Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve

Location: Southeast Alaska

Park Tally: 41/59

Orientation: The National Park Service describes the beauty and rareness of Glacier Bay perfectly in this narrative:

“Glacier Bay is a homeland, a living laboratory, a national park, a designated wilderness, a biosphere reserve, and a world heritage site. It’s a marine park, where great adventure awaits by boating into inlets, coves and hideaway harbors. It’s also a land park, with its snow-capped mountains, spectacular glaciers, and emerald–green forests. From the summit to sea, Glacier Bay’s wildness is remote, dynamic and intact.”

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Glacier Bay can be accessed via water or air and the only developed area in the park is Bartlett Cove. There you can find the Glacier Bay Lodge, Park Visitor Center, Huna Tlingit exhibits, hiking trails, a public boat dock, sea kayak rentals and a walk-in campground. The nearby town of Gustavas has smaller accommodations, an airport, grocery store and post office. We chose to fly from Anchorage into Gustavas and based ourselves at the Annie Mae Lodge for 3 nights whilst exploring the park.

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Most iconic view:  Not surprisingly, the glaciers themselves are the highlight of Glacier Bay. Margerie and Johns Hopkins are two of the most well-known tidewater glaciers in the park – both exhibiting active “calving” (ice fall) for visitors to get awestruck over. The booming sound and enormous splash of such a large chunk of ice breaking off is truly incredible to witness. These glaciers can be viewed via a cruise/tour boat or via kayak.

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We opted to take a National Park full day boat tour of Glacier Bay. Our boat tour travelled 130 miles into Glacier Bay from Bartlett Cove and had us out on the water for a total of 7 hours, allowing ample of time to view our surroundings. An on-board Park Ranger shared a variety of interesting facts about the natural and cultural significance of what we were viewing. We saw a huge array of wildlife, including bears, whales, sea lions, seals, sea otters, and a range of seabirds.

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Accessible activity: Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve has a variety of “easier” ways to get out and explore. Popular options are to take one of the full day boat tours (mentioned in detail above), go on a short walk near Bartlett Cove, or to immerse yourself in the newly built Tribal Center.

The 1.1-mile Forest Loop Trail is a wonderful way to experience the park’s temperate rainforest with a quick side-trip along the shoreline. The hike begins in front of Glacier Bay Lodge and ends near the boat dock. Look out for wildflowers during June and July and migrating birds earlier in the season.

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When Glacier Bay National Park was first established, the native Huna Tlingit people suffered a great deal of loss of their land. Not surprisingly, this caused tensions between the Tlingit people and the National Park Service. Conflicts are reducing over time as the Hoonah Indian Association and the Park Service work to “reinvigorate traditional harvest activities that are compatible with current regulations, develop educational programs for Huna youth, sponsor summer culture camps, and collect and preserve oral histories.” An impressive Tribal House was finished in 2016 and is open to visitors to learn about Tlingit history and culture. During our visit to the Tribal House we were treated to a warm welcome by two Tlingit gentlemen who kindly shared some of their knowledge and stories with us.

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For the adventurous: A popular “bigger” adventure in Glacier Bay National Park is a backcountry sea kayaking trip. We met many people who had taken such an adventure and they were bursting with incredible stories of wildlife and jaw-dropping views. Glacier Bay Sea Kayaks are located in Bartlett Cove and can outfit visitors for multi-day trips or even for just a few hours, which is what we opted to do. It was quite the treat paddling around Bartlett Cove, witnessing sea otters and birds fishing in the calm waters and hearing wolves howling in the distance.

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Best photo opportunities: We found Glacier Bay National Park to be extremely photogenic. Whether we were out on the boat photographing the glaciers, in the forest surrounded by lush foliage, or out on kayaks observing marine life… there seemed to be endless opportunity to capture the ambiance of Glacier Bay. The Bartlett River Trail was particularly beautiful for photographing vibrant mosses and other vegetation.

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Quick facts

  • Glacier Bay was designated as a National Monument in 1925 and later became a National Park in 1980 under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conversation Act.
  • Glacier Bay is also a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site and a recognized Biosphere Reserve.
  • Glacier Bay National Park was created to protect fragile marine ecosystems, as well as important Huna Tlingit ancestral homelands.
  • The Huna Tlingit people and their ancestors have been living on the land in and around Glacier Bay (known as S’e Shuyee) since before the last glacier advance.
  • Glaciers cover about 27% of the park (2,055 square miles) and there were 1,045 glaciers identified at last count. 7 of these are tidewater glaciers, meaning they break-off or “calve” into icebergs at sea level.
  • Wildlife found within the park include grizzly bear, black bear, wolf, coyote, moose, deer, raccoon, fox, dall sheep, wolverine, mountain goat, lynx, cougar, marmot and more.
  • Glacier Bay also has plentiful marine and birdlife, including whales, dolphins, sea lions, seals, sea otters, salmon, eagles, ravens, falcons, hawks, owls, ospreys and hummingbirds.
  • Glacier Bay has 220 days of precipitation each year, so don’t forget your raincoat!
  • In 2016, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve had approximately 520,171 visitors according to the National Park Service.

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