The caretaker who oversees the business that controls the only on-road access to the Matanuska Glacier plans to require all visitors without glacier travel experience to pay for and take guided tours, starting with the summer 2021 season, eliminating the previous unguided summer visitor entrance option.
The about 25-mile long glacier can only be accessed by car via a private road maintained by Matanuska Glacier Park, a business headquartered near the glacier’s toe. That business and its longtime caretaker, Bill Stevenson, maintain the gated access and parking lot. Over the winter season, visitors can only access the park via a guided tour provided by Glacier Park and priced at $25 per-person for Alaskan residents and $100 for out-of-state guests.
In the summer, however, Stevenson has previously allowed individuals to take self-guided walks, asking them to stay on a seasonally shifting trail, which is marked by cones and walking grates. Prices for that access sat at $25 for residents, and $35 for out of state visitors.
But Stevenson now plans to eliminate unguided for all but experienced and equipped ice travelers starting in the upcoming summer season, he told the Frontiersman.
“Every year it has gotten worse,” he said. “A long time ago when we first started, we got pretty much all experienced people who walk out here. And now we’re getting more people who just have an interest — glaciers have become far more interesting to people in general.”
But that interest, he said, leads to inexperienced visitors straying from the path, putting themselves and their families in danger and leaving behind trash.
“We’ve tried to put in a trail, mark a trail out with rangers, and it becomes confrontational at times,” he said. “By keeping everybody on guided tours, we keep everybody away from the dangerous stuff, but we also keep the glacier very clean.”
The new required tours will leave from the parking lot every 30 minutes during business hours, he said, and range from two and a half to three hours long. Stevenson said he is still working on pricing, but currently plans to charge residents $35 and non-residents $50 to $60. That brings the summer tour well below the $100 winter tour fee. A longer tour with a higher price point will also be available, he said.
It’s the incredible success of the tours over this winter season, he said, that pushed him to make the change. Not only did the Glacier Park see record traffic, with many Saturdays bringing at least 400 people, most of them Alaskans, but his staff didn’t see any increase in trash or dangerous behavior. And that change, Stevenson said, was because guests were on tours, not left on their own.
“This winter we’ve been doing nothing but guided tours, and it has been just a phenomenal success,” he said. “The success of the winter time is all relative to people feeling like they are getting a good deal. So I have to get the price down on summer tours where we will still have the same level of acceptability.”
The users Stevenson doesn’t want to charge for a tour, he said, are those with plenty of experience on ice. The sticky point, he said, is trying to distinguish between those know what they’re doing, and those who say they have experience, but don’t. Any visitor can show-up with the right equipment and say they are good to go, he said.
“What I’m trying to figure out is what we’re going to do to distinguish someone who actually doesn’t need a guide versus someone who actually does need a guide,” he said. “They have all the right stuff, they look good, they talk good, but then when they get out there it’s pretty much all talk … I have absolutely no desire to lend guidance to somebody who has plenty of experience. If everybody had the proper experience, life would be easy.”
Outside of the local users with whom his staff is already familiar, Stevenson said they will vet other users by requiring them to join a tour with their own equipment, including crampons, a helmet and an ice ax. If the tour guide has determined the visitor does have the necessary ice experience to proceed, he or she will allow that person to break-off from the group.
“The last thing we want to do is try to tell someone who actually knows what’s going on what to do,” he said.
Stevenson isn’t the only businessman providing guide services on the glacier, which is state property outside of his access area and the adjacent land the Glacier Park leases from the Cook Inlet Region, Inc. (CIRI) native corporation. From their base camps just a few miles away both NOVA Alaska Guides and MICA Guides offer glacier tours and adventures over the summer season.
MICA and the Glacier Park offer distinctly different products, said owner Don Wray, so he’s not worried the change to tours-only will impact his business. Visitors who book with MICA pay both that company’s tour fees, which start at about $85, and whatever access fee currently charged by Glacier Park, a policy clearly stated on the MICA website.
“For years now I’ve told the customers our prices are for our tour, and in addition to the glacier access fee,” Wray said.
Stevenson said at least for this year the price won’t be changing for users who come into the park with those visitors.
Wray said he understands the desire to cut down on the mess and risk created by off-tour visitors with no glacier experience.
“The visitation has just been going through the roof. It is having a big impact out there, the safety and the mess,” he said.
That the glacier’s only practical access point is over private land has long been a source of contention in the local outdoor community. But as a private land owner himself, Wray said, he has to respect the boundaries that brings.
“The natural follow-on is that he gets to make the rules,” Wray said.
For their part, local tourism officials want to make sure changing the price structure and ease of access to the glacier, a top Valley destination, does not discourage visitors.
“That’s an important part of our overall experience,” said Casey Ressler, who manages communications for the Mat-Su Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Having access to the glacier is an important part of giving that experience to our visitors.”