Gakona Glacier – Hike Info and August 2023 Trip Report
A hidden jewel in the Eastern Alaska Range, the Gakona Glacier, has beckoned me for years. Over three intense days and two nights, I finally embarked on this hike. While Mother Nature cut my trip short with looming lousy weather, the journey granted me invaluable insights into the terrain and approach.
Distance and Elevation
Expectation vs. Reality
Having planned this trip for some time, I had a fair idea of the hike’s distance, but the elevation change caught me off-guard. I had anticipated a 10.5-mile approach with an elevation gain of 3,800 feet on the outbound journey and 3,000 feet on the return. My distance estimate was accurate to within half a mile, but I underestimated the elevation change by a staggering 3,400 feet. Even after a day’s rest, my legs are urging me to be more generous in my elevation predictions in the future.
Given my late start, I split the hike over two days. I tackled 5.76 miles on the first day, scaling 3,149 feet of elevation. The 4.5-mile stretch along an ORV trail was a breather, offering stable footing despite its challenging, often steep terrain. Day two added another 5 miles to my journey, accompanied by a 1,400-foot elevation gain. My second camp was on the glacier’s lateral moraine—a half-mile from my original target, the glacier’s medial moraine. This location turned out to be a silver lining, offering relatively easy access to the glacier sans my heavy pack.
Threatened by looming heavy rain, I made a dash back in just one day. The return was a bit kinder—10.13 miles with an elevation gain of 3,238 feet (and a descent of 4,274 feet). When tallied up, without the glacier explorations, my round trip chalked up an impressive 20.4 miles and a whopping 7,787 feet of elevation gain.
In addition, venturing further out on the glacier, including the area I originally intended for camping, increased the overall metrics:
- Total Distance: 25.7 miles
- Elevation Change: A matched Gain and Loss of approximately 10,250 ft each
Why the Gakona?
As previously noted, my intrigue with this destination has been long-standing. My introduction to the Gakona Glacier occurred during my Physics graduate studies at UAF while working with the Glaciology department. Surge-type glaciers undergo periodic, rapid advances followed by periods of stagnation. Throughout my coursework and readings, the Gakona Glacier consistently surfaced as a prime example of a surge-type glacier. The captivating aerial photographs from the 1960s and 1970s by the renowned Austin Post highlighted its moraines, which are quintessential of surge-type glaciers.
Surge-type glaciers, for the most part, feature competing tributaries. These tributaries form distinct, large, lobed moraines when they force their way into the glacier’s primary trunk or another large branch. During a surge, these lobes essentially become sheared off. Then, in its subsequent quiescent phase, a new lobe starts emerging from that particular tributary or branch, setting the stage for a repeat of the process.
Consider a different angle of the above photo to provide a clearer perspective. In the bottom left, you can spot the same moraines. This gives context to the branch responsible for the prominently rounded lobe seen in the upper right. It’s evident that this branch is in the initial stages of pushing a new lobe into the main trunk.
While there’s a rich history of aerial photography of the area, it’s surprisingly challenging to find substantial online documentation or images of the Gakona Glacier today. Interestingly, a search for the Gakona Glacier often returns numerous images and hiking guides for its nearby cousin, the Gulkana Glacier. However, I can attest to their distinct differences. The extensively researched Gulkana, with its easy access, is relatively minuscule. To provide some context, in 1975, the Gulkana Glacier spanned 10 km in length and covered an area of 21 square km. In contrast, the Gakona Glacier stretched 32 km and spanned a whopping 112 square km. The only glacier outstripping these dimensions in this Alaska Range sector—often referred to as the Mount Kimball-Mount Gakona Segment or, more commonly, the Delta Range—is the Johnson Glacier, measuring 33 km in length and covering 183 square km.
So, we’re talking about a significant glacier. It’s nestled in relative remoteness yet remains within the bounds of accessibility. A notable absence of extensive photos, hiking guides, or general information about this gem further stokes my interest. It practically beckoned me. As I pored over maps and satellite images of the glacier to devise a possible route, something unexpected caught my eye.
The sight was unfamiliar—a feature I hadn’t encountered on any glacier before. My already piqued curiosity soared. I earmarked this point as a ‘must-visit.’ Stay with me to further explore this mystery in the sections below.
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, a gravel airstrip will be on the right. The ORV trail starts about 1 mile beyond the airstrip and will be an obvious scar on the hillside to the east (right).
