One of the most significant marine and wilderness reserves on the planet, Glacier Bay is the crown jewel of America's National Parks. Thanks to its geography, Glacier Bay cruises are now hugely popular as they provide the best seats in the house so to speak.
Covering over 3.2 million acres, Glacier Bay is a UNESCO world heritage site and biosphere reserve home to over 1,000 glaciers. There are seven tidewater glaciers in the park, four of which actively calve icebergs into the bay.
Both Margerie Glacier and Grand Pacific Glacier are the most impressive in the park, if not Alaska. Like a towering wall of ice, the glaciers rise 245 feet above the ocean and 100 feet below. Thick chunks of 200 year-old ice calve almost daily during the summer, making impressive sounds and even more impressive splashes!
Glacier Bay is a living laboratory and scientists are constantly studying the geology of the landscape to foretell further changes in our earth's ecosystem. For most people however, the glaciers, beautiful rainforests, and amazing wildlife is what draws them to the park's shores every year.
Although there are plenty of land-based tours and activities, a cruise is by far the best way to see the park and it's enormous glaciers. Front row seats are guaranteed aboard a cruise and you won't miss a moment. Click here for more cruise tips.
Below we have written a detailed guide on what to expect during your Glacier Bay cruise. Please use our quicklinks if you know what section you wish to read.
Due to ice, low temperatures and ocean conditions, Glacier Bay can only be cruises during Summer from April to September. The high season is June, July and August when temperatures are at their warmest and the glaciers are calving daily.
Although you'll be sailing in Summer, the temperatures in South-East Alaska are far from hot. Thanks to the Moist air from the Pacific Ocean, Glacier Bay has a maritime climate that only gets four days of sun each month on average.
Even during the high Summer season, the average temperature stays around 55º F (13º C). Don't panic though, clouds add a sense of drama to the epic landscape and photographers will certainly prefer it to bright blue skies.
There are also a number of opportunities to cruise Glacier Bay during the shoulder months of Summer. Although the days will be shorter and you'll have less chance of seeing a calving glaciers, there will be more whales in the bay and the cruise cost will be cheaper. It's not uncommon to see 30-50 whales in one day, especially early or late in the season when they are most active.
There are a number of cruise ship options to consider when deciding on your perfect Glacier Bay cruise. From enormous cruise liners, to small motor yachts, each type has its pros and cons as discussed below.
Generally carrying between 10-30 passengers, motor yachts offer a very intimate experience with both nature and your fellow passengers.
Although you won't have the luxury of space, you'll be able to reach shallow inlets and bays that larger ships cannot. This means seeing areas of outstanding natural beauty that other ships cannot offer.
Please bear in mind though that smaller boats feel the motion of the sea more and if you suffer from seasickness, this is not a great option.
Expedition ships are becoming more and more popular in Glacier Bay thanks to their focus on nature and guides.
Carrying between 50-100 passengers, expedition ships offer a nice balance between the small boats and the large cruise liners.
Usually designed specifically for expedition cruises, these ships offer excellent viewing spaces and excellent added activities like kayaking.
Because you'll have dedicated guides and naturalists on board, expedition ships are often a little more expensive, but worth it in our opinion.
Largely thanks to the incredible onboard facilities, cruise liners are by far the most popular option still.
Glacier Bay is actually deep enough to accommodate some of the largest ships in the world. Because of this, almost all major cruise lines operate here.
Whilst you get lots of space, great dining options, pools, casino etc., cruise liners will not be able to stay as long and you won't be able to explore as much of the bay.
Because of its sheer size, unique geology, and amazing wildlife, there is plenty to see and do in Glacier Bay. Whether you want a chilled cruise or a more adventure-orientated trip, there is plenty of options to suit everybody.
Below are some of the most popular highlights for Glacier Bay cruise passengers.
Kayaking in Glacier Bay is an incredible opportunity and allows you to explore the bay in a way your cruise ship never could. Get close up to icebergs, come fact to face with seals and, if you're lucky, paddle next to a whale! Kayaking is generally included on expedition itineraries. For people sailing aboard a standard cruise line you can go ashore and take a sea kayak tour at an additional cost.
This is where a good guide will come in very useful. Glacier Bay is famed for it's wildlife, particularly its marine species which range from orca, humpbacks and porpoise, to harbour seals and sea otters. Keep your binoculars to hand though as grizzly bears frequently appear on the shore line and bald eagles fly overhead. If you're lucky you'll also spot mountain goats and the odd puffin!
