Alaska Glacier Cruises Explained: All You Need To Know

Alaska cruises are filled with spectacular scenery and memorable experiences. Sought-after views of Alaska’s icy blue glaciers are always some of the most anticipated sights. Determining which voyages have the best glacier views is often a key factor in the process of choosing a cruise to America’s 49th state. Since a number of Alaska cruise destinations include the word “glacier” their description, it can often be tough to decide which Alaska itinerary is the best option.

If you’re trying to decide which cruise itinerary is the best Alaska glacier cruise for your trip to the Last Frontier, we have information you need to help sort through your choices and pick the Alaska glacier voyage for you.  

tracy arm fjord seals
Seals on an iceberg in Tracy Arm Fjord (Photo courtesy of Nancy Schretter)

Best Alaska Glacier Cruise

Ask many Alaska cruise aficionados how to select the best Alaska glacier cruise and they’ll tell you to pick an Alaska voyage that includes Glacier Bay National Park. Since access to Glacier Bay is tightly controlled, only a limited number of cruise ships are allowed to visit Glacier Bay National Park each season. Spending a day in Glacier Bay is a must for an Alaska cruise, whether it’s your first time visiting Alaska or your tenth voyage there.  

Glacier Bay itineraries are always one of the most popular Alaska cruise routes. Glacier Bay National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its magnificent glaciers and incredible wilderness scenery. Cruise ships visiting Glacier Bay typically spend nearly a full day in the area. The 3.3 million-acre park is home to many glaciers enveloping close to a third of its land. Cruise guests have the opportunity to see multiple glaciers as they sail through Glacier Bay National Park. In addition to glaciers, visitors to Glacier Bay will marvel at the area’s snow-covered mountain peaks, fjords, waterfalls, forests, and wildlife.  

Glacier Bay cruises are often viewed as the best Alaska glacier itineraries because they offer views of multiple glaciers, spectacular mountain vistas, and frequent wildlife sightings. Marine wildlife is plentiful in Glacier Bay, so cruise visitors often see humpback whales, orca whales, harbor seals, porpoises, otters, and sea lions. It’s also possible to spot bears, moose, mountain goats, and deer on land as well. Interpretive park rangers come onboard each cruise ship while vessels are in Glacier Bay National Park, and they often point out wildlife and other interesting sights during their talks. You might see bald eagles flying overhead or even a brown bear swimming across the bay.

glacier calving alaska
A glacier calving in Alaska (Photo courtesy of Nancy Schretter)

In Glacier Bay, the glaciers are typically the stars of the show. Cruise ships spend much of their time sailing past several of the park’s active tidewater glaciers — the kind of glacier that breaks off massive icebergs which plunge into the sea. This “calving” action is what many cruise passengers hope to see when they spend time in front of Alaska’s glaciers. The thunderous cracking sound of calving glacier followed by the colossal crash as the iceberg splashes into the sea is something that Alaska cruise passengers remember forever.

Ships generally cruise through Glacier Bay, exploring its inlets and sailing past various glaciers. These often include Johns Hopkins Glacier, Lamplugh Glacier, Grand Pacific Glacier, and Margerie GlacierIt’s common for ships to spend an hour or so in front of one of the glaciers so guests can possibly see multiple calvings. Many sailings spend time visiting mile-wide Margerie Glacier, an advancing tidewater glacier that tends to calve frequently. You’ll want to look into your ship’s schedule for your day in Glacier Bay and check out the best spots for unobstructed glacier views.  

Determining which ships go to Glacier Bay is often an important factor in choosing the best Alaska glacier cruise. Holland America Line and Princess Cruises have a large number of Alaska sailings that go to Glacier Bay, offering a wide variety of itineraries that include ports such as Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan, and Sitka. Other cruise lines such as Alaskan Dream Cruises, American Cruise Lines, Cunard LineNorwegian Cruise Line, and UnCruise Adventures offer cruises that visit Glacier Bay as well. While most of these cruises generally include close to a full day in Glacier Bay National Park, several UnCruise Adventures Alaska itineraries feature two full days in Glacier Bay.

glacier bay national park
Glacier Bay scenery (Photo courtesy of Nancy Schretter)

To sum up, here are some of the many advantages of sailing through Glacier Bay on your Alaska cruise:

  • Cruise ships typically spend 9-10 hours in Glacier Bay National Park 
  • Glacier Bay National Park includes eleven glaciers — eight can be seen on clear days 
  • Sailing through Glacier Bay includes traveling through inlets and beautiful scenery 
  • More wildlife is often seen in Glacier Bay National Park
  • Park rangers come onboard to offer insights and narrate the trip while in Glacier Bay
  • Kids can earn Glacier Bay Junior Ranger badges while sailing in the National Park
  • Weather can be a safe bet, particularly early and late in the season 

READ MORE: Alaska Inside Passage Cruises: What You Need to Know

Hubbard Glacier vs. Glacier Bay

For those searching for the best Alaska glacier cruise, one of the most common questions is “Which one is best — Hubbard Glacier or Glacier Bay?” Hubbard Glacier and Glacier Bay are both beautiful, although they are different experiences. Hubbard Glacier is not in Glacier Bay National Park. The glacier is located north of Glacier Bay National Park at the tip of Disenchantment Bay, inside Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.

