Malaspina Glacier Backpacking Trip
There are few Alaska backpacking trips that are so uniquely Alaskan as a glacial traverse. And there are no glaciers like the Malaspina; an incredible sheet of ice nearly 1500 sq miles in area. The ice is up to 2000' thick, and in places about 1000' beneath sea level. We start this route in the Samovar Hills, on the northern edge of the ice, backpack across the glacier, and then backpack along the beach, on the shores of the Pacific Ocean.
- - Backpacking, dayhiking, packrafting and glacier hiking
- - Backpack from the mountains to the beach
- - Air taxi flight over the glacier
- - 9 nights, 3-4 nights camped on the ice
- - Spectacular views of Mt. St. Elias & the St. Elias range
- - Traverse the largest glacier in North America.
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Welcome to the Malaspina Glacier, largest glacier in North American. Welcome to Mt. St. Elias, the 2nd highest mountain peak in both Canada and the US. Welcome to the St. Elias Mountain Range, the world's tallest coastal range. Welcome to the largest National Park in the country. This is a big trip. We combine hiking, basecamping, glacier hiking and packrafting for a fantastic and exciting adventure.
Few people ever visit this area. In fact, I know of only one other time the route has been hiked, and I joined those folks on the end of that route. While it's true that most of the backpacking trips on this site are routes that receive very little visitation, this one is a different world, entirely. in spending nearly 2 full months in this area on various trips, I've not yet ever seen a single person from another group. Ever. Simply put, this is some remote solitude and wilderness you're not likely to find anywhere else.
The Malaspina Glacier
The glacier is formed by the intense weather that brings massive snow falls to the St. Elias Range. The force of all that ice together is enough to force the glacier to actually flow uphill across the coastal foreland, to its confluence with the ocean (contrary to most reports, the glacier DOES terminate at the ocean) . The glacier is actually a compound glacier, formed by the merging of 2 glaciers, the Agassiz to the west and the Seward to the east. East to west, the Malaspina Glacier is about 40 miles wide at its widest point, and not quite 30 miles "long", north to south, from its mountain beginnings to the shores of the Pacific Ocean.
The Saint Elias Range lies on the coast of western Canada (The Yukon Territories and British Columbia) and southeastern Alaska. Urgent tectonic forces have resulted in major uplift here, and the mountains are among the world's greatest. The highest coastal mountain range in the world, The St. Elias mountains are home to both Mt. Logan (19,551') and Mt. St. Elias (18,008'). With clear skies, we'll have view of both these peaks, as well as other peaks in the 13-15 000' range. They're an impressive backdrop for any outdoor adventure. At times, we'll be within a stone's throw of Mt. St. Elias, at less than 10 miles away.
We'll begin the route north of the glacier, in the Samovar Hills.* A few days of basecamping and dayhiking to explore the mountains here and find ourselves the best vantage point to view nearby Mt. St. Elias from; that is, less than 10 miles away rises the 2nd highest mountain in the country. A grand view.
From there we'll hike south, on to the Malaspina Glacier. Depending on weather and conditions, we'll aim to spend 3-4 nights on the ice, hiking and exploring this amazing glacier. We'll carry crampons or ice stabilizers for the ice; though much of the ice is fine to hike without them, they're useful on some stretches.
Once we reach the southern edge of the ice, we'll use packrafts to float the glacial outlet river to the beach. A short and easy paddle, these little boats have really changed the way we travel in the backcountry. They're amazing. Avoid the bushwhacks and scrambles and harder hiking and float the river. Camp on the beach, and then we follow the beach east a few days toward our pickup spot. The packrafts are invaluable again for crossing the few rivers and streams we'll encounter on the way here.
Who's this trip for?
Not for the faint hearted. It's not an easy hike, though much of it is not difficult. Some stretches are a little tougher though, with glacial moraine a main challenge. Walking over piles of rocks is very different to walking on groomed trails. Similarly, camping on ice requires a different set of skills, and some gear changes (see below); so pack weights will be higher than normal. Also, we'll be doing some packrafting, which means some level of comfort around water is requisite. Though it's easy paddling, if you've no paddling experience at all, this trip might be out of your comfort level.
For people who are comfortable in the backcountry, enjoy huge views, diverse and variable terrains, extreme solitude, and a challenge, this trip is ideal.
For most people, this trip involves gear you're not used to using; crampons or ice stabilizers, 2 sleeping pads (one hard cell pad like a Z rest, and an inflatable pad, or a thicker, insulated winter pad like the offerings by Exped; recommend the Downmat 7, or 9 for extra comfort), packrafts, etc. That means you'll have to be comfortable carrying a little more fear than you might be used to.
Expeditions Alaska can provide packrafts and paddling equipment, as well as glacier safety gear (ropes, ice screws, etc); but you'll need to bring a pair of crampons or ice stabilizers (see Kahtoola Micro Spikes). I'd also recommend at little extra warm clothing, etc for the few days we'll spend on the glacier; all that ice gets cold!
Lastly, because we'll be camping on the ice quite a bit, an alternative to tent stakes is required; a handful of guylines for your tent, long enough to tie it off to good-sized rocks, is the way to go.
This trip will begin in Yakutat. We'll depart via plane in the morning from Yakutat **, and fly directly in to the backcountry via a chartered air taxi. You'll need to have everything packed and ready for the backcountry when you arrive in Yakutat, do not plan on getting any last minute items in Yakutat, especially if you fly in that morning. Then we hit the backcountry, where we spend the next 8-12 nights exploring and hiking an incredible mix of geologic and ecological landscapes.
We start in the subalpine country of the Samovar Hills, above treeline, and scramble around the surrounding peaks to get an overview of the landscape, killer views of Mt. St. Elias and the Saint Elias mountain range, and look for wildlife; bears are reasonably common here. We go from the subalpine, across the glacier, on to the beach and walk along the sand and rocky shores of the Pacific Ocean, as well as hiking through stretches of the lush temperate coastal spruce forest, with massive Sitka Spruce trees towering overhead.
We fly back to Yakutat around lunchtime, shower, eat,say our goodbyes and then head back to Anchorage before nightfall.
* - As with all Alaska backcountry trips, weather conditions affect the decisions we make. All the best laid plans fall by the wayside with major changes in the weather; it's possible that even as late as August and September, we may not be able to fly in to the Samovar Hills due snowfall, etc. In that case, we'll take an alternate landing spot and route on to and across the glacier.
** - Your flight from Anchorage (or Juneau) to Yakutat is not included in the price for the trip.
Options are to either fly to Yakutat the night before our trip or starts, or catch the first flight out of Anchorage the morning of the trip departure. Some folks would rather get there a day early, and some would rather spend the night in Anchorage and fly to Yakutat that morning. This is what I recommend.
For the return leg of the trip, you can either fly back to Anchorage/Juneau that evening we come out of the backcountry, or overnight in Yakutat and fly out the following day.
Where are we?
East of Anchorage, almost to the Canadian border, in the southern reaches of Wrangell - St. Elias National Park and Preserve. The map below shows you the starting and ending points of the trip, and their location relative to Anchorage. Play around with the map, zoom in and out, and you'll get a better sense of the glacier, etc.
View Samovar Hills and Malaspina Glacier traverse in a larger map