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Hubbard Glacier vs. Glacier Bay: Which is the better scenic cruising spot in Alaska?

July 30, 2022
11 min read
Alaska
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Glacier viewing, salmon fishing, whale watching, dog sledding — Alaska cruise bucket lists tend to be long. Luckily, cruise lines devote time to cruising near some of Alaska's most scenic and famous rivers of ice, so passengers can have prime glacier viewing options. When it comes time to book your cruise, which of the top glacier cruising experiences should you pick? For most cruisers, it comes down to Hubbard Glacier versus Glacier Bay National Park.

Hubbard gets a nod for its sheer size, while the Glacier Bay option is prized for how many glaciers you can see in one day. For me, the best glacier cruise would include both Hubbard Glacier and Glacier Bay, but if forced to choose, it would be Glacier Bay. Before we dive into the reasons, let's cover the basics of what you can expect when it comes to glacier viewing in Alaska.

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Tips to ensure you see a glacier on your cruise

Can you cruise to Alaska and not see glaciers? More importantly, would you still have fun? Sure. I did it recently and had a marvelous time. My glacierless cruise was not a surprise. It was an early season, short cruise that only visited Ketchikan, Alaska, and Victoria, British Columbia. You should know, though, that almost any Alaska cruise can leave you without a glimpse of a glacier. Weather, ice in the water and onboard emergencies are the usual reasons ships must skip scheduled glacier visits.

If scenic cruising near a glacier is a priority for you, there are three things you can do to improve your chances. Book a midseason cruise because early and late cruises face more ice in the water and more challenging weather conditions. Also, book a cruise with more than one glacier cruising day to double your odds. Finally, add a glacier cruising excursion; these are often possible from the ports before or after the day your ship is planning to do its scenic cruising near a glacier.

Tip: If your cruise is offering a glacier viewing excursion on the day the ship is scheduled for scenic cruising near a glacier, take it. It's a definite indicator that the ship won't get as close as you might want.

Related: Best time to cruise Alaska

Hubbard Glacier

Hubbard Glacier has been advancing into Disenchantment Bay for more than 100 years. (Photo courtesy of Princess Cruises)

Details: Longest tidewater glacier in North America; the face is more than 400 feet high and almost 7 miles wide.

Cruise lines that visit Hubbard Glacier: Almost every cruise line that cruises in Alaska includes Hubbard Glacier on at least one itinerary — often on one-way sailings or longer round-trip cruises. The list includes small- and medium-ship cruise lines like Windstar and Lindblad.

What makes Hubbard Glacier special: Hubbard Glacier's enormous face is its biggest draw. Its massive size means you can see it even on visits when the ship cannot get as close as you'd like. Ships typically get within a quarter- to a half-mile of the face of the glacier, but the amount of ice in the water can force ships to halt farther out in the fjord in some cases.

Hubbard is sometimes called "The Galloping Glacier" because it has been advancing into Disenchantment Bay for more than 100 years — sometimes in surges that cut off nearby Russell Fjord. It is currently considered stable in terms of overall size, but it's steadily moving forward into the bay.

That movement causes ice to break off and fall into the sea in a process known as calving, which is not related as much to temperature as it is to the physics of the glacier’s thickness and the steepness of the land mass it crosses. Ice chunks the size of three-story buildings often fall into the water, creating a thunderous roar and waves that pound nearby shorelines.

The glacier is part of the 13.2 million-acre Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve — a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park encompasses the largest glacial system in the U.S., with 35% of the park covered by glaciers.

During the cruise into Yakutat Bay, which narrows into Disenchantment Bay, you may see humpback whales, orcas, bald eagles, seals, sea lions and even bears on shore. Some ships have naturalists on board to help with (and announce) sightings of wildlife during the ship's visit to the bay.

Related: The 6 coolest things to do on an Alaska cruise

Glacier Bay

Rangers will board the ship to answer your question with maps, charts and all the information you could want about the glaciers and the wildlife in the park. (Photo courtesy of Princess Cruises)

Details: Part of a national park and preserve covering over 3 million acres, encompassing more than 1,000 glaciers, seven of which are tidewater glaciers you'll be able to see from the ship.

Cruise lines that visit Glacier Bay: Cunard, Holland America, Norwegian, Princess, Seabourn, American Cruise Lines, Lindblad, UnCruise and Alaskan Dream Cruises.

What makes Glacier Bay special: Besides the fact that you can see seven glaciers in one day, the bay itself is part of a national park. Rangers will board the ship to answer your questions. They'll have maps, charts and all the information you could want about the glaciers and the wildlife in the park. Yes, you can get your national park passport stamped.

