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Glacier Bay National Park is a beautiful U.S. National Park located near Juneau, Alaska. With about 547,000 visitors per year (as of 2017), it’s the second most visited national park in Alaska, slightly behind Denali.
The vast majority of visitors to the park arrive on cruise ships, which sail up the Inside Passage of the Alaskan Panhandle to or from Anchorage. A much smaller number of visitors travel to the park on foot, or via smaller ships.
Once you’re there, the name seems fitting—it’s named for 1,045 glaciers you can spot around the park, seven of which terminate into Glacier Bay and can be easily admired by travelers.
This national park is also part of the Kluane / Wrangell-St Elias / Glacier Bay / Tatshenshini-Alsek UNESCO World Heritage Site, which covers four parks in the U.S. and Canada.
Read on for a thorough overview of the importance of this Alaskan national park, as well as details on the best ways to visit and enjoy your time there.
The earliest human artifacts found near the park date back almost 10,000 years, however, due to the extreme glaciation, it is doubtful that there was significant long-term habitation within the current park boundaries. The current native people who live in the area around the park are the Tlingit tribe, although other tribes such as the Haida may have also lived here in the past.
Russian fur traders may have arrived in the area in the mid-18th century, but there are no formal records of their visit. The first documented visit was by Jean-François de Galaup, who in 1786 visited the area on foot to trade with the Tlingit.
In 1794 the Vancouver Expedition, led by Captain George Vancouver of the British Royal Navy, documented the area and recorded the extent of the ice flow for the first time. This is why more is known of the history of the glaciers of Glacier Bay than for most other glaciers in North America.
The late 19th-century brought naturalist John Muir to the park, where the glaciers helped him understand the glacial valleys in Yosemite National Park.
The coastal location made it one of the easier sites in Alaska for people to visit, and on February 25, 1925 Glacier Bay was established as a National Monument by President Calvin Coolidge. The monument was subsequently expanded by Franklin Roosevelt on April 18, 1939, to create, what was then, the largest site in the National Park Service System.
On December 1, 1978, Jimmy Carter expanded the national monument to include lands around the Alsek River, and then on December 2, 1980 Congress passed legislation to rename the site Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.
Things to Do in Glacier Bay
The most popular activity in Glacier Bay is glacier watching from the deck of a ship. This is how 90% of the visitors to the park experience it. However, just because most people visit by ship doesn’t mean that’s the only thing to do—this is a place with deep forests, rivers, and bays—so once you’ve seen the best glaciers from the ship, kayak and other activities outlined below are amazing ways to experience the national park.
Also, you’ll need to pay for entrance into the national park, and the America the Beautiful Pass, offered by the federal government, offers traveler the best overall discount if you plan to visit multiple parks in one year—it covers your visit plus up to three other adults.
Visit the Tidewater Glaciers
Glaciers are obviously the main attraction in Glacier Bay and admiring them primary thing to do once you arrive. While there are over 1,000 glaciers in the park, the tidewater glaciers get most of the attention (a tidewater glacier begins on land and terminates in the water). There are currently seven tidewater glaciers in Glacier Bay, including:
- Gilman Glacier
- Grand Pacific Glacier
- Johns Hopkins Glacier
- Lamplugh Glacier
- LaPérouse Glacier
- Margerie Glacier
- McBride Glacier
The highlight of any glacier viewing experience is getting to see glacial calving—this is when large pieces of the glacier break off and crash into the water, creating icebergs. Of the seven tidewater glaciers, four regularly calve icebergs, the most famous and popular of which is Margerie Glacier.
If you travel to Glacier Bay by cruise ship, expect to spend at least one hour or more parked in front of a glacier, waiting to see iceberg calving. This is one of a few places in the world where you can see this phenomenon, and one of the best. When the glaciers break off, everyone on board the ship oohh’s and aahh’s as if they were watching fireworks.
In addition to glaciers and iceberg calving, you’ll probably see an abundance of wildlife along the shore of the bay. Sea lions are almost always visible sleeping on rocks in the bay. Brown bears can also be seen on the shore and depending on the time of year you go, you might get to see mothers and cubs. If you are lucky, you might also see wolves.
