Things to do in Alaska: Glacier, rafting, horse riding and kayaking tours

For sheer geographical firepower, Alaska blows every other US state out of the water. The next time someone tells you "everything is bigger in Texas", remind them that Alaska is more than twice as large and its coastline is longer than all the other US states combined. 

It's also been blessed with a frankly extravagant bounty of geological wonders – including 100,000 glaciers, 3 million lakes and the nation's 10 highest peaks.

The challenge, of course, is getting there, which is why most people choose to experience it from the comfort of a cruise ship. There are, however, more adventurous options for those prepared to roll their sleeves up. None of the following activities include afternoon deck quoits or dinner with the captain, but you'll engage with Alaska's wondrous scenery on a whole new level.

PADDLE POWER

"Take a deep breath and look around you," says Betsy, our guide. We're standing on a black sand beach in Blackstone Bay at the western edge of Prince William Sound. Across the frigid grey waters is a jagged snow-dusted mountain range and a series of blindingly white glaciers that tumble into the sea. 

The 38,000-square-kilometre sound has the largest concentration of tidewater glaciers in North America. At least, it does for now. According to Betsy, most are in "catastrophic retreat" with some already having cleared the sea as they withdraw back into the mountains.

Getting here is an adventure in itself. The one-and-a-half-hour drive from Anchorage to Whittier skirts the Turnagain Arm, a waterway that Captain Cook mistakenly thought was a river when he was searching for the northwest passage (hence he had to "turn again").

After passing the submerged remains of Portage (the town was destroyed in 1964 by the second most powerful recorded earthquake in history), the road abruptly disappears…into a mountain.

The Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel is North America's second longest tunnel, a 4.1-kilometre, one-lane passage that's shared by cars and trains. Driving under millions of tonnes of solid rock is unsettling enough without the nagging concern you might meet a train coming the other way.

Once at Whittier we board a transfer by Lazy Otter Charters and 45 minutes later are deposited on the beach at Blackstone Bay. Unsurprisingly, we're the only ones here.

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The plan is to kayak to two of the bay's most impressive glaciers – Blackstone and Beloit – both of which are moodily swathed in cloud.

"In at your toes, out at your hips," cries out Betsy, as we paddle along the shoreline. A sea lion pokes his head out of the water and watches our uncoordinated efforts with visible disdain.

It's only as we draw closer to Blackstone that its hulking proportions start to sink in. Its towering face is a kilometre wide and in some places more than 30-storeys high.

After a quick packed lunch on a nearby beach, we continue around the coast to Beloit. It's smaller than Blackstone but much more active. As we approach, we're buffeted by cold katabatic winds that whistle down the glacier's face. 

Betsy keeps us at a safe distance, aware that a sudden calving could produce a dangerous kayak-flipping swell. After a few minutes we see a huge chunk of the face slip into the water; moments later the booming crash reaches our ears.

To rendezvous with our transfer, we have to paddle back through a dense ice stream. We zigzag carefully between bobbing chunks of ice, painfully cognisant of the Titanic-esque implications of a navigational error. "You can safely hit something the size of a microwave," shouts out Betsy, grinning. "Just don't hit a fridge."

Guided kayak trips run from May 15 to September 5 and cost $US325 per person (min four people). See lazyottercharters.com

SADDLE SOAR

"Well, it all started in my drinkin' days," says Alex, his face lit up by the campfire. "I bought a horse in a bar at 3am for $25 and I've been exploring this country ever since."

Thirty years on, this lithe, grey-haired cowboy still loves riding but now he and his daughter Gretchen share their passion by running pack trips into the Alaskan wilderness.

Our adventure starts at their base at Cooper Landing, 160 kilometres south of Anchorage in the heart of the Kenai Peninsula. After kitting us out with boots, gaiters and saddlebags, Gretchen allocates us each a horse.

"I'm going to put you on Caramel," she tells me. "If he was a human, he'd be the most handsome football player on the team."

We're heading for Crescent Lake in Chugach National Forest. There's no road access so everything we need for the overnight trip has to be packed in and out by horse.

We follow the meandering Crescent Creek Trail along the valley floor, through stands of bright yellow Aspen trees and white spruce. It's only an eight-kilometre ride but the scenery is captivating, alternating between dense forest and meadows flanked by soaring alder-covered hills.

When we arrive at camp, an advance party has already setup a kitchen and lit a fire. All we have to do is pitch our tents. 

The horses are let loose to graze and we settle around the campfire with mugs of hot coffee. Once the sun dips below the horizon, the coffee is traded for wine and soon we're feasting on bowls of steaming moose chilli under the eerie green glow of the northern lights.

Before we stumble into bed, someone asks Alex what time it will get light tomorrow. He smiles, pensively strokes his grey beard, then replies, "It seems to get light round here when it's a good time to get up."

The next day is a choose-your-own adventure. Some people ride, others fish on the lake and some lounge around the campfire with a book. 

