Formed over aeons by the constant build-up of snow and its subsequent compacting into ice, glaciers are like vast frozen rivers continually moving under their own weight. Because of their sheer size and potential to alter landscapes, glaciers are natural landforms particularly adept at conveying the impressive might of nature; hence their global tourism appeal.
Canada is renowned for its pristine wilderness, characterised by snowcapped mountain ranges and dense forests. The nation is also home to several glacial expanses, primarily located among the country’s elevated peaks. One of the most visited and popular is the Athabasca Glacier (below), one of the main toes (endpoints) of the massive Columbia Icefield – the largest in the Rockies – straddling the Banff and Jasper National Parks.
Through Brewster Travel Canada, you can embark on a glacial adventure, beginning with a journey on the Ice Explorer, a large all-terrain vehicle that’s been specifically designed to cope with the tough conditions presented by glacial travel.
The tour includes the opportunity to step foot on the glacier itself, taking in the breathtaking surrounds. You can also visit the Glacier Skywalk, a glass-bottomed walkway hanging off the edge of a Sunwapta Valley cliff, which gives thrill-seekers an exciting way to savour the magnificent views of the valley below and the mountains beyond.
Due to the inclement conditions during wintertime, the glacier tours open in spring and summer months only.
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2. Alaska, USA
Rugged Alaska is well-known as a wildlife and adventure lover’s paradise. Its untouched wilds offer up some of the most majestic landscapes on earth. It also boasts arguably the most accessible glacier on the planet. Less than 20km from the capital city (Juneau) sits the Mendenhall Glacier (below), which, because of its easy accessibility via roadways, attracts several hundred thousand visitors a year.
Though you can reach the glacier by taking a bus or taxi from downtown Juneau, organised tours are available. One operator in the region, Juneau Tours, offers a wide range of different glacier excursions, including glacier and whale-watching combos.
Any visit to the Mendenhall Glacier wouldn’t be complete without stopping by the informative visitor centre, as well as heading out on one of the various hiking trails surrounding the glacier and lake. When walking the trails, expect magnificent mountain scenery, glistening ice caves and cascading glacial waterfalls.
As with other Northern Hemisphere glaciers, the best time to visit would be during summer (May through September).
Iceland’s glaciers are dotted around the island nation and make up some 11 per cent of its land area. The Nordic nation is also home to Europe’s largest icefield and glacial expanse, Vatnajökull, which feeds the much-photographed Jökulsárlón ice lagoon.
Because of the large variety of glaciers within Iceland, ice-seekers can choose from a number of different glacial adventures. Vatnajökull (above), being the largest, offers some of the best opportunities for ice exploration. Though it’s possible to reach the glacier privately, embarking on an adventure with an official tour operator is highly recommended. Extreme Iceland and Glacier Guides are but two outfits offering a diverse array of glacial adventure packages.
Fairly close to Reykjavik, you can also find Thórisjökull, another popular glacial attraction that is in fact both a small glacier and volcano. Accessible via helicopter, it’s possible to walk on the ice and take in the epic surrounding landscape that’s so typical of Iceland.
In Los Glaciares National Park lies one of Argentina’s most famous tourist attractions. The Perito Moreno Glacier (below) forms part of the enormous Southern Patagonian Icefield, which houses the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water. The glacier is known for being easily accessible, having a stable condition and reliable calving (large chunks of ice breaking and falling off into the water below).
Visitors to the glacier and the national park in which it’s located can choose from a variety of touring options. Walk along the park’s well-kept trails and boardwalks for picture-perfect views of the glacier and its jagged peaks, hop on a boat tour of the lake and get even closer to the ice. For the adventurous and fit, go on a more physically demanding trek on the ice itself – one tour company offering such a glacier-trekking tour is Hielo & Aventura.
Though summer (November to March) is the most popular time for tourists, the glacier and park can be visited throughout the year. Just bear in mind that winter tours may bring with them harsh and unpredictable weather conditions.
Perched high up in the Swiss Alps is the Aletsch Glacier (below), which forms part of the wider Jungfrau-Aletsch UNESCO World Heritage Site. Adventurers seeking to explore this dramatic Alpine landscape are advised to sign up for guided glacial hikes and tours. Visitors can enjoy the beauty of this mountainous wonderland throughout the year with both summer and winter hiking available. Through the dedicated Aletsch tourism portal Aletsch Arena, a variety of hiking and glacier-trekking packages are available, allowing for travellers of various fitness levels to enjoy up-close encounters with the ice.
One notable feature of the region is Konkordiaplatz, a flat icy expanse that acts as the meeting point of four of the Jungfrau-Aletsch glaciers and a prime spot for viewing these magnificent natural formations.
Considering that Greenland boasts the second largest ice sheet in the world – the largest being the Antarctic ice sheet – it’s hardly surprising that the self-governing Danish territory is home to some impressive glacial formations. Two of the most accessible places to explore these glaciers would be in Narsarsuaq and Ilulissat.
Narsarsuaq is a tiny town in southern Greenland, which – thanks to its airport – is most people’s entry point into South Greenland. Behind the town lies the Narsasuaq glacier, which is relatively easily to reach on foot by the marked trail and is perfect for a day trip. More adventurous travellers can consider heading out through Mellemlandet (the mountainous area between the two glaciers and fjords where Narsarsuaq sits) towards Qooroq viewpoint, where the panorama of the icefjord, icecap and surrounding mountains can be enjoyed.
Further north of Narsarsuaq, near the western Greenlandic town of Ilulissat, awaits Jakobshavn Glacier (or Sermeq Kujalleq in the Greenlandic vernacular; above). This massive expanse of ice is one of Greenland’s most popular tourist attractions and is so active, it’s said to produce around 10 per cent of Greenland’s icebergs. Visitors to this UNESCO World Heritage Site can enjoy the ice on foot, by air or via boat. One operator in the region offering all three types of tours is Ice Cape Tours, with offices in the town of Ilulissat itself.
Due to the harsh weather conditions during winter months, it’s best to visit both Narsarsuaq and Ilulissat in the summer.
7. New Zealand
New Zealand is known as an adventure travel hotspot. Its rugged and varied landscapes offer lots of opportunities for thrill-seekers to get their adrenaline fix. When it comes to glacial adventures, New Zealand (and in particular the South Island) certainly doesn’t disappoint.
On the South Island’s west coast, within Westland Tai Poutini National Park, you’ll find the Franz Josef (above) and Fox Glaciers. These are two of the island’s most renowned attractions, drawing upwards of 250,000 visitors annually.
Enjoy the dramatic experience of traversing either of these glacial expanses on one of several tours available in the region. Two recommended organisers are Franz Josef Glacier Guides and Glacier Country.
From guided ice walks and glacier valley treks to helicopter ice-climbing excursions, there’s a South Island glacial adventure for every type of traveller. Some of the highlights you can expect include glacier hot pools, adrenaline rushes and sweeping mountain and valley views.
– TEXT BY SAUL LIPCHIK
PHOTOS: 123RF.COM, FRANZ JOSEF GLACIER GUIDES FACEBOOK
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.