As a marine and terrestrial wilderness covering over 3.3 million acres, Glacier Bay National Park is also a part of the world’s largest protected area as a World Heritage Site. Its terrain varies from tidewater glaciers at sea level to the summits of the Fairweather Mountain Range. The park offers us a unique glimpse into the earth’s past, shaping our expectations for earth’s future.
It is in this southeastern Alaskan location where visitors can come to spy brown bears browsing for salmon, breaching whales in the bay and stellar sea lions sunning themselves on rock outcroppings. Hike along beaches at low tide, over ice fields in the summer sun and up rugged mountainsides, as Glacier Bay National Park reveals its secret allure.
History of Glacier Bay National Park
The oldest known settlement within today’s park boundaries was located at Dundas Bay 800 years ago. Tlingit history talks of inhabitants centuries before who were eventually moved out of the region by advancing glaciers. Once the ice receded, the Tlingit returned to what they now called “the bay in place of the glacier.”
By 1879, John Muir visited Glacier Bay, employing Tlingit guides to assist his study of glaciology. In fact, his writings about the region helped popularize it among tourists throughout the end of the 19th century.
Soon the area attracted scientists, seal hunters and fisherman, and by 1925 a scientist named William S. Cooper became instrumental in bringing Glacier Bay to President Coolidge’s attention, noting the speed at which plant succession occurred after glaciation here.
Coolidge realized the need to protect this unique environment and Glacier Bay National Monument was created as a living laboratory. Within 15 years, the boundaries of the monument doubled in size to protect wildlife habitat, and by 1980, its status was bumped to a national park.
Why Visit Glacier Bay National Park?
Glacier Bay National Park is only accessible by water or air, but that is no reason to leave your RV at home. Alaska as a whole is very welcoming to RVers, but the state is so large that much of it can only be covered by plane or boat. So drive your motorhome or travel trailer to Haines, Alaska and take a ferry on the Alaska Maritime Highway to enjoy the park via Juneau.
You can also book passage on a cruise ship along the Inside Passage anywhere from Bellingham, Washington to Vancouver, British Columbia for a trip to Sitka, Ketchikan, and Glacier Bay National Park. Many smaller tour companies also offer trips to the park.
Flightseeing will give you a unique perspective on the region, as well. You can fly over or drop into Glacier Bay Lodge and Visitors Center to explore further.
Places to Go
There’s plenty of wonderful places to see at Glacier Bay National Park. Here are a few spots you shouldn’t overlook.
Visit the Huna Tribal House for interpretive programs about the Glacier Clans who once lived here, and take a hike through a boreal forest or along the shore at this unique location.
Glacier Bay Lodge Visitor’s Center
The Visitor’s Center is where you will find lodging, food, and fuel along with information on the park. A book store and restrooms are located here, as well. This is also where daily boat tour reservations are taken.
Community of Gustavus
The only “town” within Glacier Bay National Park, Gustavus has an airport and is where Alaska Maritime Highway docks.
The location of Glacier Bay National Preserve, this region lies in the extreme northwest corner of the park boundary. It is accessed by air taxi and has over 30 commercial fishing camps within its region. Camping is allowed and there is one public use cabin available for rent, but no communications facilities for over 100 miles.
This wild wilderness is seldom visited but offers amazing views, numerous wildlife encounters and challenging terrain for those willing to explore it. There is only one settlement in the region, Yakutat.
Things to Do
There’s plenty to do at Glacier Bay National Park, too. All of the fun activities will keep you busy. Here are some of the highlights.
A daily boat tour leaves from Bartlett Cove, taking visitors on a seven-hour excursion through the waters of Glacier Bay, where whales, puffin, sea lions, and other marine life can be viewed. This boat also offers drop-off service to explorers of the backcountry (see the link for a map).
Hike along the shore and through forests at Bartlett Cove, or if you have scheduled a camp trip with a boat drop-off service, enjoy hiking in some of the backcountry.
Kayaks are available for rent at the Visitors Center or you can bring your own to enjoy some of the quiet solitude of Glacier Bay. It’s one of the best ways to see the area.
Hitch a ride on a small aircraft for a truly unique overview of this massive national park. There are various companies offering flightseeing tours.
One primitive campground is available in Bartlett Cove, or you can catch a ride on the boat tour for drop-off service in the backcountry. A permit and orientation session is required from the information center.
There are over 280 species of birds within the park and they can be viewed by land (Bartlett Cove, Gustavus and the Visitors Center) or by boat on many of the islands in the bay. The ample food resources and lack of predators make Glacier Bay an exceptional birding locale.
When to Visit Glacier Bay National Park
The park is open year-round. However, Glacier Bay Lodge Visitors Center is only open from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Visitors can fly or boat into the area at any time, but winter services and information are extremely limited. Daily boat tours are only available during summer operations.
Where RVers Can Stay
There are no campgrounds for RVs within the park and only one primitive campground, accessible by foot. Boat service can drop backcountry campers off at a variety of places (here’s a map of their route). Lodging is also offered at Glacier Bay Lodge during the summer months.
Getting to and Around Glacier Bay National Park
Getting to the park is a challenge, but well worth the effort. Visitors on the Alaska Maritime Highway can catch a ferry from Juneau twice a week. Cruise ships travel through the Inside Passage, and tour companies offer boat tours within the park. Visitors can also access the region via small aircraft from a wide selection of locations, and Alaska Airlines runs daily flights during the summer season.
There is only one road within Glacier Bay National Park which runs from Gustavus (location of the ferry boat landing and airport) to Bartlett Cove. Limited parking is available, so having your vehicle may not be very convenient within the park.
The magnitude of Glacier Bay National Park stretches the imagination. The vast wilderness, massive sheets of glacial ice and animals too numerous to count will fill your head with dreams of returning again and again.
Are you interested in checking out all that Glacier Bay National Park has to offer? Leave a comment below!