Most travelers pick from Hubbard Glacier or Glacier Bay National Park when planning a cruise to Alaska. While they deliver in the scenic department, don’t discount a cruise to Tracy Arm, a classic fjord near Juneau.
Named after former Navy Secretary Benjamin Tracy, a Tracy Arm Fjord cruise offers a contrasting journey through a narrow passage with steep rock walls.
Surrounded by the Tongass National Forest, the Tracy Arm Fords Terror Wilderness contains both Tracy Arm and Endicott Arm. A cruise to the Twin Sawyer Glaciers or Dawes Glacier offers topography beyond imagination.
What Is A Fjord?
Fjords are the result of glaciation. As glaciers melt, they sometimes carve deep channels, leaving “U-shaped” valleys with vertical walls. Some of the best fjords are found in Norway.
However, those cruising the inside passage can choose from Tracy Arm, Endicott Arm, and College Fjord. Tracy Arm is a bit narrower and suited to mid-sized or smaller ships. Endicott Arm has a wider passage and can accommodate the larger vessels like the Quantum of the Seas.
When docking in Ketchikan, guests can also take a boat tour to the Misty Fjords National Monument.
With narrow channels, cruise ships glide through the waterway slowly. Slow sailing provides great way to absorb yourself in the breathtaking scenery surrounding you.
On cruises to Tracy Arm, guests enjoy 30 miles of mountain peaks, sheer rock faces, plummeting waterfalls, and emerald-green water. Tracy Arm offered one of the best Alaska cruise itineraries if you prefer a fjord experience.
Where is Tracy Arm Fjord?
Tracy Arm is located 70 miles north of Petersburg on Mitkof Island. It’s 45 miles south of Juneau in southeastern Alaska. Cruise ships generally access the Alaska fjord from Holkham Bay as they sail north through the Stephens Passage.
Early in the cruise season, large ice flow blocks the passage of ships trying to reach the Twin Sawyer Glaciers. So, those wanting to see the Twin Sawyer Glacier should avoid booking their Alaska cruise in early May.
Once the ice has melted, those wanting to get closer to the ice and waterfalls can take a Tracy Arm Fjord & Glacier Explorer excursion. The adventure starts by boarding a small catamaran.
The vessel is built for exploration and intricate maneuverability, allowing guests to feel the spray of waterfalls.
If you board the catamaran from a larger ship, the tour lasts five to six hours and ends in Juneau. From Juneau, fjord tours last seven hours.
If you’ve visited Glacier Bay National Park before and considering another option, here are some reasons to book a cruise to Tracy Arm.
1. It’s Generally Cheaper
For many, an Alaskan cruise is a bucket list destination. Most travelers choose an itinerary to Hubbard Glacier or Glacier Bay. Only two cruise ships a day can access Glacier Bay, so that itinerary commands higher prices.
So, as a less popular itinerary, you can find cruises to Tracy Arm at lower prices. Paying a lower price for your cruise means you can spend more on shore excursions.
If you book a cruise in the shoulder season, you can find itineraries that package Tracy Arm with another glacier viewing. I’ve taken two cruises to the fjord, and both sailed to Hubbard Glacier too.
2. Cascading Waterfalls
Pictures of Tracy Arm Fjord don’t do it justice. With deep valleys and snowpack in winter, the landscape produces rushing waterfalls as the snow melts. To say the waterfalls are majestic is an understatement.
The cascades vary from torrents of icy white water to gentle strings of angel hair. Some breathtaking examples plummet 1000 feet into the emerald waters below.
With constant melting snow, the sheer granite faces glisten like polished stones from a rock tumbler. The waterfalls are awe-inspiring at the start of the Alaska cruise season, as winter transitions into the warmer seasons.
The Tongass National Forests surround a plethora of cascades, giving them almost a lush tropical appearance (without the temperatures).
There’s a peacefulness to cruising in a fjord. Simon and Garfunkel’s “the sound of silence” is fitting for the gentle maneuver through the emerald waters. The silence was only broken by bergy bits hitting the side of the vessel or the sound of birds overhead.
3. Harbor Seal Sightings
Harbor seals make their home in Tracy Arm Fjord. The sheltered bay is an ideal breeding ground to keep their pups safe from hungry Orca in Stephen’s Passage.
The giant ice floes provide napping spots for hundreds of seals. Keep your binoculars handy and look for the black spots on the ice
In May, harbor seals give birth on the large icebergs near the glacier’s terminus. It’s the survival of the fittest as bald eagles swoop down to feast on the afterbirth or unattended baby seal.
Approaching the glacier, the colony of harbor seals pose lazily on ice floes. Staring back at passengers, they seem unconcerned about the presence of a large ship.
Looking at South Sawyer Glacier, all those little dark spots are harbor seals.
Sea lions sometimes bark up a storm on the rocks, and their noisy chatter echoes off the sheer rock walls. But seals and sea lions aren’t the only occupants of the fjord.
4. Wildlife Sightings Are Prevalent
Cruising into Tracy Arm offers a chance to see Alaskan wildlife. Humpback whales and Orca frequent the area outside Holkham Bay. It’s not unusual to see whales along Stephen’s Passage and inside the bay.
Bring a pair of compact binoculars if you’re a bird watcher. Bird species include arctic terns, tufted puffins, pigeon guillemots, pelagic cormorants, and herring gulls.
Along the shorelines, keep your eyes peeled for black and brown bears foraging for food. High up on the cliffs by the icefield, the pale-colored mountain goats are easy to spot, testing their agility skills on the vertical landscape. The goats favor the slopes near the North Sawyer Glacier.
