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What Makes Matanuska Glacier Special and How to Experience It

What makes Matanuska Glacier special?

Matanuska is the largest Alaska glacier accessible by road. It’s about 27 miles long, and four miles wide and sits on the north end of the Chugach Mountains with great accessibility from Anchorage. 

The Matanuska State Recreation Area has a great overlook and interpretive signs just off the road for people who want to see the glacier on their own, but if you want to actually walk on the glacier and get up close, you need to travel across private property to get there, and that requires a guided tour, which is where we come in. 

Matanuska Glacier summer tour

When is the best time to visit Matanuska Glacier?

Any time, outside of a few weeks in the spring and fall when conditions are uneven and not as safe. I do prefer the experience on the winter tour, because being able to access crevasses and ice caves that aren’t available in other times of year is amazing. Plus, the newly-fallen snow creates a beautiful backdrop against the glacier itself. 

But in early June the blue pool season is on at Matanuska Glacier, and that happens as the winter snow begins to melt and drain into the valleys of ice, forming little lakes, and they’re just this amazing deep blue color. And by the time that July rolls around, a lot of those little lakes have kind of burrowed their way down into the ice and melted into the network of drainage tunnels that there’s just a network of, of tunnels of drain water through a glacier. 

Another benefit of visiting Matanuska Glacier during the summer months is the fact It’s actually pretty bug free. The mosquito season in Alaska is late May and June and into July, which can be pretty miserable in some areas. But glaciers have what’s called a katabatic wind that’s formed from a pressure difference as the ice of the glacier cools the air above it. That cool air then is denser and heavier than the warmer air around it so it tends to get pulled by gravity down towards the bottom of the glacier and it rushes down the face of the glacier and comes off the face. So there’s usually a cold wind coming down the face, which mosquitoes don’t really like. 

What is the weather like? 

At the end of glaciers, called the ‘toe,’ there tends to be less precipitation because of the upward pressure of the wind, and often there’s a lot better weather out there than there is in Anchorage. 

It could be pouring rain in downtown Anchorage and people will call the Greatland Adventures office and ask if we’ll be canceling their tour and we respond with “Oh, no, it’s bright and sunny at the glacier!” 

That said, Matanuska Glacier can vary, just like everywhere else in Alaska. We make sure our guests have the right gear to enjoy their experience no matter what the conditions may be. 

Matanuska Glacier Tour winter

What does the Greatland Adventures Matanuska Glacier Tour include? 

Our tours include transportation from hotels across Anchorage. If guests are staying at a vacation rental, we’ll offer pick up only if they’ve booked a private tour. But folks who are on our public tour and staying in a vacation rental can meet us at our office in Midtown Anchorage. 

Greatland Adventures tour vans are comfortable, clean, and have huge windows that allow for great views as we drive to the glacier, which takes about two hours in total. Once we arrive at the glacier, our guides make sure everyone is geared up with ice cleats before heading out for a great experience out on the glacier, with our guides sharing geology, glaciology, and the history of the area. We do ask guests to bring their own water bottles as a way to reduce our carbon footprint, but we have fresh water available throughout the day, and also provide lunch and snacks for our guests. 

Are the glacier hikes difficult? 

While the word ‘hike’ is often used to describe the activities upon Matanuska Glacier, we really refer to the experience as a ‘walk.’ We do cover three or four miles over the span of two hours and the terrain is definitely uneven and has a few short ups and downs. But everyone wears ice cleats that go over the shoes or boots, and there are lots of opportunities to stop and take photos or just absorb where we’re at right then. The scenery is spectacular and a lot of people find a certain sense of awe in simply being there. 

What should guests wear or bring on a Matanuska Glacier Tour? 

It’s really important that guests pay attention to their gear because as mentioned before the right clothing can make a big difference to one’s experience. Here’s what we recommend to pack for Matanuska Glacier tours any time of year:  

  • Dress in layers to add or remove as the weather changes throughout the day
  • Bring a warm hat and gloves or mittens 
  • Sunglasses are important, even on cloudy days, as the reflection of ice makes for a squinty day otherwise
  • Closed-toe, waterproof and sturdy footwear. Hiking boots or shoes are great in the summer months, and snow boots are a must in the winter
  • Raingear, consisting of a waterproof jacket and pants. Even if it doesn’t rain, the setup will protect against the constant Katabatic wind
  • Camera or smartphone (remember that cold temperatures drain batteries faster in the winter, so carry a pocket hand warmer to keep with your device)

In addition, during the winter months, we advise people to wear the following: 

  • Long underwear tops and bottoms, made of non-cotton material
  • Fleece pants and top, and warm socks
  • Snow pants and jacket 
  • Warm hat that covers the ears and mittens or gloves (mittens tend to be warmer) 

Don’t have snow gear? Greatland Adventures rents snow gear that includes a jacket, pants, and snow boots rated for extremely low temperatures. We also provide hand warmers, which make a huge difference. 

Do I need to make a reservation for the Matanuska Glacier Tour? What are your busiest times? 

Our busiest season for Matanuska Glacier tours is over the Christmas holidays, and we ask guests to book as far out as possible, at least a month or two in advance. In the late winter months of February and March, it can be busy as well due to the Fur Rendezvous festival, Iditarod, and spring break. 

The short answer is that reservations are always recommended, but please contact our office if you want to take a tour and see if we have any open seats. Our staff can also look ahead to see what may be available on other days. 

Listen to Steve on the Alaska Uncovered Podcast, talking about Matanuska Glacier

In April 2024, Greatland Adventures owner Steve Busby was a featured guest on the “Alaska Uncovered” podcast hosted by Jennie Thwing Flaming. Steve and Jennie spent some time talking about the evolution of Greatland Adventures, favorite destinations, and what makes a Greatland Adventures tour a great way to experience southcentral Alaska, specifically, Matanuska Glacier. (The blog post has been edited for clarity.)

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