In a word, varied. In two words, really varied.
You’ll walk easy sections of wide open tundra and you’ll walk a few tougher sections (see “How Hard Is It?” below). Just as you begin to feel that you’ve got it dialed, the terrain changes yet again. You hike though another terrain and experience a different landscape yet again.
This breaks up your rhythm. Expeditions Alaska guide John Calder suggests this variation is a part of what makes it a challenging route; “You don’t find a groove; you get a pattern going, the terrain changes and it breaks and changes again. And again. And again.”
This keeps you engaged and focused, but is also more taxing than you might expect.
Think “full of surprises”. It’s remarkable just how much these ice floes change year to year, even month to month.
They’re fascinating. Moulins, deep, steep holes that sink downward out of site keep you wondering. Crevasses are visible (and hence avoidable) as the ice will be snow free by mid-summer months at this elevation. The ice can be slick though in wet weather. We’ll bring some form of ice gripper (see “Trip FAQs below“).
The toughest sections of glacier hiking are typically the entrance and exit. Walking on the ice the easy part. Getting on to and off of the ice is often more of a challenge. Careful route-finding and a little scouting go a long way. You’ll be thankful for having an experienced guide here.
Glacier landscapes typically don’t have abundant wild animals in them. Ice and rock isn’t productive sustenance for most critters. For a variety of reasons though wildlife seem to do well here.
Over the years I’ve seen moose, mountain goats, grizzlies and black bears, wolves, wolverine, foxes, weasels, marmots, ground squirrels, pikas here. Not all at once. Don’t expect high population densities of species and animals at every corner. But keep your eyes peeled and you just might get to spot some cool animals forging about the mountains here.
You’re not terribly high here. The highest pass we backpack through is about 6600′.
But the extent of the mountain range is impressive. Scramble up a nearby peak on a clear day and you’ll be astonished at just how far these mountain peaks continue. This is what infinite feels like.
Is This Trip A Match With You?
Who’s This Trip For?
This is wild Alaska. You’ll find solitude, adventure, wilderness and more.
Well-suited for the intermediate to experienced backpacker, our adventure involves some moderate to strenuous hiking as well as bushwhacking through stands of alder and willow. It also rewards the hiker with a truly wilderness experience.
Some sections can be tranquil with modest hiking. A few sections require more effort. Expect the unexpected. My experience here can help make this trip an adventure rather than a chaotic Trail of Tears.
You’re looking for a challenging trip, not an “easy” walk. You should be someone not intimidated by big wild country and new experiences. Be comfortable with a fluid, changing plan. We’ll do better to adapt to our immediate circumstances than try to force our preconstructed schedule onto a rather unforgiving mountain range and several miles of ice.
I recommend reading over the Choosing Your Trip page for more info on what to consider in your decisions.
How Hard Is It?
Moderate – Strenuous.
Approximately 35-40 miles and the terrain can be challenging at times.
This trip is really awkward to gauge a difficulty rating for. Terrain is an impossible to thing to vette for.
I’ve led novice backpackers on this route who did fine and I’ve guided experienced, in-shape hikers who struggled with it.
This trip has some challenging sections. A couple of steep climbs, but nothing too arduous. One long day to cross the glacier will be challenging for most folks. By taking a couple days longer than necessary to do the hike we should be able to mitigate those challenges somewhat and have a few easier days along the way.
The most challenging terrain for folks on this trip is the seemingly endless stretches of boulders and rock to traverse. Walking across glacier moraine and/or talus is tough for hikers with little off trail experience.
We do have some brush (willow and alder) to bushwhack through, but only a short distance. For a hike of this distance, I rate the bushwhacking minimal.
Some people have no problem with boulder fields and brush and moraine and other people struggle with steeper sidehills.
Much of the route is not terribly difficult. But it does have its moments. That’s one reason I tend to allow a bit more time for this hike than most people think they’ll require.
This link offers a bit more info on difficulty ratings.
Why Do We SO Love This Hike?
I can’t think of another hike that covers quite the diversity you’ll experience on this route. Glaciers, mountains, tundra, wildlife and several simple amazing subalpine passes. And how about Iceberg Lake itself? The lake disappears and reconfigures itself annually; the geologic term is jökulhlaup (pronounced joukaloupe).
