America’s Last Remaining Glaciers

December 14, 2015NPF Blog
Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve

Thousands of years ago, North America was largely covered in them. Without their incredible sculpting power, our country’s landscape would be vastly different, and though millennia have passed, glaciers still cover nearly 10 percent of the Earth’s surface and make up the largest reserve of fresh water in the world.

Today, several of our national parks offer an opportunity to see some of the last remaining glaciers and understand their awesome power. So exactly where are glaciers in America?

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve

Glacier and snow-covered mountains opening into the blue waters of the ocean at Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve

The Alaskan glaciers of Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve are so huge that it is a wonder how they were formed.

Glaciers begin to take shape when snow falls in the mountains at a greater rate than it can melt. At high elevations where snow never melts, the depth of the snow increases over time. Weight from the upper layers puts pressure on the lower layers, to the point that the deeper snow gradually transforms into solid ice. Under tremendous stress, the ice at the bottom gains the ability to "flow" over the bedrock, and a glacier is born. 

When a glacier accumulates enough snow and ice to flow from the mountains to the sea, it becomes what is known as a tidewater glacier. Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve is home to seven tidewater glaciers!

Glacier National Park

Two people paddle board at Glacier National Park’s Lake McDonald
Thomas Haney, Share the Experience

Montana's Glacier National Park is home to 25 glaciers. That may seem like a lot, but in 1850, there were 150 glaciers in this area. Today's much lower number reflects a distressing trend — based on the current rate of climate change, there may not be any glaciers in Glacier National Park by the year 2030. 

The park's landscape today is a reminder of the much larger glaciers that shaped it 10,000 years ago, leaving behind deep glacial lakes, sheer-walled valleys and enormous rocky deposits known as moraines. 

Mount Rainier National Park

White, red, and purple flowers in front of a snow-capped Mount Rainier

Fire and ice rarely exist together in nature, but Mount Rainier National Park in Washington offers visitors an opportunity to see these opposing forces clash. Mount Rainier, an active volcano that last erupted in 1894, is the most glaciated mountain in the lower 48 states. The Emmons Glacier, which covers most of the mountain, spans 4.3 square miles and is the main water source for six major river systems in the area.

Each year, thousands of experienced climbers traverse the Emmons Glacier, gaining over 9,000 vertical feet to the summit of Mount Rainier.

Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve

Two ski-mountaineers on Sheep Glacier at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve

Sheep Glacier

Patrick Mullen, National Park Service

The largest national park in the United States, Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska spans an impressive 13.2 million acres. Within this vast landscape lies our nation’s largest glacial system. It encompasses approximately 5,000 square miles and contains some of the largest glaciers in the world. The massive Bagley Icefield alone stretches 127 miles and is up to 3,000 feet thick in some areas.

The Kennecott and Root glaciers are also some of the park’s most notable. Several trails near the Kennecott Visitors Center provide easy access to each. The Root Glacier Trail even provides a moderate 3-mile round-trip hike along the lateral moraine of both glaciers.

Thousands of years ago, glaciers began to etch and shape the landscape of our country. Today, their numbers have dwindled but their marvel is still very real. Visit any of the national parks detailed above to witness these icy forces of nature firsthand, and remember that they may not be around forever.

Comments

Don't forget North Cascades National Park! It's home to half the glaciers in the lower 48. Also, Mt. Rainier is 14,411', not 9,000' :)
D
Jenkins
Hi—Yes, the volcano itself is 14,410 feet tall, but the vertical elevation is 9,000 feet over a distance of eight or more miles.
NPF
Staff
Great article. Correction though, Rainier is 14,411' feet
John
Hughes
Yes, it is over 14,000 feet tall, but the base of Mount Rainier is not at sea level. The mountain itself has only a little more than 9,000 feet of prominence above the surrounding terrain. Therefore, the hikers gain 9,000 feet in elevation from the base to the summit.
Bailey
Steinmeyer

Start a Conversation


Stay Inspired
Connect with the parks you love. Sign up to receive the latest NPF news, information on how you can support our national treasures, and travel ideas for your next trip to the parks. Join our community.