A few of us decide to climb a nearby hill – an expedition that turns into an arduous two-hour bushwhack through head-high grass and near-impenetrable alder trees. But the reward is worth it – from a colourful berry-strewn plateau, we're treated to sublime views back down the valley.

Dinner is a hearty slab of steak cooked over the campfire with baked potatoes, string beans and sauteed mushrooms. Afterwards we huddle around the dancing flames, sharing poems, stories and a considerable amount of red wine.

All too soon, it's time to pack up and head back to civilisation. Before we leave, Alex offers to take a group photo. We protest, but he waves away our concerns. "Don't worry," he says, collecting up our cameras, "you can just Photothing me in later."

All-inclusive pack trips cost around $US425 per person per day. Day rides and shorter trail rides also available. See alaskahorsemen.com

WALK OF ICE

"Trust your feet," says Matt. "Point them down the fall line and keep your weight over your heels."

I tentatively take a step down the precipitous slope and there's a reassuring crunch as my crampons bite into the ice. Slowly, I edge down the steep gradient, amazed at the effectiveness of a few metal spikes strapped to the underside of my boots. 

I'm making my crampon-ing debut on Spencer Glacier, an 11-kilometre river of ice that spills out into Spencer Lake in the Kenai Peninsula. Once again, getting here is something of a quest. There's no road access so we catch the Alaska Railroad from the small town of Girdwood and travel east along the Turnagain Arm. 

From the train's open-air observation car, we're offered a mesmerising montage of glaciers, snow-capped mountains and mist-shrouded lakes. We pass eerie stands of petrified trees and spot a pair of beluga whales surfacing in the arm.

According to Matt, our guide from Ascending Path, we'll be getting off "in the middle of nowhere". Forty-five minutes later we reach Whistle Stop, where, true to its name, we have less than a minute to jump down on to the track's gravel siding before the train moves on.

A short bus ride delivers us to Spencer Lake but we're still more than a kilometre from the start of the glacier. Up until 2008 you could walk to it around the lakeshore; now it's retreated so much we need to use kayaks. 

"It'll be a nice mellow paddle," says Matt. "Just stay away from the 'bergs."

After a leisurely crossing past several house-sized icebergs, we pull up in a sandy cove to the right of the glacier. Crampons and helmets on, we begin to trudge up its gravel strewn flank.

"Be careful," warns Matt. "We're heading for some pretty rowdy terrain."

We clear the glacier's dirty lower slopes and plunge into a magical frozen world of caves, moulins and crevices. The ice here is 10-15,000 years old and is so densely compacted it's harder than rock. 

Some of the formations are so beguiling it's hard to believe they weren't sculpted by hand – rivers winding through miniature icy Grand Canyons, waterfalls cascading down cliffs the colour of Bombay Sapphire, ice holes plunging deep into the glacier's core.

When we stop for lunch in a natural ice amphitheatre, the only sound is the constant rush of melt water.

On the way back Matt explains that Spencer Lake didn't exist in 1890 because the glacier stretched all the way back to the railway line. By 1951 it had retreated to where the lake starts today and it's now withdrawing by more than 30 metres a year. "Eventually," he says, ruefully, "we'll end up just doing kayak trips."

Guided glacier treks run daily from June 1 to September 13 and cost $US379 per person, which includes equipment, lunch and return train fare from Anchorage. See ascendingpath.com

FIVE MORE ALASKAN ADVENTURES

CLIMB MATANUSKA GLACIER

Scale an ice cliff on Alaska's largest road-accessible glacier using ropes, crampons and ice axes. See greatlandadventures.com

RAFT SIX MILE CREEK

Tackle ominous-sounding rapids such as "Suckhole" and "Jaws" on this high-adrenaline rafting trip in the Chugach National Forest. See chugachoutdoorcenter.com

GLACIER JET SKI

Explore the towering glaciers, icebergs and waterfalls of Blackstone Bay on an eco-friendly Sea-Doo jet ski. See glacierjetskiadventures.com

DENALI FLY-BY

Admire North America's highest mountain and the world's deepest gorge before landing on a glacier in Denali National Park. See flydenali.com

SINGLE TRACK HEAVEN

Explore Kincaid Park's 40 kilometres of single track trails on a guided mountain bike tour with a local specialist. See greatlandadventures.com

TRIP NOTES

MORE 

travelalaska.com

FLY

Air New Zealand flies via Auckland to Houston. United and Alaska Airlines fly from Houston to Anchorage. See airnewzealand.com.au united.com and alaskaair.com

STAY

Ideally positioned for adventures in the Kenai Peninsula, the upscale Alyeska Resort has a spa, a scenic tram and an AAA Four Diamond-award winning restaurant. See alyeskaresort.com

TOUR

Offering scheduled departures and bespoke itineraries, Midnight Son Tours specialises in luxury small-group adventure tours of Alaska. See midnightsontours.com

Rob McFarland was a guest of Air New Zealand, Adventure Travel World Summit and Midnight Son Tours.

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