Your Guide to Glacier Bay, Alaska

An area in a constant state of change, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve allows visitors the chance to see some of this planet’s most powerful and creative forces at work. Encompassing the past, present, and future, an Alaska cruise to Glacier Bay is a true bucket-list experience.

Glacier Bay, Alaska has dramatic scenery and fascinating wildlife. There are a high number of tidewater glaciers, known to creak, groan, and then calve right before your eyes. Frosted peaks and mossy forests, marine wildlife and more make Glacier Bay a draw of Alaska cruises. It is a significant place for the Huna Tlingit people, as they inhabited it long before the Europeans reached its shores.

What is Glacier Bay, Alaska?

Glacier Bay, Alaska is part of a 24-million-acre World Heritage Site, which also includes Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve and the Tatshenshini-Alsek Park in British Columbia. Glacier Bay is an extraordinary national park. As it isn’t accessible by roadways, there’s little human interference.

The park is more than the famous glaciers; it is a wilderness symphony with high mountain peaks, fjords, inlets, rivers, and streams; as well as forests, foothills, plains, and wet tundra.

When Captain George Vancouver explored this coastline in 1794, the region was covered in a single glacial sheet of ice thousands of feet thick. Since then, it has receded some 65 miles, revealing the bay and its surrounding environment.

Today, Glacier Bay National Park consists of over 1,000 glaciers, covering almost 30 percent of its 3.3 million acres. Seven of the glaciers are considered active tidewater glaciers — the type that breaks off icebergs into the sea. This glacial “calving” as it is called is one of the more spectacular sights to be seen from aboard a cruise ship. As new areas become exposed (deglaciated), fresh life springs forth from land and sea now free from eons of icy embrace.

What Alaska Wildlife Can I See in Glacier Bay?

Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska is a vibrant ecosystem made up of a variety of terrestrial and marine species. Since nearly 20 percent of the park is composed of water, Alaska’s top 5 marine animals are in great abundance, with humpback whales, Steller sea lions, orcas, harbor seals, porpoises, otters, and a variety of fish prowling the waters.

On land, a large population of Alaska wildlife: both brown and black bears as well as moose, mountain goats, wolves, and Sitka black-tailed deer call the park home. And there’s a good chance you’ll catch sight of a bald eagle or two soaring overhead, in addition to the more 200 species of other birds that keep watch over Glacier Bay.

What Glaciers Will I See on a Glacier Bay Cruise?

There are many glaciers in Glacier National Park, but the tidewater glaciers, the ones that reach the sea are the most dazzling. Rangers come onboard to discuss the science behind Alaska glaciers and point out the named glaciers in the bay. Your Glacier Bay cruise will linger in front of at least one glacier, to give you the best to witness calving.

Most popular glaciers in Glacier Bay, Alaska:

  • John Hopkins Glacier: A mile wide and 250 feet high, check out its stunning stripes—those are called lateral moraines
  • McBride Glacier: The last tidewater glacier in the bay’s East Arm and in rapid retreat


What to Expect on a Glacier Bay Cruise

The National Parks Service restricts access to a few cruise ships per day and only certain lines. Holland America Line has more cruises to Glacier Bay than any other cruise line. Since most Glacier Bay visitors arrive by Alaska cruise, the park staff is well-versed in how to create an enriching, memorable experience for passengers.

Rangers come aboard the vessel bringing a mobile visitor’s center to you! During the Glacier Bay tour, look for them on the decks pointing out areas of interest and answering questions.

Glacier Bay Cruise Tips:

  • When you first board your cruise ship, scope out prime viewing spots ahead of when you cruise Glacier Bay — these are the open decks without windows between you and the scenery. The covered promenade deck has the added benefit of shelter from potential rain.
  • Speaking of rain, pack rain gear for your Glacier Bay cruise. The region receives a great deal of precipitation — so the chances are you’ll need it. And dress in layers. The average temperature is 55°F (13°C), but the moist air may make it feel colder. Read what to pack for an Alaska cruise.
  • Bring binoculars. This is the best way to view wildlife from the deck and will give you a better chance to take in the scenery.
  • Glacier Bay cruises typically spend about one hour directly in front of a tidewater glacier. Find out ahead of time when this will be to be sure you can get a good spot to see potential calving.

Getting ready to go to Glacier Bay, Alaska? View all Alaska Articles and Videos, or find information about Holland America's Alaska cruise ports.