Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve is a United States National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is in the Panhandle of the state of Alaska. The park is best known for its massive glaciers, but is also an ideal destination for those seeking wildlife, kayaking, or a chance to get away.
Glacier Bay was first surveyed in detail in 1794 by a team from the H.M.S. Discovery, captained by George Vancouver. At the time the survey produced showed a mere indentation in the shoreline. That massive glacier was more than 4,000 ft (1,200 m) thick in places, up to 20 mi (32 km) wide, and extended more than 100 mi (160 km) to the St. Elias mountain range. By 1879, however, naturalist John Muir discovered that the ice had retreated more than 30 miles forming an actual bay. By 1916, the Grand Pacific Glacier – the main glacier credited with carving the bay – had melted back 60 mi (97 km) to the head of what is now Tarr Inlet.
Efforts for protection of Glacier Bay were made by John Muir and other conservationists, and in 1925 President Calvin Coolidge signed a proclamation creating Glacier Bay National Monument. At the time the monument contained less than half the area of the present park. In 1980, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act elevated the monument to national park status and also extended the park boundary northwest to the Alsek River and Dry Bay. Further protection and recognition of Glacier Bay's significance occurred in 1986, when the Glacier Bay-Admiralty Island Biosphere Reserve was established under the United Nations Man and the Biosphere Program. In 1992 Glacier Bay became part of an international World Heritage Site, along with neighboring Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve and Canada's Kluane National Park.
The park has snow-capped mountain ranges rising to over 15,000 ft (4,600 m), coastal beaches with protected coves, deep fjords, tidewater glaciers, coastal and estuarine waters, and freshwater lakes. Steep, sculpted peaks and scoured, rock-strewn valleys show scars of glacial activity and mark the advances and retreats of glaciers dating back over 115,000 years to before the Wisconsin Ice Age. The sheltered waters of Glacier Bay ebb and flow with the region’s huge tides, which can change as much as 25 feet during a six-hour period. Ocean waves pound the beaches of the wild and remote Gulf of Alaska coast. Between the bay and the coast, snow-clad peaks of the Fairweather Range capture the moisture coming in off the Gulf of Alaska and, in turn, spawn the park’s largest glaciers. At the base of these lofty peaks, deglaciated foothills and outwash plains rapidly turn green as the ice retreats and seeds find their way to the newly revealed land.
Flora and fauna
Each summer humpback whales return to the bay from their wintering grounds near Hawaii to feed on the abundant small schooling fish such as sand lance and juvenile pollack. Minke and killer whales along with harbor and Dall's porpoises also feed in the park's productive near-shore waters. Steller sea lions congregate on rocky islands to mate or to rest. Thousands of harbor seals breed and nurture their pups on the floating ice in Johns Hopkins Inlet and among the rocky reefs of the Beardslee Islands. Sea otters are rapidly colonizing Glacier Bay as well as park waters in Icy Strait and Cross Sound.
Many land animals also use the marine environment for foraging and travel. Moose and bears, for example, are accomplished long-distance swimmers that are frequently seen "dog paddling" their way across the bay. Bears work the beaches when the tide is low turning over rocks looking for tasty barnacles, clams and other intertidal life. Wolves and coyotes find the traveling easier along the edge of tall beach grass rather than fighting through alder thickets. At times, even the most upland of animals like marmots and mountain goats are drawn to the water's edge to nibble seaweed or to lick salt spray off beach rocks.
Mountain goats and brown bears were quick to reinvade after the glaciers' retreat, while coyote, moose and wolves have moved in more recently. Black bears prowl the forested portions of the lower bay, and the glacier bear, a rare color phase of the black bear, is occasionally spotted. River otters are widespread along with marten, mink and weasel, while the wolverine is scarcer and rarely sighted. The Alsek River delta in Glacier Bay National Preserve is home to lynx, snowshoe hare and beaver -- species that have reached the coast from the interior by traveling along the river corridor.
Seabirds spend most of their time searching for food in the marine waters and come ashore only to rest or to breed. Thousands of seabirds nest on cliffs and rocky shores within the bay or on the park's outer coast. Molting and migrating geese and sea ducks find refuge in quiet arms of the bay. Bald eagles nest in tall cottonwood trees or on cliffs along much of the park's shoreline. Newly vegetated hillsides support great numbers of nesting songbirds, including many neotropical migrants. The shallow waters and sloping beaches of the Beardslee Islands are important foraging and breeding areas for shorebirds, seabirds, and waterfowl. Arctic terns and jaegers prefer the barren glacial outwashes near the glaciers for nest sites.
It is believed that nearly 200 species of fish may swim in Park waters. Many, including all five species of Pacific salmon, are well-known, while others have yet to be documented. Many fishes are associated with deep water or "subtidal benthic" communities, and several of these are identified with important fisheries such as Pacific halibut, rockfish, lingcod, Pacific cod, sablefish and pollock.