Did I mention how incredible the campsites are here? I don’t always use the same campsites on each trip. There are so many simply fantastic campsites in this region. We camped within a few hundred of a massive calving glacial ice wall last summer. Next summer, we’ll see where we land.
“Carl does all the thinking and work for you, which is great! When you are tired, hungry, burned out and just don’t want to use your brain anymore, Carl is there to figure things out. Where to camp for the night, when and where to ‘crock up’ and cross a river, and when it’s safe enough to eat a snack when a bear is off in the distance. And he prides himself on being drama free!” – Amy D
The Iceberg Lake to Bremner Mines backpacking trip in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is incredible. Like all the trips we run, the itinerary is somewhat fluid. Weather, hiker experience and many other factors determine the actual trip. For simplicity sake, let’s assume the trip dates are Aug 1 – Aug 10. Realize everything here is simply an example. I’ve actually completed this trip in 5 days, and I’ve also spent 12 days doing this route. I feel an 11 day trip is about perfect for this route –.
Trip participants should arrive in Anchorage no later than the evening before our schedule trip departure date. For our example, the Trip would require all participants arrive in Anchorage sometime on July 31. I highly recommend you try to arrive even a day earlier is at all possible, to allow for flight delays resulting from weather. Expeditions Alaska does not provide, but can recommend, accommodation in Anchorage.
Your guide will pick you up, from your accommodations in Anchorage first thing in the morning. The exact time will depend on how many people are on the trip, where everyone is staying, etc. Typically it will be somewhere around 8am, Alaska time (4 hours behind EST).
We’ll spend the day traveling to McCarthy, Wrangell – St. Elias National Park. The drive typically takes about 8 hours, depending on stops, etc. We pass along the northern edge of the spectacular Chugach Mountains, following the Matanuska Valley, the open taiga forest of the Glennallen area. For lunch, we try to stop at the Golden Spruce Cabins, near Kenny Lake. The remaining leg of the drive is slow on the McCarthy Road, a 60 mile gravel road along what used to be the Rail Line in to McCarthy from Chitina. We should get some great views of the Copper and the Chitina River at the start of this leg. if the weather is favorable, we will also get great views of Mount Blackburn, Mount Wrangell, Mount Drum and Mount Sanford as pass by.
The final leg of the trip is through the boreal spruce forest of the Wrangell – St. Elias National Park’s lower elevations, before arriving at McCarthy. We don’t actually arrive at McCarthy, rather we arrive close to McCarthy. The road for public traffic ends at the footbridge over the Kennecott River, about 1/2 mile from McCarthy. We’ll stay in the rustic Kennicott River Cabins about 100 yards back up the road. For dinner we have several options in McCarthy, such as the Golden Saloon, or our favorite, The Potato.
The following morning we’ll need an early start. Pack up gear, shuttle it over the footbridge and into McCarthy, eat breakfast Ma Johnson lodge, and then walk over the road to Wrangell Mountain Air. We fly from McCarthy to Iceberg Lake, in the southern region of the park. This flight takes you over some of the most amazing landscapes anywhere, over the Tana and Chitina Rivers and the immense flatlands of Wrangell – St. Elias NP, deep into the Chugach Range. Iceberg Lake lies at the northern end of the Bagley Icefield, and the terrain here is incredibly diverse yet unique. Glaciers, icefields, icebergs, moraines, mountains, marshes and a rich abundance of wildflowers create a myriad of landscapes for the visitor here. A bush pilot once said to me as we left McCarthy and headed to Iceberg Lake “Are you ready for a trip to Antarctica?” and with good reason. The place really is that different from anywhere else I’ve ever been. Once we land, we’ll hike south away from the lake a little ways and find a campsite. There are many to choose from, and it’s always a treat to set up camp below a massive tumbling glacier or beside a clear alpine tarn. After setting up camp, we’ll day hike back towards the lake and explore the area down towards the glaciers, at the lake’s southern end. We could hike all day and still just barely scrape the surface of this area.
After breakfast and a few last photos of the area, we’ll break camp and head north up the valley. Here we have a few options for routes, and we’ll see how everyone feels as to which one we take: up over the first glacier, or across a small creek and up to a small plateau on a ridge, with amazing views back down the valley over Iceberg Lake and the Chugach Range, with one of the bluest alpine lakes I’ve ever seen.
