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Alaska Cruise Glacier Excursions

Mendenhall Glacier
Mendenhall Glacier and Nugget Falls. © 2019 Scott Bateman
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates there are 27,000 glaciers in Alaska. Cruise visitors will have no problems finding some.

They have three ways to view these mammoth piles of blue ice: on the cruise ship, at viewing points on land or right on top of them via hikes and excursions. The three options range in price from free to expensive.

Alaska glaciers attract visitors for several reasons. One reason is the process of calving, whereby large chunks of ice at the water’s edge break off and crash into the water with an often thunderous roar.

The second reason is their vibrant blue color. Glacier ice is blue because the red wavelengths of white light are absorbed by ice and the blue wavelengths are transmitted and scattered, according to the USGS. “The longer the path light travels in ice, the more blue it appears,” it says.

The third reason is their massive size. Mendenhall Glacier, a popular one with cruise visitors near the Juneau port, is nearly four miles wide and 14 miles long.

How to See the Glaciers


Cruise ships make it easy for passengers to see glaciers up close by touring Glacier Bay and other major destinations. Passengers observe the glaciers from viewing points on the ships.

These side trips are a mixed blessing. Positives include they don’t cost an extra excursion fee; the tour is including in the cruise price. Some of the on-ship tours include visits as close to the glaciers as 100 feet or less.

The major negative is the number of cruise passengers who pack the decks along with the clear plastic safety screens that keep passengers from falling off the ships. So good views aren’t guaranteed.

The second way to see the glaciers is on land at major viewing points. Mendenhall and Exit glaciers at Juneau and Seward are two of the most popular ones to visit on land. They both have visitor centers for people who want to stay warm and view the glaciers from a bit of a distance. They also have hiking trails that allow moderately fit visitors to get up close and even onto the glaciers.

Although cruise lines offer excursion trips to these glaciers, most passengers will find it is less expensive to hire a shuttle in the cruise ports. Shuttles cost $30 round trip per person at the time of this writing. The trip from the cruise port to the glacier visitor center takes about 20 minutes. Most visitors hike to the Nugget Falls viewing point, so the total visit may last three hours including travel time

The third way to visit the glaciers is by taking a more adventurous excursion that passengers book either on ship or directly with the excursion operators.

The Mendenhall glacier in particular has many related excursions. They include getting there by raft, canoe or kayak. They may include whale watching as part of a package.

They are usually longer and more expensive than simply taking a $30 shuttle to Mendenhall for a few hours. Costs for these package tours range from about $100 to more than $350. Total trip time ranges from three to six hours.
Scott S. Bateman is a professional journalist who has traveled widely throughout the Caribbean and the Americas.

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January 25, 2019

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