A guide to Alaska’s Glaciers

posted March 30, 2018


A guide to Alaska's Glaciers

Alaska is full of natural beauty, from mountains to fjords to forests. But it’s Alaska’s towering, glittering glaciers that truly capture the imagination and form the highlight of any cruise to the wild North.

Almost every breath-taking Alaskan cruise will include a visit to the likes of Glacier Bay, Hubbard Glacier, Prince William Sound or Tracy Arm, if you depart from Vancouver like our cruises at Canadian Affair, you’ll also be treated to a trip along the Inside Passage.

If you’ve been inspired by watching ITV’s The Cruise: Voyage to Alaska or have always dreamt of going on an Alaska cruise, we’re here to help you learn more about what to see on your trip. Some cruises will take you up to the face of certain glaciers, but for other glaciers,  you’ll need to book an independent excursion from one of the port towns. That’s why we’ve created a guide to Alaska’s Glaciers and shared some tips from travellers who have visited the state before, so you can plan in advance your must-see sights.

Unmissable glaciers

Mendenhall Glacier

Mendenhall Glacier

Some glaciers can be accessed by the road and just outside of Juneau is Mendenhall Glacier, which attracts more than 400,000 visitors every year. As most Alaska cruises stop at Juneau, it’s the perfect spot for independent exploration. The glacier in southeast Alaska is a half-mile wide and feeds Mendenhall Lake where there are lots of places to explore in the area.

Joy Sheehan, who runs the travel and outdoor lifestyle blog A Jaunt With Joy, has lots of information on cruising to Alaska and recommends visiting Mendenhall Glacier.

“I highly recommend visiting the Mendenhall Glacier, located just 12 miles outside of Juneau. Due to global warming, this glacier is quickly retreating. To see it before it disappears, you can take a bus tour to the waterfall near the glacier or take a boat tour to the face of it.”

Tips for visiting Mendenhall

Joy Sheehan says people should visit the ice caves, “Few people get to see the Mendenhall Glacier from its most attractive angle — the inside! This glacier has accessible ice caves to explore and you can hike there to view them!”

Jo Wendel, who runs the Alaska Floats My Boat blog recommends visiting Mendenhall and suggests taking a helicopter tour to see the glacier.

“If glaciers are your goal then Juneau is glacier-central in Southeast Alaska! The mighty Mendenhall is Juneau’s drive-up glacier. You can easily take in this beautiful glacier with accessible paths, the informative and interesting Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, hiking trails, kayaking in Mendenhall Lake, and amazing photo opportunities starting right at the parking lot.

“I recommend that you get even more up close and personal by taking a helicopter tour that will land you directly on the glacier! Standing on this massive, ancient ice is a must-do life experience. On that same tour you can have some delightful fun by taking a dogsled ride on snow-covered ice!”

Jill from Jack and Jill Travel the World says there are lots of hiking trails around the Mendenhall Glacier and that one of your first stops should be the visitor centre.

“We enjoyed visiting Mendenhall Glacier. It’s a 13-mile-long ribbon of ice that’s conveniently located close to the town of Juneau. There are hiking trails that get you very close and even to the glacier itself.

“The first stop when visiting Mendenhall Glacier should be the Visitor Centre. You can check out the available hiking trails in the surrounding Tongass National Park to see which one suits your hiking ability. If you’re planning to get to the glacier itself, make sure to wear sturdy boots and warm layers.”

Hubbard Glacier

Hubbard Glacier

The Hubbard Glacier is the biggest glacier that is visited by cruise ships and it will feel like your boat is about to be engulfed. During August and September when warmer temperatures arrive you are more likely to see calving, which is when chunks of ice break off glaciers and fall into the water.

Joy Sheehan, adds, “I also highly recommend visiting Hubbard Glacier, located off the coast of Yakutat. This tidewater glacier is actually not retreating! Instead, it’s “surging”, or moving forward. Hubbard is a sight to behold. It’s more than 6 miles wide where it meets the ocean, and its face is more than 400 feet tall!”

Tips for visiting Hubbard Glacier

The Hubbard Glacier is a calving glacier and if you’re desperate to see these massive sheets of ice fall from the glacier, then you should head up to the ship’s deck early to get a great spot.

At Hubbard Glacier, calving happens several times an hour. Seeing these vibrant blue pieces of the glacier break off and go crashing into the sea is spectacular and the sound of the ice breaking will send shivers down your spine.

If you’re really lucky you could see a large piece of ice break off as some people have seen ice as tall as a 10-story building break off.

Glacier Bay

Glacier Bay

Glacier Bay is so spectacular that most cruise ships will spend most of the day there. You’ll get to visit several tidewater glaciers and explore inlets that have been carved by ice. The Margerie is a glacier that calves frequently and is, therefore, a popular stop-off.

It is almost all the way up the 65-mile bay in the West Arm and you’re likely to see the Lamplugh and Johns Hopkins glaciers en route.

