Spencer Glacier is one of many glaciers on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. It’s located 60 miles south of Anchorage and getting here during the summer requires a unique journey on the Alaska Railroad combined with a short hike.
If you’re planning to trip to Spencer Glacier this summer then you’re in the right place. I recently got back from an overnight backpacking trip to the glacier, so I’m going to tell you everything you need to know to visit Spencer Glacier!
- How Do You Get to Spencer Glacier?
- Portage to Spencer Glacier on the Alaska Railroad
- Hike Spencer Glacier Trail
- Camping at Spencer Glacier
- Paddling Spencer Lake & Placer River
- Spencer Glacier Tours
- Visit Spencer Glacier During Winter
- Spencer Glacier in Summer: Pros & Cons
How Do You Get to Spencer Glacier?
If you want to visit Spencer Glacier during summer (late May through mid-September), you’ll need to hop on the Alaska Railroad!
The Glacier Discovery Train travels from Anchorage to Grandview, with stops in Girdwood, Whittier, Portage, and Spencer Glacier. This means you can book the train to depart from any of these stops.
If you have your own vehicle and want to save money on your train ticket, I recommend driving to the Alaska Railroad Portage Depot to take the train from the ‘Portage 2nd Stop’ to ‘Spencer Whistle Stop’. Roundtrip fares from here are $85 for adults and $43 for children.
Spencer Glacier is only 10 miles away so the train journey from the depot to Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop takes about 20 minutes.
Spencer Whistle Stop Train Schedule
If you are driving from Anchorage, make sure to give yourself enough time to account for any summer traffic and construction along the Seward Highway. Plan to arrive at the Portage Depot by 1 p.m.
|Portage — Spencer Whistle Stop
|Spencer Whistle Stop — Portage
Spencer Glacier Trail Map
Portage to Spencer Glacier on the Alaska Railroad
Depart Portage Depot
After arriving at the Portage Depot, you can head inside the main building to pick up your train tickets if you don’t already have them. You do not need to pay for any parking here!
There are portable bathrooms around the back of the building that you can use. If you are planning on staying at the glacier overnight, you can drop your gear off in front of the ‘Bag Drop’ sign on the north side of the parking lot.
You can bring whatever you want on the train. Many people bring camping gear, firewood, pack rafts, kayaks, and bikes!
After loading you gear onto the train, you can head to the train car and seat listed on your ticket. If it’s not busy, you can just sit wherever you want.
The train departs the depot at 1:25 p.m. I sat on the left side of the train and the views out of the window were amazing!
Along the way up the Placer River Valley, the train will make one brief stop to load up the rafts that are used on the rafting tours down the Placer River.
Arrive Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop
You will arrive at the Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop around 1:45 p.m. If you loaded any bags onto the train, make sure to pick them up!
At the station, you will find bathrooms, shelter, and information signs. Definitely use the toilet here if you need to go.
Hike Spencer Glacier Trail
To the right of the bathrooms, you will find the trailhead for Spencer Glacier. From here, you have the option to explore on your own or go on a guided hike.
The trail is a wide, gravel path. It’s well-maintained, well-marked, and you could probably even push a stroller on it.
Spencer Glacier Guided Hike
During the summer, you can go on a guided hike with a Chugach National Forest Service Ranger. This is offered daily for train passengers. You will meet your guide at the trailhead sign to begin the hike shortly after the train arrives at the whistle stop.
This is a great option to learn about the glacier’s history and the surrounding area. Plus, if you’re on a day trip, your guide will ensure that you make it back to the train before it departs the whistle stop.
Mile 0.5 – Bridge to Glacier Discovery Trail
About half a mile into the hike, you will see a bridge across the Placer River. The Placer River bridge is 280 feet long and connects to the Glacier Discovery Trail. It smells like fresh wood here and it’s amazing!
This trail is only one mile long right now, but in the future it will connect to Bartlett Glacier, the Grandview Whistle Stop, and Trail Creek. You can read more about the hut-to-hut project in the Kenai Mountains here.
