Imagine walking over a glacier, listening to the ice move beneath you, and seeing bright blue glacial pools! If this sounds like a dream to you, then you need to hike the Root Glacier trail in Wrangell-St Elias National Park in Alaska. This remote trek is one of the most memorable✨.
Root Glacier is a vast glacier, but it is also one of the most accessible. For many glaciers, you have to take a helicopter or a tour to get there. But, you can get to this beautiful formation after just a 3 mile hike 🥾 (one way) out to the backcountry. You need to add this to your bucket list.
We did this hike on our travels through Alaska and we even jumped into the freezing glacial pools 💦! Walking over the freezing ice with mountains all around us felt surreal. This was one of my favorite hikes that I have ever done.
Read below for my comprehensive guide to taking the Root Glacier Trail. You’ll find directions on how to get there, a complete packing list, and Root Glacier trail description.
You Might Also Like These Posts:
- Complete Guide to the Alaska Highway
- An Unforgettable Day Hike: Reed Lakes Trail
- A Thrilling Tour: Matanuska Glacier Ice Climbing
- An Incredible Landscape: Guide to the Harding Icefield Hike
Disclaimer: There are some affiliate links in this post. I may get a small commission if you use them, at no extra charge to you. Thanks for your support!
Table of Contents
Root Glacier Trail Guide
Quick Hike Info
Distance: 5-6 miles
Elevation: Roughly 100 feet of gain
Type: Out and Back Trail
Length: 3-5 hours total (depends on how much you want to explore)
Difficulty: Hard (you have to walk on steep portions of glacier)
Root Glacier Trail Location
Root Glacier is in Wrangell-St Elias National Park, which is the largest national park in the country. It’s located in the Eastern part of Alaska. It’s about an hour from Valdez and two hours from Tok, Alaska.
Most of the park is inaccessible by cars or foot. Instead, you’d have to view it from the air ✈️. There are two roads to get into this park: Nabesna Road & McCarthy Road, that will get you to different areas of the park.
The Root Glacier trailhead is located in the McCarthy section of the park, past the Kennicott Mines. In order to get there you will have to drive 60 miles 🚗 down the rough McCarthy road and then take a shuttle to Kennicott.
How to Get to the Root Glacier Trail
Getting to the Root Glacier Trail is no easy feat. In order to get to the trail, you’ll need to drive 2 hours down the rough 60 miles of McCarthy Road, then walk across a footbridge 👣, and finally take a shuttle to get to the Kennicott Mines National Historic area.
McCarthy Road is known for being rough with potholes, frost heaves, and some old railroad spikes 😲. So, driving down this road will take about two hours. Once you get to the end you can park at the parking area for $10.
Then, you’ll walk across the footbridge and you can choose to walk into McCarthy (.75 miles) or take the free shuttle which runs every 30 minutes. Once you get to McCarthy you’ll need to take another shuttle 🚌 up to Kennicott. We chose to break this up by grabbing lunch in McCarthy at the potato.
For those who want even more exercise, you can walk the entire way up from McCarthy. But, this will add about 4 miles to your hiking time!
Best Time to Hike the Root Glacier Trail
The best time to hike to Root Glacier is in the summertime ☀️, otherwise this trail is pretty much inaccessible. The road to McCarthy is unmaintained, which means that it’s truly only open once the snow clears, which is usually around the month of June.
So, it’s best to hike this trail between the months of June and August.
Alaska is known for being cold for most of the year and Wrangell-St Elias is no exception. June is usually the warmer of the months with less rain 🌧, while July and August are a little more rainy. Highs can get into the 70s (Fahrenheit) and the lows in the summer usually hover in the 50s.
Things to Know Before You Go
💵 There is no entrance fee to get into Wrangell-St Elias National Park. However, you will need to pay for parking at the McCarthy footbridge if you want to get into McCarthy. The fee is $10 at the official parking.
☀️ Weather changes quickly in the mountains. Rain is frequent in this area, so just be prepared with waterproof layers and proper foot wear.
⛺️ Wrangell-St Elias has a few primitive campgrounds: Copper River 1.5 miles into McCarthy Road and Jumbo Creek which is 1.5 miles past the Kennicott Mill. You can also pay to park overnight by the Kennicott footbridge.
🦮 Unlike most national parks, pets are permitted on the trails, on the McCarthy shuttle, and in the backcountry. However, they must be leashed and you need to pick up after them.
🚙 You can find parking by the Kennicott footbridge, it is very easy to find. There are plenty of signs that will direct you to the parking lots and you cannot drive farther.
⚠️ Roads are not maintained in the winter and most stores are closed in McCarthy until the summer. It is not advised to hike to Root Glacier before then.
🍃 Remember to follow the Leave No Trace Principles. As always, you want to leave nature looking better than you found it.
