Insider's Guide to Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve

Margerie Glacier and Mount Fairweather.
Margerie Glacier and Mount Fairweather. Eric E. Castro
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Rugged, snow-capped mountains up to 15,000 feet tall slope down to glaciers that calve off into the chilly water with such a loud crack, the indigenous Tlingit people call it "White Thunder". Coastal beaches with mysterious coves give way to seclusive, ice-sculpted fjords, while temperate rainforests shelter boulder-strewn valleys and massive freshwater lakes leftover from the last ice age. Few places on Earth have the massive variety of flora and fauna as Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park.

It's this wide range of ecosystems that allow Glacier Bay to support such incredibly diverse wildlife. Furry, feathered, blubbery, Glacier Bay has it all: from marmots, minks and wolverines, to bigger lynx, mountain goats, and coyotes. And of course, no Alaskan park would be complete without moose and grizzly bears. Golden and bald eagles soar majestically above, puffins splash down in the water below, and gulls galore squawk out their tunes.

Water makes up nearly one-fifth of the park, so it's no surprise that the bay is best known for its marine life. Minke, humpback, and killer whales feed in the plentiful waters, porpoises breach the surface in playful arcs, seals and their pups watch the world go by from floating icebergs, thousands of sea lions bark from rocky islands, and sea otters frolic about.

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve was named a national monument by President Calvin Coolidge in 1925. In 1978, Jimmy Carter increased its acreage and elevated its status to Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. The park's boundaries were enlarged again in 1986 as it became a biosphere reserve. Finally in 1992, along with two neighboring parks, the area was named a World Heritage site, making it the largest contiguous roadless area left on earth. In all, the park preserves over 5,000 square miles, an area about the size of Connecticut.  

Classic Adventures

Reid Glacier.
Reid Glacier. Matt Zimmerman

Do not leave Alaska without seeing the bay from the deck of a boat. A ship departs Glacier Bay Lodge in Bartlett Cove every morning carrying 50-150 passengers. It takes about seven hours to travel 130 miles through the waterway that was a river of ice only 250 years ago. A park service naturalist is on board to help spot wildlife and appreciate and understand the park as a whole. Bring binoculars and expect to see many of the animals the park is well known for. The highlight is an extended stop beside a glacier miles long, hundreds of feet thick, and a mile wide. Experience a visual and aural spectacle as it calves into the water, leaving giant icebergs behind.

Sea kayaking is one of the most popular, and perhaps the best way to experience the wilderness. Kayakers have 800 miles of wild, pristine shorelines to paddle, explore and camp on. Quick day trips put in at Bartlett Cove near the visitor's center. If more of an adventure is wanted, the Glacier Bay Lodge day boat will drop off and pick up backcountry campers and paddlers at different spots in the upper bay. It's even possible to get dropped off at one site and picked up at another.

There are no maintained trails in the park's wilderness, backcountry hiking pretty much sticks to beaches, glacial riverbeds, and alpine meadows, due to the rugged terrain and maddeningly thick alder thickets. That said, there are a few great hikes in Bartlett Cove. For a quick, easy stroll, check out the Forest Trail. This easy, 1-mile loop meanders through the rainforest, passing by several serene ponds, then hits the beach. Do it in the spring when bird migration is at a peak, wait until summer for a spectacular wildflower show.

To stretch the legs out a bit more, seek out the Bartlett River and Bartlett Lake trails. The River Trail winds through the rainforest along an intertidal lagoon with excellent coyote, moose, bear, and river otter sighting possibilities along the beach. End at the Bartlett River estuary, where water birds of all sorts congregate in the area. In late summer, hungry harbor seals feed on the salmon running up the river, a sight not to be missed. For more mileage, branch off the River Trail and head to the lake. This trail climbs a moraine and treks past lichen-covered boulders and moss-covered trees ending on the shores of Bartlett Lake. Solitude, save for the plentiful loons, is the reward. It's four miles round trip for the River Trail, eight to the lake.

Secrets of the Park

View from Lamplugh Glacier.
View from Lamplugh Glacier. Matt Zimmerman

The mountain ranges of Glacier Bay, topped by the 15,325-foot Mt. Fairweather, are some of the highest coastal summits in the world. They're also among the least visited in North America, due to unpredictable weather that produces 100 inches of precipitation a year, and the fact that most climbing in the park is only accessible via charter boat or ski plane. But don't be deterred, summiting Fairweather is considered moderate, with 20-30-degree snow slopes, 40-degree ice climbing and a spectacular ridge ascent. Elevation gain is 10,500 feet, and assuming good weather, should take 3-5 days. And, since the summit is right on the border of the U.S. and Canada, climbers can say they just ticked off the highest point in British Columbia. 

Two rivers that run through the park, the Tatshenshini and Alsek Rivers, are considered to have some of the best whitewater in the world. Rafters paddle wide-open lakes filled with floating blue and white icebergs, and up to Class IV rapids, the highlight being a narrow, six-mile long canyon that offers a wild roller coaster of continuous Class III whitewater. Hike along mountain streams teeming with salmon, trek across centuries-old glaciers, and sleep on a different isolated, pristine beach every night.

Immerse Yourself

Forested cliffs in Glacier Bay.
Forested cliffs in Glacier Bay. Mark Byzewski

Glacier Bay features some of the planet’s very best sea kayaking. Silently gliding through the water as humpback whales gracefully break the calm, glassy water just off your bow is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. There are several companies in the nearby rustic bush town of Gustavus, called the "Gateway to Glacier," that run guided and non-guided tours up to seven days long. Paddle some of the most remote places that

John Muir himself called “unspeakably pure and sublime,” take in views from sea to summit, and spend the evening relaxing by a campfire along a pebbled beach.

How to Get the Most Out of Your Visit

  • Bring binoculars and good rain gear. Temps remain moderate throughout the year, but Bartlett Cove gets 70 inches of precipitation annually. April-June tend to the driest months of the year, September and October are the wettest.

  • Glacier Bay tides can change as much as 25 feet from high to low tide in just a few hours. Keep this in mind if camping on the beach.

  • Summer days are are 18 hours long. Drink plenty of water, and do not forget the sunscreen.

  • Free camping is available Bartlett Cove campground. It's got bear-proof food storage, free firewood, and a warming center. It's walk in only, requiring a quarter-mile hike in, but has fantastic views: see whales feeding from the tent! Glacier Bay Lodge has full lodging and dining. The town of Gustavus, 11 miles away, has more dining and lodging options, groceries, gas and supplies.

  • Backcountry, campground campers and any boaters need a free permit from May 1 through September 30.

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