What You Can See From the Deck of an Alaska Cruise

When you embark on a cruise of Alaska, the wonders all around you may make it hard to leave the ship’s rail: glaciers calving, bears rambling along the shore, waterfalls crashing down hills into otherwise peaceful bays. Look up and see a bald eagle etching a circle in the sky; look down and find a sea lion lounging on a bobbing berg of ice. Mind-blowing mountains, impossibly narrow inlets, chunky ice fields stretching for miles, sunsets and dawns—it’s as though Alaska is conspiring to keep you away from your stateroom.

Valdez, AK 99686, USA
At the northern end of Prince William Sound lies the only spot in Alaska where a visitor can be surrounded on three sides by glaciers. Naming rights first went to the Harriman Expedition, an outing arranged by a railroad magnate who led artists and scientists here in 1899. Cheered on worldwide, this merry band started honoring Ivy League and eastern universities, including the Seven Sisters and two other women’s colleges, by naming glaciers after them. Expect splendid views of the Chugach Mountains, which contain about one-third of the state’s glacial terrain.
The longest, deepest fjord in the United States connects Juneau with Skagway. A major gold rush route, this waterway—97 kilometers long and over 610 meters deep—makes for glorious scenic cruising. At its northeastern tip near Skagway, cliffs display ancient quartz-flecked rocks. Just south, Haines loads on the snow-cragged vistas with the Takinshas, the Chilkats, the Takshanuks and the Coast Mountains. Bundle up and try to be on deck to see them, especially when the magic hour—just before sunset—casts a tawny glow over the landscape.
Tarr Inlet, Alaska 99826, USA
Around 1.6 kilometers wide, this hanging glacier has a dramatic 76-meter-high face. Big and beautiful, the river of frozen water flows 1.8 to 2.4 meters daily and very actively sheds icebergs. Those fragments contain compacted snow that fell 75 to 200 years ago, before half the states had even joined America. Presiding over the bay’s extreme northwestern end—perpendicular to the Grand Pacific Glacier—Margerie Glacier serves as the turning point for many cruise ships.
Mt Fairweather
The coastal mountains of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve—topped by the 4,671-meter Mt. Fairweather—provide a glorious backdrop to cruises up the West Arm. They were created by an ongoing geologic traffic jam: The North American tectonic plate is plowing into the Pacific one at several centimeters per year (the speed fingernails grow!). It can snow at any time of the year at higher elevations, keeping these dramatic crags looking fresh and bright.
Tarr Inlet, Alaska 99826, USA
The bay contains seven tidewater glaciers, which flow from the mountains to the sea. As the ocean undermines the frozen massifs, giant chunks—up to 60 meters high—crash into the water. Known as “calving,” these icefalls tend to be spectacular. Glacier Bay National Park shelters the world’s largest concentration of actively calving tidewater glaciers, which remain the park’s biggest draw. Stop and listen to the roar of icebergs being born, which the Tlingit people call “white thunder.”
Hubbard Glacier, Alaska, USA
What people most want when they see a glacier is to witness calving—the shearing off of ice in a dramatic crack. Such displays aren’t predictable, however: A glacier calves ice only when it feels like it, and not one moment before. But when it does, it’s a memorable experience, with chunks ranging from, say, the size of a TV set to the size of a house. The randomness of these events is the reason why the ship stays back, even if the channel seems clear: Strong calves can toss a boat around like a rubber ducky.
Disenchantment Bay, Alaska, USA
The edges of the iceberg (technically, bergy bits) are a great place for animal sightings. Harbor seals ride the floes, basking in the sun; orca whales prowl just around the ice barrier, waiting for an unwary seal to come out to where the whales’ sonar can reach. Humpbacks feed off krill upwellings, and bald eagles are as common as sparrows. Those who are very lucky (and who have good spotting scopes) can see mountain goats on occasion. They’re a wonder in the wild: How does a goat get up 3,200 meters of rock?
Throughout Tracy Arm, cascades streak down the towering cliffs, which can loom 1,220 meters above the waterline. None is more splendid than Hole in the Wall, a long, lacy torrent flowing down dark rock fringed by evergreens. Big ships maintain a respectful distance, but smaller boats sometimes nose underneath its flow, making for dramatic, if dangerous, photographs. (To capture the rich, creamy look of this cataract, SLR-camera-shooters should opt for a longer shutter speed.)
These twin massifs cap the end of the 48-kilometer Tracy Arm fjord. Their striking cobalt hue occurs thanks to the dense ice, which absorbs every other color in the spectrum and whose crystalline structure strongly scatters blue light. Larger vessels can only approach the South Sawyer Glacier in good weather, so pack your binoculars and telephoto camera lenses! Make sure to scan the floes at its base for harbor seal pups, especially from May to early July.
NF-8488, Angoon, AK 99820, USA
On Sunset Island, near the southern end of the reach, Steller sea lions have set up house. One of the largest sea mammals, an adult male can reach more than 900 kilograms (2,000 pounds), heaving their weight around and hauling up on the rocks to protect their harems. To the east of Sunset Island, harbor seals have grabbed the territory. Beyond the question of size (seals might weigh some 130 kilograms, around 300 pounds), the quick and easy way to tell seals and sea lions apart is by their ears—sea lions have an external flap to their ears, but seals don’t.
Hoonah-Angoon, AK, USA
Seals are big fans of Holkham Bay and often appear on ice floes that break off of the tidewater Sawyer Glacier at Tracy Arm. The Arm is one of the spots where the massive Stikine Icefield comes down to the ocean. Along much of Stephens Passage, the glacier seems to blend with clouds and is hard to see through the fog. Humans aren’t the only ones with problems of perception here: Seals love the ice because it gives off confusing signals to an orca’s echolocation. The ice floes are like the safe spot in a very high-stakes game of hide-and-seek.
624 West 9th Street Downtown Juneau
During one of its straightest, steepest sections, Stephens Passage takes a sudden westward bend at the mouth of the Taku River, near the Canadian border. Fed by the Taku Glacier, the Hole in the Wall Glacier, as well as the Inklin and Nakina rivers and the feeder waterfall at its mouth, the Taku is considered one of the most endangered rivers on the planet. A high-octane mix of contrasting interests—commercial and recreational use, mining rights and wildlife preservation—has turned the Taku into an international battleground.
Auke Bay, Juneau, AK 99801, USA
When gold was discovered in Juneau—enormous amounts of it, $66 million from a single mine when gold was at $14 an ounce—the new arrivals, with their heavy equipment, steam heat and constant digging, confused the local Auke Tribe. They didn’t understand why the miners would settle in Juneau. The city sees rain an average of 235 days a year, while beautiful Auke Bay, just a few kilometers to the north, is in a rain shadow and gets a fraction as much precipitation. Auke Bay also has the scenic bonus of the Mendenhall Glacier. Today the glacier is quickly retreating, but as ships sail by, all that ice looks like ground sapphire.
27500 Glacier Hwy, Juneau, AK 99801, USA
Sail along the eastern edge of Admiralty Island, which has more bears than people, to find the north end of Stephens Passage and a choice. Head west for the sheer wild of Glacier Bay, or head almost due north into the Lynn Canal, North America’s longest and deepest fjord. The canal, high-sided and capped by glaciers, once held the attention of the world: At its head lay Skagway and Dyea, the starting points for the overland trip north to the Klondike Gold Rush. Dyea is a ghost town now, but Skagway still glitters in the golden light of its 1890s glory days.
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