There are some great day trips from Fairbanks, and the Sunday before last (April 7th) my family and I ventured out to one that’s been very popular over the past few weeks; Castner Glacier, an accessible ice cave that can be experienced without a guide. This year there’s been a ton of buzz on local social media about it. I first heard about the glacier cave from a friend who went back in February and have since seen countless posts on Facebook with amazing images from a unique place. I wanted to go! My husband was in training most the winter, but we wanted to go at the first opportunity we had. We almost thought we were too late, but a friend went a day prior and so we decided to make the trip.
Castner Glacier is about 140 miles from Fairbanks, around a 2 1/2 hour drive. There is a small turnout near the Castner Creek Bridge where you can park, and from there the ice cave is about 1/2 mile upstream. I have to admit, I don’t feel like I know enough about glaciers, other then what I’ve read while traveling both in Iceland and Alaska last summer. What I remember (and using logic) is that ice caves are typically only safe to visit during winter (or with a professional guide), and they can get very dangerous as melting happens. We were kind of toeing our luck with our visit because it’s been an unusually warm spring here in Alaska. By the time you read this blog it may not be safe, and next winter the cave will likely be very different than our experience.
We had a great family day trip, but first a caution: glaciers can be dangerous. I don’t know a better way to say this, but be smart. As far as Castner Glacier, there’s not much information online where you can find its status, and it’s not patrolled or monitored, but you can talk to people. Be especially careful near the entrance, where the thawing ice is releasing trapped rocks that fall off, particularly on the left side.
The trail is well packed down, but you might need snowshoes earlier in the winter. Some of the trails seem to follow next to the Castner Creek, and some of it on top. I’m not sure what it’s like in summer, but if we return, I will update this post. At the start of the trail, there was a steep (very short) decline, and many people went down on their bottoms, so you might want to wear waterproof pants.
Besides that initial steep part, the trail itself is flat and easy. The walk to the cave is relatively short (I’ve read both 1/2 mile and 1 mile but I think it’s towards the shorter side), and should only take you less than half an hour.
Once we arrived at the cave, I noticed the ice at the mouth was melting some, and rocks were falling from above. It’s worth saying again: as a rule, glacier caves are dangerous. The ice can shift, cave-ins happen, and you can break through ice to not-frozen water underneath. Be smart about it and just because you see others going in, understand you’re taking a risk if you do.
We brought one pair of Yak Trax with us and borrowed another from a friend who we bumped into when parking, and were very glad we had both! Crampons would work well but aren’t necessary. It was extremely slippery and icy, I saw many adults and kids take some hard falls.
The cave is spectacular. I can imagine the intense blue color at the beginning of the cave changes color depending on how much sun is out, and in what direction. As you walk further in the cave, beautiful ice crystals line the top of the cave. We didn’t go as far as we could, because at the time we seemed to be moving with a large mass of people that I wanted to get away from. You would need a flashlight (or strong phone light) to go further.
Don’t go in the middle of the day on a warm weekend. Unless you don’t mind people other than your group in your pictures, don’t go in the middle of the day on a warm (above zero) weekend. I think there were around 30 people in the cave when we first arrived but we were the only ones an hour and a half later (with people still trickling in).
If you want pictures of the cave with people in it and didn’t bring your own people, go during the middle of the day on a warm weekend. It’s not the easiest to tell a 3-year-old to go where you want him in the best angle/light, so I sometimes like including strangers in my photos (whose dog is that?). I like getting to experiment, and it forces me to not be mad that all these other people are there enjoying the same thing that I’m supposed to be enjoying.
Bring your Yak Trax. It’s probably very icy, and Yak Trax, studded shoes or crampons make things much easier.
Bring your camera (and the widest angle lens you can!) Of course that’s my recommendation! This is a photography/travel blog, after all! Ice caves are unique experiences, and a camera can preserve those memories. Experiment with the different angles and the different lighting such as facing into the cave (front-lit), towards the front of the cave when you’re standing further back into the cave (back-lit, great for silhouettes!), and side-lit (with the beautiful colors and lines in the of the cave as a backdrop). Take detailed shots of the ice crystals, the colors, the patterns. Make sure your family or friends are part of the picture!
Wear orange/red (and tell your friends/family the same) The colors of your clothes will contrast with the blue/green on the cave and stand out beautifully. My son wore bright blue and it wasn’t bad, but I prefer my husband’s red jacket in these photos.
Take your time Dress warm and brings snacks so you can stay awhile. If you’re not suffering cold, thirst, or hunger, you can relax and try to ‘take in’ how amazing and unique this scene is, and it’s better. You can see more, remember more, experience more. Parents of toddlers know what I’m getting at here. Feed the beast. This place inspired by melting also inspired several meltdowns.
Just remember, the Castner Glacier cave will probably look completely different when you visit!