I won’t disclose a comprehensive route guide beyond Gunn Creek for reasons detailed in my ‘Wild and Trailless‘ article. The initial 4 miles utilize a well-trodden ORV trail leading to Gunn Creek. After this point, the route turns trailless, journeying through expansive alpine tundra. Reaching the glacier demands negotiation of complex glacier moraines, sharp-edged valleys, and a stream crossing that demands caution and respect. This expedition isn’t suited for beginners; a solid grounding in navigation and familiarity with glaciated landscapes is paramount. As with all treks into the wild, I urge adherence to Leave No Trace and Nature First principles.
In the map above, I’ve highlighted the start of the route along the ORV trail and the route to Gunn Creek (the blue GPX track), and the Gakona is marked in red. I’ve also included blue markers for the Gulkana and College Glaciers for a size comparison to the Gakona. The trail continues out of the creek drainage but ends in open tundra immediately. From here, you will need to plot your own trek. The next gentle sloping ridge you cross trends up in altitude to the north. You can add some distance and follow the contours arching south and then back north for less of a climb. If you don’t mind a bit of a climb, follow a more northerly path over the ridge.
The terrain is pleasant until approximately 1.5 miles to the Gakona’s lateral moraine. From this point, expect to navigate through sharp valleys and possibly contend with one or more stream crossings. For those considering this adventure, I can’t stress enough the value of studying both topographical maps and recent satellite imagery, such as Google Earth, to map out your journey. I’ll talk a bit about my route and the terrain challenges in my hike description below.
Day 1 – Monday
The eroded ORV trail embarks on a pronounced ascent directly from the gravel road/stream bed. This series of rigorous climbs, interspersed with relatively level stretches, allowed me to quickly gain elevation without undue exhaustion. Along the way, I was treated to impressive vistas of the Hoodoo Mountains and the Gulkana Glacier before venturing into a valley that obscured most of the panoramic view.
Within this valley, the trail bifurcates. I veered to the right, traversing a minor stream and ascending to a gentle saddle at the valley’s end. Reaching the summit, the trail became elusive at intervals but always rematerialized just below the rocky ridge, with a steep descent to Gunn Creek. The northern mountains’ vibrant hues evoked memories of Denali National Park’s Polychrome and Thorofare (Eielson) regions.
It was trickier keeping my feet dry crossing Gunn Creek than I expected (I failed). Luckily, it’s a small stream, so it was just a couple of splashes, and I was out. Uncertain about water availability further ahead, I took the precaution to filter a couple of liters right there. In hindsight, as I encountered numerous springs and streams on my ascent to the next ridge, I could have spared myself the added weight during the steep climb from the creek valley (especially since I was carrying 20 pounds in camera gear). Still, erring on the side of caution felt right.
Emerging from the valley demanded another steep ascent along a distinct trail. However, this trail abruptly ended as I reached the top. With sunset drawing near, my focus shifted to locating a suitable campsite, although I still sought to cover as much ground as possible to ease the following day’s journey. To my surprise, I discovered I had 4G reception as I exited the valley. This allowed me to quickly check for any updates regarding the impending rain I was aware of. The forecast remained largely unchanged, save for a 20% increased likelihood of rain beginning Wednesday night and heavy rain on Thursday.
I had originally hoped to have 4 to 6 days to explore, but it was increasingly looking like I would want to be out by Thursday at the latest. In a bid to reduce pack weight, I had left behind much of my cold-weather gear. Being wet and isolated in temperatures that dipped into the high 30s and low 40s Fahrenheit during nighttime would be a bleak prospect.
This urgency nudged me to hike nearer to the 9:30 p.m. sunset than I typically would. However, the effort bore fruit; I believe I stumbled upon the prime camping spot in the vicinity. Positioned on a level, gravelly ledge, I had a panoramic view of a striking kettle pond flanked by picturesque alpine streams on both sides. Although a slight breeze lingered, the location was nearly flawless. Pitching the tent was a breeze, too – all the stakes easily pierced the ground. Such ease is a rarity for me in Alaska.
Day 2 – Tuesday
My night was restless. The reason eludes me; I wasn’t chilled, felt at ease, and wasn’t anxious. I suspect the sleeping bag might have been the culprit. I borrowed Cat’s 16°F Mountain Equipment bag, as my own bags (rated at 0°F and -20°F) felt overkill for the predicted weather. I distinctly recall struggling to keep my head nestled within the bag’s hood, which felt somewhat restrictive around my chest. I undeniably spent much of the night shifting positions.
