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Rating: 5 out of 5.

Alaska GuideInterior Hiking

Popular ForDay hiking, backpacking, mountaineering access
Roadside monument and glacier view
SeasonLate May – September (Snowshoe/Ski winter)
TypeOut-and-back
DifficultyEasy to Moderate (Rocky, partly off-trail)
Length6 miles roundtrip minimum, much more possible
Elevation Gain1300 ft (396 m) or more
Estimated Time2.5-5 hours (more time for exploring!)
LocationOff the Richardson Highway, mile-197

Gulkana glacier part trail, part route in red. map disclaimer

Overview

The Gulkana Glacier area has much to offer, including day-hiking possibilities, backpacking or mountaineering expeditions, or just a roadside view of the glacier on the drive between Valdez and Fairbanks. It’s located in a gorgeous landscape on the south side of the Alaska Range (Delta Mountains) near some spires known as the Hoodoos, just north of Summit Lake and Paxson.

The view of the Gulkana Glacier from the Richardson Highway | Purchase Print

The hike out to the glacier is approximately 7 miles out-and-back, is moderately steep in a few places on a dirt road, unmaintained trail, and interpretive trail. It’s not a difficult hike, but not something I recommend if you don’t have much experience hiking. The hike requires you to find your own trail for a bit, and the terrain can be challenging. If you don’t feel up to the full hike up to the glacier, you do get a good view of the glacier about 1.5 miles in from the unofficial trailhead, making for a fun 3-mile hike. Although, crossing College Creek (the approach to College Glacier) over the eery suspension bridge does prove to be somewhat nerve-wracking for some.

Long suspension bridge over College Creek in the Alaska Range along the hike to Gulkana Glacier
Looking down over water from suspension bridge

If you are feeling more adventurous, there are numerous mountaineering and glacier traverse from the Gulkana Glacier. The guidebook Delta Range: A Mountaineering Playground by Stan Justice is available in Fairbanks at Beaver Sports. It highlights many of the climbable peaks accessible by the Gulkana Glacier.

Training and Research Use

Because of the proximity to the highway, this area is frequently used by the military for training as well as by numerous educators and university researchers studying hydrology, glaciology, geology, climate and more. It’s fairly common to see any of these working or training along the way or out on the ice. The USGS has been conducting research here since the 1960s and there is a USGS Hut at the high reaches of the glacier built in 1968.

The Gabriel Icefall on the Gulkana Glacier

Directions

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.

An ice arch near the Gulkana Glacier
An ice arch at the terminus of the glacier

The Hike

The hike begins along the road. Continue north along Phelan Creek until you come to a junction with College Creek and bear a slight right at 1/4-mile from the summer trailhead. The suspension bridge will come into view on the left. Cross the bridge or ford the stream (can be dangerous). You might want to go one at a time to eliminate extra bouncing if the bridge is intimidating.

The rocky spires known as the Hoodoos in the Alaska Range near the Gulkana Glacier
View of the Hoodoos from the trail

The trail turns right and heads into the brush. There’s sometimes a couple of social trails here and they kind of meander in and out of each other. The idea is to head up to a small ridge just under 3800 ft in elevation. It shouldn’t be too hard to find the main trail. There are usually a few cairns once you get higher up.

Looking over the Gulkana Glacier in the Alaska Range
View of the glacier and Icefall Peak before descending to the creek bed

The trail eventually peters out. By now you should be mostly out of the brush. If it’s clear you should be able to see your destination, the glacier becomes visible. This could be a good turn-around point if you don’t want to venture too far. You can stay on the small ridge, slowly descending toward the creek, or drop into the creekbed. I don’t feel like one is necessarily better than the other. Go as far as you like and explore the area, it’s gorgeous. Keep an eye on your time, as you return the way you came.

Phelan Creek to Gulkana Glacier

If continuing on to the glacier, there will be a few stream crossings. Most can be stepped over fairly easily, you might get your feet wet on hot days when the snow is melting. You will most likely have a larger stream crossing to get on to the glacier on the southeastern moraine (at the margin). Be aware that this stream can change outflow rapidly based on melt or precipitation.

A hiker crossing streams to get to the Gulkana Glacier

If continuing on to the glacier, make sure you are familiar with glacier travel. You may want microspikes or crampons. Don’t travel on to the glacier on snow unless you are familiar with glacier travel and crevasse rescue. There are moulins and crevasses that are very dangerous, especially when snow-covered. Sadly a boy died while snow-machining on the glacier in 2016 when he fell 130 feet down a moulin in 2016. A very sad reminder that these beautiful places are quite unforgiving of mistakes.

A few other cautions, remember this is bear territory. Know what to do to avoid bear encounters and how to handle yourself in the event of one. Bring a GPS or map and compass and know how to use them. Especially in inclement weather, navigation can be difficult.

Thanks for reading! If you’ve recently hiked this trail, feel free to leave current trail conditions in the comments. Please make sure to include the date!

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Blog Comments

Hello! This hike looks like a lot of fun. My mom wants to do the bridge but has is not great physical shape and doesn’t get around great. (Bad knees, hip, etc) would the bridge be ok for her?

Hi Kristina, the bridge isn’t very physically demanding, but it does swing and the rungs are a bit far apart. It could be a bit challenging on stabilizer muscles. Unfortunately, you may not know unless she tries it. I know some people get a bit scared, especially if anyone else is on the bridge with them because of the swinging. Could always try a few steps and see. If not, could always have a nice walk along the river. It’s a beautiful area! Hopefully this helps a bit.

When did you last visit? I heard the bridge may be out?

I haven’t been this year. The last time I was there was June of last year. I haven’t heard that it’s out, I’ll have to start asking around. If you don’t mind, definitely let me know if you hear anything definitive, that could be a tough crossing with the amount of rain we’ve had this year and now the heat!

I’ve heard of people crossing it last week, and haven’t seen any notices from the Alpine Club. I’d be pretty surprised if it ever washed out, the supports are pretty high over College Creek unless something else happened. If I can’t find anyone that’s been down there in the last few days, maybe I’ll check it out this weekend.

I can confirm, the bridge is fine and the trail is in great shape and pretty easy to follow. Visited Saturday, April 22. I’ll update a few items in this guide later this week.

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