By Robin Mayo
If you are looking for an adventure that is within reach and family friendly, I highly recommend planning a trip to the Castner Glacier Ice Cave. With a two-hour drive from Glennallen and a one-mile walk, you can access a truly breathtaking experience.
The cave is approximately 50 feet wide and 40 feet tall at the entrance, and tapers as it goes back about 200 feet into the glacier. (Note: these numbers are pure estimate, I’m wishing I’d done some pacing!) Part of the floor is smooth ice, and the rest a mix of ice, dirt and rocks. We followed the curving cave until it was pitch dark, and the ceiling was too low for walking. Best of all, it seems to be pretty stable in the winter, so it can be explored in relative safety if basic precautions are followed.
One of the surprises for me was how many other people were there! On a December weekend we saw about 40 other people on the trails and at the cave, and I’d estimate there were over 100 on a weekday during the holiday break. It was fun to see so many people respectfully sharing the trails and enjoying themselves, but if you want to experience the place in solitude you may need to choose a weekday and/or be prepared to wait patiently.
Near the entrance, the ice was shining, with a unique scalloped texture and run through with ribbons of gravel reminiscent of polished marble. Further in, the ceiling is festooned with ice crystals, some reminding us of perching butterflies, and others needle-sharp or feathery. We could hear water gurgling beneath the ice, and a few damp spots reminded us to be very cautious.
The cave is accessed from the Castner Creek Bridge at mile 217.3 Richardson Highway, about 20 miles north of Summit Lake. Two trails go to the east up the creek, one from the parking area at the southeast corner, and the other about 100 feet north of the bridge. DOT has made crude but usable parking areas around the bridge. At my last visit in early January both trails were beautifully hard packed and easily walked. About halfway to the cave they come together on the creek. The trails are mostly similar and both well used, but the southern one included a steep 15 foot drop down to the creek, and the northern one is partly in the woods so more sheltered.
If you go, I’d recommend checking the weather for Delta Junction and Paxson to get some idea of conditions. This is a notoriously windy area, so come prepared with extra layers for the wind chill. I’d also recommend having snowshoes or skiis available in case the trail is blown in, which was the case on my first visit in December.
Although this is a relatively easy adventure, please have safety in mind. There was no cell phone coverage, so someone should know where you are and when you plan to return. Much of the trail is on an active creek, so give open leads a wide berth and be alert for new holes, which could open up even in the trail. At the cave, you may want walking sticks and/or cleats for your boots to make it safer to walk on the ice. There are rocks suspended in the ice which could fall, especially as the weather gets warmer. And towards the back of the cave, we could hear water and saw evidence of recently overflow and seepage, so be very cautious on the ice. If you want to explore the very back of the cave you will need a flashlight or headlamp, which we also found very useful for getting good photographs. Families with young children might want to bring along a sled for taxi service for tired little explorers.
Although this place feels like the middle of nowhere, it is important to be prepared for and considerate of other visitors. The parking areas are small, but workable if people don’t hog space, and are careful not to block other vehicles. Lots of dogs were enjoying the adventure, but everyone had leashes and was keeping their pet close, which I appreciated. The walk is so short a snowmachine would be needed only for someone who couldn’t make it otherwise. If you do bring your machine please yield to foot traffic, who have the right of way. In a place like this, it is also courteous to stay on the trail as much as possible, to keep the views pristine and also avoid creating lots of side trails which make the main trail hard to follow.
I wish I knew more about the history and geology of this cave, which appears to be formed from the combination of the stream running underneath, and the warm summer air melting out the entrance. It sounds like it has been there for quite a few years. The mouth of the cave faces roughly northward, which means it is spared long exposure to the sun which would speed up the melting. WISE is considering leading some hikes there later in the winter, if you are interested please let me know and I’ll fill you in on details, or keep an eye on the WISE FB page and website.
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.