Glacier Bay is blanketed by a mosaic of plant life, from a few pioneer species in recently exposed areas to intricately balanced climax communities in coastal and alpine regions. Since virtually all the vegetation in the bay has returned to the land in the past 300 years following the retreat of the glaciers, this area is one of the premier sites on the planet to study plant recolonization.
|Glacier Bay National Park|
|Climate chart (explanation)|
Glacier Bay has a maritime climate, heavily influenced by ocean currents. The result is mild winter temperatures and cool summer temperatures near sea level. Summer visitors can expect highs between of 50-to-60 °F (10-to-15 °C). Winter temperatures rarely drop into the single digits, with average nighttime lows of 25-to-40 °F (-2 to 5 °C).
Bartlett Cove receives about 70 in (1,800 mm) of precipitation annually. April, May and June are usually the driest months of the year while September and October tend to be the wettest. All this moisture helps to create the lush temperate rainforests of the lower bay.
Unlike the areas at sea level, conditions in the mountains are more severe with colder temperatures and more precipitation that takes the form of snow. It’s all that snow falling year after year that goes into creating the magnificent glaciers we love to see.
Alaska Airlines provides daily jet service, using Boeing 737s, from Seattle via Juneau to the nearby town of Gustavus during the summer visitor season. The Gustavus airport is 10 miles (26 km) by road from park headquarters at Bartlett Cove. Several air taxi companies provide daily small-plane flights year-round from Juneau to Gustavus as well. Air taxis also fly a network of routes that link Juneau and Gustavus to Haines, Skagway, and other southeast Alaska towns.
There are no roads to Glacier Bay. Alaska Marine Highway ferry service provides monthly trips in the winter and twice weekly trips in the summer. There are no services or parking for campers in Gustavus or Glacier Bay National Park. The only road in the park runs 10 miles between Bartlett Cove and the neighboring community of Gustavus. There is a rental car business in Gustavus.
Most Gustavus lodging establishments provide transportation to Bartlett Cove for their guests.
- TLC Taxi, ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Operates from Gustavus and can take visitors to or from the park for $15 per person, one-way. Call or email for taxi pickup.
Several cruise ship lines offer Alaska cruises from major west coast cities that include a Glacier Bay visit. Tour boats, which are generally smaller and carry fewer passengers, offer cruises to Glacier Bay that depart several times a week from Juneau and other southeast Alaska towns. Charter boat services originating in local communities are also available.
Fees and permits
There are no entry fees for non-commercial users of the park.
Sea kayaking is a popular way to experience the wilderness of Glacier Bay. Kayak trips can originate from Bartlett Cove, or the daily tour boat can transport kayakers via the camper drop-off service. Making reservations for a rental kayak and the daily tour boat is recommended well in advance. Guided day and overnight kayak trips are also available.
By cruise ship
Most visitors to Glacier Bay see the park from large cruise ships with thousands of passengers. These visitors do not go ashore in the park; instead, National Park Service naturalists board the ship to share their knowledge about the park and its wildlife during a day-long cruise in the bay.
By tour vessel
Tour vessels 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.
By private boat
For a personalized trip in the bay, charter vessels can generally take up to six passengers and are rented to a single group, usually for custom multi-day trips. In order to protect wildlife and natural areas, permits are required for all private boats.
- 1 Glacier Bay National Park Visitor Center (Located in the second floor of the Glacier Bay lodge in Bartlett Cove). Staffed daily in summer with park rangers. Stop by for exhibits, park information, trip planning, bookstore, reading area, hydrophone kiosk, interpretive programs, park films, brochures, and much more.
- Beardslee Islands. A short distance from Bartlett Cove, this area makes a great option for a kayaking day trip. Note that tides may cause water levels to vary by as much as twenty-five feet, and during low tides much of the area can turn to mud flats, so plan your visit carefully. This area is a great spot to see moose, bald eagles, bears, seals, humpback whales and killer whales.
- 2 Muir Inlet. Much of this inlet is off-limits to motorized boats during the summer months, making it an ideal area for kayakers looking for tranquility. The McBride Glacier, Muir Glacier, and Riggs Glacier are all tidewater glaciers accessible to kayakers. In addition, seals, bears, moose, wolves, and other animals are likely companions while exploring the inlet.
- 3 Johns Hopkins Glacier. A massive tidewater glacier located in the bay's west arm. This glacier calves ice in such large quantities that it is seldom possible for ships to approach closer than two miles from the glacier's face.
Travel by kayak is an incredible way to see the park. Guided kayak trips are available, or kayaks can be rented. While it is possible to start a trip from Bartlett Cove, most travellers use the camper drop-off service to get them closer to the major inlets.
- Glacier Bay Sea Kayaks, Box 26, Gustavus, AK 99826, ☏ . The park's official kayak rental concessionaire.
- Alaska on the Home Shore, 4102 Linnel Rd, Deming, Wa 98244, ☏ .
- Packer Expeditions, P.O. Box 601, Skagway, AK 99840, ☏ .
- South Passage Outfitters, P.O. Box 46, Elfin Cove, AK 99825, ☏ .
- Alaska Discovery, 5449 Shaune Drive, Suite 4, Juneau, Alaska 99801, toll-free: . Alaska Discovery provides guided kayak trips inside Glacier Bay proper. They offer evening, full day and multi-day trips.
Numerous large cruise ship companies offer cruises to the park.
