The Best Ways to See Alaska’s Glaciers
Alaska glaciers are emblems of climate change and at the same, vestiges from centuries ago. They are nature’s Michelangelo, sculpting deep fjords. They have a profound impact on landscapes, wildlife, and people. There are many ways to experience Alaska glaciers on an Alaska cruise. Hike a glacier. Helicopter onto one. Carve it up on a dogsled.
Learn the fascinating science behind Alaska glaciers, where to see the best glaciers in Alaska, and get an overview of icy adventures you can take.
What Are Glaciers?
Glaciers are vast sheets of ice built from layers upon layers of compacted snow. Glaciers can take anywhere from hundreds to thousands of years to form. Glaciers move slowly and constantly under their own weight. Most are in retreat.
There are eight types of Alaska glacier formations:
- Mountain glaciers: Also known as alpine glaciers, mountain glaciers form at high altitudes in mountainous regions.
- Valley glaciers: If a mountain glacier grows bigger and starts to flow down the valley, it’s called a valley glacier.
- Tidewater glaciers: Tidewater glaciers are formed on land but terminate in bodies of water, often breaking off into icebergs.
- Hanging glaciers: A hanging glacier begins high on the wall of a glacial valley and abruptly stops near the top of a cliff.
- Cirque glaciers: When a mountain glacier forms in small bowls with steep sides (cirques), it’s called a cirque glacier.
- Piedmont glaciers: A piedmont glacier is a valley glacier that has spilled out onto flat plains, where it spreads out into bulb-like lobes.
- Ice fields: Ice fields are giant ice masses made up of interconnected valley glaciers in mountainous regions, with rock ridges that jut out of the ice and influence its flow.
- Ice aprons: An ice apron is a steep mass of smooth ice that adheres to a mountainside.
You’ll find glaciers in vibrant artic blue, bright white (lots of air bubbles), and zebra-striped with debris. Bring a camera with a good lens, as phone photos don’t quite do glaciers justice.
What Are The Best Places To See Alaska Glaciers?
Anchorage and Fairbanks are beautiful cities surrounded by vast Alaska wilderness, making them the perfect gateways to exploring Alaska’s glaciers. You can visit these two cities on an Alaska cruisetour. Cruises to Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve or flightseeing the Juneau Icefield are also excellent options.
Glaciers Near Anchorage
There are a whopping 60 glaciers near Anchorage and glacier tours galore. Take an Alaska train tour through the Chugach National Forest on the Alaska Railroad’s Glacier Discovery route to Spencer Glacier, a stunning tower of ice over a pristine lake. Or take an Alaska glacier cruise to the brilliant blue Portage Glacier and then hike the Trail of Blue Ice.
Seward, located two-and-a-half hours from Anchorage, is on the edge of the glacier-filled Kenai Fjords National Park. Take a Kenai fjords cruise to these icy, emerald-green waters and then a trip to Exit Glacier, 15 minutes from the town.
Finally, Alaska’s majestic Matanuska Glacier is an hour north of Anchorage and relatively easy to get to off the Glenn Highway.
Glaciers Near Fairbanks
The best glacier near Fairbanks is the Castner Glacier, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the city. The trip is well worth it. The Castner ice cave is so beautiful, it has become a social media sensation. That said, Alaska glaciers and ice caves can be deceptively dangerous. Even though you can access the cave without a guide, taking a glacier tour is advised.
Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska
Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska encompasses 3.3 million acres of mountains, emerald forests, and many glaciers. Scientists and researchers come to Glacier Bay from all over the globe to study the area.
There are 11 tidewater glaciers in the park and 8 within the bay. Two of the most popular are Margerie Glacier and John Hopkins Glacier. Glacier Bay National Park is one of the best places in Alaska to witness ice calving, when slabs of ice break off and plunge into the sea. While cruises to Glacier Bay are generally limited and, Holland America Line is proud to offers more options to visit this national park than any other cruise line.
The Juneau Icefield
To experience an icescape like no other, the Juneau Icefield is a must. It hosts 40 vast valley glaciers and 100 smaller ones and sprawls about 2,000 feet above the city. The icefield’s surface is so moon-like that NASA used it as a training ground. The only way to see it is by a glacier flightseeing tour.
What Are the Best Glaciers in Alaska?
All glaciers are amazing. Our picks for the best glaciers in Alaska just have that extra something.
Valdez Glacier is one of the best glaciers in Alaska to experience captivating history along with untamed wilderness. Gold seekers traversed the Valdez Glacier during the Gold Rush of 1898 and you will understand their plight when you see this rugged beauty up close.
Explore the beautiful Valdez Glacier Lake by kayak. Suitable for all experience levels, this one-of-a-kind shore excursion is your chance to marvel at the myriad icebergs and glacial formations up close!
About 200 miles northwest of Juneau at Disenchantment Bay, Hubbard Glacier is North America’s largest tidewater glacier at 7 miles wide. It is one of the best glaciers in Alaska to witness calving.
For unmatched views, explore Hubbard Glacier by catamaran. You'll cruise near the rocky shoreline and weave through a maze of icebergs that have fallen from the face of the glacier—the perspective from the smaller vessel is astounding.
Minutes from downtown Juneau, the Mendenhall Glacier is one of the best glaciers in Alaska simply because it’s easy to get to and there’s a well-equipped visitor’s center with interactive exhibits.
Embark on the ultimate Alaska experience with a Mendenhall Glacier helicopter tour and dog sledding adventure. Take in Alaska’s breathtaking glaciers and mountains as you glide over ice and snow, with happy canines leading the way.
What Types of Alaska Glacier Tours Are Available?
You can observe glaciers from the comfort of the cruise ship deck and they’re wildly impressive, especially when a tower of ice splits off and plunges into the ocean. But to truly experience a glacier, get on one! Alaska shore excursions include landing on glaciers, roving a glacier on an ATV, or hiking one.
There’s no greater thrill than Alaska helicopter tours or mushing a team of dogs through brilliant-white snow or kayaking so close that you could hear that glacier groan. Just remember to keep your distance. For solid ice, glaciers can surprise you!