2/28/2024     by Justin Gibson

Get to Know the Glaciers of Alaska

To the uninitiated, the amateur or (perhaps worst of all) the simply uncurious eye, all glaciers are just behemoth slabs of ice; rookie mistake. Each glacier is unique; a clue of cosmic proportions as to the story of the land as it has been shaped for the last several millennia. It’s subtle, but it’s there — if you know what you’re looking for. Consider this a handy, introductory primer on the types of glaciers you might encounter in the wilds of Alaska.


Mountain Glaciers

Mountain glaciers, sometimes known as alpine glaciers, start high up in the mountains and flow downward like a massive frozen river. They’re typically lined with peaks on both sides; your best bet for visiting one is likely Mendenhall Glacier. Only 13 miles from downtown Juneau, you’ll be able to observe it from the road, the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center and several easy walking trails.


Valley Glaciers

Valley glaciers are just mountain glaciers that have traveled a long distance before ending. Easily the most famous of the bunch is the Matanuska Glacier; at 27 miles long and 4 miles wide and visible from the Glenn Highway, it’s a sight to behold. A close runner-up is the Valdez Glacier — renowned as the treacherous path of choice for the Gold Rush of 1898 — and is viewable from the town of Valdez. The glacier ends at a lake (allowing you to kayak or canoe up to it for a better view), which itself forms more glaciers!


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The Hubbard Glacier is a majestic sight to behold.

Tidewater Glaciers

Tidewater glaciers are valley glaciers that make it all the way to the ocean. When you picture the spectacle of a glacier calving, you’re picturing a tidewater glacier — thanks in no small part to the fact that tidewater glaciers often boast a steep cliff face. Tidewater glaciers are abundant when it comes to your viewing pleasure: the Taku Glacier near Juneau, the Columbia Glacier near Valdez, why, a good chunk of Glacier Bay National Park is comprised of tidewater glaciers, including the regal Hubbard Glacier!


Hanging Glaciers

Hanging glaciers form when a mountain or valley glacier arrives at a cliff; creating a dramatic sight as tons of ice seem poised to plummet at any moment. Popular hanging glaciers to view are the Rainbow Glacier in Haines and the Twenty-Seven Mile Glacier just outside of Valdez.


Cirque Glaciers

Cirque glaciers are bowl-like; they’re wider than they are long and typically not named. You might spot one with a keen eye, and then you can flex your glacier knowledge in front of others.


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This aerial view of the Malaspina Glacier starts to give you a sense of scale for glaciers.

Piedmont Glaciers

Piedmont glaciers are glaciers that spill down a hill and then fan out once they hit a valley — like a massive mess of ice, just frozen in time. Malaspina Glacier near Yakutat is a picture-perfect example of a piedmont glacier.


Ice Aprons

Ice aprons are small glaciers (in comparison) that cling to the steep sides of mountains. Once again, they are rarely named — but you’ll feel quite sharp identifying them from afar while traversing the Alaskan landscape.


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Harding Icefield will likely be the first photo you show all your friends.

Ice Fields

Ice fields are like a glacier factory — a vast field where snow collects, and with enough time, a glacier forms and heads off in one direction or another. The landscape is otherworldly; this will easily be one of your best souvenir snapshots. Harding Icefield (near Seward) is a popular choice for experiencing this surreal biome in person.

The best way to see glaciers for yourself? Aboard an Alaskan cruise with Holland America Line — and our travel agents can help make it happen. Their close working relationships with all the leading names in travel translate to exclusive perks and amenities. In this case, you can expect to save while setting sail with the cruise line known for its refreshingly uncrowded ships, exclusive onboard activities and immersive culinary journeys — all while soaking up the pristine sights of Alaskan wilderness. Our agents know Holland America Line well, so we can help you choose, plan and book your cruise vacation to perfection.


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