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8 Great Reasons To Cruise To Hubbard Glacier, Alaska

Located in Disenchantment Bay, Hubbard Glacier is only accessible by watercraft or seen by aircraft. Regardless of when you cruise to Hubbard Glacier, its 400-foot face will leave you captivated. I’ve witnessed its magnificence multiple times and I’m still awe-struck by its beauty.

Nicknamed the “galloping glacier,” its icefield has been advancing and thickening, making it a must-visit.

Alaska cruises begin in late April through to early October. Cruising early in the season allows passengers to see the mountains still frosted in snow.

Cruising in Disenchantment Bay

So, if you’re undecided on a itinerary to Alaska, here are 8 reasons to take a Hubbard Glacier cruise.

1. Experience North America’s Largest Tidewater Glacier

At 76 miles long and 7 miles wide, photographs don’t do this glacier justice. Renowned for being the largest tidewater glacier in North America, I only realized its immense size when I was in front of its terminus (glacier’s toe).

Tidewater glaciers are masses of ice that touch the ocean. In a world of climate change, many Alaskan glaciers have receded and turned into valley glaciers (glaciers that no longer touch the ocean).

Hubbard’s Glacier’s 400-foot façade translates into the size of a 37 to 45-story building. Below the water line, another 250 feet of ice lies submerged.

Due to its size and activity, cruise ships must navigate carefully when close to its face. One wrong move by the captain, and the ship can hit an iceberg, damaging the vessel. Weather and ice accumulations in the water will determine how close your vessel can get.

Getting closer to Hubbard Glacier
Getting closer to Hubbard Glacier

However, with a skilled crew, you could get within ¼ mile of Hubbard Glacier, or closer. During my cruise on Cunard Queen Elizabeth, Captain Inger Klein Thorhauge maneuvered the vessel to within 1,000 feet (under ¼ mile) of the glacier.

Even in July, expect cold temperatures at the face of the glacier. So, dress warmly in layers, and remember to bring a hat, gloves, and sunglasses (to prevent glare from the ice). I forgot gloves, and regretted it when standing on the deck in frigid temperatures.

While Hubbard Glacier is inside a national park, it differs from Glacier Bay National Park by not being a UNESCO world heritage site. So, a park ranger won’t board your vessel to give commentary while cruising to Hubbard Glacier.

However, some cruise lines sail with a knowledgeable naturalist, as on our Cunard itinerary. During the cruise, they may give lectures and talks on the flora, fauna, and surrounding landscape.

2. Witness The Dynamic Evolution Of Hubbard Glacier

With more than 90 percent of Alaska’s glaciers retreating at an alarming rate, Hubbard Glacier is defying the odds. In the previous 100 years, Hubbard has advanced, retreated, and started advancing again.

Since the icefield originates in the Yukon, the 76-mile glacier has a massive area to gather snow and ice during the winter. As the glacier moves through the valley, the accumulated snow adds to the glacier’s volume.

It takes 400 years for the ice at Mount Logan to reach the ocean. So, when I was viewing the glacier’s face, I was staring at four decades old ice.

Hubbard Glacier at Gilbert Point
Hubbard Glacier at Gilbert Point

As Hubbard Glacier advances, it has closed the entrance to Russell Fjord twice; once in 1986 and again in 2002. If you look to Hubbard’s far right, you’ll see a land mass called Gilbert Point that almost touches the glacier.

In 2002, the blockage caused rising water in the Fjord and resulted in the death of vegetation that became submerged. Eventually, the pressure of water broke through, and the passage to Russel Fjord became clear again.

As Hubbard advances forward, it now joins with Valerie Glacier on the far left. Valerie Glacier differs from Hubbard because of its dirtier appearance.

Much shorter at 14 miles long, its blue hues are covered with layers of volcanic ash, making it much less photogenic than its neighboring monster.

3. Marvel At Its Spectacular Calving Phenomenon

As an active icefield, Hubbard’s movements cause the glacial ice to crack. Eventually, pieces fall from its face in a movement called “calving.”

Glacial ice calving from Hubbard Glacier
Glacial ice calving from Hubbard Glacier

We enjoyed hearing “thunder” before the ice falls. However, at 7 miles wide, it’s often hard to predict when or where the calving will happen.

Witnessing the calving is a real treat. Since calving can take place every 15 minutes and cruise ships spend up to 90 minutes at the terminus, there’s a chance you’ll see a few towers of ice hit the ocean. We have witness many calving displays.

Sometimes ice chunks are small, and other times, a whole wall of ice comes crashing down, creating a small tidal wave. Since this ice can splinter like deadly glass, it’s another reason why ships need to exercise caution near the glacier’s face.

With glacial ice constantly calving, passengers can see ice in aqua and blue ice. The shades are quite beautiful and photogenic and make a nice change from the all-white look.

Ice cave and silty stripes at the glacier
Ice cave and silty stripes

When booking a balcony cabin, there’s no need to go up on deck. The captain will slowly pirouette the vessel to allow guests to view it from their stateroom balconies. Should it be raining, cabin balconies are undercover and provide shelter from the elements.

Summer provides a higher frequency of calving. As the temperatures rise, there’s more movement at the glacier’s face. However, even in summer, the outdoor temperature rarely gets above the mid-40s but feels much colder.

4. Embark On An Exclusive Hubbard Glacier Expedition

Allen Marine, a tour operator sells a Hubbard Glacier and Wilderness Explorer tour. Offered to some cruise lines, passengers have the option to disembark the large cruise ship and board a smaller catamaran.

