The simple act of going from one place to another in Alaska treats you to beautiful landscapes and images that are extremely difficult to find in most areas around the world- even if you look for them. There’s high mountains, deep valleys, dense forests, spectacular bays, fertile prairies, beautiful rivers… and glaciers. Many glaciers.. Sure, some areas have more than others, but keep your eyes open as odds are in your favor when trying to spot one even if in the distance. Many of them can be seen from roads while traveling, the most typical ones being hanging glaciers, those that start at the top of the mountain over another glacier or a valley and descend only part of the main glacier ending abruptly, typically at a cliff. But the most spectacular glaciers are those that reach all the way to the bottom, ending at a water mass in the form of a lake or the ocean. Very often these are huge masses of ice that almost seem to be alive, as they move, make noise and change in shape. Reaching glaciers is sometimes easy, as some have roads that have been built just to be able to get to them, but what would you say if I told you that there’s a place where you can see 26 glaciers of all kinds in a single day? Undoubtedly this would be the best glacier excursion in Alaska, and it all starts in a very small town called Whittier.
It all starts in Whittier, Alaska
One of the most popular glacier tours in Alaska is the 26 glacier cruise that departs from Whittier, a very small town with a population of just above 200 people at the head of the passage canal on the western edge of Prince William Sound. This small village is unappealing to the visitor and holds little to no interest to visitors, but is quite peculiar on its own. Most of the inhabitants live in the same building, a former Army barrack building that is 14 stories high called Begich Towers. The building also holds a health clinic, police station, laundromat and a church. The only way to reach Whittier is by boat or through the railroad tunnel that shuts at night. During the summer months there’s a lot of activity thanks to the glacier tours, cruise ships and commercial fishing, but in winter the town gets over 6 meters of snow and 100 km/h winds are not uncommon. The weather is so brutal that children go from the Begich building to school through a tunnel, and the only playground in town is indoors.
To get to Whittier from Anchorage, or anywhere for that matter, you need to travel by train (unless you reach it on a cruise ship). There are no other options. Some visitors will hop on it at one of the few train stations there are along the way (we did so on the train station at Girdwood after spending a night a Alyeska Resort), but most start their trip from Anchorage. The train ride itself is spectacular- when heading to Whittier from Anchorage try to get a seat on the right side of the train for unreal views- so make sure you have your camera ready. The train takes over an hour to reach its destination, but is comfortable and has a cafeteria where you can grab a bite. It travels slowly, and may even stop if a great and unique photo opportunity happens during your trip.
The 26 Glacier Cruise
This cruise by Phillips Cruises is perhaps the most popular glacier watching cruise in Alaska, but is well worth joining during your trip. It started as a family run businesses several decades ago, and today offers first-class catamarans, a complimentary hot meal (Panko Crusted Wild Alaska Cod served with Alaska Chip Company potato chips and coleslaw) and customized narrations of what you’ll be seeing. It alsoWe adapts its itinerary to the weather conditions of the day, making sure you get to enjoy the best views possible on that particular day. As you can imagine, the name of the cruise derives from the fact that you can see 26 named glaciers during the ride, and even some that are still to be named. You’ll also get to see plenty of wildlife including eagles, sea lions, harbor seals, maybe orcas and even black bears!
It day was not very pleasant when I took part of it, as it was cloudy and raining most of the time. However I was lucky as I got front row seats at the restaurant/ indoor section which guaranteed unobstructed views. Once everyone was on board we took off and shortly after saw the first seals.
A Spectacular Scenery
As the boat picked up speed heading towards Esther Passage and College Fjord the rain picked up and the fog grew somewhat thicker, limiting some of the visibility but not all of it. The captain did explain that the weather conditions were not the best in the area we were supposed to head to, and thus he’d try another itinerary that he thought would be better under the days conditions. His choice would later prove to be spot on, as we got to very close to several glaciers and even got to see massive chunks of ice calve into the sea.
The weather also seemed to want to help us out. We got plenty of rain breaks allowing us to step outside the cabin and take better pictures. Did you know that glaciers look better with cloudy skies than under the sun? The reason for this is that the blueish shades of the ice stand out when the sun is covered, yet on clear days the sand and dust on the ice makes them look brown and dirtier than what they are.
The cruise lasts 4 to 5 hours and allows plenty of time to take great picture, meet other travelers and enjoy the unreal views. Eventually we had to make our way back to Whittier and Anchorage, but the tour still had a surprise waiting for us.
The Train Back to Anchorage
We expected the train back to Anchorage to offer the same experience that we’d had on the way to Whittier, but little did we know that nature would surprise as once again. It was cloudy, raining, and getting dark, but as the train was getting closer to Beluga Point the sun appeared under the clouds in the horizon. Suddenly the air changed color, and switched from gray to a hue of orange, pink and purple. The bay on the left side with the mountains behind it created an unexpected scenery, and- like the rest of the passengers- could not get enough pictured of the train traveling in such an unreal scenery.
Back to Anchorage
We eventually made it back to Anchorage. The day had been memorable, having just enjoyed one of those experiences that only traveling can offer. Despite the clouds and rain we’d see many glaciers, taken plenty of photos, and had wrapped up the day with what would be the best sunset we’d see during the three weeks we spent in Alaska.
If joining a glacier cruise is something you have in mind then the 26 Glacier Cruise will not leave you indifferent and is well worth your consideration. The train trips from Anchorage to Whittier and back are fun and comfortable, the boat on which the cruise takes place is very large and pleasant too, as is the food given on board. There are more photo opportunities than you can think of, and the captain seemed very knowledgeable about what to do depending on conditions. At one point a “glacier cocktail” was offered by the crew; a couple of members picked up floating glacier ice and prepared Martinis in plastic cups with them. At 15 USD a piece they were quite expensive- I don’t recall anybody buying one. Phillips Cruises would be better off preparing 5 and giving them for free to 5 passengers in some kind of raffle, but that’s my opinion.
In any case the cruise is well worth joining, and I highly recommend you include it in your travel plans as you won’t be disappointed.
I was a guest of Phillips Cruises, however all opinions and pictures in this post are my own, as usual!
Have you ever seen a glacier? Where? What did you think about it? Was it as spectacular as you thought it would be? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section below and this post too if you think others may enjoy it!