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How to See Alaska’s Fjords and Glaciers

Alaska is widely regarded as one of the most stunning, awe-inspiring states in the nation. From its snow-capped mountain peaks to its expansive tundra, Alaska offers a wilderness that can’t be found in any other place in America.

The state boasts a staggering number of lakes, and it’s one of the best places to view the Northern Lights. When you explore Alaska, you’ll find wildlife like whales, sea lions and bears and gaze upon beautiful features of the landscape –– particularly the state’s fjords and glaciers. Most of Alaska isn’t accessible via road, but Windstar expeditions make a trip to this scenic state possible.

What Is a Fjord?

Fjord is an Old Norse word for a long, narrow, deep body of water bordered by high cliffs or slopes and created by glaciers. Though you can find them in different parts of the world, from New Zealand and Chile to Greenland and Canada, the fjords in Alaska are special.

Fjords are formed by the movement of glaciers. Glaciers move slowly over time and leave significant changes to the landscape they pass over in a process known as glaciation. This process creates deep valleys where the glacial force is strongest, forming fjords.

Most fjords are deeper than the coastal sea they empty into, and some are home to coral reefs, though not many organisms can survive in this habit of cold and darkness. Fjords also sometimes feature skerries, which are small, rocky islands created by glaciation. Skerries can be difficult obstacles to navigate around, but fjords are generally calm bodies of water that make for popular ship harbors. With our small cruise ships, navigation through fjords is far less challenging, no matter the skerries, glaciers or icebergs that call the fjords home.

What Are the Best Fjords in Alaska?

Alaska boasts some of the most beautiful fjords in the world. Each has something unique to offer, and none should be missed. Here are the fjords in Alaska you’ll want to put on your travel bucket list:

1. Kenai Fjords

Kenai is a word adapted from an indigenous group known as the Athabaskans, who previously lived in the region. If you’re looking to go whale spotting in America, the Kenai Fjords are your best option. In this spot in South Central Alaska, you’ll find orcas, humpbacks and grey whales that outnumber boats. For a Windstar Cruise that features Kenai Fjords National Park, try Alaskan Splendors, an 11-day expedition that starts in Vancouver and ends in Anchorage.

Details of whale spotting in the Kenai Fjords, with an image of a humpback whale breaching the ocean surface

2. Misty Fjords

This national monument sits in the Tongass National Forest, one of the largest wilderness areas in the United States. Misty Fjords National Monument spans 2.1 million acres. The region is surrounded by rainforest and rock walls 3,000 feet tall. If you’re looking for picturesque, Misty Fjords should be on your travel list. You can find the Misty Fjords on the Islands & Inlets of the Inside Passage.

3. Tracy Arm Fjord

Named after Benjamin Franklin Tracy, the 19th century Secretary of the Navy, this fjord can be found 40 miles from Juneau, Alaska. The fjord boasts beautiful glaciers and is one of the world’s best areas to find deep-sea wildlife. The cold waters can accommodate creatures that usually exist in waters too deep for humans to observe.

This long, narrow fjord of a half-mile wide and 23 miles in length leads to the North and South Sawyer Glaciers. The colossal glaciers here sit on deep blue glacial ice. On some of the ice floes farther up the arm, you can often find hundreds of seals. Book an Alaskan Explorations & Denali Cruise Tour to visit this fjord.

What Is a Glacier?

A glacier is a mass of ice with the unique ability to move. Glaciers are formed over many years as snow compresses into thick ice. They flow from high to low elevations at a rate of more than 50 feet a day and vary greatly in size, with some about 25 acres and others stretching hundreds of miles long.

Glacial ice currently covers about 10 percent of the world’s land area, and glaciers and ice caps hold over 68 percent of the Earth’s freshwater. Other bodies of water like lakes and rivers contain less than one percent of our planet’s freshwater. Glaciers can be found on all continents except for Australia. Sometimes they appear blue, which is caused by the glacier’s inability to absorb blue lightwaves. The blue light penetrates the ice and creates this azure effect.

Glaciers are commonly confused with icebergs, which are actually floating chunks of ice that have broken off a glacier. While melting glaciers raise sea level, melting icebergs do not. If you think icebergs are massive, you should see a glacier.

What Are the Best Glaciers in Alaska?

