Interior Alaska Glaciers are accessible by foot, air and sea. Please take note, glaciers change significantly from winter to summer. Be advised that we recommend seeking out a guide or tour to access most glaciers for safety purposes.
Castner, Canwell and Black Rapids Glaciers (October-April)
The 2.6-mile round-trip hike to the Castner Glacier ice cave is straightforward and almost entirely flat. The Canwell and Black Rapids glaciers are significantly harder to get to, clocking in at six and 12 miles respectively. These classic Interior glacier ice caves are fascinating and beautiful. They change from season to season, so you are always accessing something brand new and captivating.
Worthington Glacier (Year-Round)
The most popular and accessible glacier on the Valdez-to-Fairbanks adventure corridor is the Worthington Glacier about a six-hour drive or 330 miles (531 km) south of Fairbanks. This active glacier descends almost to the Richardson Highway and can be easily reached via a short trail system.
Columbia, Meares, Shoup and Valdez Glaciers (May-September)
Guides and marine tour operators offer glacier excursions from Valdez, 364 miles (586 kms) south of Fairbanks. Options include the immense retreating Columbia Glacier, the face of the advancing Meares Glacier, and the unique Shoup Glacier that feeds into a freshwater lake. See huge bright blue glacial icebergs and shards jutting from the pristine Prince William Sound. View amazing wildlife including sea lions, orcas, humpbacks, harbor seals and sea otters.
Denali National Preserve Yanert Glacier (May-September)
For an unforgettable glacier experience, lift-off in a helicopter and head out to the massive Yanert Glacier. One hundred and twenty-two miles (196 km) from Fairbanks, be immersed in the vastness of nearby Denali National Park and Preserve as you soar over rolling tundra and snowcapped peaks before you set down to explore this ancient river of ice.
Root Glacier (May-September)
Deep in the Wrangell - St. Elias National Park you will find the spectacular Root Glacier. The moderate trail from the historic town of Kennecott is approximately four miles round-trip. Guides can outfit you with crampons for your boots and you can traverse atop the glacier and check out the crystal blue pools and outstanding vistas of the surrounding mountains.