From summit to sea, Glacier Bay offers limitless opportunities for adventure and inspiration
Lofty mountain peaks, ice-sculptured fjords, an abundance of marine wildlife and, most of all, massive tidewater glaciers, have made Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve one of Alaska's most spectacular settings and a must-stop for every cruise ship sailing north through Southeast Alaska. The 3.3 million acre park is indeed an icy wilderness.
In 1794 a survey crew described what is now called Glacier Bay as a five-mile indent in a glacier that stretched “as far as the eye could distinguish.” In 1879 when scientist/naturalist John Muir visited the area, he found the ice had retreated more than 30 miles, creating an actual bay. The glacier has continued to recede at a rapid rate.
Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve was named a national monument in 1925. In 1980, the area became a national park and preserve, and 2.7 million acres received wilderness designation. In 1986, the park became a biosphere reserve, and the area was named a world heritage site in 1992.
Today, glaciers still cover 27 percent of the Park. There are more than 50 named glaciers of which seven are active tidewater glaciers that calve icebergs into the sea. Encircling the park to the west is the Fairweather Range, the highest coastal mountains in the world at 15,000 feet.
As marine waters make up nearly one-fifth of the park, Glacier Bay is rich with marine life, including the endangered humpback whale, orcas, threatened Stellar sea lions, harbor seals, sea otters and porpoises. In addition to marine mammals, Glacier Bay is home to a large bear population, both brown and black, as well as the blue glacier bear, a rare color phase of the black. Moose, wolves, Sitka blacktail deer, mountain goats and bald eagle also thrive in the park.
More than 90 percent of the park's visitors arrive on cruise ships, which swing through the vast bay but never stop. The rest pass through either the village of Gustavus or the park headquarters of Bartlett Cove for a variety of adventures. Most of the activities in the park are water-focused with the most popular being boat tours, kayaking, river rafting, fishing, glacier viewing and whale watching. The park's 10 miles of maintained trails is limited to Bartlett Cove but Glacier Bay offers an excellent opportunity for people who have experience on the water but not necessarily as kayakers. Kayakers are often dropped off in the well-protected arms and inlets deep in the bay where they paddle past glaciers and camp along the shoreline on their own or as part of a guided kayaking tour.
Bartlett Cove is the park headquarters and includes a lodge and restaurant, a campground, kayak rentals and the tour boat dock. Also at Bartlett Cove is the seasonal Visitor Information Station for Boaters and Campers (907-697-2627) and the Glacier Bay Visitor Center (907-697-2661). The cove lies within the Glacier Bay Park but is still 40 miles south of the nearest glacier and many visitors join one-day cruises up the bay to see the ice and marine wildlife.
Almost 10 miles away and connected to Bartlett Cove by road is the service center of Gustavus. The rural community is spread out and has no downtown but it does have an airstrip left over from WWII that can handle commercial jets from Juneau as well as a dozen lodges, inns and bed and breakfasts, a handful of restaurants and outfitters and charter captains who arrange whale watching excursions, fishing trips, mountaineering expeditions and guided kayaking tours.
There are no entrance fees in Glacier Bay National Park. A free permit is required to stay at the National Park Service campground in Bartlett Cove and for wilderness camping in the park's backcountry. A permit and administrative charge is required to raft the Alsek River and its major tributary.
Gustavus is accessible by air or passenger ferry. Alaska Airlines provides daily jet service from Seattle and Anchorage to Juneau with connections via a number of carriers to Gustavus. The Gustavus airport is 10 miles by road from park headquarters at Bartlett Cove. Several air taxi companies provide small-plane flights year-round from several southeast Alaska towns to Gustavus. A passenger ferry operates between Juneau and Gustavus/Bartlett Cove on a limited schedule.
For information on the park, including lists of outfitters, charter boats and air taxi services that operate in the park contact the Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve Headquarters (907-697-2230). There is also a Yakutat Ranger District office (907-784-3295) that is open year round and a good source of information on rafting the Tatshenshini and Alsek Rivers, mountaineering, hunting, and other activities relating to Dry Bay. Visit the Gustavus community page for accommodations and tourism services in the community.