Image: Hubbard Glacier
Beth Harpaz  /  AP file
Passengers aboard Royal Caribbean's "Radiance of the Seas" cruise ship watch as they pass by Alaska's Hubbard Glacier.
updated 2/22/2008 6:23:04 PM ET 2008-02-22T23:23:04

There are thousands of glaciers in Alaska, and seeing some up close will surely be a highlight of any trip you might be planning to the 49th state this summer. You can see glaciers from the deck of a ship, paddling in a canoe, by floatplane or helicopter, or by driving and hiking to a park.

Here are some options.

From your cruise ship: Most Alaska cruises include a day at sea sailing past glaciers. Some itineraries take you past the Hubbard Glacier, others take you through Glacier Bay. Photo opportunities abound. This is a regular part of your cruise, so you don't pay extra and you don't have to sign up for anything.

You'll likely see the glaciers calving — where sections of them crack and float away or crumble into the sea. Calving is a normal process for glaciers, but it has been accelerated by climate change.

"Anytime you have a glacier exiting into a lake or body of water, there is the prospect that it will calve," said Roman Motyka, an associate professor of geology and geophysics at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. "But as the climate has warmed, glaciers have melted and become thinner and more susceptible to calving."

Motyka said that about 90 percent of Alaska's glaciers are retreating. Among those most often seen by summer tourists in Alaska, Mendenhall and Exit Glacier are retreating; Hubbard and Taku are advancing.

Flightseeing: There are numerous options for seeing glaciers by helicopter or small plane. Typically you'll get a terrific view from the air and then land on the glacier. You'll get special boots so you can walk without slipping, and you can take that souvenir photo to prove you were there.

These tours have limited capacity, so if you're on a cruise and hitting ports with thousands of others, book well in advance.

Slideshow: Amazing Alaska

Be prepared for sticker shock. The two-hour "Four Glacier Adventure" by helicopter from Juneau, which includes landing on a glacier, is $309 a person when booked through Royal Caribbean for summer 2008. A three-hour adventure that includes a helicopter trip and sled dog rides on the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau runs $524 when booked through the cruise line.

Booking on your own, glacier flightseeing tours with sled dog rides run nearly $450, (less if you skip the dog ride) through Alaska Flightseeing Tours of Juneau or Alpine Air Alaska in Girdwood or Godwin Glacier Dogsled Tours in Seward.

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Is it worth the big bucks for flightseeing when you could, for example, take a taxi or shuttle bus from Juneau to Mendenhall for a few dollars?

"If you're the type of person who likes that once-in-a-lifetime thrill, and you feel this will be that once-in-a-lifetime thrill, then you want to spring for the hundreds of dollars, because it's highly unlikely you will ever return," said Nancy Dunnan, editor of the TravelSmart newsletter. Another way to think about it: Are you going to regret having passed up the opportunity?

One other consideration: Flightseeing tours may be cancelled if the weather is bad.

But don't be too disappointed if clouds ground your flight or you didn't want to spend the money. There are many other ways to get your Alaska glacier quota in.

Hiking: In addition to Mendenhall in Juneau, there are several Alaska glaciers that are easy for tourists to drive and hike to, including Portage Glacier south of Anchorage, Matanuksa Glacier near the Glenn Highway two hours east of Anchorage, and Exit Glacier near Seward.

Last summer almost 400,000 people visited Mendenhall. It's just 12 miles by car or cab from downtown Juneau. A city bus drops you off a mile from the park visitor center, or take a shuttle or tour bus right into the park. The park has a variety of trails, from easy loops to six miles. Click here for details.

It's worth visiting a glacier like Mendenhall or Exit by land even if you're also going flightseeing. On a trip last summer, I saw Hubbard Glacier at sea and Taku Glacier from the air. But the hike I took from the visitor center to Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park gave me a totally different perspective. I could see the "toe" of the glacier -where the glacier begins to rise from the land with its walls and fields of ice — from a distance and then gradually up close.

Exit Glacier is melting, and as you walk along the path to see it, you pass signs describing where the ice was just 10 and 50 years ago. It's astonishing to see how rapidly the glacier is retreating.

For cruise passengers, however, visiting Exit Glacier requires some planning. Seward is a first or last port for some but not all cruise lines. If it's on your itinerary, you can rent a car to get from the port to the park to see the glacier. Allow two hours for your visit in the park plus time to get to and from the park.

If you have enough time, there are two other major attractions in Seward: the Alaska SeaLife Center and the dog kennel run by champion musher Mitch Seavey. There are ticketed tours at Seavey's kennels, so check the schedule as you plan your day. You can also board an Alaska Railroad train from Seward to Anchorage.

By catamaran, canoe and other small vessels: Phillips Cruises and Tours offers a "26 Glaciers in One Day" tour ($139) aboard a high-speed catamaran from Whittier, 60 miles  southeast of Anchorage, to see glaciers in Prince William Sound.

Alaska Railroad offers a canoe adventure ($185), to Spencer Glacier in Spencer Lake aboard a 10-passenger canoe. The lake is a short train ride from Anchorage and you get to walk on the glacier.