I finally roused myself just shy of 7 a.m., precisely as the sun crested the hills. Given the previous day’s overcast demeanor, the morning’s clarity quite literally painted the surrounding landscapes in a fresh, radiant light!
My morning pace was unhurried as I savored my coffee, munched on granola, and captured photographs. By 10 a.m., I was finally packed and ready to resume my trek. The tundra was forgiving, being more rocky than tussock-covered, making for an effortless traverse. Soon enough, the vista began to evolve. Lofty summits overlooking the icefield feeding the Gakona became prominent. And, after a mild ascent over the ridge (really just a gentle hill), the Gakona Glacier unveiled itself for the first time.
The next stretch was about a mile of gentle descent from my vantage point. Before long, the challenging terrain ahead became evident. Scouting a route in advance is certainly wise in this landscape. My initial route had to be modified on the fly, as one of the valleys proved steeper than the topographical maps had suggested. The open alpine tundra gradually transformed into multiple rocky drainages punctuated by unstable talus slopes.
I arrived at the lateral moraine by 1 p.m. The day’s warmth complicated my next challenge: crossing the outflow stream from the neighboring glaciers. Setting aside my pack, I spent 20 minutes surveying for a safe crossing point. With a partner, I might’ve been less wary, but alone, this stream verged on the edge of what I deemed safe. In parts of the primary channel, my trekking pole disappeared beneath the water’s surface, indicating depths up to my waist and a swift current.
I turned my attention to areas where the river braided into multiple channels and began to cross these incrementally. Soon, I was confronted by the main channel—a crossing I couldn’t evade. Selecting the widest point for the shallowest depth, I strapped on my gaiters, intent on keeping my feet dry. To my relief, the water only reached mid-thigh. Crossing the short span rapidly, I successfully avoided soaking my boots and socks. Though my pants took the brunt of the water, they dried promptly under the sun. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of accomplishment, knowing that as long as I left early enough in the morning in the coming days, I would have a much easier return crossing.
After scaling the lateral moraine, my initial plan to camp on the medial moraine of the glacier quickly shifted. Contrary to my expectations based on the USGS topo—which indicated a 250-foot drop from the moraine’s pinnacle to the ice—it appeared to be almost double that descent due to the thinning glacier since the topo production. The slope was also steep, and the terrain challenging to navigate.
I pivoted, locating another prime campsite atop the lateral moraine. While there were stagnant pools I could draw from for cooking and brewing coffee, the water was far from palatable for drinking. Hastily, I set up camp and reached out to Cat via my InReach, eager for an updated weather forecast.
The forecast continued to worsen. The likelihood of a downpour had not only risen but now heralded an impending flood watch for Friday. Given the circumstances, I concluded that I’d commence my return journey the next day. I contemplated breaking up the hike with a camp stay along the return during a drizzly night or pushing to cover the entire distance to remain dry. Either way, it cemented my resolve: today was the day to venture out and explore the glacier.
I didn’t have a lot of options for a path down to the ice. The last 50-100 feet of moraine was too steep and dangerous to navigate. I had to wind down the gentlest slope I could, avoiding numerous steep valleys and water channels.
Upon setting foot on the glacier, the walking became relatively easy again. The lack of surface streams was notable. A dense grid of moulins was draining any water that appeared quickly. It seemed as if there was a moulin every 30 feet or so, none draining more than a trickle of water from the surface.
I continued roughly a mile downglacier to check out that feature I had mentioned previously. I had to be careful navigating various size crevasses, but when I arrived, my jaw dropped.
The scene before me had drastically transformed from what the satellite images depicted. The water channel I’d navigated earlier, which once seamlessly flowed into the Gakona (evident from the aerial shot by Austin Post above), had now carved a deep chasm through the glacier’s core. This stream, merging with the sub-glacial waters of the Gakona, had birthed a lake. I watched, spellbound, as chunks of ice actively sheared off both glacier termini.
I touched on the unexpected drop in the ice surface earlier. For my preparations, I relied on two sets of topographical maps: one sourced from the USGS and another from OpenStreetMap, the latter presumably being more contemporary. While CalTopo, my platform of choice for accessing the USGS map, doesn’t readily display the edition being used for a given area, further investigation led me to believe I was referencing a 1970s edition derived from a 1955 survey. A comparison of the glacier surface elevation from my recent GPS data with that from the 1955-edition USGS topo revealed a stark discrepancy: the glacier surface now sits at an elevation approximately 165 m (or 540 feet) lower than previously indicated on the map.
