I have been to three of these four glacial areas. All are impressive and beautiful, yet quite different.
We arrived in College Fjord in the early morning - around 630am, having sailed in from Wittier. We were on a southbound cruise, thus the morning arrival. Northbound cruises arrive in the area in the afternoon or evening hours. On our cruise, while it was already light out, seeing the changes when the sun came up over the mountains was absolutely beautiful. Scenic cruising is usually between 2-3 hours.
College Fjord has the world's largest collection of tidewater glaciers, which makes for spectacular viewing in a relatively small area. Just about 180 degrees of glacier views. The glaciers were named by a group of scientists exploring the area back in 1899 after their Ivy League alma maters and their sister schools, including Amherst, Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Harvard, Smith, Vassar, and Yale.
At 400 feet high and six miles wide, Hubbard Glacier is just simply impressive, and massive. And when the weather is fairly clear one is greeted with beautiful views of the St. Elias mountain range rising up behind Hubbard.
Because the glacier is actively advancing, it often provides the exciting opportunity to see calving - a spectacular show when chunks of ice break off at the edge of glacier into the water. Of note though, these icebergs may block ships from getting very close to the glacier. This is most prevalent on itineraries at the beginning or end of the season. On good days, ships can get within about a half mile of the glacier.
Foggy weather may also hinder getting very close. The icebergs, however, are very attractive to local wildlife, especially seals. Scenic cruising here is also between 2-3 hours.
Glacier Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, covering 3.3 million acres. A limited number of ships are allowed into the park each day (usually only two), and are always accompanied by a National Park guide on board who provides great park information and narration during the 9-10 hours of scenic cruising.
Glacier Bay is known for its wide open spaces, tidewater glaciers, beautiful inlets and plenty of wildlife. This area often boasts nice (or nicer) weather, perfect for scenic cruising, including passing by 8 of the park's 11 glaciers. Most cruises take you 65 miles in to the end of the west arm where passengers are greeted by the spectacular Margerie Glacier. Ships will stay here for about an hour, and more often than not passengers are treated to calving ice. This is also a fantastic spot for most memorable pictures, like the one below.
Call me a bit crazy, but it was on this route that I parked myself right under the navigation deck (Holland America's ship had this wonderful little lookout area) for 5-6 hours. A beautiful day, this was a perfect spot to observe the gorgeous surrounds and search for wildlife. I had more fun scouring the waters and mountainside through my binoculars looking for seals, whales, bears and mountain goats. I found plenty!
Tracy Arm is the only area I have not been to, however colleagues and friends who have been here tell me this route is special as well. Tracy Arm is quite different in that it is located in a long and narrow fjord - only a half mile wide - in comparison to the wide open spaces of the other glacial areas. Tracy Arm is approximately 50 southeast of Juneau, and thus also receives its share of Alaska's famous liquid sunshine.
The 3000 foot cliffs and narrow passage makes it feel like you can touch the sides of the fjord. Cruising the twenty seven miles up the arm offers a quite scenic experience with numerous waterfalls and wildlife sightings. Unforgettable views of Sawyer Glacier are at the end of the fjord, where hundreds of seals can usually be found on the numerous ice floes.
Scenic cruising is usually between 3-4 hours, and quite often is combined with a half day (6 hours or so) port stop in Juneau.
For many people though, Alaska is a one time visit. That said, (and I may be a bit biased), I absolutely loved Glacier Bay, and thus encourage as many as possible to include this most beautiful area in the world on their itinerary.
INTERESTED IN ALASKA? Check out these related articles:
The Best Ways To See Alaska
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