Glaciers of Alaska
For detailed information about any glacier or group of glaciers, click the name below. For a list of discounted cruises that visit one of these glaciers, make your selection and click "Show Me the Deals!"
To visit Mendenhall Glacier, you must select a cruise that visits Juneau, AK, and then purchase an excursion to the glacier onboard your ship or in port. To visit Portage Glacier, you must select a cruise that visits Anchorage (Seward), AK, and then purchase an excursion to the glacier onboard your ship or in port.
Glaciers are slow-moving masses of ice that make up the world’s largest source of freshwater. They form in places where the amount of snow that melts per year is less than the amount that falls (including, of course, many places in Alaska). After repeated thawing and freezing, and many years of compaction, the snow becomes glacial ice, creeping ever so slowly with gravity down the slope of the land below it.
Glaciers that have made it all the way to the sea, such as Columbia Glacier or the Twin Sawyer Glaciers, are called tidewater glaciers, while glaciers that feed into a lake instead, like Portage Glacier, are known as freshwater glaciers.
Some glaciers, such as the freshwater Mendenhall Glacier just outside suburban Juneau, are accessible by land, while others can only be seen by air or boat. For instance, Glacier Bay National Park and College Fjord, with its academically named glaciers, are two of the most common scenic locations for Alaska cruise ships to spend an afternoon browsing.
The word "glacial" may denote something slow or even boring, but glaciers are guaranteed to be some of the most captivating sights you will see in Alaska. At the face of a glacier, chunks of ice break off and fall into the ocean or lake, a process known as "calving." These icebergs can be as small as a pea or as big as an office building. Hubbard Glacier is noted for its spectacular calving.
A strict distance is mandated for safety reasons, as not only can these calving pieces crash down from above, they can also quickly and invisibly pop up from underwater; these are known as “shooters.” So stay safe and enjoy one of the most awe-inspiring processes of nature, which has shaped not merely Alaska but also much of Earth’s surface through its relentless power.
College Fjord is a popular scenic cruising spot on many Alaska itineraries. It is located in the northern part of Prince William Sound and contains dozens of glaciers including five tidewater glaciers. From one point in College Fjord, eight glaciers can be seen at once.
It is known as College Fjord because the Ivy League-educated members of the 1899 Harriman Expedition that discovered the fjord decided to name all the glaciers after famous East Coast schools. Some of them include Amherst, Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Harvard, Holyoke, Smith, Vassar, Wellesley, Williams and Yale Glaciers.
Glacier Bay National Park
Glacier Bay is one of the most popular scenic cruising areas in Alaska, and it is part of a glacier system that has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As no roads lead in or out of the region, nearly all sightseeing is done by boat or airplane. There are a total of nine tidewater glaciers in the park, including Muir, Margerie and Lamplugh Glaciers. As recently as 1750 the entire 65-mile-long fjord was iced over with a glacier thousands of feet thick, but in beating its hasty retreat the ice has left us with some dramatic views. There is lots of active calving to be seen here.
Hubbard Glacier straddles both Alaska and Canada’s Yukon Territory over its 76-mile length, terminating at Yakutat Bay and Disenchantment Bay. The latter name derives from a Spanish explorer’s disappointment upon discovering this huge mass of ice blocked what he thought might have been the fabled Northwest Passage.
The ice you see at any given time at the face of the glacier has traveled 400 years to the sea. It is a commonplace occurrence for icebergs the size of 10-story buildings to calve off Hubbard Glacier and crash into the sea.
Mendenhall Glacier and the Juneau Icefield
Mendenhall Glacier is not only a stunning sight but also a very accessible one, as it drains into a lake right outside the Juneau suburbs. To visit Mendenhall, you may purchase a shore excursion to the glacier onboard your ship or in Juneau. Mendenhall is part of Tongass National Forest, the largest unit in the national forest system at nearly 17 million acres. Check out the free educational film at the well-kept visitor’s center, which would have been under ice a mere 70 years ago, despite being up a hill and far from the face of today’s glacier. If you're feeling bold, or if it's an exceptionally nice day, you can even swim in some of the pools of glacial melt-off.
Portage Glacier is in the Chugach National Forest on the Kenai, 50 miles southeast of downtown Anchorage, and cannot be seen from a cruise ship. Visitors must travel by car to Portage Lake and approach the glacier by boat or on foot via hiking trails. Portage Glacier was a preexisting local name recorded by Thomas Mendenhall (namesake of Mendenhall Glacier in the outskirts of Juneau) while surveying for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey in 1898. The name Portage refers to the fact that it was along the overland route for moving boat cargo between Prince William Sound and Turnagain Arm. The glacier itself is six miles long and feeds into Portage Lake. There is a visitor’s center and a trail to another glacier, Byron Glacier, which you can actually hike on.
Tracy Arm and the Twin Sawyer Glaciers
Tracy Arm is the name of a fjord 45 miles south of Juneau that contains the calving faces of two glaciers, called the North Sawyer and South Sawyer glaciers. This area also includes another fjord called Endicott Arm. Both fjords are about 30 miles long and contain fields of floating ice chunks in the summer. Mountains 7,000 feet high tower over the horizon, and wildlife including black and brown bears, deer, wolves, moose and mountain goats can be seen, making Tracy Arm one of the most scenic glacier viewing spots in Alaska.