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Embarking on Alaskan Cruises

Boarding an Alaskan cruise for your next vacation is an excellent way to see and experience the true American wilderness. As you embark on these journeys, you will have the opportunity to see unique spots unlike anywhere else such as large and beautiful mountains, natural Alaskan wildlife such as bears, whales and sea lions, famous bays and so much more. With a shorter season than typical cruise lines, running from May through September, cruises to Alaska are typically in high demand, making them a bit more costly to enjoy than other cruises. In addition to on-board activities and amenities, passengers are also able to enjoy one-of-a-kind shore excursions throughout different ports of call in Alaska.

What sets Alaska cruises apart from other cruises is what you can see from the ship's rail: the state's geological wonders. They're just as much a part of the Alaska cruise experience as stops in port.

Some of the sights you may see as you sail past include Columbia Glacier (most ships pass it); College Fjord, with its quintessential examples of tidewater and hanging glaciers; and the vast Glacier Bay National Park, with 50 named glaciers and seven active tidewater glaciers.

Hubbard Glacier, Misty Fjords National Monument and Tracy Arm Fjord are other dramatic sights that offer visitors the chance to see nature in action.

Hubbard Glacier

Its vastness may be hard to perceive from the deck of a ship, but trust us: Hubbard Glacier west of Skagway is a whopping 76 mi/122 km long, with a cliff face 6 mi/10 km wide and about 40 stories high. It's the longest tidewater glacier in North America.

It's also one of the fastest. Although most glaciers are very slow-moving (a rate of 3 ft/1 m per day is considered normal cruising speed), some, like Hubbard, possess qualities that propel them in occasional bursts, traveling at up to 200 ft/60 m per day. What causes some glaciers to engage in this uncharacteristic behavior is a combination of glacial plumbing and other environmental factors not completely understood.

Misty Fjords National Monument

isty Fjords National Monument encompasses more than 2 million acres/810,000 hectares of old-growth forest, granite mountains, waterfalls, islands, lakes, rivers and coastal habitat. Boats and cruise ships thread their way through extremely narrow channels to provide access to these remote areas, which begin about 20 mi/32 km southeast of Ketchikan.

Tracy Arm Fjord

This dramatic fjord off Stephens Passage, about 45 mi/72 km south of Juneau, is a popular cruising area for big and small ships. It's less than a mile/kilometer wide and 25 mi/40 km long, and the granite walls climb 2,000 ft/620 m. Several spectacular waterfalls drop from the cliffs.

The stark beauty of the fjord is accentuated by the North Sawyer and South Sawyer glaciers, which frequently send bus-sized icebergs crashing into the blue-green water. Listen to the ice grind and snap as you watch harbor seals haul out of the frigid waters onto the icebergs.

Glacier Bay National Park

When Capt. George Vancouver sailed into ice-choked Icy Strait more than two centuries ago, Glacier Bay was little more than a dent in a mountain of ice 4,000 ft/1,219 m thick and 20 mi/32 km wide. By the time John Muir visited the area in 1879, the ice had retreated more than 30 mi/48 km, creating a beautiful bay. Today, the waterway stretches for 65 mi/105 km and contains 50 named glaciers and seven active tidewater glaciers—more than any other place in the world.

Ships that cruise Glacier Bay usually idle in Icy Strait long enough to pick up two park service naturalists from the Glacier Bay National Park ranger station near Gustavus, 60 mi/96 km west of Juneau. Then they sail up the western arm of the bay. (Smaller ships usually sail in the narrower eastern arm.) The weather is often foggy and drizzly, but if the clouds lift, the views of the glaciers flowing down the steep mountains are spectacular. (Interestingly, the glaciers appear a richer blue on cloudy days.)