Dramatic isn't a strong enough word for Glacier Bay's scenery. It's an active participant in proceedings here: the air is filled with the sound of creaking ice then the splashes of bergs cleaving into the waters below. And this sort of action, and the wildlife that will watch it with you, have made this National Park one of the world's most popular cruising destinations, both for people who want to travel in huge ships to people who prefer smaller crafts.
Anciently creaking and groaning, the cold stillness of Glacier Bay is temporarily disturbed but a vast chunk of ice cracking off one of the glaciers and crashing into the waters below, churning up the ocean and shattering more submerged shards of frozen, ragged, jagged diamond. The people on the sedately moving deck of the vast white cruise ship gasp and chatter and grab their cameras, taking careful aim... Little bugs marvelling at the majesty of nature and their potential destruction.
In 1794 this whole Y shaped bay was covered in ice, and as it melted the sixteen glaciers that fed into the bay started to slowly drop off their load into the sea, a process which is called calving. Four glacier have retreated beyond the coastline, so now there are only twelve active glaciers that creak and crack and break open for the viewing pleasure of lucky onlookers. This whole region is protected under the banner of the Glacier Bay National Park, and it's likely that instead of offering the opportunity for you to go on land within the park that your cruise line will arrange for Park Rangers to board your ship and give talks about the landscape - thus better preserving it.
Behind the glaciers, some which are clean and white with hearts of dark blue, and some that are run though with gravel and other debris that they've picked up along their slow journey to the sea, are snow capped mountains – the Chilkat and Fairweather Mountain ranges, which would probably appear more dramatic if it wasn't for the foreground, which steadily fills with icebergs as your cruise ship picks its way though. It's hard not to think of the Titanic, but while this is a dangerous region ships are now well prepared. In the waters amongst the icebergs are the other highlight of cruising here: the marine life, Humpback, Minke and Fin Whales and all sorts of seals.
If the wildlife is number one for you then by taking day trips on land during the rest of your cruise there's also the opportunity to see Black, Brown or Blue Bears and moose or even wolverines, who live in the spruce and hemlock forests that have replaced the retreating glaciers.
Ships depart the warmer Seattle ports daily on their journeys into this quiet other worldly domain of larger than life landscape, but you can also leave from Vancouver or Anchorage.The most common Glacier Bay cruises last for seven days which is a comfortable trip length between Vancouver and Anchorage, via Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, Haines and College Fjord. Often trips also cruise Alaska's Inner Passage.
Typical excursion options include trips out in smaller crafts allowing for a closer inspection of the marine life, in Skagway there's historic gold prospector tours and in Ketchikan there's the opportunity to learn more about the local Native American culture. More adventurous, or thermal skinned, visitors can also explore the delicate shapes of the fjords in more detail on sea kayaks.
Larger ships, which sail quite quickly between the major ports, allowing for more land based excursions and offer more on board facilities, and small ships which allow you greater flexibility when it comes to itineraries and often better access to on board experts or speakers. While you'd usually be able to get closer to the coastline in a smaller vessel it's not quite the case when it comes to glaciers, because a smaller ship is more likely to feel the effects of icebergs falling nearby. If you're especially interested in learning about the wildlife or history of the area, or even improving your photography or doing a bit of star gazing while you're at sea, then there are smaller ships that offer more themed cruises.
Most people not cruising all the way from Seattle will combine their Glacier Bay cruise with visits to Denali National Park or the Rocky Mountains, usually for more wildlife spotting.
Summer is the best season for Glacier Bay, as well as the less frigid weather there’s more chance of seeing some spectacular glacial action and where the bare rock shows though wildflowers sprout. There's also loads of light so it's perfect for photographers. At the peak of the season it's not uncommon to see three or four mega-vessels in the main ports, but while there's a lot of travel options there's also a lot of demand.
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