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26 Glacier Cruise: An Epic Alaskan Adventure In Whittier

Alaska is known for its snowy mountain peaks, incredible wildlife, and awe-inspiring glaciers. When visiting the 49th state by cruise ship, guests will often view one or more glaciers during the itinerary.

However, when seeking an unforgettable Alaskan experience, look no further than the 26 Glacier Cruise out of Whittier.

I took this smaller ship experience as part of my 14-day cruise and land tour with Holland America, and it was one of the highlights of my trip. A park ranger joins the tour and narrates the journey.

The face of Harvard Glacier in College Fjord
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My large catamaran sailed through the stunning Prince William Sound, where I saw many valley and tidewater glaciers, each offering unique vistas.

The voyage begins in the charming town of Whittier, where Princess and Holland America ships dock. So, this experience can be enjoyed by those docked in the port of Whittier or staying in Anchorage or the surrounding area.

I share my overall experience, how to reach Whittier, and what to expect from this bucket list day trip. So, sit back, relax, and let me take you on an unforgettable virtual journey through one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Planning Your Visit

When planning to take the 26 Glacier Cruise, there are a few things to consider, including how to reach Whittier. Here are some tips to help you plan your trip:

Best Time To Go

The 26 Glacier Cruise is offered between early May and late September when the weather is mild and the days are longer. July and August provide the warmest weather, but they are also the busiest times.

I took the cruise in the first week of June, and the boat wasn’t quite full. The large vessel has several decks, making capturing photos without jockeying for a front-row spot easy.

Phillips Cruises check-in hut
Phillips Cruises check-in hut

Booking Your Tickets With Phillips Cruises

Phillips Cruises operates a 6-hour tour out of Whittier, with one departure a day at 12:30 pm. The later departure time allows for guests to travel from Anchorage.

Advanced booking is advisable, and tickets are available through their website, cruise line, or tour operator. When booking online, you can select an option to include transportation from Anchorage or Girdwood.

Getting To Whittier

Whittier is accessible by road or train. The embarkation dock is a short walk from the cruise port for those on an Alaska cruise.

When purchasing a self-drive option from Anchorage, allow enough time to reach Whittier on the Seward Hwy. The highway is very scenic and follows the shoreline of Turnagain Arm.

From Anchorage, the road passes through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, North America’s longest highway tunnel. The tunnel operates on a schedule, so it is essential to plan accordingly.

Approaching the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel
Entrance to Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel

Parking in Whittier is available south of the railway tracks, on the west side of Whittier Creek.

Without a car, the Alaska Railroad or shuttle buses provide transportation from Girdwood and Anchorage.

On The Day Of The Cruise

Since the cruise is almost six hours long and transportation to and from Anchorage turns it into an all-day affair, there are things to consider when preparing for an all-day adventure.

What To Bring

Here’s a list of items I recommend bringing:

  • Camera: A new smartphone will suffice to capture the stunning views of the glaciers, wildlife, and scenery along the way. I took my Nikon and zoom lens and recommend a rain sleeve in case of wet weather.
  • Binoculars: While the boat approached the glaciers, I found binoculars handy for examining ice formations and spotting wildlife. You can rent binoculars onboard for USD 5.
  • Sunglasses: The sun can be quite bright, reflecting off the water and glaciers. I found that sunglasses helped to cut the wind, which made my eyes water.
  • Sunscreen: The sun’s rays can be intense on the water, even on cloudy days.
  • Warm Layers: While it may be warm on land, I found it much colder on the water, especially near the face of a glacier. I recommend bringing a warm jacket, hat, and gloves.
  • Cash or Credit Card: You should bring cash or a credit card for souvenirs or snacks on board.

How To Dress For The Cruise

Dressing appropriately for the 26 Glacier Cruise ensures your comfort during the trip. Remember, Alaska’s weather is unpredictable, no matter the month.

