Trip Report: Fan Glacier Basecamp Hiking Trip

The Fan Glacier is one of our favorite places in Wrangell – St. Elias National Park. Nestled deep in the Chugach Mountains to the south of McCarthy and Kennecott, this beautiful valley is the perfect staging ground for long hikes, fabulous vistas, and even a day at the beach!

Returning client Anne Anderson remembers her early September backcountry hiking trip to the Fan Glacier.

Colorful mountain landscape

“I’ve been to WSENP before, a few years back I visited the old mining town of Kennecott and hiked out to the Root Glacier. My guides were gushing about the backcountry of the Park and their recent trip to the Fan Glacier. A few years later, my sister said she wanted to explore Alaska and I knew right where to go!

We hike a lot at home in Colorado but camping in Alaska was definitely new and a little intimidating. The night before our trip, our guide Rachel checked our gear and eliminated unnecessary items while emphasising quick-drying layers and warmer jackets. We were glad she did! We were usually ready for puffy jackets by the time dinner rolled around! Rachel gave us each a “poop kit” and instructed us to each fill a gallon ziplock bag full of snacks. SEAG has a huge inventory of every possible nut, dried fruit, bar, and candy you can imagine! Back at our hotel, we repacked our bags one last time and went to bed giddy with excitement for the next day!

The next morning we were ready to fly out to the backcountry. Rachel met us at the hotel and took us to the airstrip where we boarded the great Beaver! This is the biggest plane the air taxi has, but it was by far the smallest plane either of us had ever been in! We were really nervous at first, but once we took off the views distracted us completely from any fear we had. Wow! The flight to the Fan Glacier was an experience in and of itself! The sights we saw from the air really put into perspective just how great this wilderness is.

Yellow airplane on sand with mountains in the background

We landed on the sand, unloaded and before we knew it, the plane was taking off and we were alone in the wild!!

Rachel found a great spot for us to set up our tents about 15 minutes away from where the plane landed. Once camp was made, we went out exploring. That first day we were just getting a lay of the land of this interesting place. Once covered by massive glaciers, this area has been exposed by glacial retreat leaving behind pristine sandy beaches and an overgrown rocky landscape dotted with clear-water pools. We ended up in some pretty thick bushes here and there but around every turn there was another beautiful little lake, each begging us to take a dip. We couldn’t resist! The water was cold but very refreshing and the sun dried us out quickly.


A little lake surrounded by greenery with a mountain in the background


It was Rachel’s first time here too! She didn’t admit it to us at first and I understand why. We were surprised to hear it and if we had known that at first we would’ve been nervous that she was unprepared. But later we learned that this is how SEAG guides are trained. They know exactly what to do in the backcountry and have a huge database of trip reports to go off of. With it being Rachel’s first time out here, she was just as excited as we were to discover what was around the bend and it was very special to be able to share that wonder with her throughout the trip!

That night we returned to our camp for dinner. Each night Rachel pulled out all the stops and treated us to culinary delights from all over the world! We were joking that we ate better in the backcountry than we do at home. This was doubly impressive since both my sister and I are gluten intolerant! The SEAG team had reassured us that our dietary restrictions wouldn’t be a problem and they really didn’t seem to stop Rachel from providing us delicious meals every day of the trip.

The next day was a little rainy to start but we put on our rain gear and started out on a hike anyway. After a little push through some brush, we followed a creek up a rocky drainage to the source of the creek – a glacier! Having been on the Root Glacier before, I knew this was technically a “small” glacier, but it still seemed pretty big to us! The ice was broken up and the water gushed out of it with impressive force. You could feel the cold coming off the ice even from where we stood 50ft away from the ice!


Muddy brown water spilling out of dirty glacial ice


Then we climbed a steep slope to get onto a ridge that we followed higher and higher until we finally turned around. The view took our breath away! The whole valley opened up before us and we could see the huge valley glaciers to the East and West and smaller glaciers spilling in from different directions. The fall colors were changing the foliage to yellow, orange, red, and deep purple and brought another dimension to the enormous mountains. We decided to eat lunch up here to really soak it in.

