Driving north from Anchorage isn't as instantly dramatic as going south, but within an hour you're immersed in stop-and-shoot scenery. The Glenn Highway runs northeast to agricultural Palmer, then twists east along the Matanuska River Valley, sandwiched between coastal and interior mountains.
The Matanuska Glacier makes for a great day trip from Anchorage, because there’s lots to see and do in the area.
Forty minutes from downtown Anchorage lies Eagle River Nature Center, a gateway to Chugach State Park and a glacial river valley as wild and dramatic as any in Alaska. Enjoy an easy, 3-mile nature walk on the Albert Loop or trek up-valley 5 miles to see plunging waterfalls and 3,000-foot cliffs. In winter, traverse the trails on cross-country skis or snowshoes.
Who can say no to a cool waterfall only a half-hour’s drive from town? One of the most popular “first hikes” for families with small children, the one-mile trail to Thunderbird Falls traverses a handsome birch forest along the Eklutna River canyon to reach a deck with views of a 200-foot waterfall. During winter, the falls can freeze, forming fabulous columns of blue ice.
Dating back to 1650, the park is the area's oldest continuously inhabited Athabaskan Indian settlement. Russian Orthodox missionaries came here in the early 1800s, and you can still see St. Nicholas Church, the oldest standing building in greater Anchorage. Snap some pictures of the colorful Spirit Houses build over the graves of the deceased-a custom that came from the melding More...
Located 45 minutes from Anchorage, the Musk Ox farm project was conceived in the 1950s as an agrarian opportunity for villagers in Western Alaska; today it’s a fascinating look at an animal (and a way of life) that was perilously close to extinction. You can take a 30- to 40-minute tour of the farm and see some 70 musk ox. Since they’re friendly creatures, they may come right up to the fence to greet you.
The campground is pretty open, since bark beetles killed the big, old spruce trees. The campsites attract RVers and campers, and each of the 24 sites has a fire ring and picnic table. There’s potable water at a hand pump.
Experience a scenic float along a glacial river. Just 90 minutes from Anchorage, the Matanuska Glacier is Alaska’s largest road-accessible glacier, and the water running underneath creates a river that’s perfect for rafting. You’ll float downstream for up to 2 hours, taking in the scenery along the way—mountains, river channels, hillsides, moraines—and looking out for wildlife. It’s fun for the whole family—anyone ages 5 and up can do this trip—and you’ll be going with one of Alaska’s most experienced tour companies.
Experience the thrill of walking or climbing on a glacier. The Matanuska is Alaska’s largest road-accessible glacier, and it’s just 90 minutes from Anchorage, so it’s an easy way to get up close and personal with these amazing natural wonders. You don’t need to be experienced in either activity—just be in good shape and up for adventure. You’ll either walk around on the glacier with crampons or learn how to use an ice axe and safely work your way up the gorgeous river of ice.
The location of this ATV adventure is the midpoint between Anchorage and Glennallen. Plenty of travelers drive through this area without pausing for more than a picture of the roadside glacier, but Glacier View ATV’s three-hour tour—the only ATV excursion in this part of Alaska—makes this tour well worth a longer stop.
Looking to break up your drive with a jog or bike ride? This little-used, 2-mile section of the former Glenn Highway has little to no traffic. Rocks and shrubs are creeping onto the road surface in places. It's quiet, scenic, and hilly. The roadway is officially closed in the middle but easily-passable.
The Matanuska State Park is the best place for a free view of the Matanuska Glacier. You won’t be able to walk up to the glacier (that’s at Mile 102 and is $30 per person), but this well-developed site (wihch is also connected to the nearby RV Park) offers plenty of parking, public restrooms, and excellent glacier views and photo opportunities. You'll also find:
It’s only a small pull-out on the side of the highway, but this is the closest viewpoint of the Matanuska Glacier. If you don’t have a powerful zoom on your camera, or just want to get a great look at the ice, this is the spot. There’s only room for about six cars and the feel is a bit more rustic than the official state rec site a mile to the west, but you’ll More...
There’s climbing a mountain – and then there’s climbing an ICE mountain. Regardless of your climbing ability or experience, you'll end the day feeling fulfilled and inspired. MICA also offers short, guided hikes and longer treks if you prefer a more leisurely explore of the glacier and its grandeur.
Lion’s Head is famous throughout the state. This rock outcropping is the prominent feature beside the Matanuska Glacier and is featured in magazines and advertisements all over Alaska. And you can hike it! You’ve got to be in good shape and ready for a scrambling, one-hour climb. You’ll be rewarded by great views, looking down a 2,000-foot cliff face to the glacier. More...
For the next three miles, you’ll have a chance to see Dall Sheep. You’ll have to crane your neck and look straight up to the cliffs above on the left. These animals, as well as mountain goats, are protected from hunting in this area, part of the Sheep Mountain Game Protection Area. Dall sheep hang out on these cliffs to avoid predators. They live on grasses and sedges, and More...
People love to pull off here and shoot a photo beside this classic sign. A local theory on the creek name is that the crusty, old sourdough who lived down near the creek used mules for guiding hunts. These mules purportedly escaped a lot, so the asses were always by the creek. Who knows? But it’s a classic photo for the friends back home.
Just south of the Caribou Creek bridge near mile marker 104 on the Glenn Highway in the shadow of the Lion’s Head rock formation, look for the turnoff for the Caribou Creek Recreational Mining Area. You are not going to get fabulously rich here and be the next star of the TV reality show Gold Rush, but you do have the opportunity to carry a gold pan and shovel, hike the steep half-mile-long trail down to the creek, and pan for gold.
Some 15,000 years ago, this glacier reached another 50 miles west to the Palmer area. It now has a four-mile wide towering face that you can walk right up to and touch. Keep an eye out for summertime ice-climbers at this most impressive roadside glacier.
Directions: Head north from Anchorage on the Glenn Highway. At mile 102, you can drive down to Glacier Park and pay a day fee (888-253-4480), then hike 15-20 minutes to the face of glacier. Distance: 102 miles north of Anchorage. Drive Time: 3 hours. Explore Time: 1 - 2 hours.