Mile 1.2 – Spencer Glacier Viewpoint
Continuing along the gravel path will lead you past the group campsite area to the Spencer Glacier Viewpoint. At the viewpoint, you will find a platform with a couple of benches that overlook Spencer Lake. This is a great place to hang out, eat a snack, or even read a book.
You can also walk to the edge of the glacial lake to get a closer look at all of the icebergs, which is what sets this glacier apart from the others in the area.
If you follow the trail about a quarter-mile past the viewpoint, you will come across the boat launch. If you are rafting down the Placer River, this is where you can put your boat in the lake.
Mile 2 – Spencer Bench Trail
Spencer Glacier Trail continues around the lake as it leads towards the overlook. Along the way, you will find a few scenic stops with benches, dispersed campsites, and the Spencer Bench Trail up to Spencer Bench public use cabin.
Spencer Bench Trail climbs about 1,800 feet in just 3 miles. It is rated strenuous, but it does follow switch backs on the way up.
🤫 Keep an eye out for morel mushrooms in this area…
Mile 3 – Spencer Glacier Overlook
If you continue to follow the Spencer Glacier Trail, you will pass by more dispersed campsites and eventually reach the Spencer Glacier Overlook.
We had to cross one creek overflow along the way and I was glad I was wearing my Xtratuf waterproof boots.
The views of the glacier from the overlook are pretty amazing, so if you have the time to make it all the way here then I recommend doing so.
Most people turn around at this point as it’s the end of the trail. However, if you’re experienced in glacier travel, I have seen people come out here with ice climbing gear.
If you’re on a day trip to Spencer Glacier, make sure to get back to the train depot by 4:20 p.m.
If you are returning to Girdwood or Anchorage, you can disembark the train at Portage for a motorcoach transfer (this will save you from a return trip to Whittier and about 2.5 hours of travel time).
Camping at Spencer Glacier
If you are planning an overnight backpacking trip to Spencer Glacier, you have three options fro camping: group campsites, dispersed campsites, or a public use cabin.
I definitely recommend spending the night out here if time allows!
The Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop has two developed group campsites that can be reserved through Alaska Railroad from June 1 to September 16.
Campsite A has capacity for 15 people and costs $65 per night. Campsite B has capacity for 10 people and costs $35 per night. Each campsite has to be reserved by one group. You can reserve both sites together if you need to or want exclusive use of the amenities.
Each campsite has its own bear-proof food locker but the general group use area, picnic table, and fire ring are shared between both sites.
To reserve a Spencer Glacier campsite, call Alaska Railroad reservations at +1 (800) 544-0552.
(Free) Dispersed Campsites
If you don’t want to pay for a campsite, there are three dispersed campsites around Spencer Lake, which are all first come, first served.
Each dispersed campsite has its own bear-proof food locker, fire ring, and pit toilet. You can find streams nearby if you need to filter water.
If you look at the trail map above, you will notice a couple of camping symbols marked before and after the turn off to Spencer Bench Trail. This is where you will find the dispersed camping areas.
The markers on the map aren’t the most accurate. The first dispersed campsite is really just around the corner from the boat launch. The area has great views of the glacier since it’s right next to the lake. It’s an open area but there are some scattered alders to help protect you from the wind. You can definitely fit A LOT of tents here.
The second dispersed campsite is accessed by a trail that splits off in the opposite direction of the lake. It is sheltered and there is no view here. Only a few tents can fit in this campsite.
The third dispersed campsite is just past the turn off to Spencer Bench Trail. The trail to the campsite splits off from the main trail and leads you into the woods. The views from this campsite, especially from the outdoor toilet, are pretty epic because it overlooks the lake and glacier.
I really loved the third site but we decided to go back to the first campsite for a few different reasons. First, we saw bear scat on the trail leading into the third site and we saw even more fresh bear scat further down the Spencer Glacier Trail. Secondly, there was a recent bear notice posted at the trailhead about a bear that rummaged through a campsite. Lastly, there was no one else camping in the area.
