Castner Creek to Castner Glacier

Snowshoeing to the Castner Glacier Ice Cave

Looking for a hiking guide to the Castner Glacier?

I don’t usually start venturing into the Alaska Range until March. The temperature becomes a bit warmer, the snow is deeper and more supportive, and we have much longer days. But, my friend 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 see the range without fog and clouds. We had a great day hiking out on the Canwell Glacier, but the low cloud ceiling kept us from seeing much of the mountains.

This trip was different, nearly endless clear skies the whole time. And cold. Bitter cold.

Winter Sunrises

While 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.

Mt. Hayes viewed from the Richardson Highway over the Tanana River
Mt. Hayes from the Richardson Highway | Purchase Print

Snow came very late this year, and the snow conditions have been pretty poor. I had 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 big mountain adventures for another day.

Snowshoeing up Castner Creek toward the Castner Glacier
Snowshoeing Castner Creek

The Hike

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 sun crust 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 undoubtedly be different in the mountains than on the flats, but I’ll give it another few weeks before trying.

Mt. Blackcap and White Princess looming over the Castner Glacier and Castner Creek.
Blackcap and White Princess | Purchase Print

It’s about a mile to the toe of the glacier from the road. Nearing the glacier, we saw some overflow 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 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.

Snowy terminus of the Castner Glacier
Snow “waves” on the Glacier | Purchase Print

Ice Arch

We plowed and trudged our way southward on the glacier. On the southern lateral moraine, there was a giant 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.

Looking down at an ice cave on the Castner Glacier
The ice cave from above | Purchase Print

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

Layers of rock in the glacier ice from inside an ice cave
Stratified layers of rock in the ice cave | Purchase Print
Looking through an ice arch on the Castner Glacier
Looking through the arch | Purchase Print
Looking at White Princess through the arch | Purchase Print
Lynx tracks in the snow over Castner Creek
Lynx tracks over Castner Creek | Purchase Print
Clouds over Mt. Blackcap and the Castner Valley
Clouds roll in over Blackcap
Snowshoeer in Castner Creek

We couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful day. Maybe a firmer snowpack would have been nice. Otherwise, we had no significant complaints. Once our feet warmed up.

More photos from this trip

Castner Glacier Gallery

Outside in the Interior – Second Edition

Absolutely the best guidebook to hiking in the Fairbanks area. Suggested hikes in the Delta Mountains, Kesugi Ridge near Denali, White Mountain National Recreation Area, Chena River State Recreation Area and more!

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How many hours did the whole hike take??

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