The Complete Guide to Alaska Glacier Viewing and Tours
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 Alaska cruises. 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 the types of Alaska glaciers?
Not all glaciers are alike! Glaciers are vast sheets of ice built from layers upon layers of compacted snow. Glaciers move slowly and constantly under their own weight. Most are in retreat.
There are eight types of Alaska glacier formations:
- Mountain glaciers
- Valley glaciers
- Tidewater glaciers
- Hanging glaciers
- Cirque glaciers
- Piedmont glaciers
- Ice fields
- Ice aprons
, including icefields that span a large area to alpine glaciers high in the mountains to the beloved tidewater glaciers that put on spectacular calving shows. You’ll find glaciers in vibrant artic blue (more dense), 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 attractive cities surrounded by Alaska wilderness and within distance to glaciers. You can explore these two cities on Alaska cruisetours. Cruises to Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve or flightseeing the Juneau Icefield are other options.
Glaciers near Anchorage
There are a whopping 60 glaciers near Anchorage and glacier tours galore. Take Alaska train tours through the Chugach 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, 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 2 ½ 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. Cruises to Glacier Bay are limited and Holland America Line offers more options to this national park than any other cruiseline.
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 flight 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.
About 200 miles northwest of Juneau at Disenchantment Bay, Hubbard Glacier is North America’s largest tidewater glacier at 6 miles wide. It is one of the best glaciers in Alaska to witness calving.
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.
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!