Glacier Bay National Park: The Complete Guide

Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska

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Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve

Address
Alaska, USA
Phone +1 907-697-2230

Even though Glacier Bay is the most visited national park in Alaska, the vast majority of visitors to the area just pass by on a cruise ship, and very few actually step into the park. It isn't the easiest to reach since there are no roads to the park, but those who make the journey find that it's a worthwhile experience.

The national park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in southeastern Alaska, not far from the state capital of Juneau. Scientists have called Glacier Bay a living laboratory due to its glacial retreat, plant succession, and animal behavior, but visitors enjoy the vast park for its incomparable landscapes and pristine nature. For those who hear the call of the wild, you can't beat a trip to Glacier Bay.

Things to Do

Activities at Glacier Bay are as diverse as the area. Outdoor enthusiasts can choose from hiking, camping, mountaineering, kayaking, rafting, fishing, hunting, wilderness adventures, and bird watching. It is possible for wilderness lovers to spend days in the park's more remote places without seeing another person. Backpacking and mountaineering are the most strenuous ways to explore the park, but perhaps the most rewarding.

Glacier Bay National Park is massive, but most of it is unexplored wilderness that few people ever reach. You'll likely begin your journey in Bartlett Cove, but check out other areas of the park for a real adventure.

  • Bartlett Cove: You may wish to explore the area on your own, with a small group, or as part of a Ranger Naturalist guided hike. Whatever method you choose, the beauty of Bartlett Cove is worth discovering.
  • West Arm: The bay’s west arm contains the park’s highest mountains and most active tidewater glaciers.
  • Muir Inlet: Consider this the mecca for kayakers. Camping and hiking are amazing here.
  • White Thunder Ridge: A strenuous hike up this trail will reward you with amazing views of Muir Inlet.
  • Wolf Creek: Take this hike to view where running water has exposed a forest buried by a glacier almost 7,000 years ago.
  • Marble Islands: A great place for bird watchers. The islands support the breeding colonies of gulls, cormorants, puffins, and murres.

Best Hikes & Trails

Most of the hiking within Glacier Bay is wilderness hiking without any marked trails, so make sure you're fully prepared. The only developed area within the park is around Bartlett Cove, which is also where the national park visitor center can be found. In this area, you can find some short trail options, ideal for hikers without backcountry experience or for those who want to get their bearings.

  • Forest Trail: This 1-mile loop begins at the visitor center and then continues through the spruce and hemlock forest before curving back along the lakeshore. To get the most out of your trek, take part in daily ranger-led hikes on the Forest Trail to learn about the flora, fauna, and Indigenous peoples who have lived in the area.
  • Bartlett River Trail: The Bartlett River Trail travels through dense forest until arriving at an estuary where you may find loons, otters, bald eagles, seals, and bears. It's about 4 miles roundtrip, but if you want a full day hike you can continue even further to Bartlett Lake, which is a 10-mile roundtrip hike.

Water Sports

Sea kayaking is the easiest and most popular way to travel into Glacier Bay's wilderness. Kayaks can be brought to the park by ferry, rented locally, or provided on guided trips. Rafting the Tatshenshini and Alsek rivers from Canada to Dry Bay in the park is a world-class float trip on glacial rivers through one of the world's highest coastal mountain ranges. Whether you bring your own raft, rent from an outfitter, or join a guided trip, you will have a blast!

Where to Camp

There's only one developed campground at Glacier Bay, which is the Bartlett Cove Campground near the visitor center. Campsites are given out on a first-come, first-served basis and can't be reserved in advance. Experienced campers often choose to hike out and pitch a tent in the backcountry, and with over 800 square miles of park to choose from there are virtually unlimited options.

Whether you're camping in Bartlett Cove or the backcountry, you'll need to obtain a free permit and complete a short orientation explaining some guidelines to keep both campers and the park safe.

Where to Stay Nearby

Glacier Bay Lodge is the only non-camping accommodation inside the national park. It is part of the visitor center and next to Bartlett Cove, and its rooms are spread out in cabin-like structures with breathtaking views of the cove and the surrounding forest, all of them offering easy access to kayaking on the water or the nearby hiking trails.

Outside of the park, there's only one town that's within driving distance of Glacier Bay. Gustavus is a small town with an airport that's 10 miles away from the Glacier Bay visitor center, and visitors looking for lodging can find a few bed and breakfast options in town.

How to Get There

The park is only accessible by boat or plane. From Juneau, take a flight to Gustavus then take the short bus ride to Glacier Bay Lodge and Bartlett Cove Campground. Alaska Airlines provides daily jet service from Juneau to Gustavus (about 30 minutes) in the summer season. Year-round scheduled air service to Gustavus is also provided by a variety of small air taxis and charters. Several air taxis also fly a network of routes that link Juneau and Gustavus to Haines, Skagway, and other southeast Alaska towns. They can also assist in getting you into Glacier Bay's wilderness if you want to explore the park outside of Bartlett Cove.

No roads reach the park from other parts of Alaska, but Gustavus is a stop on the Alaska Marine Highway, a maritime route that is part of the National Highway System. You can buy tickets for ferries from Juneau which generally leave about twice a week.

Accessibility

Since most visitors take in the park from a cruise ship, the stunning views are accessible to all. For actually entering the park, the only developed area is at Bartlett Cove. The lodge and visitor center at Glacier Bay are both accessible by ramp or elevator, but most of the trails are gravel or packed dirt. There is also a section of the dock that juts out into the water that is fully ADA-compliant.

Tips for Your Visit

  • There is no entrance fee to enter Glacier Bay National Park.
  • Late May to mid-September is the best time to visit. Summer days are longer and temperatures tend to be cooler. While May and June have the most sunshine, the upper inlets can still be thick with icebergs. September is often rainy and windy.
  • Pets are allowed on land in a few select areas and may never be left unattended. Your pet must be leashed or physically restrained at all times. They are not allowed on trails, beaches, or anywhere in the backcountry, with the exception of pets that remain on board private vessels on the water.
  • Bears are common in the backcountry of Glacier Bay, so follow basic guidelines to protect yourself in case you come into contact with one.
  • Most hikers are on the lookout for bears, but more visitors are harmed each year by moose than by bears. Moose aren't naturally aggressive, but keep your distance or they may feel like you're invading their territory.
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Glacier Bay National Park: The Complete Guide