Root Glacier Trail Description
Stroll Kennicott Mines
Once you’ve gotten off the shuttle at Kennicott, you’ll need to walk through the mine town to get to the trailhead. It’s really cool to walk through the most famous ghost town 👻 in Alaska. You’ll have the chance to look into the mines and read the signs.
These mines were originally a huge sign of technical innovation and growth ⚒️. In this town, you can see both the mill and the mines that helped their economy. However, by 1938 these mines had completely been shut down and the town was abandoned.
If you have more time, you can even take a tour of these mines before or after you go on the hike! Unfortunately, we didn’t get the chance, but we will definitely do it when we go back.
Through the Forest
Once you pass through town, you’ll get to the trailhead for the Root Glacier town. From there, you’ll walk through the forest 🌳 for about 1.5 miles. It’s a very scenic walk as you’ll be surrounded by lush trees and soon you’ll get views of the glacier to your left.
You’ll also pass by a rushing waterfall. This part of the trail is relatively flat and is not too difficult. But, after 1.5 miles you’ll get to a sign for the Glacier access 🪧 and this is where things get trickier.
Down to the Glacier
Turn left at the sign for the glacier access and then you’ll walk immediately downhill. This is a relatively steep descent down a rocky part 🪨 of the glacier, but you won’t need your crampons yet.
Continue down the rocky path, over the steps, and around the bend. You’ll notice as the rocks/dirt start to disappear and the icy 🧊 part of the glacier begins. When you get to this part, you should put on your microspikes to continue.
From there, you’ve made it onto the Root Glacier! You can walk up just a few hundred feet to get amazing views 🤩 of the glacial formations or you can continue to enjoy your glacier exploration. It’s amazing to see the glacier structures and the pools that form in the glacier, just be careful and stay away from edges.
This is one of the coolest hikes 😱 that I have ever done and you should spend some time exploring this natural wonder before heading back!
Packing Guide for the Root Glacier Trail
Hikers visiting this trail should pack layers! On the initial trail, we got extremely hot and I ended up shedding everything down to just a T-shirt 👚. But, as soon as we got to the glacier it got very cold and I started putting all my layers back on!
Also, if you plan on hiking on the glacier itself, then you should pack microspikes. These will help give you traction on the glacier, but if you are going with a guide they will most likely provide those. You can check on your guide’s website.
Root Glacier Packing Guide
- Comfortable Hiking Boots
- Small Pack
- Hiking poles
- 1-2 Liters of Water
- Snacks and Food
- First Aid Kit
- Bug Spray
- Winter Hat
- Rain jacket or light winter jacket
- Satellite phone
FAQ About the Root Glacier Trail
Should you get a guide for the Root Glacier Trail?
Walking on glaciers can be dangerous ⚠️ if you do not know what you’re doing. Plus, Glacier trekking guides will share things about the glacier that you may not know or notice. Officials will recommend that you take a guide to explore the glacier and they will provide a lot of beginner hiker tips.
That being said, you do not NEED a guide if you just plan on hiking to the glacier and not doing that much exploring. We saw many groups including ourselves that did not have any guides. If you do not have one, you need to be extra careful and stay away from any ledges or crevices in the ice!
Root Glacier Trekking Tour Companies:
Do you need 4WD to Get to McCarthy?
No, you do not need 4WD to make it to McCarthy. Although this road can be rough with plenty of frost heaves, railroad spikes, and potholes 🕳, it is still driveable in most cars. We even made it to McCarthy in our 2WD Ram Promaster.
Over the years, the park service has tried to improve the conditions on the road and have removed many of the railroad spikes along it. However, you will want to take your time and go slowly as you make your way down this road. It took us just over 2 hours ⏱ to arrive to McCarthy from the beginning of the road.
Should I explore McCarthy?
McCarthy is an adorable remote town, which is only lively in the summertime. But, it’s a great place to spend time walking through or to grab food. There are a few shops and restaurants in the town, as well as a lively bar!
Most people love this town and completely agree ❤️! It’s got a lot of charm and it is so fun to explore. We got food at the Potato on our way up and ice cream at the General Store on the way down. I recommend both!
Is it safe to swim in the Glacial Pools?
Swimming in cold waters like those in the glacial pools is not considered safe and you should know the risks ⛔️⛔️ before getting in the water.
In order to do it safely, you should slowly lower yourself into the water instead of jumping in. If you jump in, you risk your body going into shock 🥶. Always have someone else with you that can pull you out and help if anything goes wrong.
Despite the risks, many Alaskans and visitors have jumped into these pools over the years. It is an experience that I will never forget! Just make sure you have plenty of warm clothes to bundle in after your cold plunge.
Final Tips for Hiking the Root Glacier Trail
Now that you’ve read this complete guide, you should be prepared to do ice hiking on the Root Glacier trail! Just remember, to be very careful when walking around the glacier and stay away from any ledges or cracks. I hope you enjoy your trip!
Let me know if you enjoyed this trail guide in the comments!
📍 Pin Hiking the Root Glacier Trail in Wrangell-St Elias to Pinterest