- Carnival Cruise Line.
- Celebrity Cruises.
- Crystal Cruises.
- Holland America.
- Norwegian Cruise Lines.
- Princess Cruises.
- World Explorer Cruises.
- AdventureSmith Explorations. Active yacht & small ship cruises.
There are several trails that begin in the Bartlett Cove area.
The Alsek River and its major tributary, the Tatshenshini River, are large volume, swift glacial rivers. Beginning in the interior, it is one of a small number of river systems which breach the coast range, offering boaters uncommon environmental diversity, impressive scenery, and an outstanding wilderness experience.
For Alaska Rafting on The Tatshenshini and Alsek Rivers check out CRATE Alaska Rafting Expeditions.
There is a fuel dock in Barlett Cove operated by the Glacier Bay Lodge. The lodge can be contacted on VHF channel 16, or at +1 907 697-2225, from May to September. For fuel services, contact the Glacier Bay Lodge upon your arrival at the fuel dock, and an attendant will meet you within 15 minutes. White gas is also available from Glacier Bay Lodge. Fuel is not available in the off season.
Souvenirs can be purchased at a small shop located in the lodge. Camping supplies can be purchased in the town of Gustavus, located ten miles from Bartlett Cove.
The only dining option in the park is at Glacier Bay Lodge; the town of Gustavus, 10 miles from Bartlett Cove, has a handful of additional options including restaurants and groceries.
- Glacier Bay Lodge (in Bartlett Cove). Runs a nice restaurant offering breakfast, lunch and dinner. Prices are high but not unreasonable, and the food is reasonably good.
The only lodging that is within the park is the Glacier Bay Lodge in Bartlett Cove and a handful of lodges in Dry Bay. The town of Gustavus, 10 miles from Bartlett Cove, has a handful of additional options.
- Alsek River Lodge (Summer only), ☏ . 60 miles southeast of Yakutat, Alaska at Dry Bay in Glacier Bay National Preserve. The Alsek River Lodge is a small rustic lodge primarily focusing on guided hunting, photography & sport fishing activities and services. Access is by small plane.
- 1 Glacier Bay Lodge (Mid-May to mid-September), toll-free: . The Glacier Bay Lodge is in Bartlett Cove and offers overnight accommodations, a restaurant, gift shop, fuel sales (gasoline, #2 diesel, and white gas), and a daily vessel tour to the park's spectacular tidewater glaciers.
- Johnny's East River Lodge (Summer only), ☏ . 60 miles southeast of Yakutat, Alaska at Dry Bay in Glacier Bay National Preserve. Johnny's East River Lodge is a small wilderness lodge focusing on sport fishing and wildlife viewing activities and services. Access is by small plane.
- Northern Lights Haven (Summer only), ☏ . 60 miles southeast of Yakutat, Alaska at Dry Bay in Glacier Bay National Preserve, Northern Lights Haven is a small rustic lodge primarily focusing on sport fishing activities and services. Access is by small plane.
- 2 Bartlett Cove Campground. 33 sites, 4 group sites. All sites are first-come, first-served. A free walk-in campground with bear-resistant food caches, vault toilets, firewood, and a warming hut (with firewood provided), is located in a very scenic setting along the shore, 1/4 mile south of the Bartlett Cove dock. No reservations are accepted, but a permit is required (permits issued at the visitor center). Wheelbarrows are available to help transport gear between the parking area, dock, and campground. Stays are limited to 14 days. Free.
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.
While temperatures in Glacier Bay are mild compared to Interior Alaska, the rainy, overcast and cool weather, combined with temperatures that are near freezing every night, make hypothermia a real danger. Dress in warm layers that wick moisture away from the body, and always carry a waterproof outer layer as well as a hat and gloves.
Bears are large and unpredictable animals that are most dangerous when surprised or when lured by food. Make noise while hiking to alert bears to your presence, and always store food, trash, and toiletries in bear-proof containers kept 100 meters from your camping area.
When kayaking or boating in the park, stay a safe distance from glaciers, icebergs and cruise ships, and carry tide charts. Glaciers can calve at any time, and the resulting massive waves can easily swamp vessels that are too close. Recommended safe distances are one quarter mile from all tidewater glaciers. Be careful when around icebergs as well, as they may flip at any time. Cruise ships create large wakes and are not very maneuverable and should be given a wide berth. In addition, the tides in the park can be as strong as 6-8 knots. Carry tide charts, and know how to read them. A small vessel caught away from shore during a strong tide can easily be swept several miles out to sea.
Lesser dangers in the park include potential for giardia from drinking water from streams. Boil or otherwise purify all water when in the backcountry. More of an annoyance than a danger, the mosquitoes, gnats and black flies can test a person's sanity. When there is no breeze to keep the insects at bay they will swarm and bite mercilessly. Bug repellent is often ineffective, so carry a mosquito net and wear clothing that covers all exposed skin; you have been warned.
- Gustavus. A short drive from Bartlett Cove, Gustavus is the only option for restaurants, lodging, and supplies outside of the park. For budget travellers, kayak rental and other services may be slightly cheaper from town than from within the park.