The ship will visit the park for nine to 10 hours, traveling over 120 miles. We found itineraries that started as early as 6 a.m. and one on Holland America that arrived at 8:30 a.m. (it stays until 6:30 p.m.). Ships stop in front of one of the tidewater glaciers for about an hour, rotating 360 degrees to give everyone on board a view.

Only two large cruise ships are allowed per day; luckily, the park classifies smaller lines — including UnCruise, Lindblad and American Cruise Lines — as tour vessels rather than cruise ships, so the big-ship limits don’t apply.

Throughout the day of cruising, you can expect to see harbor seals, Steller sea lions, sea otters and bald eagles. You may also see brown bears (coastal grizzlies), black bears, humpback whales, harbor porpoises, mountain goats, orcas and puffins.

Related: Best Alaska cruise tips to help you make the most of your time aboard and ashore

Which is better: Hubbard Glacier or Glacier Bay?

For length of time spent scenic cruising: Glacier Bay wins this one. The limited number of ships allowed each day means it is an all-day event for the lucky few who cruise these waters. Cruises to Hubbard Glacier typically spend a few hours near the glacier.

For dramatic presentation: Hubbard Glacier is the drama queen of all Alaskan glaciers. Between its brilliant blue colors, thunderous calving and monumental size, Hubbard puts on quite a show. The glaciers in Glacier Bay are quieter, far less flashy and less likely to exhibit calving of large ice chunks.

For wildlife viewing: Both scenic glacier cruises put you in ideal spots to see Alaskan wildlife and sea life throughout the visit; however, Glacier Bay is the winner because ships stay in the bay longer. It's like having an extended wildlife viewing excursion — except you never have to leave the ship.

Better for children or those with short attention spans: Hubbard wins here. There's a reason Disney ships visit Hubbard Glacier instead Glacier Bay: The latter is a long, slow affair, often beginning early in the morning and requiring warm clothing and lots of patience. The one plus for kids at Glacier Bay is interaction with the park rangers on board the ship.

For choice of cruise lines: Hubbard for the win here also. I tracked down 14 different cruise lines offering Hubbard stops in their itineraries. Glacier Bay does earn bonus points, though, for having the greatest number of small-ship options. Imagine the thrill of cruising here onboard an UnCruise, Lindblad or American Cruise Lines vessel.

For cost of the cruise: Both glacier stops are likely to require a one-way itinerary, which can add to your airfare costs, but Glacier Bay edges out Hubbard on this one. This is primarily because we did find a handful of seven-night round-trip itineraries that included stops here. Also, for the best viewing at Hubbard, you may still need a shore excursion on a smaller boat, which will add to your total costs.

Most likely to succeed: This one is also a win for Glacier Bay. With seven glaciers, the odds are stacked in your favor. It would take severe weather, dense fog or a ship emergency to keep you from seeing at least one glacier with this park on your itinerary.

Related: The best Alaska cruise for every type of traveler

Other glaciers in Alaska to see by cruise ship

The narrow Tracy Arm Fjord is stunning in its beauty, and you get closer to land, offering a better view of waterfalls and wildlife. (Photo by Peter Aitken/Getty Images)

While Hubbard and Glacier Bay are the two most famous glacier choices on Alaska cruises, don’t forget the smaller options. Here's what to look for and what to expect.

If your itinerary says you'll be cruising in Tracy Arm Fjord, you are there to see the twin Sawyer glaciers. The narrow fjord is stunning in its beauty. Plus, you'll get closer to land here than in the big open bays, offering a better view of waterfalls and wildlife. Look for bears and mountain goats.

Endicott Arm is a fjord that branches off Tracy Arm and might be used as a backup for Tracy Arm if the weather or ice prevents your ship from reaching the Sawyer glaciers. Because Endicott Arm is a bit straighter than Tracy Arm, larger ships (such as Quantum of the Seas and Ovation of the Seas) will schedule visits here. The glacier you'll see at Endicott Arm is Dawes Glacier. Ships may offer boat excursions to see these glaciers close-up, both on the day of scenic cruising and in Juneau.

College Fjord is a more northerly option, near Whittier, so you'll typically find it on itineraries that sail to or from Whittier or Seward. This is a bonus glacier viewing spot because most itineraries that include it also include either Hubbard Glacier or Glacier Bay. The real bonus, though, is that the fjord is home to five tidewater glaciers.

Bottom line

You can enjoy an Alaska cruise without seeing glaciers, but if that's an important part of your dream Alaska experience, you should book a cruise that includes more than one opportunity to see glaciers because things can (and do) go wrong. As for choosing Hubbard Glacier or Glacier Bay, our vote goes to Glacier Bay for ease of viewing, time spent in front of the glaciers and cost to visit.

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Featured image by Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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