Over 100,000 glaciers can be found in Alaska, spanning an amount of land that’s comparable to the size of South Carolina. With the right permit, Alaska’s residents can legally harvest glacial ice. Alaska is also home to the longest glacier in North America –– the Bering Glacier, at 118 miles long. These majestic wonders of nature are truly a sight to behold.

When you travel to Alaska, make sure you don’t miss these glaciers:

1. Sawyer Glaciers

The Sawyer Glaciers can be found in the Tracy Arm fjord. About once an hour, these glaciers “calve,” which means huge chunks of ice break off and drop into the water. This process creates a loud cracking sound, an enormous splash and a resulting wave. These massive ice floes with a deep blue hue are two glaciers you won’t want to miss seeing in action! You can visit them on an Alaskan Splendors cruise.

2. Taku Glacier

Taku Glacier is massive even by Alaskan standards. This is the thickest alpine temperate glacier known, and it has advanced a little less than five miles since the late 1800s. Taku Glacier is over 4,800 feet deep, and its shape is similar to that of Thailand. This glacier is extraordinary not just because of its size but also because it’s one of the few glaciers in the world that has been advancing.

3. Glacier Bay

Glacier Bay is aptly named after the several glaciers you can find in this area of Alaska. A few notable glaciers are the Margerie, which is almost all the way up the West Arm of the 65-mile bay, and the Lamplugh and the Johns Hopkins glaciers. From your ship, you’ll be able to spot bears and mountain goats along the shoreline of the West Arm.

4. Prince William Sound

When you visit Prince William Sound, you’ll find plenty of glaciers, tall mountains and tight fjords. The terrain is green and lush. Though there isn’t as much wildlife here as in Glacier Bay, this area is still well worth the trip.

The tidewater glaciers here drop huge spires of ice the size of office buildings into the ocean, creating a giant splash and sea wave in their wake.

Book an Alaska Glaciers & Prince William Sound cruise for a scenic adventure to see these glaciers!

Tips for Exploring Alaska’s Fjords and Glaciers

If exploring Alaska’s majestic glaciers and fjords sounds exciting to you, start preparing for your trip! Here are a few tips for exploring Alaska:

1. Establish a Plan

If you’re trekking through Alaska alone, with a partner or with a small group, plan in advance where you’ll be going and when you can reasonably expect to return. Leave the plan with someone on shore and give them an idea of the point at which they should start worrying if you’re late to return. Take into consideration the many possible scenarios and unexpected events that could arise.

2. Study Up

Tips for exploring Alaska's Fjordds and Glaciers: Establish a plan, study up, pack your gear, and exercise caution

You’ll want to educate yourself on self-rescue methods, weather and tides. You should be knowledgeable and proficient at self-rescue techniques and carry a survival kit with you. This kit should include food, water, extra warm layers and an emergency fire starter that can help stave off hypothermia. Improve your skill level, review and practice techniques with your partners and stay within your limits.

Weather at Kenai Fjords can change rapidly and be challenging to predict. This is a temperate rainforest, so the weather is often cool, overcast and rainy. In spite of this, sunscreen and sunglasses are still a necessity, as the reflection of sunlight off the water and ice can be intense. In the summer, temperatures typically range between the mid 40s and low 70s, and winter weather is much more frigid, from temperatures in the 30s to as low as -20. Make sure you come prepared.

Tides can also have a significant impact on the ease or difficulty of your water travels. In Kenai Fjords, the difference between high and low tides can be nearly 15 feet. To account for this element of your travels, carry a tide book with you that you know how to read and use, ask locals for advice about locations that could be hazardous and be sure to tie off your boat and keep gear above the tide line.

3. Pack Your Gear

You’ll need quite a bit of gear for a trip by foot or water. Be sure you come prepared with everything you’ll need. Here are a few of the essentials:

  • Navigation equipment
  • First aid kit
  • Hypothermia kit
  • Repair kit
  • Bear spray
  • Rain gear
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen
  • Food
  • Water purification
  • Bags for human waste

You’ll also need to bring communication devices. Cell phone service isn’t available much in Kenai Fjords National Park, so you’ll need to carry a marine VHF radio. This is to be used in case of emergency to reach park rangers or the Coast Guard on Marine Channel 16. A personal locator beacon, flares and air horns can also be useful, especially during extended trips. Flares and air horns can be used to scare off bears or alert vessels of your presence in water during foggy conditions.