After lunch, we crossed a grassy bench and came down through the tundra to our camp. The tundra is made up of little plants, fungi, and lichens, all of which are beautiful and unique. Our eyes didn’t know where to look! Each step brought a whole new ecosystem of tiny plant life and every time we lifted our eyes we were hit by the magnificence of the massive Alaskan landscape.


Colorful tundra plants with glaciated mountains in the background


That night we had my favorite dinner of all – Sushi Party Bowls! You have to ask SEAG for the recipe! But that wasn’t our only treat that night…we had only been asleep for a few hours when we woke up to some scuffling outside the tent. Having seen a bunch of grizzly prints on the sands around our camp, we were immediately nervous that a curious brown bear was investigating our camp. But a second later, we heard Rachel’s voice, excitedly telling us to get out of our tents and look at the sky. The aurora borealis was lighting up the sky!! Green and purple lines danced around the night sky, lighting up the few clouds in the sky from behind. We watched for about half an hour until it started to fade away into darkness. We were not expecting to see them at all, but it was definitely a bucket list item to see the Northern Lights! We were very lucky for such a clear night and such a bright display!

The next morning we woke up early, and even though we hadn’t slept as long that night, we got ready quickly so we could fully take advantage of the day. We really wanted to get on the glacier, and Rachel set our expectation that it would be a really long day and we might not make it. But when there’s a will, there’s a way! The trek out to the ice took us through brush and over slippery rocks but eventually, we made it to the actual Fan Glacier! We put on our crampons and started up a grey slope of dirty ice. Pretty soon, we were up on top of the white ice.


white and blue glacial ice forming an arch and curvy canyon


I remembered back to my day on the Root Glacier a year before, but something about being the only ones out here made this experience even better! I even remembered how to strap on my crampons! We stepped over deep crevasses and filled our water bottles with fresh glacier water and went out searching for a blue pool. We didn’t end up finding one but saw all kinds of cool things while we searched like a cave/tunnel and also a deep moulin (hole in the ice).  It rained on and off that day and was generally overcast, but just like on the Root Glacier, it didn’t matter. The glacier looks cool in any light and even more spooky and alien when it’s not sunny.

Our last day we decided to sleep in, knowing it was going to be our beach day. It wasn’t very beachy at first with a little drizzle, but we were used to it by that time. We knew it wouldn’t be long until the clouds “burned off” and the sun came out. We took light packs and took off our shoes pretty much right away. The sand was fine and clean, just like on the best beaches I’ve been on. We followed the river and walked along the expansive beach area, following animal prints as we went. So many animal prints!! We enjoyed a relaxing picnic and even laid out in the sun, reading our books and just enjoying the stillness and solitude.


sandy beach with animal prints and mountains in the background


In the afternoon, Rachel checked in on our flight and we went back to pack up our camp. Austin, our pilot, was right on time. It was bittersweet leaving because we had fallen in love with this place but we were also so excited for another bush flight! It seemed like even more fall colors had come out in the last few days and we couldn’t get enough photos of the silver rivers cutting through the colorful mountains. Flying up toward McCarthy, we could see Mt. Blackburn and the Stairway Icefall rising up ahead. After touching down in McCarthy, Rachel took us to our hotel where we got our first shower in four days! We met up again later that evening to return all of SEAG’s gear and invited Rachel out to dinner at the infamous Potato.


Arial view of all colors in the mountains with a river cutting through the middle of them

I am a National Parks junkie and over the years I really thought I had seen it all, but this trip is one of the best I’ve ever done. I don’t think I appreciated the wilderness before this trip. Walking down a trail with a bunch of other people or camping at a premade campsite with an outhouse is just not the same. Out here we got to see nature in its truest form, completely untouched by humans. We know that we were 3 of maybe 30 people to have visited the Fan Glacier this year and to us it felt like we were the first ones to have ever been there! We felt like explorers!

We’re already planning our return trip, this time with our kids! Can’t wait!!”


written by: Anne Anderson
updated 06/2024

Inspired to go to the Fan Glacier? Check out this backcountry wonder on a Fly-in Day Trip or on a 4-Day Basecamp Hiking Trip!


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