On a Hubbard Glacier cruise, you’re likely to hear the thunderous noise of ice calving into Disenchantment Bay before you see it. In fact, watching ice calve from any glacier is a matter of looking at just the right spot at just the right time.
Glacier viewing is the highlight of any Alaska cruise. And for good reason. A cruise is one of the easiest, and most scenic, ways to explore these giant rivers of ice. Plus it’s one Alaska cruise excursion that’s free. Well, except for the cost of the trip.
On a cruise in Alaska, Glacier Bay National Park is the prime glacier watching destination. However not all cruise ships are lucky enough to secure a permit. Authorities limit cruise ship visits for conservation reasons and to control overcrowding.
But don’t become bummed if your cruise visits Hubbard Glacier instead. Although there are 16 glaciers in Glacier Bay National Park, none of them compare to the size of Hubbard Glacier. This baby is a whopper. Check out the statistics: 76 miles long, 6 miles wide where the glacier meets the ocean, and it stands 350′ above the water, with 250 ‘ lurking below the waterline. Plus the glacier calves several times an hour.
Hubbard Glacier Cruise in the spring
Alan and I have been lucky enough to view this behemoth river of ice twice. On our most recent trip to Alaska on Seabourn Sojourn, the ship cruised into Disenchantment Bay for a 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. glacier viewing appointment before a Crystal ship had her turn.
On a brilliant early June day, Sojourn navigated through bergy bits (small pieces of ice from the glacier), until the ship could go no further. A bald eagle floated on a piece of ice near the ship offering guests their first view of wildlife. In the distance, Hubbard Glacier stretched across the landscape but it was still many miles away, our progress blocked by an expansive ice debris field in the water.
The pilot saw another possible route so Sojourn reversed course to try again. This brought us closer to shore where a naturalist onboard announced that he had spotted a grizzly bear roaming on the beach. Straining our eyes, Alan and I spotted the bear as it wandered the shoreline. Like many others, we attempted photographs. Those with long lenses (that would be Alan) were rewarded.
This new path through the ice brought us somewhat closer to the glacier’s edge (but still more than two miles away). When Sojourn could go no further, the ship paused for a while. Standing out on deck, we listened to thunderous noises that announced one calving after another. Sometimes we could see the resulting splash into the water but mostly, the calving remained out of sight.
Cruising to Hubbard Glacier in the Fall
On a fall cruise in Alaska, Alan and I spent a sunny, September morning gawking at Hubbard Glacier from the deck of Regent Seven Seas Mariner. As the ship entered Disenchantment Bay, the Elias and Fairweather Mountain Ranges poked their glistening white peaks into a deep blue sky. The bright, morning sun gave an eerie, blue glow to the glacier’s jagged ice formations. And since Mariner was the only ship in the bay, the view belonged totally to us as the captain pirouetted the ship round and round so that all passengers had a spectacular view.
Suddenly, the glacier calved sending a white spray of water high into the air. If there is a nature viewing heaven, we had arrived. And, lucky Alan, he clicked the photo shutter just in time.
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Hubbard Glacier Facts
Hubbard Glacier is currently advancing rather than retreating like many of its Alaska glacial neighbors. According to the National Park Service, the advance is due to global warming which causes more precipitation to fall in the St. Elias Mountains. As the precipitation cools, it turns into snow—the reason for Hubbard Glacier’s advance. And here’s another tidbit of information from the National Park Service that adds historical perspective to what visitor’s see: “The ice you see at the terminal face is approximately 450 years old and is over 2,000 feet thick at some locations.” Wow! No, make that a double wow.
Where is Hubbard Glacier located?
You’ll find North America’s largest tidewater glacier about 200 miles northwest of Juneau, between Seward and Skagway. The closest Alaskan community to the glacier is Yakutat.
When is the best time to see Hubbard Glacier?
I don’t recommend a summer cruise to Alaska due to the number and size of ships plying Alaska’s waters during that time of year. Spring or fall are my choices for Alaska cruises, however they are usually associated with a crossing to or from Asia.
Of course long cruises aren’t for everyone, either due to time constraints—they are usually month-long cruises or more—or a traveler’s preference for shorter cruises. If you must go during prime time, pick the first Alaska sailing of the season, usually first week of June, or the last cruise in September before ships reposition to other locations in the world.
What is Hubbard Glacier weather like?
You’re in the Gulf of Alaska where the weather can be sunny, cold, rainy or all of the above, depending on the time of year. Both of our visits happened on brisk but sunny days. I recommend packing layers.
Is Hubbard Glacier easy to see from the ship?
It’s a huge glacier. You will absolutely see it, unless the weather doesn’t cooperate. Observation lounges are popular places for inside viewing. But you’ll need to get up early. In my experience, by 7 a.m., the prime window seats will already be claimed as guests have saved seats using their cameras and coats (yes, even on luxury ships). Either arrive extra early to claim your place or find the best seat that you can to use as a warm-up spot after going out on deck for photos. If the weather is misty or rainy, that’s what Alan and I do.
But if the weather is remotely sunny, we put on layers, including a hat and gloves, then find a spot by the rail on one of the higher decks to enjoy two hours of spectacular scenery. And just when we need to warm up, the ship’s staff will pass by offering hot drinks and snacks.
How to take the best photos of Hubbard Glacier?
- Head out on deck early to claim your space by the rail.
- Handhold your camera. It’s difficult to use tripods on a ship, especially when the deck is crowded with lots of glacier watchers.
- Shoot in burst mode when photographing wildlife or glaciers calving.
- Play with your camera’s auto settings. I use the athletics or action mode, when photographing movement such as wildlife or a glacier calving.
- Zoom in to capture interesting textures created by the ice.
- Overexpose when photographing large expanses of white surfaces like snow.
- Use a flash to backfill shadows, when photographing travel companions posed against the glacier’s white background.
Is it possible to travel independently to Hubbard Glacier?
You’ll still need a boat to visit Hubbard Glacier, but if you’d rather take an independent trip rather than a cruise, make Yakutat your headquarters. Remote but easily accessible, Yakutat offers some of the best fishing in Alaska as well as hiking trails, surfing (yes, I said surfing), canoeing, kayaking and birdwatching. The community is surrounded by the majestic mountains of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.
Arrive by airplane (car rentals are available at the airport) or as part of an Alaska Marine Highway itinerary. Guide services offer small boat tours of Hubbard Glacier or flightseeing excursions. Yakutat lodging choices consist of bed and breakfasts, lodges and inns.