I’m glad we went back to the first campsite because we were able to enjoy an awesome campfire! There was a ton of driftwood on the shore of the lake that we collected.
Spencer Bench Cabin
Spencer Bench Cabin is a 15×17-foot cabin that sits at an an elevation of 1,900 and overlooks Spencer Glacier and the Placer River Valley.
It can be reached by hiking 5.4 miles one-way along the Spencer Lake Trail and Spencer Bench Trail.
The cabin sleeps up to eight people and is set up like any other public use cabin: wooden bunks, a table with benches, and an outhouse.
You can reserve the cabin year-round and it costs $85 per night. Keep in mind that winter and early summer season conditions can be challenging if there is a lot of lingering snow.
Reservations used to be made though Alaska Railroad, but this season you will finally be able to book the Spencer Bench Cabin on the Recreation.gov site!
It’s still going to be extremely competitive to book this cabin, but now you will be able to see current availability.
Paddling Spencer Lake & Placer River
Spencer Lake is an incredible place to paddle throughout the summer because of the icebergs that are scattered around the lake. You can explore the lake on your own when you bring your own boat.
The best time to paddle on the lake is in the early morning or late evening because the wind is lighter, which will make it easier to get across the lake.
Most people end up packing a lightweight pack raft so they can continue the adventure by floating down the Placer River.
The Placer River float is about 12 miles long and will take you 2 to 4 hours. You begin the float at Spencer Lake and then exit at the second Placer River Bridge.
The Placer River is considered Class I and Class II rapids. It’s said to be a good float for beginners, but I have heard numerous stories about people falling in on pack rafts around the early section of the river (near the railroad bridges). So, I recommend going with someone who has done it before!
Spencer Glacier Tours
From kayaking and rafting to snowmobile and helicopter tours, there are so many ways to visit Spencer Glacier year-round.
One of the most popular tours at Spencer Glacier takes you on a seven-mile float down the Placer River.
If you rather sit on a kayak and get up close with icebergs then book this tour!Still looking for a different tour? The main companies that offer tours in the area are Chugach Adventures, Ascending Path, and Alpine Air Alaska.
Visit Spencer Glacier During Winter
During the winter, the Alaska Railroad train route to Spencer Glacier isn't running. So, how do you get here in the winter? You have two options: 1) ride a fat tire bike to Spencer Glacier or 2) ride a snowmachine!
The winter trail is more than 22-miles roundtrip and starts at the second bridge over the Placer River. It will take you up the Placer River and onto Spencer Lake where you can bike around icebergs and closer to (but not too close) the face of the glacier.
Spencer Glacier is only accessible in the winter when the conditions are just right. Getting to the glacier requires Spencer Lake and the Placer River to be frozen over. This usually happens around January or February, but conditions are always changing. You can check the Anchorage Fat Bike Facebook Group for the latest trail conditions.
On top of that, the trail is best after its been packed down by snowmobiles. Once that happens, it's usually game on!
If you'd rather ride a snowmachine out to the glacier, you can book a tour with Alaska Wild Guides or Glacier City Snowmobile Tours.
Spencer Glacier in Summer: Pros & Cons
- Kid friendly? Yes! I saw a lot of kids and some that were backpacking up to the cabin. I would probably try to book one of the group campsites if camping with kids!
- Easy, flat trail. This is a nice perk when carrying a backpack full of gear.
- Not too busy! Okay, the train is packed, but most people are actually floating down the river. We camped on a Monday night and we were the only ones camping at a dispersed campsite!
- Expensive! I wish it was cheaper to ride the train into the area, but the free campsites help to offset the cost.
- Train times. Day trippers only have three hours to visit the glacier. Most people just hike to the viewpoint, but if you want to make it to the overlook at the end of the trail, you'll need to hike quickly!
- Bears. Luckily, we didn't see any, but we did see a lot of bear scat further down the Spencer Glacier Trail. Make sure to be bear aware, carry bear spray, and secure your food and gear!
Pin For Later
Do you have any questions on how to visit Spencer Glacier this summer? Let me know in the comments.