We break camp and follow the valley westward, towards the Bremner Glacier. This is a classic alpine valley, lush green grasses, wildflowers, broad open landscape with the sweeping Bremner Glacier in the distance. The walking is easy, and everyone enjoys this area. As we approach the end of the valley, we veer right and ascend up the ridge into a small saddle between this valley and the next. Through the pass we’ll start to descend into the next valley, and find a place to camp here. There are 2 beautiful tarns, or lakes, up in the pass, and if the weather’s warm, they can provide a refreshing place to cool off for the brave.
The tough day. We hike out of the valley, around the ridge, and then start a descent to the Tana Lobe of the Bremner Glacier.This is a steep climb down, but with we at least manage to stay out of the thick alder groves that cover much of the area. Finally we hit the valley floor, cross a moraine, and climb up onto the Glacier. Here the walking’s easy. We’ll cross the glacier, checking out some of the largest boulders, or erratics, I’ve ever seen. Some are bigger than a 2 story house.The glacier is always changing and never fails to provide something new and all kinds of cool interesting things to check out, from crevasses, to the weird and wonderful shapes of the ice melt. Once we cross the glacier, the work begins. We climb up off the ice, over the moraine, and then climb up a steep ridge. It’s not terribly far, and takes an hour or so, but it’s a tough hike. The view from up high is well worth the effort though, and once we start to descend, everyone’s glad to hit camp, down by a crystal clear mountain stream. If your trip is in August, there’s a great chance you’ll find all the blueberries and more that you could want to eat. They definitely make the oatmeal a treat in the morning.
Today we’ll continue northward, up the valley. It’s not a tough climb, but the first section of the hike is through some thick alder that will slow us down. We cross 2 small streams, pristine alpine creeks, that make a great swimming hole if the weather’s cooperating. Then we’ll head westward up through one of the neatest little mountain passes of any trip. Right in the pass we’ll camp by a deep clear blue tarn, surrounded by steep craggy peaks that tower over the campsites. For the adventurous, we can do an afternoon hike back up to Triple Pass, backup the main valley we came up earlier. Or, if depending on how many we schedule for this particular trip, we may even take a day off, camp 2 nights in our pass, and spend a day exploring the Triple Pass area and over towards Allie’s Valley.
A short day, we’ll descend out of the pass, and walk out on another broad open valley beside a small stream. We can camp down by the creek, or head south into another valley and camp up higher. It’s a short easy day, and a good one to take the afternoon off for a day hike or 2, and explore some of the valleys and passes nearby.
We cross Monahan Creek, and then start the climb up to the highest pass on the route. It’s a steep climb, but when clamber up on to the top of the ridge at nearly 7000′, the view will be sure to make you forget about how hard you worked. It’s simply jaw-dropping to stand there and have a view for miles, with countless peaks visible. We’ll either camp up high on the ridge, or, if the weather’s adversarial, we’ll scramble down a talus slope, and camp by a small lake. The steep walls of the rocky ridges here tower over the campsite, and often at night you’ll hear rock falls across the lake.
We’ll have a short hike out of the valley, down a creek, and then back up Ptarmigan Creek to the Bremner Mines landing strip. The National Park Service have restored a cabin here, and it’s available for public use, so we’ll get to spend our final night in relative comfort, as well as spend some time hiking up around the old mines, and looking at some of the old cabins and shacks and mining machinery left over from when the area was mined.
After breakfast we’ll hike down to the landing strip for our pickup, and flight back to McCarthy. In McCarthy we’ll shower and change, then, for those who want to, we will head up to Kennecott and look around there. Lunch and dinner in McCarthy. We can have lunch at the Kennecott Lodge or bring it with us. In the evening we’ll return to McCarthy, have dinner, and again either camp on the river or stay at Kennecott River Cabins.
We’ll get up early, have breakfast in McCarthy, then hit the road for the drive back to Anchorage. Typically we get back to Anchorage around 5 or 6 pm. I’ll drop you and you/r party off at your Anchorage accommodation. I highly suggest you don’t plan on flying out of Anchorage that evening, but wait until the following day – we CAN experience weather-delays in the backcountry that could easily make it difficult to get back to Anchorage in time for a flight on this day. If you must book your return flight on this day, please (a) speak with me about it well in advance, and (b) schedule a red eye, such as 1:00am the following morning (Aug 9, 1:00am, for our example here).