Seabirds will definitely be part of the experience. Puffins are the most popular seabird and you can expect to hear people on the deck of the ship shout if they see puffins. In addition, expect to see alcids, guillemots, murres, and terns.
Unless you are one of the few people who explore the park on foot, you will most probably be on the deck of a ship and will require the use of binoculars or a zoom lens for your camera—be sure to pack these, as well as other key camera gear if you hope to make the most of wildlife spotting.
Kayaking is a popular activity for the non-cruise ship visitors who visit the park. There are several options for what you can do, including day trips, or even 5-10 day excursions. You can find kayak outfitters in the nearby town of Gustavus.
Given the nature of the park (mostly water and ice), hiking trails are limited. However, there are some trails in the area around the visitor center in Bartlett Cove. There are several trails to explore, all of which are single day hikes:
- Bartlett River Trail. 4-miles (6.4 km)
- Bartlett Lake Trail. 8-miles. (12.9 km)
- Beach Trail. 1 mile (1.6 km)
- Forest Loop Trail. 1 mile (1.6 km) .
Rangers lead guided walks on the Forest Loop Trail every day at 1:30 pm when the park is open.
Join a Glacier Bay Whale Watching Tour
While it is possible to see a whale on any trip into Glacier Bay—you are likely visiting on a cruise, after all, so the whales might swim by. But the best way to guarantee that you can see the whales is on a day trip specifically for whale watching and wildlife viewing. The Glacier Bay Lodge offers morning and afternoon whale watching tours, which leave from the city dock in Gustavus. Alternately book ahead to ensure a spot on the Hoonah Whale-Watching Cruise—a highly rated three-hour trip with amazing success finding the whales, as well as brown bears and other key wildlife.
Humpback whales visit Glacier Bay for food—after a winter of fasting in waters further south, they eat for as many as 23 hours a day. This Bay is a protected sanctuary for the 40 ton whale, and it’s the best spot on earth for humpback whale watching opportunities during the summer months. View the wildlife viewing seasonal calendar provided by the National Parks Service for an understanding of which wildlife you’re likely to spot during your visit.
Book a Flightseeing Trip
Aerial views of national parks give you a perspective that would be impossible to get from the ground (and is also impossible to get now that drones have been banned from all national parks in the U.S.). One-to-two hour flightseeing tours over the national park are available from several nearby communities. In fact, to do a flightseeing tour you might have to go to a nearby town such as Juneau, Haines, or Skagway. Several charter companies offer flightseeing:
Opt for Small Ship Glacier Viewing
Giant cruise ships are not the only option—or even the best option—for viewing glaciers. Every morning during the season, weather permitting, a day-trip boat leaves from the dock at Bartlett Cove. In addition to seeing glaciers, they also drop off and pick up backcountry hikers and kayakers. Contact the Visitor Center for information and reservations.
Smaller charters are also available out of the town of Gustavus for smaller groups and families.
Glacier Bay Photography Tips
There are several things unique to photographing in Glacier Bay that you should be aware of before you travel to the national park. And if you’re keen to make the most of your trip photos, the online Travel Photography Academy is the single best way to level up your skills.
Shooting From a Moving Vessel
Ideally, you’d like to be stationary when you are photographing something. When you are on a ship, however, that’s out of the question. The thing to remember is that taking a photograph on a moving object is not that dissimilar from taking a photo of a moving object.
As Einstein showed, all motion is relative. To capture something when moving, use a fast shutter speed to minimize the blur of motion. If the ship is moving up and down as well as forward, try to time pressing the shutter button to when the ship is at the top or bottom of its vertical motion.
If you see wildlife on the shore, you will need a powerful zoom lens to photograph it properly, and with a zoom lens especially, the movement of the ship will exaggerate the motion of the lens.
Shooting a Calving Glacier
You should be able to clearly hear when an iceberg calves off of a glacier. There will be a massive groaning and crashing sound of the ice breaking off and falling into the water.
The problem is, light travels faster than sound, and ships can’t get that close to the glacier for safety reasons. That means by the time you hear the groan of the ice breaking off, it has already happened. There will be a one or two-second delay between when the calving occurs and when you hear it. By the time you turn to photograph it, it might already be in the water.