One of the main reasons for taking a Glacier Bay cruise is to witness the majesty of calving glaciers. Your ship will bring you right up to the glacier wall where you'll stay for a number of hours, waiting for that enormous chunk of ice to calve from the glacier. You'll probably hear it first as the sounds reaches you like thunder!
For people who want the ultimate view, taking a flightseeing trip is the way to go. Helicopters and sea planes both operate daily flights out of Juneau during Summer. Although it costs quite a bit, seeing Glacier Bay from high above is something you'll never forget, especially at sunset.
The only developed area in Glacier Bay National Park, Bartlett Cove is the headquaerts of the region. Here you can visit the information centre and the exhibits, take shore hikes, hire a kayak, and make camp overnight. There are plenty of rangers around to help you make a day of it.
Hiking around Glacier Bay is a great to explore the landscape in more depth. Bartlett Cove is the main starting point and there are a number of hiking trails from 1 mile to 5 miles in length. The most popular are the Forest Loop Trail, the Bartlett River Trail, and the Bartlett Lake Trail.
Choosing which Glacier Bay cruise itinerary to sail is probably the most important and difficult decision to make. You need to consider elements such as cost, length and what you'll see.
Although Glacier Bay cruise have loads of different names, there are essentially only 4 types of itineraries. Each of the 4 options is listed below with some information about length and cost.
Day trips out of Bartlett Cover offer the only cruises that purely visit Glacier Bay.
Without doubt the perfect option if you're taking a land-based trip as its the only way you'll get close to the calving glaciers. Prices cost between $200-300 depending on the boat and operator. Children generally cost about half that.
The 150 passenger catamaran will sail the entire length of the West Arm of Glacier Bay. Day tours leave at 7.30am and return around 3.30pm. The 8 hour tour will include lunch and refreshments. You'll be joined onboard by a National Park ranger who will direct you around the bay and give you loads of information regarding the geology, flora and fauna.
This is probably the most popular option due to the fact that most main line cruises offer this itinerary.
Essentially you'll take a 7 night cruise that departs from either Vancouver, British Columbia, or Seattle, Washington. The cruise is a round-trip that spends 3-4 days in Alaska's Inside Passage, including Glacier Bay.
These itineraries are ideal if you want to explore other regions of the Inside Passage, and not just Glacier Bay. You probably won't make it ashore, but you'll usually get 7-9 hours within the bay itself, witnessing the glacier calving.
All the major lines offer this cruise including Princess, P&O, Holland America, Norwegian, Regent, Carnival, Disney etc. Costs start at around $500 and go up from there depending on the cabin you choose and when you sail. The high season is more expensive.
One way cruises are generally 're-positioning cruises' and are therefore only offered once a season. With so many operators however, this means there is still quite a lot of options available.
Similar top the round-trip cruises, these cruise generally depart from either Seattle or Washington. However, the occasionally depart for San Francisco and Los Angeles.
One-way cruises disembark in either Seward or Whittier - the main two ports outside of Anchorage. These cruise are often longer than 7 nights and you'll see much more of the Alaskan coast. However, you will need to have separate flights as your embarkation and disembarkation ports will be different.
Prices start at $500 for a basic cabin and no additional activities/spending money. More expensive options can be upwards of $5,000.
Cruises that begin and finish within Alaska's Inside Passage are generally expedition-style cruises.
These cruises generally depart and finish in Juneau (and sometimes Sitka). Although most of these cruises explore all regions of the Inside Passage, some have a focus on Glacier Bay.
Occasionally, Glacier Bay itineraries are offered that spend a staggering 3 days within the bay! These are the ultimate option for people who wish to explore the bay in detail. You'll also have the chance to kayak the eastern arm of the bay where motor boats are not permitted.
Onboard you'll have guides and naturalist giving lectures and photography experts showing you the best spots. Prices for these 7 night itineraries start around $2,800 and go up to $10,000 depending on your ship, cabin, and itinerary.
As stated above, the moist climate of Glacier Bay means that temperatures are not particularly high, even during summer.
Rain showers are common and there are very few sunny days. Wind chill factor is also a consideration, especially when you're stood on deck for hours watching the wildlife.
Because of this, wearing layers is key. You'll want waterproof jacket with several layers below. For more information, please see our detailed packing list.
Purchasing cruise insurance is vital. Rescue costs are high in Alaska and you'll need the proper cover. For a detailed page on cruise insurance, click here.
Below is a short video by TheBestThings. Check out the glacier calving at 3.55!