Get up close to southcentral Alaska's accessible glaciers

Rivers of ice that tell the story of Alaska's geologic past, glaciers rank high on sightseeing bucket lists. Hanging from alpine cirques or plunging directly into deep fjords, 100,000 glaciers in the Last Frontier represent the rugged, remote Alaska visitors come to see and residents respect as barometers of the state's overall environmental wellness. Formed when centuries of snow is compressed and moves under its own massive weight, glaciers are scenic symbols of Alaska.

Standing near one of these frozen monoliths is an experience not soon forgotten, whether you've been in Alaska 40 days or 40 years, and the wealth of opportunities to drive, float or fly within eyeshot is fairly simple. Here are some best bets around the Southcentral section of the state.

Portage Glacier, Portage Valley. Approximately an hour south of Anchorage sits the Chugach National Forest's most prominent glacier, and one with a high rate of retreat. Portage Glacier can be accessed in the summer via the M/V Ptarmigan and an hour-long cruise that takes passengers within 300 yards of this tidewater glacier that can no longer be viewed from shore. Stop by the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center on the way in or out to learn more about the glacier and Portage Valley's rich cultural history with local Native groups.

Spencer Glacier, Spencer Whistle Stop. The Alaska Railroad offers day trips between May and September to scenic Spencer Glacier, where passengers have the option of walking an easy loop to Spencer Lake, with or without a Chugach National Forest ranger. The glacier's icy lake is also an excellent spot for guided raft or kayak trips that provide even closer viewpoints.

Exit Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park, Seward. Just over two hours from Anchorage, Exit Glacier is one of the most-visited glaciers in the state, and one of the most dramatic in terms of recession. The only part of Kenai Fjords National Park accessible by road, Exit Glacier can be reached via a short hike, with interpretive exhibits at the main visitor center.

Matanuska Glacier, Glenn Highway. Visible from the Glenn Highway as it winds above the braided Matanuska River, Matanuska Glacier is the perfect day trip north and east of Anchorage. Part of the Matanuska Glacier State Recreation Site, the glacier can be viewed from a day use area and campground at Milepost 101 where short trails provide perfect photo opportunities. Those wanting a more active experience can opt for a guided tour of the glacier and its rocky moraine via Mica Guides, a company leading hikes and climbs on the glacier since 1999.

Prince William Sound glaciers, Whittier and Valdez. Want to spend a day counting glaciers? Take a cruise with a local company specializing in glacier viewing. Phillips Cruises and Tours ( ) or Major Marine ( ) offer trips from the port city of Whittier, and Stan Stephens Cruises ( ) departs from Valdez, all on a daily basis. Look for College Fjord, where glaciers named for Ivy League schools line both sides, and keep an eye out for marine wildlife like whales, seals and sea otters, too.

Worthington Glacier, Valdez. This often-forgotten glacier is actually easy to reach, as it sits right off the Richardson Highway 28 miles north of Valdez. One of the most scenic hanging glaciers in Southcentral Alaska, thanks to towering mountains of Thompson Pass flanking either side, Worthington Glacier State Recreation Site offers day use access and a series of trails for excellent views. ( )

Erin Kirkland is an Alaska freelance travel writer and Anchorage resident since 2005.