Alaska’s Glacier-Gazing Guide: The Best Glaciers
Our passengers book Alaskan cruises for a variety of reasons. Often, it’s a chance to immerse themselves in the vast wonder of a true wilderness. Whether soaring over a dense temperate rainforest in a floatplane or stepping foot on a trail outside Juneau, Alaska still feels like one of the last frontiers on earth.
Other travelers are enamored by the local wildlife. Alaska presents the opportunity to see a majestic moose or grizzly bear from a safe distance. Bald eagles often soar overhead and the salmon fishing is amazing. Whale watching tours are also popular.
One of the most common reasons Alaska remains on so many bucket lists is the desire to see towering glaciers. There’s nothing quite like hearing the ice creak and crack and sailing the azure waters of Glacier Bay or potentially watching a house-sized chunk of ice drop into the sea. The 49th state is home to 616 named glaciers and an estimated 100,000 smaller ice rivers.
Here are a few of the most breathtaking glaciers in Alaska.
Mendenhall Glacier (Juneau)
By far the most viewed glacier in the state, Mendenhall deserves attention not just for its scenic beauty, but for its accessibility. It’s located only 12 miles outside of Juneau, the state capital and a common cruise port; it is the only glacier in the state accessible by road. You can easily take a shuttle bus or cab there from the cruise docks!
More than 400,000 travelers see Mendenhall every year. It is 13 miles long, a mile-and-a-half wide, and 100 feet high, rising up from the blue depths of Mendenhall Lake. While this 3,000-year-old glacier has been receding around 100 feet a year, you’ve still got plenty of time to experience its grandeur.
Experience it when your cruise docks in Juneau by driving to the lakeside visitors center and hiking the numerous trails surrounding it, or by taking the Mendenhall Glacier kayak tour—a relatively new option that has only been allowed for a few years.
Margerie Glacier (Glacier Bay)
It’s a challenge to pick a favorite glacier from Glacier Bay. This unearthly destination is captivating with its scenic beauty. But one of the most impressive glaciers within this national park is the Margerie Glacier in the West Arm. Located nearly 65 miles up the bay, it’s definitely worth the ride.
If you’ve ever seen a photo of cruise ship passengers lining a ship’s bow as they gawk at an icy expanse, that’s Margerie Glacier—21 miles long and a stunning 250 feet high. Unlike most of Alaska’s glaciers, Margerie is actually advancing, sometimes as rapidly as 14 feet a day.
This results in frequent calving. In addition to gasping as ice chunks crash into the sea (at a safe distance), you’ll also appreciate the wildlife. Look for seals sunning on the chunks of ice, black bears swimming the frigid waters in search of salmon, and even occasional humpback whales breaching the glassy surface of the bay.
Sawyer Glaciers (Tracy Arm)
The dramatic cliffs of Tracy Arm, a narrow 27-mile long waterway south of Juneau, remind us of the fjords of Norway. The sheer rock rises 3,000 feet above the unearthly blue water, accompanied by the mist of sparkling waterfalls cascading over the edge.
Tracy Arm is home to twin tidewater glaciers—the North and South Sawyer Glaciers—both of which are as extraordinarily blue-tinged as the water. When conditions are right, cruise ships can approach within a mile of the ice. They navigate around car-sized icebergs to give passengers an up-close-and-personal view of the rugged ice.
The larger South Sawyer extends deep beneath the water, making it a prominent creator of ice floes, unworldly noise, and unforgettable photo opportunities. While your attention will be on the glaciers, keep an eye out for the abundant wildlife surrounding them, including sea lions, wolves and eagles. With binoculars, you may even be able to watch mountain goats scamper along its base.
Hubbard Glacier (Disenchantment Bay)
Hubbard Glacier offers one of the most enchanting visuals in all of Alaska. It is also the largest tidewater glacier in the United States and the biggest North American glacier accessible by cruise liners.
It is 76 miles long and stretches more than six miles across where it spills into the water. But more notable than its size is its activity: Hubbard is an energetic river of ice. It regularly drops icebergs the size of a three-story house during the warmer summer months.
Hubbard also has a history of rapid movement, thanks to its size and enormous catchment basin. As recently as 2002, this glacier surged forward, moving so quickly across the bay that it temporarily blocked the entrance into the adjacent Russell Fjord. The dramatic movement and thick ice of Hubbard Glacier require ships to keep their distance, but you’ll be close enough to see—and hear—the thundering impact of this ancient giant.
Taku Glacier (Juneau)
Taku is a tidewater glacier deep within the Tongass National Forest. It is the only advancing glacier of the Juneau Icefields. Around 36 miles long and an astonishing 4,845 feet thick, Taku is the deepest and thickest glacier on the planet. It lengthens by around 50 feet per year.
Our travelers love the floatplane and helicopter excursions that allow them to soar over the jagged crevasses and meltwater pools of this region north of Alaska’s capital city.
You won’t see this one from your cruise ship, but it is accessible through one of the cruise ship’s most popular excursions: the Taku Lodge Feast and 5-Glacier Seaplane Discovery. This three-hour tour includes a breathtaking pontoon aircraft ride from our friends at Wings Airways, plus two full hours at the historic Taku Glacier Lodge. From the comfort of the lodge and its impeccably manicured grounds, the glacier is visible in all its glory—right across the Taku River.
Each of these glaciers deserves to be on every Christian traveler’s bucket list. They display God’s incredible power and strength.
Whether your cruise includes the sweeping, 360-degree views of Glacier Bay or a close look at the sawtooth blue crags of Hubbard Glacier or even the Twin Sawyer Glaciers, you’re guaranteed to stand in awe at the sheer majesty and power of God’s creation.
Which one will you visit first?