5. You’ll Enjoy Two Glaciers
At the end of the fjord, cruise-goers enjoy the face of two tidewater glaciers or icefields which touch the ocean. Filling the bay with ice, the South Sawyer Glacier is the larger of the two, at over 31 miles long, and originates in British Columbia, Canada.
North Sawyer or Sawyer Glacier may not be as impressive, maybe due to its accessibility. As it retreats, the narrowing channel makes it difficult for larger cruise ships to maneuver.
Like its southern sister, it starts in British Columbia and travels 22 miles to reach Tracy Arm. Your approach to the glaciers will be affected by the ever-changing ice conditions.
When cruising to Tracy Arm Fjord, you may be treated to the wondrous action of calving. A thunderous noise echoes in the bay as ice cracks and falls from the glacier’s toe.
Sometimes, they create a ripple in the still waters. Other times, they produce a vast sea swell.
The increasing amount of floating ice is a welcoming sign for harbor seals who use the icy platforms to laze in the sun.
6. The Glaciers Are Retreating
Like Mendenhall Glacier outside of Juneau, the twin Sawyer Glaciers are rapidly retreating. The rising snow line and thinner winter snowpack are affecting the stability of the ice mass.
Sawyer Glacier (which is harder to access) retreats at a rate of 80+ feet (almost 25 meters) a year. Nearby, the South Sawyer Glacier is losing more than 300 feet (91 meters) a year. As the retreat continues, the valley begins to narrow.
As the channel to the glacier narrows, it’s possible that cruise ships won’t have access in the future.
Recently, a sandbar appeared in front of Sawyer Glacier due to its retreat. It may be a matter of time before the northern ice mass disappears behind a mountain.
7. Its Mystical Weather
My Royal Caribbean Tracy Arm itinerary arrived in the fjord at 5 am. There was an abundance of low-lying clouds and mist in the fjord.
The steep cliffs prevented the sunlight from penetrating some angles in the meandering waterway. So, the fog lifted slowly.
With the sunlight not quite hitting the landscape, visions of the “twilight zone” came to mind. The fog-ladened panoramas exhibited a sense of mystery.
While the raindrops fell scantily, they didn’t detract from the magnificence of the scenery.
Even though the Tracy Arm Fjord lies close to Juneau, its weather can contrast greatly. Expect misty peaks, cooler temperatures, and mystical views with steep walls.
8. The Hues Are Fantastic
Once you reach the Sawyer Glacier, you’ll be captivated by its vivid blue tones. The ice in Tracy Arm is dense and absorbs all colors except blue. So, the crystalline structure appears with a beautiful blue tone.
As the terminus calves, those vibrant blue ice masses create incredible floating ice sculptures, some as big as houses. Should you take a Tracy Arm Fjord and Glacier Explorer excursion, your operator will scoop up some glacier ice to make cocktails.
The fjord waters are a magnificent green color, which varies according to meltwater. During my last visit in the first week of May, the waters exuded a vibrant jade green.
Cruise ships that venture up the narrow fjord spend a few hours sailing at a snail’s pace. Vessels usually open up the bow area for viewing, which is often closed during the cruise. However, this area gets congested as guests jostle for the front-row spots.
If your budget allows, book a stateroom with a balcony. While it may be cold outside by the glaciers, you won’t need to struggle for a viewing spot.
Once you get chilled, step inside your cabin, and enjoy the views from behind the glass. It doesn’t matter whether you have a port or starboard stateroom because you’ll enjoy one side sailing in and the other going out.
Tracy Arm Cruise Vs. Explorer Tour?
Some cruise lines sell a Tracy Arm Fjord and Glacier Explorer tour. Expect to pay USD 179 to USD 249 per person, depending on your cruise line. Guests board a smaller vessel from their cruise ship, explore Tracy Arm, and meet their ship in Juneau.
While cruise ships sail into the fjord, they can’t get as close to the glacier as a smaller vessel. Taking small boat tours means you’ll get closer to waterfalls, icebergs, harbor seals, and the glacier’s terminus.
Bear in mind, while some cruise lines advertise “cruising in Tracy Arm,” sometimes they DON’T sail in the fjord. To have the fjord experience, you must purchase the extra tour.
It’s important to note that the smaller vessels can’t accommodate scooters or strollers. For some, taking the tour could come down to price and whether it’s within your budget.
Since the Explorer tour arrives in Juneau later in the day, it can impact your time to see Alaska’s capital. If you’re set on doing another tour in Juneau, you may want to pass on the Tracy Arm excursion and just enjoy it by cruise ship.
Should you stay in Juneau, you can purchase the Tracy Arm Fjord and Glacier Explorer from Adventure Bound Alaska or Allen Marine Tours.
Is Tracy Arm Worth Seeing?
A cruise to Tracy Arm Fjord contrasts significantly with an itinerary to Glacier Bay or Hubbard Glacier. To increase your chance of wildlife sightings and see plummeting waterfalls, you need to choose Tracy Arm.
I was captivated by the scenery in the Alaska fjord, and even after two visits, I plan to experience its beauty again.
Tracy Arm itineraries are available from Vancouver, Seattle, and San Francisco. Holland America and Windstar allows guest to combine their cruise with a land itinerary.
Since ice often blocks the approach in the early months, choose an itinerary from June onwards to avoid the disappointment of not seeing the twin Sawyer Glaciers.
Book the excursion on the smaller vessel if you want a closer look and a different perspective of viewing the fjord.
Happy travels ~ Karen