Dressed in four layers, hat and gloves, by Harvard Glacier
Dressed in layers, by Harvard Glacier

Here are some tips on how to dress:

  • Layers: I recommend dressing in layers. As the weather warmed up, I could remove layers as needed. It can be chilly out on the water, but the boat’s interior was quite warm.
  • Comfortable shoes: Comfortable shoes are a must. I spent a lot of time walking the decks, even when the weather wasn’t pleasant. My pick, Vessi runners are waterproof, providing the protection I needed.
  • Rain Gear: Alaska’s weather can change quickly, so I recommend bringing rain gear just in case. Choose waterproof jackets over repellent coats. The boat does have indoor seating, but the best unobstructed views are from the outside areas, especially for picture-taking.
  • Hat and gloves: Even if it’s not too cold, packing a hat and gloves will help you prepare for the worst.

The Cruise Experience

Guests on the 26 Glacier Cruise board the vessel at the Cliffside Marina, where they receive a boarding pass and meal voucher. Vouchers are placed at the end of the table indication meal choice.

Interior seating area on the Klondike Express boat
Interior seating area on the Klondike Express boat

Each person is assigned a seat, on one of two enclosed decks. However, we weren’t required to sit there the entire trip. The seat is a place to put a backpack, purse, or clothing.

One of the standout features was the USB charging stations at each table. Since cold lessens smartphone battery life, it was nice to know I could recharge if I wanted to.

The catamaran has large windows, and we could see the views no matter where their seats are assigned. Since the cruise was almost six hours, we alternated between sipping cups of tea seated and spending time on deck enjoying the pristine scenery.

Don’t worry if the weather looks bad. We had lots of rain on the way to Whittier, but the conditions were dry at College Fjord. In six hours, we experienced lots of weather changes.

Exploring Prince William Sound

A park ranger narrates the 26 Glacier Cruise and shares the history of the glaciers viewed. Once we departed from Whittier, our boat headed out into Prince William Sound and traveled 150 miles to see glaciers, wildlife, and beautiful views of the Chugach National Forest.

Blackstone Glacier
Blackstone Glacier

The cruise, a tranquil journey through the protected waters of College Fjord, Blackstone Bay, and Esther Passage, offers a no seasickness guarantee. This assurance from Phillips Cruises ensures a safe and comfortable experience for all.

The scenery along the way is breathtaking, with snow-capped mountains, lush forests, and crystal-clear waters. While the voyage was very scenic, the experience was elevated by learning about the area’s history, geology, and ecology.

Glacier Sightings

As the name suggests, the cruise is all about glaciers….26 in total. Was I counting? No, but I know we didn’t see all 26. Were we disappointed? No, because part of the experience was watching the calving, which we enjoyed lots of, at Harvard Glacier in College Fjord.

Harvard is the most impressive we viewed. It rose 300 feet high from the water’s surface, with 500 feet below the water line.

Since the glacier was quite active on the day of our visit, most guests wanted to linger to watch the show. Since we stayed much longer than the itinerary allowed, we skipped an area to make up time to visit Blackstone Bay.

Cascade Glacier
Cascade Glacier

Each glacier is unique in size, shape, and color. Some are valley glaciers, meaning they have retreated into the valley and no longer touch the ocean.

The tidewater glaciers (ones which reach the ocean) are more picturesque. When the conditions are right, ice breaks off from the toe and crashes into the water below. This action is called “calving” and is what most guests want to see.

The glaciers in College Fjord are named after famous East Coast colleges, with the women on the left and the men on the right. We saw five valleys, five tidewaters, and some smaller glaciers in College Fjord.

Harvard, which sits at the end, is College Fjord’s largest glacier and Prince William Sound’s second largest. We got within 1/8 mile and saw many harbor seals, sea otters, and calving from the terminus.

The Kittiwake rookery in Whittier
Kittiwake rookery

Blackstone Bay is another area rich in marine life and glaciers. Here, we saw several beautiful waterfalls and a kittiwake rookery.

Wildlife Encounters

On Chichagof Island, coastal bears outnumber people. In Prince William Sound, marine life and birds outnumber people.

With so much wildlife, there’s no chance of taking this cruise and not seeing something. Prince William Sound is home to various wildlife, including sea otters, harbor seals, sea lions, and even whales.

We saw them all, including Dall Porpoises and mountain goats. The highlight for me were the sea otters and harbor seals.

Sea otters in College Fjord
Sea otters in College Fjord

The otters would float on their backs, seemingly undetered by our presence. Many of the harbor seals had pups, which were incredibly cute.

As we approached Harvard Glacier, our captain suddenly put the boat in reverse as he spotted a harbor seal and pup ahead of the bow. The seals weren’t moving, and the captain was able to navigate around them. Them floated by inocently and I captured this photo.

Harbor seal and its pup in College Fjord
Harbor seal and its pup in College Fjord

The park ranger displayed a sea otter pelt valued for its dense and waterproofing properties.

The waters are rich with salmon from the end of June to late August. With the presence of salmon come the bears and whales, looking for an easy catch. Some guests with high-powered binoculars saw black bears.

The crew will help identify the different wildlife species and provide fascinating facts about their behavior and habitat.

Lunch, Food, And Snack Options

Beverage area on the Klondike Express
Beverage area

We enjoyed complimentary water, coffee, and tea during this lengthy cruise. We also received a hearty lunch, one of the best I’ve experienced on an organized tour.

Lunch consisted of Wild Alaska Smoked Salmon Chowder, a multigrain roll, julienne salad, oyster crackers, peppermint patties, Tillamook cheddar cheese snacks, and a fruit snack. Living with celiac, I appreciated that Phillips Cruises offered a gluten-free option.

My lunch included vegetarian chili, julienne salad, and a fruit snack. While my meal also included the roll, oyster crackers, and Peppermint patties, I couldn’t eat them because they contained gluten and milk. It was odd that they offered a gluten-free meal but included some wheat items.

Phillips Cruises chili lunch pack
Phillips Cruises chili lunch pack

My vegetarian chili was good, but the salmon chowder consisted of mostly potatoes, and lacked salmon flavor.

There was also a hot dog meal and snacks for the kids. In addition, items from their onboard shop, including Alaskan craft beers, wine, and other alcoholic beverages, could be purchased.

During the cruise, staff retrieved a piece of ice from the water and made Glacier Ice Margaritas. We received freshly baked chocolate chip cookies at the end of the voyage.

Drinks for purchase
Drinks for purchase

Onboard Amenities And Services

I expected comfortable seating and restrooms, which the ship delivered. Their washrooms were some of the best marine bathrooms I’ve used on boats.

One of the ship’s standout features was its ample indoor and outdoor space, allowing for easy movement without feeling crowded. As a petite individual, I was initially concerned about taking pictures over a potential crowd, but this was never an issue.

Final Thoughts

We had an unforgettable experience on the 26 Glacier Cruise with Phillips Cruises. The scenery was awe-inspiring, and we were able to witness a multitude of glaciers in just one day.

For those with a tighter schedule, they also offer the Glacier Quest Cruise, a shorter but equally rewarding option that lasts approximately 3-3/4 hours. Alternatively, the cruise to Portage Glacier is just an hour and much more budget-friendly.

If you’re planning an Alaska bucket list trip and want to see glaciers, the 26 Glacier Cruise gives that in one cruise excursion.

One thing to keep in mind is that the weather can be unpredictable in Alaska, so pack warm clothing and rain gear. Fortunately, we had a sunny day, but it can get chilly out on the water.

Overall, the 26 Glacier Cruise was a highlight of my fourteen-day trip to Alaska. I would go again and recommend it tonature lovers, outdoor adventurers, or anyone looking for a unique Alaskan experience.

Harvard Glacier, harbor sea and chili, from the 26 Glacier Cruise in Whittier