From Juneau, you can approach Mendenhall Glacier by kayak or canoe through Alaska Travel Adventures. The trips take between three and four hours, with two hours in the water; kayaking is $89 and canoeing in a 10-person canoe is $125. You get within a mile or closer of the glacier.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Amazing Alaska

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  1. Mendenhall Glacier

    Located in Mendenhall Valley, the Mendenhall Glacier is a massive glacial system that stretches 120 miles. It is approximately 12 miles long, and 1.5 miles in width at the face. It is located 12 miles from downtown Juneau. (Danny Lehman / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Bald beauty

    A bald eagle dives for dinner in one of the many remote lakes within the Tongass National Forest. With almost 17 million acres, the Tongass is the nation's largest national forest covering most of Southeast Alaska, surrounding the famous Inside Passage. (Ron Sanford / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Scenic adventure

    Experience the panorama of Juneau and the Inside Passage from 1,800 feet above the city on the Mount Roberts Tramway, one of the most visited attractions in Southeast Alaska. (Stuart Westmorland / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Bright nights

    A cruise ship floats on Auke Bay near Juneau, Alaska. The summer sky is still bright at 11:00 p.m. (Bob Rowan / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Flying high

    Take a scenic flight over the 1,500 square mile Juneau Icecap. Flight-seeing tours are the only way to see the glaciers and fields that make up the fifth-largest ice field in the Western Hemisphere. (Lee Cohen / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Awe inspiring

    A humpback whale shows its fluke during a dive while a fishing boat cruises by. Humpbacks may be seen at any time of year in Alaska, but during spring, the animals migrate back to Alaska where food is abundant. Whales seen in Alaska during the summer months are from Hawaii. (Buddy Mays / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Kobuk Valley National Park, Alaska

    Less than 2,000 visitors last year, but almost 500,000 caribou each spring and fall. In other words, the only crowds you’ll experience at Kobuk will likely have antlers and four legs apiece. In fact, this roadless expanse, just north of the Arctic Circle, is so remote that the U.S. Geologic Survey still hasn’t named some of its river drainages. But for those who are prepared for a true wilderness experience, rafting the Kobuk River, hiking the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes or climbing among the Baird and Waring ranges that ring the park can be the adventure of a lifetime. (Tom Walker / Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Cool city

    A winter view of the Anchorage skyline with the Chugach Range in the background. The Chugach Range forms a 300-mile crescent outside the town of Valdez, Alaska, east of Anchorage. (Robert Olsen / ACVB) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Majestic mountain

    Denali, North America's tallest mountain at 20,320 feet, is visible from Anchorage even though it's 140 miles to the north. (John Brecher) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Reindeer games

    Mel Leskinen, left, talks as Albert Whitehead walks his pet reindeer Star along 4th Avenue in downtown Anchorage, Alaska, Feb. 2, 2005. Half of the nation's population thinks most of Alaska is covered in ice and snow year-round. One out of every eight believe that the 49th state is either a separate country, a U.S. territory, a commonwealth or just aren't sure. Thanks to a poll commissioned by Gov. Frank Murkowski, Alaskans know a bit better the misperceptions Americans have of their neighbors to the north. (Al Grillo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Lighten up, moose

    A bull moose with Christmas lights tangled in its antlers rests in a field in Anchorage, Alaska, on Dec. 25, 2005. The lights, which did not seem to bother the moose, could pull off as the he wonders through Anchorage neighborhoods. (Al Grillo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Wow, that's a snowman!

    A young boy poses in front of a 16-foot tall snowman in a residential neighborhood of Anchorage, Dec. 24, 2005. Thousands of people trekked to the house to see the creation. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A refreshing ride

    A windsurfer rides the wind as he jumps across waves in the Turnagain Arm south of Anchorage, Alaska on May 18, 2006. (Al Grillo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. The Iditarod

    Mitch Seavey mushes past a patch of open water on the Yukon River after leaving Ruby, Alaska on Friday, March 12, 2010 during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. (Bob Hallinen / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Glacial beauty

    An iceberg from the Portage Glacier is locked in the frozen Portage Lake south of Anchorage, Alaska in this Jan. 6, 2004 photo. The glacier, which is a major Alaska tourist destination near Anchorage's southern edge, has retreated so far it no longer can be seen from a multimillion-dollar visitors center built in 1986. (Al Grillo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Artistic awe

    Alaska's favorable climate makes ice carving a popular activity and spectacle for visitors. (Anchorage CVB) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Flight of freedom

    Tom Melius, with the Fish and Wildlife Service, left, Lisa Pajot, second left, and Gary Bullock, second from right, with the Bird and Treatment and Learning Center, and Pat Lampi, with the Alaska Zoo release a bald eagle in Anchorage Alaska Sept. 25, 2006. The eagle was cared for by the Bird and Treatment and Learning Center after it lost its tail feathers and was released after the feathers grew back. (John Gomes / AP file) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Snow-plowed

    Two snowmobiles collide, knocking one rider off, as they race around the track during the Fur Rendezvous Sno-X races in Anchorage, Feb. 26, 2005. The 17-day winter festival includes the World Championship Sled Dog races, dog weight pull, snow sculptures and other events to break up the long Alaska winter. (Al Grillo / AP file) Back to slideshow navigation
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