The glacier’s reduction equates to a thinning rate of roughly 8 feet per year at this specific location since 1955. It’s essential to note that this is a ballpark estimate derived from comparing data from a USGS topo map with readings from a handheld hiking GPS. However, the figure is within a plausible range. For context, the nearby Gulkana Glacier experienced an average thinning rate of 0.31 m per year (approximately 1 foot per year) from 1974 to 1993. This rate increased to 0.96 m per year (around 3.14 feet per year) between 1993 and 1999 (Cox 2017). Given this data, it’s not implausible to expect even greater thinning at a single point situated deep within the glacier’s ablation area.
Given the significant amount of thinning, it becomes evident that the glacier’s reduced mass has tipped the balance. Now, in the contest between the massive Gakona and the meltwater streams from neighboring glaciers, the stream has finally claimed victory. It’s sad to think that that entire chunk of glacier south of the channel is essentially dead ice now, no longer moving with or fed from the glacier above, just left to melt over the coming years.
I’ve also attached a short video at the end of this post that includes a clip from this area.
After surveying and capturing as much of this area as I could on camera, I retraced my steps up the glacier. Due to the late hour and the weather constraints of a multi-day trip, I realized I wouldn’t be able to explore the glacier’s upper reaches as I’d initially hoped on this journey. I ventured further up the glacier, hoping to find a sizable water source to avoid relying on my stagnant lichen/algae-infused supply.
Of course, my water filter chose this location to simultaneously clog and spring a hole in the intake hose. It turned out to be an easy fix, as the hole was close enough to the end. I cut the torn section off and replaced it on the filter. A quick scrub and rinse on the carbon element, and it was good to go. Not long after, I was back to my second lovely campsite!
The total distance for the day, including the trek out on the glacier, was 9.54 miles, with 3,425 feet of elevation gain and a total descent of 3,851 feet. My legs and feet were starting to notice.
Day 3 – Wednesday
The Weather Be Changing
Upon waking, I instantly felt the atmospheric shift. The katabatic winds had subsided, replaced by a warm breeze flowing up the glaciers. The once-clear sky now sported a cloak of clouds, with ominous ones amassing behind the northern mountains. The previous night, Cat had updated me: while the forecasted timing for precipitation remained unchanged, the likelihood of rain had increased. Weighing my options, I resolved to attempt the entire hike out in one day, despite the silent protests of my weary legs and feet.
I managed to break down camp more swiftly than the day before. My priority was to cross the stream before the warmth of the day caused it to rise. With the dual challenges of evading both the stream’s waters and the looming rain, I was gripped by that ‘determined to get out of here’ sensation that can emerge, even during the most rewarding trips.
I found myself heading down the moraine by 8 a.m. What a difference it made for the stream crossing! It was a trickle compared to the day before. Beginning the first climbing stretch, I could already feel my legs were feeling a bit weak from the previous two days. Luckily, I wasn’t sore, just didn’t have all my strength back.
A bit of sunlight momentarily shone through the clouds as I exited the messy moraine. A last glimpse at those fading glaciers up high.
The remainder of my hike out was largely uneventful. Somewhere beyond my initial campsite, a solitary caribou crested the hill behind me, taking me by surprise with its proximity. It appeared to hesitate, weighing its next move, before finally deciding to press on. The last instance when a caribou approached me so closely, there was a bear tailing it. That memory made me momentarily anxious. However, after waiting a few minutes and observing the surroundings, it became clear that there were no other animals nearby.
The ascent out of Gunn Creek was grueling, to say the least. My pace was sluggish, averaging only about 1 mile per hour. But with sheer determination, I managed to crest the ridge just after 2 p.m. From there, it was all downhill. However, given the fatigue in my legs, the steep descents proved to be intense workouts for my quadriceps. I did get a few last nice views of the mountains and Hoodoos when the light hit them right.
In the end, I earned every bit of my Buffalo Center Drive-in Philly Cheese Steak in Delta Junction. It was an awesome trip, I can’t wait to get out there again and explore the upper reaches of the glacier and also document changes to that inlet stream.
Here’s a short video, a collection of a few of the clips, mostly from my phone.
I did, however, take a lot of photos. Here are the links to each day’s gallery, where you can also get prints or wall art: