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Ways to see Alaska's glaciers

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.
Image: Royal Caribbean's \"Radiance of the Seas\"
Passengers aboard Royal Caribbean's "Radiance of the Seas" cruise ship watch as they pass by Alaska's Hubbard Glacier.Beth Harpaz / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

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.

Explore monstrous glaciers, soar over ice caps, have a close-encounter with wildlife – nature, beauty and endless adventure abound in 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.

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.