The smaller vessel can easily maneuver between icebergs and get closer to the glacier’s face. At around USD 300 to USD 500, the excursion isn’t cheap. However, it gets closer to the ice, where guests can savor the beautiful blue hues and see ice caves along the water.

Hubbard Glacier and Wilderness Explorer
Hubbard Glacier and Wilderness Explorer

During the tour, your vessel will cruise close to land. With keen eyes, you may spot bears, stellar sea lions, and harbors seals. Even from the cruise ship, we saw lots of sea lions on the rocks, and harbor seals on icebergs.

The two-leveled craft provides plenty of open-air deck for unobstructed views. Below, the interior heated cabin allows guests to stay warm if they prefer to forego the open area.

We have been blessed with clear skies, and saw the towering peak of Mount St. Elias beyond the lush rainforest. It’s renowned for being the second highest mountain in the United States.

5. Encounter the Rich Wildlife Diversity

when entering Yakutat Bay from the Gulf of Alaska, keep a pair of binoculars handy. Humpback whales can often be seen in this area as they hunt for food. With a slow approach into the bay, there’s a chance to see other wildlife too.

In Disenchantment Bay, we saw bergy bits in the water. Bergy bits are pieces of ice between 3 and 15 feet in size. Near the glacier, these icebergs are quite large and provide the perfect resting place for harbor seals.

Harbor seals basking on icebergs in Disenchantment Bay
Harbor seals basking on icebergs

I stood at the ship’s bow and scanned the water with binoculars. The seals are easy to spot as they show up as dark spots on white ice. Wherever seals gather, orcas do too. They frequent the waters trying to prey on a lone seal.

Bald Eagles use the ice floats too, as well as the surrounding trees near the water. They will eat the afterbirth when seals are born and will even pick off a pup, given the chance.

Remember to look to the land also. Stellar sea lions can often be seen laying on the rocks. One time, I could hear them long before I spotted them as they barked loudly while we sailed by.

Guests on the Hubbard Glacier and Wilderness Explorer‘s smaller vessel get closer to land. Here, they can see bears foraging for food along the water’s edge. On the mountaintops and with good binoculars, they could spot goats too.

6. Discover The Area’s Majestic Peaks

The landscape encompassing Hubbard Glacier has some of the tallest peaks in North America. Due to the towering giants, the icefield often experiences a different climate to that in the Gulf of Alaska.

Sometimes, low cloud cover shields the mountaintops and gives the area an almost “twilight zone” appearance. Other times, you’ll enjoy clear skies, allowing you to enjoy the massive peaks that add to Hubbard Glacier’s majestic panoramas.

With Canada being close by, some of these peaks lie in British Columbia, Canada. Here are some of the peaks you could see as part of the Wrangell St. Elias range if the weather cooperates.

Mount Vancouver15,700 ft (4,785 m)
Mount Hubbard14,951 ft (4,557 m)
Mount Cook13,766 ft (4,196 m)
Mount Alverstone14,500 ft (4,420 m)
Mount Kennedy14,000 ft (4,267 m)
Mount Seattle10,350-ft (3,150 m)
Mountain peaks in the Wrangell St. Elias range

7. Ice Won’t Block Your Passage

Approaching Hubbard Glacier in May
Approaching Hubbard Glacier in May

Some travelers choose to cruise to Alaska in late April or early May because they’re on a budget. When selecting a fjord itinerary such as Tracy Arm or Endicott Arm, chances are, they won’t see the glaciers.

Early in the season, ice in the narrow waterway prevents large cruise ships from reaching the end of the fjord where the glaciers are located. For these fjord itineraries, it’s best to wait until late May for a guaranteed glacier sighting.

We have done two fjord cruises in early May and only made it up the waterway half way, due to ice.

If you choose a Hubbard Glacier itinerary, the wide bay doesn’t experience the same problem. While ice is prevalent in the water, captains can maneuver their vessels around the larger chunks.

The image above shows an approach in the first week of May.

8. Budget-Friendly Options

When it comes to cruising to Alaska, only two cruise ships a day can enter Glacier Bay National Park. Since Holland America and Princess Cruises have the longest relationships with Alaska, they have the lion’s share of those rights.

The other slots are allocated to cruise lines based on a lottery system. Since most people consider Glacier Bay a premium destination, companies often charge a higher price.

Perfect weather at Hubbard Glacier
Hubbard Glacier at Gilbert Point

Since the other lines cruise to other areas, these sailings sometimes come with better pricing. When planning an Alaska cruise on the cheap, look for special offers in the shoulder season (April or May, and September or October), and on an older vessel.

What To Pack For Glacier Viewing

Hubbard Glacier is best viewed outside either from a stateroom balcony or on deck. Even if it’s warm on your port days, expect much colder temperatures at an icefield. In the shoulder season, I needed a warm jacket and extra layers.

In May, I wore a thermal base layer, sweater, and 3-in1 Columbia jacket. A hat, and warm mitts kept me cozy on the deck for a few hours. A pair of sunglasses helps to cut down on ice glare and keep your eyes from watering (from the cold wind).

In July, it’s still pretty cold. So, I wore a t-shirt, sweater, and outer layer of my 3-in-1 jacket. While I didn’t pack a hat or gloves, I wished I had gloves to keep my hands warm.

If you’re planning an Alaska cruise and Hubbard Glacier isn’t on your bucket list, it should be.

A Holland America ship approaching Hubbard Glacier in Alaska