You have to keep your eyes open and have your camera constantly at the ready to properly capture falling ice. It isn’t easy to do. The moment you see activity, you have to get your camera up and start shooting.
Also, make sure your camera is in burst mode. Because this might be a once in a lifetime opportunity, make sure you check your camera settings before you get on the ship. Check your battery and make sure you have plenty of space available on your memory card.
Where to Eat
Given the remote location of the park and the lack of road access to the park, dining options are very limited.
The town of Gustavus has several restaurants open during the season when the park is open. There are also markets and delis in town where you can buy your own food if you want. Gustavus is approximately 10-15 minutes away from the visitor center, outside the boundaries of the park.
Inside the park, there is only one dining option, and that is the Glacier Bay Lodge Restaurant. The restaurant is not cheap, but the views are the best you will find in almost any national park.
The park is technically open year-round, however, services are extremely limited or non-existent in the winter.
The visitor center is open from late May to early September. Daily hours for the visitor center are 10:30 AM to 8:00 PM in season.
Where to Stay in Glacier Bay National Park
There is only one hotel within the park and that is the Glacier Bay Lodge. The lodge has amazing views, and is in the heart of activity for the park.
There are a few Hotels in Gustavus as well as accommodations on Airbnb. As the majority of visitors to the park arrive and stay on cruise ships, you do not see as many hotels as you would outside of other national parks. Most of the hotels are mid-tier places and there are no chain hotels in town. The best option in Gustavus is the mid-range and lovely Annie Mae Lodge.
There is only one proper official campground in Glacier Bay, and that is near the Visitor Center in Bartlett Cove. Reservations must be made in advance. The Bartlett Cove campsite is a walk-in campsite which has no facilities for RV’s or other vehicles. Showers are available at the Glacier Bay Lodge.
Backcountry camping permits are available from the visitors center as well.
As of the time of writing, there are no RV parks in Gustavus. The closest would be either in Haines or Juneau.
How to Get to Glacier Bay
The vast majority of visitors to Glacier Bay National Park arrive via cruise ship. Several companies offer cruises that visit the park. Some of the popular cruise lines with Glacier Bay stops include Norwegian, Princess, Carnival, Holland America, MSC, Celebrity, Silversea, and Cunard.
If you’d like the cruise experience but don’t want to be on a massive ship, I’d recommend Uncruise.
Gustavus and the Glacier Bay Visitor Center in Bartlett Cover are not connected to the rest of the world via road. To drive to the park you have to take the ferry from Juneau to Gustavus. Please check the Alaska Department of Transportation website for the ferry schedule. As noted above, there are no RV facilities in the park or in Gustavus.
The town of Gustavus has a small airport. Alaska Air has regular, daily flights from Juneau from early June through late August. The flight from Juneau to Gustavus is only about 30 minutes. If you fly via Alaska you can be routed directly to Gustavus from wherever you point of origin is.
Alaska Seaplanes flys six timers per day in the summer and three times per day in the winter. Alaska Seaplanes offers more options, as well as year-round flights, but you will have to collect your bags at the airport and physically go to the Juneau Seaplane Terminal.
If you arrive by cruise ship, then all of your costs will be included in the price of your cruise.
If you are not on a cruise ship, expect to pay more than you might otherwise pay to visit a national park. The lack of road access means that transportation will cost more than usual. Likewise, food and other items are usually more expensive because they have to be shipped in. Budget more than you otherwise would for visiting a national park in the continental United States, and buy an America the Beautiful Pass pass before you leave to at least cover the entrance fee for your group.
As the park is only open from late May to early September, the range of temperatures you will find is pretty limited. Expect high temperatures during the day in the 50s to 60s F (10 to 20 C). Temperatures seldom get very hot or very cold due to the park’s location in the North Pacific.
You should definitely prepare for rain, as the odds of rain in the summer along the Alaskan coast is quite high. This will probably mean a rain jacket (recommend men’s jacket and ideal women’s raincoat), not just an umbrella, if you plan on being out on the deck of a ship.