“Did you get to see any glaciers?” That was the number one question I got from family and friends when I returned home from an Alaskan Cruise with Holland America Line. “Yes,” I replied, as a mental photo album of glacier adventures both onboard and off my ship flipped through my mind. “Actually, I got to see glaciers in a dozen different ways.”
In fact, I couldn’t count how many glaciers my family and I saw during our Holland America Line (HAL) 7-Day Alaskan Inside Passage cruise. The first time we spotted a glacier, one of those majestic slow-moving rivers of ice, was from a deck on our ship, the Koningsdam. We were making our way north through the Inside Passage, a 500-mile channel that gives guests on all sides of the ship seemingly endless views of untouched Alaskan forest, picturesque islands and inlets, towering mountain peaks, diverse flora and fauna, and — perhaps most notably — several different types of awe-inspiring glacial formations.
On the day that we cruised into Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve, we woke early to watch as the ship entered the bay. First, there was nothing but dense morning fog. But as it burned off, blue skies and jaw-dropping views of the unspoiled landscape that John Muir explored in 1879 were revealed.
Two rangers from Glacier Bay boarded the ship to help us give us a primer on the pristine wilderness. Established as a national park in 1910, it preserves over a million acres of deep fjords, high mountain peaks, 700-some lakes, and a few dozen distinct glaciers. The rangers helped us understand how these glaciers are formed and how they slowly shift over the centuries, and answered questions about the history of the park, environmental issues, and what marine life we might spot on our tour.
Further into the park, we had a full hour to marvel at Johns Hopkins Glacier, an imposing mass of striated ice that’s a full mile wide and 250-feet high. From the bow of the ship, we had unobstructed views of the ice mass and even witnessed calving, when sheets of ice fall thunderously from the edges of the massive ice shelf into the frigid waters.
And those were just a couple of the glacier sightings we had without ever leaving the ship.
Then…there were the off-boat excursions. From heart thumping adventures like landing on top of a glacier in a private helicopter and dog-sledding across the surface of an icefield, to lesurely catamaran trips where three generations of a family get up and personal with glaciers and waterfalls in a peaceful fjord, there truly is something for every kind of traveler.
I’m an adventure junkie who grew up fishing, so I opted for three totally different (but all incredible and highly-recommended) excursions. During our stop in Skagway, I disembarked for the Glacier Point ATV Exploration. Aboard a small boat that let us get close to shore to see various points of interest, we cruised by dozens of waterfalls along Lynn Canal, North America’s longest fjord.
Landing at Glacier Point, on an uninhabited island near the town of Haines, we had a picnic lunch by the beach before heading to ATV camp. When I saw how intense the mud gear was that we were to wear, it was obvious that we were in for a fun and messy ride. I had a ridiculous amount of fun driving the twisting, turning forest trails laden with mud that kicked up as I drove. Our ultimate destination was a scenic viewpoint of Davidson Glacier and a bucolic river.
Then, we jumped back on our ATVs and slung more mud touring the island’s forest trails and beautiful beaches. By the time we returned to camp, there was hardly a square inch of my vehicle or mud gear that wasn’t completely caked with mud, and my face hurt from laughing and smiling so much.
During our stopover in Ketchikan, I jumped aboard a fishing boat with just four other anglers with the hopes of hooking a Pacific halibut, AKA the largest flatfish in the world. On the ride out to our guide’s favorite spot, we saw glaciers, breaching whales, and bright red buoys covered with inquisitive seals.
While I didn’t land any halibut myself (I caught two smaller fish that I released), others on the boat did. They took advantage of HAL’s “Savor My Catch” program, which allows HAL guests who catch salmon, halibut, or other fish on their excursions to freeze and ship them home, or to bring them back aboard their ship to be cooked and served up fresh by one of HAL’s chefs.
But my excursion in Juneau offered the most jaw-dropping views and glacier experiences. On the Taku Glacier Helicopter Landing & Airboat Adventure, we boarded a helicopter from a private heliport on Douglas Island. We rose high above the city before being treated to incredible aerial views of the Tongass National Forest, Juneau Ice Field, Gastineau Channel, and Taku River. After landing on a scenic helipad right on the Taku, and with no other people in sight, we transferred to an open-sided airboat that put us within arm’s reach of the five-mile face of Taku Glacier — the only advancing glacier in the Juneau Ice Field.
And that wasn’t even the most incredible part of the day: back on the helicopter, we flew low enough over the glacier that we could really take in its dazzling shades of blue and white, hypnotic depths, and varying textures before we landed directly on the glacier. There on top of the glacier, we had a few minutes to hear our feet crunch on the glacier’s top crust as we walked across it, stare into deep, crystal-clear crevasses that looked hundreds of feet deep, and even cup our hands to drink frigid water straight from shallow pools. In a word, it was unforgettable.
Those three excursions were tailor-made to my interests, but there were so many other ways to see and experience glaciers on HAL’s Alaskan cruises. There are far too many to list here, so read on for examples of excursions that may be available (please note: cruise excursions vary by route and date, so check the info for each individual cruise for specific excursion availability.) Some outings are great for families with young kids or multi-generational groups, and there are options that are wheelchair accessible. Others are ideal for adrenaline junkies who want to see Alaska’s incredible glaciers the most adventurous ways possible.
While all excursions get booked directly and easily through HAL, they’re run by local outfitters in each port. This gives guests the added benefit of getting to chat with their knowledgeable local guides to learn more about the places they call home, and what makes these destinations so special. Here’s a sampling.
Active Glacier Excursions:
– Dog Sledding on Mendenhall Glacier by Helicopter
– Helicopter Glacier Trek
– Five Glacier Seaplane Exploration
– Bike & Brew Glacier View
Family-Friendly Glacier Excursions:
– Tracy Arm Fjord & Glacier Explorer
– Whales and Mendenhall Glacier Trail
– Glacier View Sea Kayaking
– Mendenhall Glacier Float Trip
– Sentinel Island Lighthouse & Whale Watching Cruise
– Mendenhall Glacier, Hatchery, and Glacier Gardens
– Taku Lodge, Feast & Five Glacier Seaplane Discovery
– Mendenhall Glacier & Evening Whale Quest
– Misty Fjords & Wilderness Explorer Cruise (wheelchair accessible)
– Mendenhall Glacier Kayak & Salmon Bake
If you’re looking to learn more about an Alaskan cruise, HAL’s The Complete Guide To Alaska Glacier Viewing And Tours is a great place to start. Ready to book? Cruise season in Alaska runs from May through September and trips and excursions often book up months in advance, so now is the perfect time to book a Holland America Line Alaskan cruise for this summer or fall.