Personal flotation devices (PFDs) need to be U.S. Coast Guard approved. PFDs can save your life and are very difficult to put on in the water, so if you’re traveling by water, be sure to put yours on before leaving shore.

4. Exercise Caution Around Wildlife and Glaciers

For your safety and the safety of the wildlife you’ll encounter, keep a respectful distance of at least 100 yards from wildlife and a safe distance from glaciers and icebergs. Tidewater glaciers, for example, can calve anytime, which can cause large waves that swamp kayaks and strike nearby shorelines.

If traveling by water, stay in deep water as much as possible so that waves will pass under you rather than breaking over you. On shore, remain at least two miles away from glaciers to avoid powerful waves from calving ice. Don’t travel between two big icebergs and stay twice the iceberg’s width or height away.

How to Explore Alaska’s Fjords and Glaciers

Ready to start exploring? A car won’t get you to Alaska’s majestic fjords and glaciers, but there are plenty of other methods of exploration and travel to get you where you want to go! Find out more about how you can explore Alaska by fishing, hiking, kayaking and cruising:

1. Fishing

In the area around Kenai Fjords, you’ll find plenty of opportunity for fresh and saltwater fishing. Grab your fishing license and cast your lines for salmon, rockfish, halibut and lingcod.

2. Hiking

Hiking on foot is a fantastic way to explore the Alaskan landscape.

  • To visit Exit Glacier, a 4-mile hike uphill will take you to Marmot Meadows and to the ice field’s edge. This is the most accessible glacier hike in Alaska.
  • To visit Worthington Glacier, hike a 2-mile trail to the snowiest point in the state. Bring proper hiking gear to navigate the loose rock.
  • To visit Mendenhall Glacier, take the Nugget Fall trail to end up just a few hundred yards away from this 13-mile long glacier.

3. Kayaking

Traveling the fjords by kayak is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. In the Kenai Fjords National Park, you’ll come across a variety of sea mammals up close:

  • Orcas, humpback whales, gray whales, fin whales, minke whales and sei whales
  • Sea otters, harbor seals and Steller sea lions
  • Pacific white-sided dolphins, Dall’s porpoises and harbor porpoises

Inexperienced kayakers should travel with a guide. From the elements to the wildlife, kayaking can be a risky exploration method, so it’s important to understand and abide by kayaking safety measures before paddling your way through these waters.

Examples of wildlife in Kenai Fjords National Park, with an image of Stellar sea lions laying on an iceberg

4. Cruising

Arguably the best way to explore Alaska’s majestic fjords and glaciers is via cruise ship. Just about any cruise ship can allow you to see the world, but it’s Windstar’s small cruise ships that bring you closer to new and exciting destinations. The service and experience will make your visit to Alaska an unforgettable one. Follow these tips for the best cruising experience:

Pack Your Fall and Winter Wardrobes

Even in the summer, Alaska’s weather is mostly chilly and unpredictable, so you’ll want to bring your hat, gloves and raincoat. About three-quarters of your wardrobe should be autumn and winter apparel, and a quarter of your wardrobe should be summer apparel for those beautiful but relatively uncommon sunny days. Also, pack something a little more formal in case you want to dress up for any of the restaurants or outings.

Book a Midship Room If You’re Prone to Seasickness

If you’re a cruiser who tends to get seasick, try to book a room that is on a lower level and close to the middle of the ship. Here, you’ll feel less movement than in other parts of the ship.

Pack the Extras

Besides the necessities, you may want to pack a few other items to enhance your cruise experience:

  • Camera
  • Binoculars
  • Eye drops
  • Earplugs
  • Travel clock
  • Small power strip
  • Seasickness medication

Book Your Cruise With Windstar

A Windstar cruise allows you to relax and enjoy your adventure on a small, elegant ship so you can get up close and personal with the wildlife and glaciers. Our ships can navigate narrow fjords and around ice floes easily.

Ready to get started on your exploration of Alaska’s fjords and glaciers? Check out Windstar’s Alaskan cruise destinations for the chance to see the beauty of Alaska yourself.

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