If you’re looking for glacier hikes in Wrangell St. Elias National Park, the Root Glacier trail is the one to beat! This quick hike near Kennecott gives some of the most majestic glacial views I’ve ever seen in Alaska.
Getting to the trail is an adventure in itself, which makes it such a fun trip. In this post, I’m going to tell you everything you need to know to hike Root Glacier Trail in Alaska.
Hike Root Glacier Trail
- Drive carefully on the McCarthy Road (flat tires are common)
- Take the McCarthy shuttle or bring a bike
- Watch out for bears
- Bring crampons to hike on the glacier
- Wear waterproof boots
- Eat at The Potato in McCarthy
How to Get to Root Glacier Trail
To get to Root Glacier, you will have to get to Kennecott, an abandoned mining town within Wrangell St. Elias National Park. It’s 311 miles away from downtown Anchorage and will take you around 7 hours to drive there.
The drive is scenic and worth doing on your own. However, if you are unable, you can hop on a shuttle from Anchorage to McCarthy instead.
Driving Directions From Anchorage:
- From Anchorage, head north on the Glenn Highway
- Exit towards Palmer and continue along the Glenn Highway to Glennallen
- Turn right at the Richardson Highway
- Continue south and turn left at the Edgerton Highway and drive to Chitina
- Continue through Chitina and follow McCarthy Road
- The road ends at the Kennicott River, just to the west of McCarthy
McCarthy Road is a 59-mile-long gravel road and drivers should be cautious of poor road conditions. Since the road was built on an old railway, it is common to find rail ties sticking out of the road, which causes a lot of flat tires. It may take you two to three hours to drive this road.
If you are renting a car, make sure to check road restrictions. Some rental companies don’t allow you to drive on certain roads in Alaska.
Once you reach the end of the road, you can park in the designated areas according to posted signs near the footbridge. Free parking is limited, but there is more parking and camping available on private property, for a fee.
Here you will also see the McCarthy Information Station. Once you park, go inside the station to find more information about the area. You can also purchase shuttle tickets here. The shuttle runs regularly during the summer season. It costs $5 USD each way and takes 15 minutes. I would suggest taking the shuttle unless you have a bike with you.
Crossing the footbridge
After you leave the information station, you will walk over the McCarthy footbridge. It’s the only way into the town of McCarthy. And well, it beats swimming!
On the other side of the footbridge is the town of McCarthy. You can stop here on your way back to your car. It’s worth a visit and I recommend eating at The Potato for some really tasty spuds.
McCarthy to Kennecott Shuttle
The shuttle takes you from McCarthy all the way to Kennecott. You can even bring your dog on the shuttle with you, how cool is that. If you don’t take the shuttle, you will have to walk along the road for four miles to get to Kennecott.
After riding in the shuttle for 15 minutes, you’ll be dropped off in Kennecott near the Kennecott Visitor Center.
Walking Through Kennecott
After you get dropped off, you can take some time to explore the abandoned mining town. There are various buildings with exhibits on display. You can learn a lot about the history of this National Historic Landmark by walking around.
After you leave the Kennecott Visitor Center, and walk through the mill and town buildings, you will head north to make your way to the Root Glacier Trail. The road will split and you’ll want to take the left-hand trail. You will cross over Bonanza Creek and follow the lateral moraine down to the toe of the glacier.
After about a mile, the trail curves uphill to the right. You will soon cross over Jumbo Creek on a footbridge. Continue for another 1/4 mile and the trail will reach the Root Glacier access trail.
The initial part is steady uphill, but the challenging part is when you begin going up and down the lateral moraine and then the rock-covered edge of the ice field while trying to get to the exposed ice. The footing can be tricky, so be careful.
Jumbo Creek Camping
If you’re planning on staying overnight in Kennecott, skip the lodge. Jumbo Creek Campground is a free campsite that’s just 1.5 miles from the heart of Kennicott.
This camping area has no amenities. It can only be reached on foot, which means that you will need to hike in and out 1.5 miles each day if you decide to camp here.
Water is available from nearby streams (it should be treated before drinking) and there are bear boxes for storing food. Unfortunately, pets are not allowed here.
There is so much to explore in the area, so this is a perfect place to camp.
Exploring Root Glacier
Soon, you will reach the incredible, exposed glacier. If you decide to walk on the glacier, use extreme caution. The ice can be very slippery and dangerous. You should definitely bring crampons with you, so you can really explore the area. Make sure to stay away from crevasses and the edges of the glacier.
If you are inexperienced hiking on glacier terrain, you may want to consider going on a guided trip. It’s not necessary but you may find it worthwhile, plus you can learn so much more about a place when you go with a guide.
We walked around Root Glacier for quite a while. I loved seeing all of the different glacial formations and the pools of turquoise water in the many exposed crevasses. Crampons were the only way we were able to get around the glacier easily.
Beyond the Glacier
Just beyond Root Glacier is a 7,000-foot vertical wall of ice, called the Stairway Icefall. If you continue along the trail for two more miles, you will see the Erie Mine bunkhouse high above the hillside to the right and the Stairway Icefall is further up the valley.
There are more places to camp in this area. It’s not a traditional campground, so you’ll have to get a little creative when you pitch your tent. But the views are worth it!
Root Glacier Trail Safety
Glaciers are unpredictable and conditions can change fast. The best thing to do is to bring the right gear. Make sure you have a pair of crampons to pack with you because they will definitely make a better experience. Always avoid the crevasses and edges of the glacier.
You’ll also want to be bear aware. Pack bear spray and use the bear boxes that are available to store your food away.
If you make it further down the trail and decide to get back onto the glacier, you should do some backtracking. If you hike in from the side of the moraine, the rocks may come down on you.
Otherwise, you’re really in for something special when you hike to Root Glacier. It’s definitely one of my favorite glaciers to visit in Alaska. Don’t forget to check out the town of McCarthy when you make your way back.
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