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|Popular For||Day hiking, backpacking, mountaineering access|
Roadside monument and glacier view
|Season||Late May – September (Snowshoe/Ski winter)|
|Difficulty||Easy to Moderate (Rocky, partly off-trail)|
|Length||6 miles roundtrip minimum, much more possible|
|Elevation Gain||1300 ft (396 m) or more|
|Estimated Time||2.5-5 hours (more time for exploring!)|
|Location||Off the Richardson Highway, mile-197|
Gulkana glacier part trail and route in red. map disclaimer
The Gulkana Glacier area has much to offer, including day-hiking possibilities, backpacking or mountaineering expeditions, or just a roadside view of the glacier on the drive between Valdez and Fairbanks. It’s located in a gorgeous landscape on the south side of the Alaska Range (Delta Mountains) near some spires known as the Hoodoos, just north of Summit Lake and Paxson.
The hike out to the glacier is approximately 7 miles out-and-back, is moderately steep in a few places on a dirt road, unmaintained trail, and interpretive trail. It’s not a difficult hike, but not something I recommend if you don’t have much experience hiking. The hike requires you to find your own trail for a bit, and the terrain can be challenging. If you don’t feel up to the full hike up to the glacier, you do get a good view of the glacier about 1.5 miles in from the unofficial trailhead, making for a fun 3-mile hike. Although, crossing College Creek (the approach to College Glacier) over the eery suspension bridge does prove to be somewhat nerve-wracking for some.
If you are feeling more adventurous, there are numerous mountaineering and glacier traverse from the Gulkana Glacier. The guidebook Delta Range: A Mountaineering Playground by Stan Justice is available in Fairbanks at Beaver Sports. It highlights many of the climbable peaks accessible by the Gulkana Glacier.
Training and Research Use
Because of the proximity to the highway, this area is frequently used by the military for training as well as by numerous educators and university researchers studying hydrology, glaciology, geology, climate, and more. It’s fairly common to see any of these working or training along the way or out on the ice. The USGS has been conducting research here since the 1960s and there is a USGS Hut at the high reaches of the glacier built in 1968.
Drive to mile 197 on the Richardson Highway (south of Fairbanks and Delta Junction, north of Valdez and Glenallen). This is just south of the Captain Wilds P. Richardson monument (Mile 197.6), which offers an excellent roadside view of the glacier. There is a dirt road that leads northeast. Turn on this road; after about two miles, there will be a gravel airstrip on the right. Please don’t park on the airstrip; it does get used. I know it seems obvious, but I’ve seen cars parked in the middle of it. The “trailhead is a few parking areas approximately another 2 miles in (4 miles total). Sometimes water or snow can prevent you from driving that far. Good four-wheel-drive and clearance may get you in further.
The hike begins along the road. Continue north along Phelan Creek until you come to a junction with College Creek and bear a slight right at 1/4-mile from the summer trailhead. The suspension bridge will come into view on the left. Cross the bridge or ford the stream (can be dangerous). You might want to go one at a time to eliminate extra bouncing if the bridge is intimidating.
The trail turns right and heads into the brush. There’s sometimes a couple of social trails here and they kind of meander in and out of each other. The idea is to head up to a small ridge just under 3800 ft in elevation. It shouldn’t be too hard to find the main trail. There are usually a few cairns once you get higher up.
The trail eventually peters out. By now you should be mostly out of the brush. If it’s clear you should be able to see your destination, the glacier becomes visible. This could be a good turn-around point if you don’t want to venture too far. You can stay on the small ridge, slowly descending toward the creek, or drop into the creekbed. I don’t feel like one is necessarily better than the other. Go as far as you like and explore the area, it’s gorgeous. Keep an eye on your time, as you return the way you came.
Phelan Creek to Gulkana Glacier
If continuing on to the glacier, there will be a few stream crossings. Most can be stepped over fairly easily, you might get your feet wet on hot days when the snow is melting. You will most likely have a larger stream crossing to get on to the glacier on the southeastern moraine (at the margin). Be aware that this stream can change outflow rapidly based on melt or precipitation.
If continuing on to the glacier, make sure you are familiar with glacier travel. You may want microspikes or crampons. Don’t travel on to the glacier on snow unless you are familiar with glacier travel and crevasse rescue. There are moulins and crevasses that are very dangerous, especially when snow-covered. Sadly a boy died while snow-machining on the glacier in 2016 when he fell 130 feet down a moulin in 2016. A very sad reminder that these beautiful places are quite unforgiving of mistakes.
A few other cautions, remember this is bear territory. Know what to do to avoid bear encounters and how to handle yourself in the event of one. Bring a GPS or map and compass and know how to use them. Especially in inclement weather, navigation can be difficult.