Call me biased, but I have this infinity with glaciers. In my opinion, glaciers are but some of the most astonishing natural structures in the world.
I’d had the opportunity to work in a glacier guiding company in New Zealand for 4 months, and having a job at a glacier guiding company means having to hike, chop and climb the glacier ice whenever I want. How’s that for a full-time job?
Then I came across this big dilemma when it comes to travellers visiting USA’s Alaska on the best place to visit to see spectacular glacier formations – Hubbard Glacier or Glacier Bay.
After doing some research myself, I’ve broken down some of the pros and cons of each – and the winner is pretty evident to me. 😉
Read on to get a better understanding of both of Alaska’s famous glacier regions!
Why Hubbard Glacier is Better
Located in Disenchantment Bay between Seward and Skagway, Hubbard Glacier is the largest glacier in North America. If you’re wondering what the largest glacier in Alaska is, you got it.
It spans a whopping 76 miles long, 1,200 feet deep, 6 to 7 miles wide and 25 to 30 stories tall at its face. Some of the ice are as thick as 2,000 feet thick!
While most glaciers are receding, Hubbard Glacier is actually an advancing tidal glacier! It is slowly but constantly moving toward the Gulf of Alaska through Disenchantment Bay.
The advance is caused by global warming, which causes more precipitation to fall in the St. Elias Mountains. As the precipitation cools, it forms snow. This snow slowly accumulates and are packed into ice, forming glaciers on Hubbard Glacier.
Because it is advancing, you’ll have a higher chance of witnessing truly spectacular calving of the glacier. Calving is when chunks (both big and small) of ice break off at the edges of a glacier. Ice breaks because the forward motion of a glacier makes the glacier edge unstable and unable to support the weight of the rest of the glacier.
Since Hubbard Glacier is advancing, it calves more often than the other glaciers you’ll see in the region – about every 15 minutes. At times, chunks of ice as high as 10 or 15 floors will break off and fall into the sea with great force, accompanied by a reverberating sound that can be heard for a long time.
There is also an abundance of wildlife in the area, both on land and in the sea. A naturalist will usually be on-board to provide information on the area. Spot wild eagles flying, seals lounging on the ice chunks and grizzly bears out on a hunt!
It takes about 450 years for ice to traverse the length of this glacier – so what you’ll see is truly history in the making!
No doubt Hubbard Glacier is the highlight, but the journey to get to the glacier through Disenchantment Bay is also ever so remarkable.
9 of the 16 tallest peaks in North America are visible while en route to Hubbard Glacier. These peaks are part of the Wrangell St. Elias mountain range, which includes the famous Mount Fairweather. From Disenchantment Bay, the view of Mount Fairweather’s pristine white peak is even more arresting than if you were to spot it from Glacier Bay.
In the 1920s, Glacier Bay used to be grandly full of ice. However, in the last 10 years, over 60 miles of ice have melted and most of the glaciers on Glacier Bay you see now are considered “hanging” glaciers, which have long since receded far back into the mountains.
For instance, Margerie Glacier is stable – neither advancing nor retreating. Hence, it isn’t as active as Hubbard Glacier and the calving you’ll notice, if any, wouldn’t be as dramatic as Hubbard’s. It’ll look more like ice “waterfalls”.
Coupled with the challenge to sail to the face of these glaciers, the likelihood of you witnessing calving is pretty low. Given that it takes six hours to get up the bay to see up to two glaciers, surely you want to maximize your glacier visit and catch them calving?
Glacier Bay, when you visit during the cruise season, can have very cold and wet weather conditions. The bay has a cool and wet coastal temperate rainforest climate, with summer temperatures varying between 10°C and 16°C.
Further, during the summer months, Johns Hopkins Glacier is off-limits to park visitors, so you miss some fantastic wildlife viewing.
Cruise line visits to Glacier Bay are limited due to conservation reasons and to prevent overcrowding. To enter Glacier Bay, cruise ships will thus have to first secure a permit. Because it is a National Park, it has certain restrictions on entering the national park.
Why Glacier Bay is Better
Unfortunately, there is only that one active glacier where Hubbard Glacier is. The closest other glacier is not advancing and so does not calve much.
Hubbard can be difficult to sail to at particular times of the Hubbard Glacier cruise season. At the beginning or end of the season, ice chunks that fall off from the glacier can interfere with ships’ courses and prevent them from going near the glaciers. It would thus be difficult for ships to sail close to the glacier’s face.
Glacier Bay National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with several glaciers to see, the most popular ones being Margerie Glacier, Grand Pacific Glacier and Lamplugh Glacier. The majority of your time will be spent at Margerie and Grand Pacific when you visit Glacier Bay, which are right by each other.
Margerie Glacier is the larger and more active glacier of the other two. Almost two-thirds of Grand Pacific Glacier’s ice face is covered by rock debris and extends across. If you are lucky and the conditions are right, your cruise captain may venture into John Hopkins Inlet, where you will get a view of John Hopkins Glacier from some distance.
Since Glacier Bay is in a national park, park rangers will come on-board with live commentary while you’re within the confines of the park. The local park rangers will share all about the sights, ecology and geography of Glacier Bay as you sail.
Watch bears sauntering on the beach and moose swimming across the bay while on the cruise liners.
Glacier viewing is almost always the highlight of any Alaskan cruise, if only because of how much more accessible it is with an Alaska cruise than other modes of transport.
Whether it is Hubbard Glacier, Glacier Bay, Sawyer Glacier or Tracy Arm fjord you decide to visit, glacier viewing on a cruise ship makes for one of the most scenic journeys to explore these captivating, giant ice formations in Alaska and you should definitely not miss it out.