Glacier Bay National Park serves as a stunning grand finale to northbound cruises through the Alaskan panhandle's Inside Passage. Silent and austere, Glacier Bay is a powerful example of the natural world's capacity to amaze and inspire. Fairweather Mountain Range rings the pristine waters of the bay, where you'll step back in time straight into an enthralling scene from Planet Earth's last Ice Age. Crystalize waters hold towering glaciers that make it easy to see why Glacier Bay plays the role of a long-lost land of magic in the cultural narrative of the Huna Tlingit. According to the Natives, Glacier Bay was an important part of their ancestral homelands at one time, but they were forced out of the area by the last advancing glaciers of the Ice Age.
Many travelers don't consider an Alaska cruise to be complete without a visit to Glacier Bay, and for this reason, cruise lines compete to get a coveted spot in the National Park Service's concession plan that regulates cruise ship traffic in the area. Only two cruise ships are allowed in the park at one time, which minimizes both air and water pollution and provides passengers with a superior appearance. Each cruise line must submit a proposal for consideration by National Park Service authorities, and cruise lines are awarded a certain number of trips. Concession contracts run for 10 years, and the newest one was finalized in October of 2019.
Cruise Lines Serving Glacier Bay
Seven cruise companies were awarded contracts to visit Glacier Bay. Cruise companies were chosen based on environmental standards and the visitor experience they provide. Princess Cruise Line, Holland America, Norwegian Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean, Viking, Carnival, and Seaborne Cruises were the winners in this very competitive competition. Each company's contract will last through the cruise season of 2029. However, every ship is allotted a specific number of visits, so not every west coast cruise will go to Glacier Bay.
What to Expect
Glacier Bay cruise ship excursions don't involve going on land at all — you'll be on the ship the entire time. A Park Ranger will provide an informative narrative about the natural history of Glacier Bay and answer any questions passengers may have. You'll also receive a map of the bay with an insider's guide the evening prior to the ship's arrival there. Cruise ships generally stay in Glacier Bay for about 10 hours.
Glacier Bay is a completely protected area where an abundance of wildlife species thrive. Humpback whales spend their summers in the bay's pristine waters and routinely stun visitors with their aquatic acrobatics. You'll also see harbor seals, sea otters, Steller sea lions, orcas, and harbor porpoises. Land mammals include mountain goats, moose, black and brown bears, red squirrels, and porcupines. Bald eagles, ravens, and a variety of seabirds are seen overhead.
Most travelers to Glacier Bay report feeling hard-pressed to describe the high point of their visit, but many say if they absolutely had to choose, it would be the sight of calving glaciers. It's commonly called calving when smaller chunks of glaciers fall off the sides of large ones. it's a fairly common sight in Glacier Bay, and those who've seen it say that it provides a raw look at the powerful force of nature.
The Best Times to Cruise Glacier Bay
You can enjoy a cruise to Glacier Bay at any time between the first week or so in May until the last week in September. There is no bad time to visit, but if seeing humpback whales is important to you, the best time to go is from June until early September. If you want to see the glaciers calving, go from mid-June throughout the rest of the season — it may be too cold in May to see much of this activity. Although June and July are considered the best months to cruise Alaska, there's never a bad time to see Glacier Bay. Deciduous trees begin their annual fall foliage show in September, and the golden aspen trees reflected in the clear waters of the bay is definitely a sight worth seeing.
The Sawyer Glaciers
Although not part of Glacier Bay National Park, the twin Sawyer Glaciers offer an exciting prelude to what you can expect to see in the park, but it also has a particular beauty of its own. Located about 50 miles south of Juneau at the end of a fjord known as Tracy Arm, the twin Sawyer Glaciers feature an almost unearthly shade of blue due to their deep underwater settings. Ships can only get within about a half a mile from the glaciers, but if you look closely with a pair of binoculars, you may be able to see mountain goats on the base of South Sawyer Glacier.
Glacier Bay consistently tops the list of favorite sights by those who've cruised Alaska's Inside Passage. Don't miss your chance to see it this summer — keep in mind that sailings are limited and spots fill up quickly.