Alaska has adventure to spare; your only difficulty is figuring out which magnificent glacier is on your bucket list. While many Alaska cruise itineraries include a stop in famed Glacier Bay, a National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site, not all do, as the park service limits the number of ships that sail there each year. Small ships are also far likelier to bring you to Sawyer Glacier, at the end of the Tracy Arm fjord, instead.
If you are trying to decide which Alaska itinerary is right for you, read on for our comparison of Glacier Bay vs. Sawyer Glacier.
Both glaciers provide an awe-inspiring glimpse of nature's majesty at work. At both, you'll see sheer faces of blue ice climbing many feet up to the sky. You can witness "calving" -- when a chunk of ice breaks off with a momentous crack -- and have a good chance of seeing wildlife, including whales, seals, sea lions and birds.
When it's clear, Glacier Bay offers a stunning panorama that encompasses eight of the national park's 11 glaciers; bring your best camera. The national park requires cruise ships to bring guides onboard and time within the bay is regulated. Passengers are not allowed to get in smaller skiffs. On the way in, you're likely to see whales breaching and seals sunning themselves on rocks.
Tracy Arm is the name of the fjord that leads up to the two faces of Sawyer Glacier. Instead of a large bay, the fjord walls are narrow and craggy, with steep rock faces that contain multiple waterfalls. The closer you get to the end of Tracy Arm, the more icebergs you'll see, in shades of blue so deep you'll think they are made of glass. In June, you may see newly born seal pups on the larger floes, their mothers guarding them closely. Cruise ships often send smaller excursion boats out to get a closer look at Sawyer Glacier. (If you're lucky, you'll see it calve, close up.)
Choose Glacier Bay if you're a checklist person for whom Alaska is a once-in-a-lifetime destination. With Glacier Bay, you've got a daylong transit through the national park -- enough time to take plenty of photos and hopefully spot some wildlife while you listen to expert commentary. The weather is often better than in Tracy Arm.
Choose Sawyer Glacier if you've been to Alaska before and want a feeling of awe; there's something about the Tracy Arm passage's deep channel that inspires communion with nature, no matter how big a ship you're on. This is also the best choice for you if you like smaller expedition cruise ships, as you'll get closer to the glacier face.
Updated December 14, 2019