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|Popular For||Backpacking, day hike, mountaineering and skiing access|
|Difficulty||Moderate (navigation skills necessary – no trail, and uneven, steep terrain, possible dangerous stream crossings)|
|Length||8+ miles roundtrip (13 km) to glacier toe|
|Elevation Gain||1730 ft./527m|
|Region||Southside of Delta Mountains (Alaska Range)|
|Location||Off the Richardson Highway, mile-197|
College glacier hike in blue – Map disclaimer
College Glacier is a relatively short, receding, and thinning glacier in the Eastern Alaska Range near the Richardson Highway. It’s only about 2.5 miles long and is fed by two small accumulation areas. Access to the College Glacier begins at the same location as the Gulkana Glacier Hike. The hike to College Glacier is longer, more strenuous, and more challenging to navigate to than the Gulkana.
It can be hiked in summer and used for skiing access in the winter. The area is popular with snowmachiners, so there are sometimes packed trails in winter. However, extreme caution must be exercised in winter as the steep valley walls make parts of the approach avalanche terrain traps. Also, the glacier poses the danger of snow-covered crevasses and moulins. Knowledge of glacier travel and avalanche safety is necessary for winter travel. Also, expect increased travel distance (2-miles one-way) in winter due to the road only being plowed to the airstrip.
Like most areas in Alaska, this is bear country. There are plenty of places that a bear could be startled around corners and undulating terrain. Make sure to make noise and know what to do in a bear encounter!
The area is beautiful and is definitely quieter and more “tucked away” than the nearby Gulkana. The cirque is surrounded by tall mountains, rocky ridgelines, and icefalls.
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, there will be a gravel airstrip on the right. Please don’t park on the airstrip, it does get used. I know it seems obvious, but I’ve seen cars parked in the middle of it. The “trailhead is a few parking areas approximately another 2 miles in (4 miles total). Sometimes water or snow can prevent you from driving that far. Good four wheel-drive and clearance may get you in further.
College Glacier Hike
The hike begins the same as the Gulkana Glacier hike, following the dirt road north along Phelan Creek. The road/trail veers slightly east as you approach the suspension bridge over College Creek. Continue straight (east) along College Creek, don’t cross the bridge.
Follow College Creek for approximately 1-mile. Most of the time you can hike in the creek bed, but may be easier to hike on upper banks at times. After one mile the creek flows into a cliff-face, blocking the path. Sometimes the creek may be fordable, but it is usually fast-flowing and deep. A small drainage about 200 ft downstream from the cliff leads up to a small ridge that can be followed about 1/4 mile before descending back to some rocky hills above the creek bed. This area was surprisingly pretty in June, an oasis of wildflowers.
Keep following the creek, slowly gaining elevation. You’ll pass some “dead ice” remnants of the glaciers past extent. A small stream in the old moraine and talus-covered ice makes an easy path. There will be numerous stream crossings, some may be quite wide and swift during periods of fast melt.
Approaching the glacier may be tricky as a large, steep medial moraine blocks the approach to the toe. Crossing a large stream exiting the glacier to gain the moraine may be a decent approach, but note this will be different year-year or even day-day. Don’t venture out on to the snow and ice unless you are familiar with glacier travel. There are many large moulins and crevasses, as well as deep water channels that are often snow-covered.
The lower reaches of the glacier are reasonably steep, gaining elevation quickly. There are few crevasses, but there are large moulins. About 3/4 of a mile up (5200 ft elevation) the terrain levels off, and there are some more significant cracks, especially on the east side of the lateral moraine. Obviously, the cracks get bigger as you approach the icefalls and mountainsides. For information on climbing and skiing, refer to Delta Range: A Mountaineering Playground by Stan Justice.
If you have recently hiked or skied in the area, feel free to leave info on river, trail, or snow conditions in the comments! Thanks for reading!