Patterson Glacier

Area Status: Open
This area is Open

Patterson Glacier

Patterson Glacier is a Special Interest Area encompassing about 14,000 acres. It is located about 10 miles west of Petersburg, Alaska. Like the Baird Glacier, it is a western outlet of the Stikine Icefield. This 14- mile long glacier does not reach tidewater. Instead it flows into the 2- mile long Patterson Lake, then Patterson River, and eventually into Thomas Bay. Due to rapid glacial retreat over the past thirty years, Patterson Lake has grown large enough for floatplanes to land, thus greatly increasing the recreation potential of this area. The Patterson Glacier is losing ice at a rate of about 135 feet per year at the terminus, so icebergs can be seen in the lake. There are no recreation facilities such as cabins or shelters at the glacier, though other FS cabins such as Spurt Cove and Cascade Creek are nearby in Thomas Bay. Forest Service developed hiking opportunities in the area of Thomas Bay include Falls Lake and Swan Lake trails.

Planning your trip – May through September are the best months to visit as floatplane and hiking in are advisable during this period. The valley and creek outlet that are south of the lake has flat areas for camping. No special permit is needed to visit the area.

Getting There - The easiest way to access the area is by floatplane. However, visitors can hike several miles along an old logging road on the north side of the river (and south of Delta Creek) to reach an area close to the lake. Hikers can boat or floatplane to Thomas Bay to gain access to the old roadbed north of the river. A kayak, waders, or small raft is necessary from the boat to the beach near the old road. Small pack rafts will be necessary in order to access other areas of the lake and the glacier. 

Marble at Patterson Lake Patterson Glacier Camping Site Patterson Glacier Ancient buried wood from the pre Little Ice Age forest

At a Glance

Current Conditions: Caution: The wet environment of SE Alaska creates very slippery conditions. Unexpected flooding from the glacier is also a caution to boaters and hikers.
Operational Hours: 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year 
Reservations: None 
Rentals & Guides: Contact the Petersburg Visitor Center for more information.  
Open Season: May-Sept. are best, open all year weather permitting.
Usage: Light
Restrictions: None
Closest Towns: Petersburg, Alaska
Water: No potable
Restroom: None
Operated By: U.S. Forest Service

General Information


The glacier environment is a dynamic landscape with cold water constantly moving, from cascading waterfalls to swift silty rivers. Visitors wanting to climb onto the Patterson Glacier can access the ice from the lake with a pack raft. The terrain along the lake is very steep for hiking along the edge. Visitors must plan accordingly for lake levels to rise unexpectedly. The valley to the south extends for miles but there are no marked trails.

General Notes:

The first inhabitants of this area were the Stikine Tlingit of the Taalkweidí clan. Thomas Bay was a traditional hunting and trapping area with a year-round village located at the mouth of the bay. Archaeological evidence indicates at least one additional camp in the bay that was likely occupied prior to European influence. There are also tales of tragedy about the bay – a report of a slide that destroyed a village killing over 500 people and the hauntings of kustaka’s (or kóoshdaakaas) in the Ess Lake area, south of the Patterson River.

As European settlers from Norway arrived Petersburg at the turn of the 20th century, the area continued to be used extensively for hunting, trapping and fishing. The bay has been the site of many activities including mining in the 1920s and 1930s, logging, trapping, a shrimp cannery and recreation opportunities, which include Civilian Conservation Corp trails and a shelter along the Muddy River. The Muddy River flows into Frederick Sound just outside the bay.

Before the Little Ice Age (LIA) between 1500 and 1850, the Patterson Glacier area contained large conifer forests. During this cooling period in the Northern Hemisphere, the Patterson advanced over a mile down the present day Patterson River, covering up the surrounding conifer forests with ice. Today, alder and small Sitka spruce are the dominant trees. The area was identified as a Specail Interest Area during the 1997 Land and Resource Plan for the Tongass National Forest. One reason why this area received special designation is due to the remnant forest from pre-LIA below the glacier face, that showed signs of being apparently buried and over-ridden by the glacier. Now the stumps are re-exposed due to glacial retreat. 

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Use of Recreation Fees in Alaska

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