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Hubbard Glacier (Photo courtesy of Pixabay/lalycolon)

Cruise itineraries that do not include Glacier Bay often include Hubbard Glacier instead. Reaching the height of more than a 30-story building above the waterlineHubbard Glacier is the largest tidewater glacier in North America. Cruise ships are dwarfed by this glacier’s massive size. Hubbard Glacier is also known to be one of the most rapidly advancing glaciers, moving as much as multiple feet per dayUnlike many other glaciers, Hubbard Glacier continues to thicken. With a terminal face that’s about seven miles wide, Hubbard Glacier has been nicknamed the “Galloping Glacier” due to the rapid forward movement of this river of iceHubbard Glacier is renowned for its strong blue color on clear days as well.

Since Hubbard Glacier is advancing quickly, its movement results in plenty of calving. Cruise guests watch in awe as huge multi-story chunks of ice fall into the sea with a thunderous boom. Some have reported seeing this happen three to four times in an hour. Visitors cruising through Disenchantment Bay can also view nine of the sixteen tallest mountain peaks in North America on their way to Hubbard Glacier if the weather is favorable. Some cruise lines also offer optional small boat excursions which can get closer to Hubbard Glacier.  

While Hubbard Glacier is magnificent, there can be some downsides with choosing this itinerary. Since Hubbard Glacier can be the only major glacier on some Alaska cruises, if the weather isn’t favorable there is a chance that passengers won’t get close-up views of any glaciers at all on their cruise. Hubbard Glacier can be difficult to reach at certain times due to ice, fog, or other bad weather conditions. Weather in Glacier Bay tends to be more reliable, although it can be quite rainy at times.

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Glacial icebergs (Photo courtesy of Nancy Schretter)

Finding a cruise itinerary that visits both Glacier Bay and Hubbard Glacier would be the best of both worlds, but typically Alaska cruisers have to choose between the two. Here are some comparisons between visiting Hubbard Glacier and Glacier Bay.

Hubbard Glacier vs. Glacier Bay Advantages: 

  • Hubbard Glacier is taller and more massive than glaciers in Glacier Bay 
  • Calving occurs more frequently at Hubbard Glacier than at glaciers in Glacier Bay 
  • Hubbard Glacier’s calving tends to be more spectacular, with huge multi-story icebergs
  • Ships can sometimes get slightly closer to Hubbard Glacier than those in Glacier Bay
  • Sailing to Hubbard Glacier includes views of some of North America’s tallest mountains 
  • On clear days, the color of Hubbard Glacier is very blue 

Hubbard Glacier vs. Glacier Bay Disadvantages:

  • Ships typically spend most of the day in Glacier Bay — Hubbard Glacier is a shorter visit 
  • Glacier Bay includes multiple glaciers, Hubbard Glacier itineraries include only one  
  • More wildlife is often seen in Glacier Bay National Park 
  • Glacier Bay’s spectacular scenery is more varied
  • Park rangers come onboard to offer insights and narrate the trip while in Glacier Bay 
  • Weather in Glacier Bay can be a safer bet, particularly early and late in the season 

Glacier Bay National Park vs. Tracy Arm Fjord

Tracy Arm Fjord is another breathtakingly beautiful area that’s often included on Alaska cruise itineraries. Tracy Arm Fjord is part of the Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness, which also includes nearby Endicott Arm Fjord. Located south of Juneau, Tracy Arm is a long, relatively narrow fjord ending at the two stunning faces of Sawyer Glacier — North Sawyer Glacier and South Sawyer Glacier. These twin glaciers often produce deep blue icebergs and sometimes well over a hundred seals can be seen hauled out on the large glacial ice floes — particularly in June.

sawyer glacier tracy arm fjord alaska
Sawyer Glacier (Photo courtesy of Nancy Schretter)

Sawyer Glacier is an active tidewater glacier. Ships travel up Tracy Arm Fjord, navigating the long channel and tight turns along the wayOn the scenic journey through Tracy Arm Fjord, cruise guests will marvel at the sheer, steep walls of the deep fjord and the scenic beauty of the area. Tracy Arm Fjord is less than a half-mile wide and waterfalls often cascade down the fjord’s craggy cliffs. Mountain goats can sometimes be seen near Sawyer Glacier and bears are occasionally spotted near the water’s edge as well.  

Sailing through Tracy Arm Fjord is one of the highlights of this experience, particularly on a smaller ship. Large cruise ships often offer small boat tours of Tracy Arm Fjord on itineraries featuring a full day in the port in Juneau. These tours are highly recommended, as the smaller excursion boats can get much closer at Sawyer Glacier and calving can be more easily seen.

waterfall in tracy arm fjord alaska
Waterfall in Tracy Arm Fjord (Photo courtesy of Nancy Schretter)

With these Tracy Arm Fjord excursions, avid glacier seekers may have the option of visiting this stunning area in addition to Hubbard Glacier or Glacier National Park. If weather or sailing conditions make it difficult to navigate Tracy Arm, ships and excursion boats sometimes choose to go up Endicott Arm to visit Dawes Glacier instead.  