Glacier Bay is highly recommended by Julie Cao, blogger and writer for Always On The Way, and she describes her trip to the national park.

“A half-hour aeroplane ride from Juneau, Glacier Bay National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it has a total number of 1,045 glaciers covering 27 per cent of the park area. Among them, there are seven tidal water glaciers and they actively calve ice into the water.

“Other than glaciers, Glacier Bay National Park presents you with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view abundant sea creatures, a white-tipped mountain range, forests, and uninhabited small islands. There are even black bears in the park swimming between the small islands and looking for salmon, and bone-head whales leap in the ocean in groups and wave their massive flippers.”

Tips for visiting Glacier Bay

Julie Cao, adds, “One of the best ways to take in a natural beauty and remote wilderness of this park is by a six-hour cruise from Gustavus or a self-guided kayaking tour through the park. If you take the cruise, make sure to dress warm and in layers, and bring your camera to take good pictures as a memory.”

Prince William Sound

Prince William Sound

Renowned for its big mountains and array of glaciers, Prince William Sound is a spectacular place to visit.

There are a lot of glaciers in a concentrated area and the terrain is lush and green. A popular destination for cruise ships is College Fjord as it boasts five tidewater glaciers. Here you’ll see Harvard and Yale glaciers and others that have been named after east coast schools during the Harriman Expedition in 1899.

Tips for visiting Prince William Sound

You should bring your rain gear as Prince William Sound receives more than 150 inches of rain per year. It is also generally considered that The Sound is best explored via a guided excursion from Whittier, Cordova or Valdez. Even though the waters are mostly protected, open stretches are common, and the fickle Alaska weather can fool even experienced boaters. From the road system, Whittier and Valdez are your best bets for finding charter outfits.

Tracy Arm

Tracy Arm

This long, narrow fjord is 50 miles from Juneau to the North and South Glaciers. These glaciers extend deep underwater and as a result of the pressure they squeeze out air pockets and fractures.

The icebergs at Tracy Arm look huge and the narrowness is another striking feature of the area as ships navigate tight S-turns en route, making the journey seem even more adventurous as you anticipate the next waterfall or wild animal.

Once you arrive at Tracy Arm you will be able to cruise within half-a-mile of the South Sawyer Glacier and you could get glimpses of the 200-odd seals resting on ice floes.

Tips for visiting Tracy Arm

If you’re looking for photo opportunities then the twin Sawyer Glaciers are spectacular in Tracy Arm. They will give you an up close, vivid look at the ice and its formation.

You should also keep your eyes open for the different wildlife residing in the area such as sea lions, eagles, kittiwakes, mew gulls and mergansers.

Exit Glacier

Exit Glacier

There aren’t many glaciers in Alaska you can walk to, but the Exit Glacier is one that you can stroll to. It is one of the most popular road-accessible glaciers.

Only 15 miles from Seward, you can walk to the face of the glacier in just 30 minutes via the Edge of the Glacier Trail and although the Exit Glacier isn’t huge, it is still large enough to be stunning when you are up close and personal.

Not only is the glacier great for photos it is a great place to learn about glacial movement as there is a guide highlighting how much the glacier has receded in the last 120 years.

Tips for visiting Exit Glacier

For the more adventurous types, you can take the Harding Icefield Trail which climbs 3,500 feet in four miles and gives some incredible views of the glacier.

If you want to learn more about the glacier and want an even closer look there are lots of guided hikes on the glacier on offer. You’ll just need to strap on crampons and walk over the ice.

Other tips for seeing the glaciers

Other tips for seeing the glaciers

Cruises are the best way to see the glaciers

Joy Sheehan from A Jaunt With Joy, explains that for all the different glaciers in Alaska, each has its own individual best way to view it.

“The Mendenhall Glacier is best viewed from the ice caves within it. Hubbard Glacier is best viewed from a balcony cabin on a cruise ship, which allows you to get up close and personal with the face of the glacier.

“If you’re hoping to see multiple glaciers in one trip, an Alaskan cruise is the best way to go. Whether you choose a cruise that includes Glacier Bay National Park or the Tracy Arm Fjord, you’ll have the chance to sail right up to the glaciers, and hopefully, see one calve! Splurge just a little bit by opting for a balcony cabin or higher, because there’s nothing better than being able to view the glaciers from your room in your pyjamas. It beats having to bundle up into warm clothing and join all the other passengers squished together on the open deck.”

What to pack

If you’ve read our post about what to pack for an Alaska cruise, then you will know the items you need to pack. Here are some of the essential items you need to pack:

– Passports, travel documents and ESTA visa

– Hiking boots

– Comfortable trousers for walking

– Fleece/warm coat

– Gloves & woolly hat

– Underwear

– Toiletries

– Camera

Other useful items that you should consider packing for your Alaska cruise include binoculars as they’ll come in handy to spot whales and other wildlife.

Polarized sunglasses will also be useful as looking around the water can cause glare and these types of sunglasses will remove this.

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