Glacier Bay National Park
One of the most beautiful and wild places you’ll ever see
The stunning Glacier Bay National Park, a World Heritage Site, is a refugee from the ice ages: tidewater glaciers calving into frigid seas, cliff-flanked fjords and plants creeping up scoured valleys where glaciers retreated. Glacier Bay National Park Wilderness and Preserve sits at the northern end of the Alaska Panhandle, stretching from Gustavus west of Juneau north through one of the narrowest parts of the “pinch,” where the state is narrowed down to about 20 miles from Mount Fairweather to the Gulf of Alaska, on to the Alsek River, one of the state’s 26 national wild and scenic rivers and a favorite of rafters.
In the watery wilderness of Glacier Bay National Park, you can witness a landscape at its literal moment of creation. When George Vancouver and his H.M.S. Discovery explored Southeast Alaska’s coastline in 1794, Glacier Bay lay buried beneath a mile-thick ice sheet extending all the way to its mouth at Icy Strait. But the ice has beaten a remarkably hasty retreat over the last two centuries, exhuming a raw, misty realm of steep-sided fjords and tidewater glaciers.
The Y-shape bay is now 65 miles long. A journey up its arms is a profound regression through the life cycle of a new land, from maturing Sitka-spruce forests replete with grizzlies and wolves to thin-skinned tundra to the algae, lichens, and mosses that gain purchase on land exposed at a glacier’s maw, the first beginnings of organic soil. Glacier Bay stands at farthest possible remove from the tiresome clamor of the modern world. So, at least for a little while, trade in your cell phone’s jangle for the pop, crackle, and finally thunderous boom of a building-size berg calving into the sea from a vast river of ice. Swap rivers of commuter traffic for a whitewater ride down North America’s wildest rivers, the Tatshenshini and Alsek. Whatever you do here – and choices range from sea kayaking to fishing for mammoth halibut to keeping an eye peeled for ambling bears or breaching humpback whales – you’ll be adventuring far beyond the end of the road.
Touring Glacier Bay:
The popular way to see Glacier Bay is on a tour vessel. These boats have up to a few hundred passengers. There is one daily tour boat that departs from Bartlett Cove during the summer months, and additional tour boats include Glacier Bay as part of a longer itinerary. Like the cruise ships, tour vessels have National Park Service naturalists on board.
The park is a wildlife lover’s dream. Humpback and killer whales patrol the waters, and the five species of Pacific salmon swim through. The shoreline is busy with migrating birds. Inland, watch for bears, both brown, black, and “glacier” bears, which are black bears in a bluish color phase. There are also moose, Sitka deer, wolves and wolverines.
Whatever you do at Glacier Bay, wildlife watching will be part of your experience. Each summer 15 – 20 humpback whales regularly feed in park waters, concentrating in the lower part of the bay. The impact of the sight of a humpback breaching clear out of the water only ratchets upward when you trade cruise ship for small tour boat, or tour boat for one-man kayak. The park is roamed by at least 40 species of mammals – grizzlies, moose, wolves – and more than 220 known species of birds; whatever your conveyance, a trip up the bay will offer plenty of sightings along the shorelines. And keep an eye peeled for the blue glacier bear, a rare species of black bear wearing a fashionable blue coat.
All campers (including kayakers) are required to attend a camper orientation, held daily upon request at the Bartlett Cove Visitor Information Station near the dock. This session is for your benefit: to answer your questions, provide you with a tide table, inform you of special wildlife and safety closures or to assist in planning your trip. You will be asked to fill out a backcountry registration form at that time and a wilderness survey form when you return from your trip.
Kayaking Kayaking in Glacier Bay:
Glacier Bay’s waters are arguably the finest sea-kayaking grounds in the world. In the southerly precincts of the bay at spots like the Beardslee Islands, you can paddle zoom-lens close to moose, bald eagles, bears, inquisitive harbor seals, and humpback and killer whales. Head up Muir Inlet to the ice-choked waters at the snout of McBride Glacier and you’ll witness the mind-numbing spectacle of a tidewater glacier periodically dumping itself into the sea. Given the intensely wild feel of Glacier Bay, it’s a welcome surprise that kayakers of all skill levels can get a deep draught of paddling here; the fractured coastline offers many sheltered quiet-water coves, and the park infrastructure – which includes a number of officially sanctioned outfitters and a concession-run boat that drops paddle-campers off at remote backcountry locations – makes it easy enough to hew deep into the wildest parts of the bay.
Soar above glaciers:
For anyone who’s got a taste for getting deep into the nitty gritty of a landscape, flight-seeing tours tend to be something of a bore – all that scenic beauty outside your window might as well be a poster; it’s still too far away to touch or truly experience. But this one’s an exception. Seeing Glacier Bay’s terrain from above allows for a deeper appreciation of its verticality and immense scale. From the window of a Bush seaplane, you’ll see the hundreds of cubic miles of ice of the Brady Icefield. Rivers of ice, such as the Lamplugh and Grand Pacific Glaciers, will stretch out below you, serrated ridges clearly hinting at their flow patterns. There will be narrow fjords and bowl-like cirques – and you’ll be able to see how those immense ice flows carved them out of rock.
Glacier Bay Location:
Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve is located west of Juneau in southeastern Alaska. Park headquarters is at Bartlett Cove, 65 miles from Juneau.
Glacier Bay Access:
Thousands of the park’s visitors pass through on cruise ships. But if you’re planning to stay a while, you can head over on a water taxi or small plane from Juneau, 50 miles to the east. The Alaska Marine Highway has begun limited weekly service to Bartlett Cove.
Glacier Bay Accommodations:
One National Park Service facility. Glacier Bay Lodge From luxurious rooms to bunk beds.