Top 3 Places to See Glaciers in the U.S.

Glaciers are one of the most unique and special landscapes in the world. There are some iconic glaciers on the U.S.’s highest mountains and in its coldest environments, and you can visit these places to witness glaciers for yourself. Unfortunately, thanks to the changing climate, it’ll become increasingly rare to find glaciers in the U.S. in the coming years, so you may want to prioritize these trips. Keep reading to discover a few of the best places to visit in the U.S. if you’re interested in wild ice.

Photo via NPS

What Is a Glacier?

Glaciers generally exist high up on mountains or near the poles, where it is cold enough to hold onto ice through the summers. They form when there is long-term packed ice and snow whose volume sticks around long after the winter season. Glaciers are dynamic forces, often acting like ice rivers. They move slowly, growing, shrinking, and changing over time, and shaping our landscapes. They have the force to crush up rocks—often leading to that bright blue color we see in many glacial alpine lakes—and many of our mountains, hills, valleys, and gorges were formed by glaciers.

Glaciers can only grow if the volume of snowfall in a season is more than the volume of snowmelt. For this reason, these massive rivers of ice are shrinking in most parts of the world. Due to the faster melting of these glaciers, there might be long-term effects on our environment, like rising sea levels and other effects on local communities, like decreased access to water sources over time.

Glaciers are an important part of how our global ecosystems function, and witnessing them now is the best way to gain a good perspective on how beautiful and crucial these ice landscapes are.

top places to see glaciers in the U.S.
Photo via NPS; Sexton Glacier

Where to Go to See America’s Glaciers

Glacier National Park, Montana

It’s all in the name—Glacier National Park, located in northern Montana, is home to at least 24 named glaciers, as well as several that remain unnamed. Glacier National Park is often referred to as “the crown of the continent.” Here, you’ll not only find glaciers, but you’ll also find cold alpine lakes, incredible wildlife, and accessible glacier views that will let you get up close and personal with the ice.

One of the most iconic hikes in Glacier National Park is the Grinnell Glacier Trail, located in the Many Glacier section of the park. This hike is about 11 miles round trip, and it will take you to an alpine lake and provide a close-up view of the glacier itself. This hike is difficult and not for everyone, but it is one of the best experiences if you want to see an active glacier within Glacier National Park. Other challenging hikes can lead to views of Sperry Glacier, Piegan Glacier, Sexton Glacier, and others.

Some glacier views are more accessible than others. You can see Salamander Glacier from the road into Many Glacier, and Jackson Glacier is visible from the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road.

Top 3 Places to See Glaciers in the U.S.
Photo via NPS; Emmons Glacier

Mount Rainier National Park, Washington

It should come as no surprise that one of the tallest mountains on the west coast of the U.S. would be a host to glaciers. Mount Rainier itself stands at over 14,000 feet and is home to 28 named glaciers. Some of these glaciers have accessible viewing locations, while some involve long treks to access.

One of the most famous glaciers on Mount Rainier is Carbon Glacier, known for being the glacier with the lowest terminus in the contiguous U.S. It’s also the glacier with the largest volume of ice on Mount Rainier. This glacier is visible along the Carbon River Trail.

Emmons Glacier is also one that many people talk about in the Mount Rainier area. This is the glacier with the largest area in the contiguous U.S. You can easily access a view of Emmons Glacier from the Sunrise Visitor Center.

The most visited glacier on Mount Rainier is Nisqually Glacier, located on the Paradise side of the park. This is also the most studied glacier in the park due to its pattern of retreating and growing over the years. You can view Nisqually Glacier from the Nisqually Vista Trail.

top places to see glaciers in the U.S.
Photo by S. Wright via NPS

Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

This list just wouldn’t be complete without at least one Alaska destination. While there are glaciers all over Alaska, some of them are more accessible than others. Over half of Kenai Fjords National Park, located near Seward, Alaska, is covered in glacial ice.

One of the most prominent glaciers here and the easiest to see on foot is Exit Glacier. This part of the park is accessible by road, unlike other parts of the park. This receding glacier gives you a good visual of the glacier itself, its terminus, and a moraine—an accumulation of debris left by a glacier. You can view Exit Glacier itself via one of the many trails in this area of the park, such as the Glacier View Loop Trail, Glacier Overlook Trail, or the difficult Harding Icefield Trail.

To see other glaciers in the park, like Holgate and Aialik Glaciers, you’ll want to hit the water. Many of Kenai Fjord’s glaciers are tidewater glaciers, which spill into the ocean. Book a boat cruise or tour to take you to these incredible glaciers, and keep an eye out for wildlife too.

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