If you’re trying to decide between an Alaska cruise that visits Glacier Bay and one that only includes Tracy Arm Fjord, here are some pros and cons.

Tracy Arm Fjord vs. Glacier Bay Advantages: 

  • Spectacularly memorable sailing experience navigating through Tracy Arm’s narrow fjord
  • Plenty of strikingly blue icebergs and stunning waterfalls
  • Can have more seals hauled out on ice floes, depending upon time of year
  • Can sometimes get closer to Sawyer Glacier if on a smaller excursion boat 

Tracy Arm Fjord vs. Glacier Bay Disadvantages: 

  • Tracy Arm is smaller than Glacier Bay, with only one fjord to explore 
  • Not as many glaciers as Glacier Bay
  • Ice may sometimes block large ships from getting far enough in to see the twin glaciers
  • Glacier Bay is a full day experience while Tracy Arm is generally 4-5 hours
  • Weather in Glacier Bay is often more favorable than Tracy Arm Fjord 

READ MORE: When is the Best Time To Cruise Alaska?

Hubbard Glacier vs. Sawyer Glacier

Comparing Hubbard Glacier with Sawyer Glacier is easy when it comes to size. As the largest tidewater glacier in North America, Hubbard Glacier’s towering height and mammoth overall size is much more impressive than Sawyer Glacier. Calving at Hubbard Glacier can be more astounding and frequent as well.

Visits to Sawyer Glacier are memorable in their own right, however. Sailing through narrow Tracy Arm Fjord is truly spectacular, particularly when the weather is clear. Wildlife including harbor seals, mountain goats, bears, and bald eagles are often seen during the trip. Since Sawyer Glacier is an active tidewater glacier, calving does occur regularly. Since the glacier extends hundreds of feet under the water, underwater calving also takes place with giant blue icebergs the size of submarines shooting to the surface.

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A small boat sailing in front of Sawyer Glacier (Photo courtesy of Nancy Schretter)

If your Hubbard Glacier Alaska cruise itinerary includes a full port day in Juneau, it may be possible to visit Tracy Arm Fjord and Sawyer Glacier on a small boat excursion. If that’s not the case and you have to choose between Hubbard Glacier or Sawyer Glacier, here are some pros and cons. 

Sawyer Glacier vs. Hubbard Glacier Advantages: 

  • Sailing through Tracy Arm’s narrow fjord is particularly memorable 
  • Can have more seals hauled out on ice floes, depending upon the time of year 
  • Breathtaking scenery in Tracy Arm can include snowy peaks and stunning waterfalls 
  • Often more wildlife seen in Tracy Arm including mountain goats, bears, and bald eagles 

Sawyer Glacier vs. Hubbard Glacier Disadvantages: 

  • Hubbard Glacier is significantly larger and more impressive than Sawyer Glacier 
  • Calving is particularly awe-inspiring at Hubbard Glacier and can occur more frequently 
  • Sailing to Hubbard Glacier includes views of some of North America’s tallest mountains 
  • Ships may have trouble reaching Sawyer Glacier due to weather and ice conditions 

Additional Glacier Viewing Options

In addition to all these choices, there are some additional glacier viewing options for travelers seeking the best Alaska glacier cruise. Some cruise lines  include Endicott Arm and Dawes Glacier on their Alaska cruise itineraries. Located southeast of Juneau, Endicott Arm Fjord is part of the Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness area. Sailing through Endicott Arm Fjord to Dawes Glacier is a somewhat similar experience to navigating up Tracy Arm Fjord. While sailing through Endicott Arm Fjord, waterfalls and a variety of wildlife including harbor seals, mountain goats, and bears can often be seen.

dawes glacier alaska endicott arm fjord
Dawes Glacier (Photo courtesy of Flickr/Care_SMC)

College Fjord is another spectacular area that’s sometimes included on northbound Alaska cruise itineraries. Located in the northern area Prince William Sound, College Fjord contains five tidewater glaciers, five valley glaciers, and a number of smaller glaciers. Many of these glaciers are named after well-known East Coast colleges and universities including Harvard Glacier, Yale Glacier, Amherst Glacier, Wellesley Glacier, and Williams Glacier. Additional glaciers are also located nearby.

Visiting Mendenhall Glacier is a popular excursion for Alaska cruise guests spending the day in Juneau. These Mendenhall Glacier tours can also include other active adventures such as kayaking, canoeing, and glacier hikes. Flightseeing trips and glacier dogsledding tours are other exciting ways to experience Alaska’s glaciers as well.

READ MORE: What To Pack For An Alaska Cruise: Top 12 Things You’ll Need

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