Alaska Glaciers: How to See Alaska’s Impressive Glaciers
A yacht charter in Alaska wouldn’t be complete without taking in one of the Frontier State’s numerous stunning glaciers. With more than 27,000 glaciers in the state – ranging from icy blue tidewater glaciers to sprawling ice fields – there are plenty of opportunities to experience a glacier up close and personal.
In general, the main hubs for glacier viewing are Southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage (around Juneau) and the Gulf of Alaska (near Anchorage). Both locations provide a multitude of ways to go glacier hunting – from hikes and drives to glacier yacht charters and flightseeing adventures.
Interested in learning more about Alaska’s glaciers? This short guide gives you everything you need to know, including:
- Where to go to see glaciers in Alaska
- Types of glacier tours
- Alaska’s biggest glaciers
- How fast Alaska glaciers are melting
Ready to start planning your trip? Read on to learn more.
Where to Go to See Alaska Glaciers
Alaska is a massive state, and that can make it hard to plan a trip. But if your hope to is to see as many glaciers as possible, you’ll likely be heading to the Inside Passage or the Gulf of Alaska. Some of the most common hubs and destinations for glacier tours in Alaska include:
1. Glacier Bay National Park
The crown jewel of the Inside Passage is Glacier Bay, a sprawling national park and World Heritage Site encompassing more than 25 million acres. Many visitors head to Glacier Bay to see the park’s impressive tidewater glaciers, of which there are 7 in the park.
These glaciers are well-known for calving when bergs of ice as large as 200 feet in height break lose and crash into the sea. In addition, you’ll find a variety of terrestrial lake water glaciers in the park.
2. Tracy Arm Fjord
About 70 miles south of Juneau, you’ll find Tracy Arm Fjord, a narrow, inlet with towering, craggy walls. The fjord is awe-inspiring all by itself, with waterfalls and national protected forests along the way. If you’re lucky, you might see a black or brown bear, harbor seals, or wolves in the adjacent Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness.
But the real reason to visit is the fjord’s glaciers. Tracy Arm is home to some of Alaska’s most photogenic glaciers, including Sawyer Glacier. Sawyer is an active tidewater glacier – which means large chunks “calve” off. And when you see it up close, you’ll have the chance to witness one of these massive bergs breaking off and crashing to the sea below, as it’s known to calf regularly.
3. Hubbard Glacier
Hubbard Glacier – north of Glacier Bay – is North America’s largest tidewater glacier. This is a massive giant you have to see to believe. Measuring 6+ miles wide, the glacier is continuing to grow, or “surge,” and Hubbard towers 40 stories tall.
The glacier is known for its calving. In fact, icebergs measuring 10 stories tall commonly break off and crash down, in an explosive display of natural beauty.
Hubbard is also one of most beautiful glaciers in Alaska, with jade blue and frozen sapphire hues. Not only does it wow with its vastness – it’s also a treasure to see up close. But the journey is also half the fun. The Disenchantment Bay and journey into the fjord put on a show of wildlife. The fjord is home to seal and whale populations, and the region is well-known for its fishing.
4. Mendenhall Glacier
You can’t visit Juneau without a trip to Mendenhall Glacier. Located just 10 miles from downtown Juneau, the glacier is part of the Juneau Icefield, a photographic panorama of steel blue ice that’s been here since the last Ice Age.
Not only is the journey out to Mendenhall worth the trek, but you’ll be welcomed by natural beauty along the way. The glacier is surrounded by nearly 6,000 acres of protected forest, and charterers regularly see wildlife and stunning landscapes when visiting.
Alaska Glacier Tours: How to Visit Glaciers
Whatever way you choose to go glacier hunting in Alaska, you’re guaranteed to have an adventure. From seaplane flightseeing, to sea kayaking in Glacier Bay, these are the most common ways to access glaciers in Alaska:
- By Charter or Cruise – A cruise or yacht charter offers unparalleled access to glaciers, particularly in the Inside Passage and Kenai Fjords National Park.
- Seakayaking – Want to get up close and personal? Take to the water in a kayak. Glacier Bay and Tracy Arm are favorite seakayaking destinations.
- Flightseeing – A seaplane or helicopter allows provides access to Alaska’s most isolated glaciers. For example, the Harding Icefield, located high in the mountains over Kenai Fjords National Park is best viewed by plane.
- By Rail – Near Anchorage, you can reach many glaciers via short rail trip. Spencer Glacier can be accessed after a picturesque ride on the Alaska Railroad.
- Drive-In – Roadside glacier viewing is possible in a variety of destinations. Some of the best spots include the Parks Highway, the Seward Highway on the Kenai Peninsula, and the Glenn Highway through the Chugach Mountains.
Exploring Alaska’s Largest Glaciers
Here’s the thing about Alaska glaciers, even the small ones are big. But if you’re looking for the biggest glaciers in Alaska, these are glaciers to visit:
- Malaspina Glacier – This National Natural Landmark is the world’s largest piedmont glacier. Measuring nearly 40 miles wide and 30 miles long, the glacier covers an area larger than the state of Rhode Island. It is located in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.
- Hubbard Glacier – Of all of Alaska’s tidewater glaciers, Hubbard is the largest. Measuring nearly six miles wide where it meets the coast, this glacier is known for dropping 3- to 4-story glaciers from its 400-foot wall. Due to most of the ice being underwater, charter yachts and cruise ships can only get about a half-mile from the face.
- Nabensa Glacier – The heavy snowfall in the Wrangell Mountains feeds the Nabensa Glacier, the largest valley glacier in North America. Measuring more than 50 miles long, this glacier is a popular spot for flightseeing.
- Bagley Icefield – Another Wrangell-St. Elias gem, the Bagley Icefield is actually multiple glaciers, which form the largest non-polar icefield in North America. Bagley measures 127 miles long and in some places is up to 3,000 feet thick.
- Bering Glacier – The Bering Glacier is North America’s largest and longest glacier. Measuring nearly 120 miles in length and covers an area roughly the size of Delaware.
Are Alaska’s Glaciers Melting?
Since the Little Ice Age, the glaciers in Southeast Alaska and other regions in the state have been melting. Melting is caused when a glacier’s annual accumulation is less than its rate of melt.
In recent years, the rate of melting has increased significantly. In fact, according to a study by NASA – called Operation IceBridge – the Frontier State’s glaciers have lost nearly 75 gigatons of ice each year, from 1994 to 2013.
The glacier losses have been particularly dramatic in Southeast Alaska. For example, Muir Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park has retreated nearly 7 miles, and its thickness has decreased by nearly 2,700 feet since 1941, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. Mendenhall Glacier, another tidewater glacier in the Southeast, is another dramatic case study; this one near downtown Juneau lost nearly 2 square miles of mass from 1948 to 2000.
Yet, not all glaciers in Alaska are melting. Hubbard Glacier, the largest tidewater glacier in the world, is actually growing, and has been for the last 100 years. Of all Alaska’s calving glaciers, in fact, there are eight that are growing.
Plan a Trip to See Glaciers in Alaska
Alaska is America’s Last Frontier, and as such, it’s one of the best destinations for an adventure in North America. If your goal is to experience glaciers calving, it’s highly recommended to explore the state by charter yacht or cruise. Charters in Alaska provide the best mode for seeing glaciers in both of the region’s coastal glacier areas, including the Inside Passage and the Gulf of Alaska.
Bottom line, however you choose to explore Alaska, you’re bound to make lasting memories.