Castner Creek to Castner Glacier

Posted by lwpetersen | February 12, 2015 | hiking, photo-blog, travel alaska
Sunrise over the Tanana - Along the Richardson Highway north of Delta Junction. We were on our way from Fairbanks to the Delta Mountains - Eastern Alaska Range.

I don’t usually start venturing into the Alaska Range until March. The temperature becomes a bit nicer, the snow is deeper and more supportive, and we have much longer days. But, Jenn decided to visit in early February, so I figured we could do a little touring and take in some sights around the Castner Glacier. During her summer visit, it rained for nearly two weeks and the clouds never broke. She never got the chance to really see the range. We had a great day hiking out on the Canwell Glacier, but the low cloud ceiling kept us from seeing much of anything.

This trip was different; nearly constant clear skies the whole time. And cold. Bitter cold.

Driving down the Richardson Highway on February 4th, we managed to catch a pretty spectacular sunrise over the Tanana River and Alaska Range. I love getting views like this en route to any destination. It makes for an epic trip before you even get started.

Morning light on Mt. Hayes - looking over the mostly frozen Tanana River.

Morning light on Mt. Hayes – looking over the mostly frozen Tanana River.

Snow came very late this year and the conditions have been pretty poor. I’ve heard numerous reports of weak layers and unstable snowpack in January. Very sadly, there was already a death from an avalanche in the area earlier this winter. I felt that our ambition for this trip should be purely the enjoyment of being outside, and our time spent exploring. We can save the big mountain adventures for another day.

Jenn snowshoeing up Caster Creek to the toe of the Glacier

Jenn snowshoeing up Caster Creek to the toe of the Glacier

There were no other cars in the Castner Creek pull-off and the only tracks were that of a meandering moose in the drainage. The car told us that the temperature was -20° F. We broke trail through the creek past a few open pits of water. There was already a light suncrust forming that made travel interesting. I’d only get about 3 or 4 good strides with my skis on the surface before a foot would punch through into deep, unconsolidated snow. Numerous times we heard the deep “whomping” of a snow layer collapsing under our feet and occasionally saw shooting cracks. Our decision to stay off and away from the slopes was probably a good one. Conditions can certainly be different on the mountains than on the flats, but I’ll give it another few weeks before trying.

Black Cap and White Princess from the Castner Creek.

Black Cap and White Princess from the Castner Creek.

It’s about a mile to the toe of the glacier from the road. Nearing the glacier some overflow started to appear on the surface. Pushing our way out of the drainage to stay dry we followed a gentle moraine to the top of the northern terminus of the Castner. That’s where the “type II” fun really started. Most of the tongue of the Castner is debris covered, very bumpy, and partially vegetated. There wasn’t much of a crust to ski on anymore so I frequently found myself knee to waist deep in snowdrifts and catching on the willows hiding just below the surface.

Wind blown snow dunes on the moraine. Wandering around on the Castner Glacier in winter.

Wind blown snow dunes on the moraine. The features are mostly due to rocky moraine. The deep snow was on the windward sides of the “bumps”.

We plowed and trudged our way southward on the glacier. On the southern lateral moraine there was a large ice cave. The last time I was here the western end of the cave had partially collapsed leaving large blocks of ice guarding the entrance. Summer water must have melted and carried away the junk creating an easy path to the icy arch.

Ice cave on the south side of the terminus of the Canwell Glacier

Ice cave on the south side of the terminus of the Canwell Glacier

We hiked down to the entrance. It was a really beautiful view looking through; the arch perfectly framing the peak of White Princess rising above a few ridges. It was getting to be later in the afternoon, the clouds were expanding, and the downglacier katabatic winds started to really pick up. Suddenly we started feeling cold. It was time to head back.

Ice cave from a water carved channel through the southern margin of the Castner Glacier. It collapses a little bit more every year and there's not much left to it now. More of an arch than a cave right now.

Approaching the ice cave

Looking at White Princess in the Alaska Range through an ice cave in the Castner Glacier.

Looking at White Princess through the ice cave

Lynx tracks traversing a moraine on the Castner Glacier into the Castner Creek drainage.

Lynx tracks traversing a moraine into the Castner Creek drainage.

Black Cap in the Shade, the Castner Glacier in the light

Black Cap in the Shade, the Castner Glacier in the light

We wound doing a 4 mile ski/snowshoe up the north side of the creek and traversed the toe of the glacier to the southern end.

Our trail in on the left, out on the right. And Jenn, there’s Jenn. Without a mask.

We really couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful day. Maybe a firmer snowpack would have been nice, but otherwise we had no major complaints.

More photos from this trip
More photos from the Castner Glacier and area

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How many hours did the whole hike take??

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