Glacier Bay National Park outside of Gustavus, Alaska, is comprised of 3.3 million acres of soaring peaks, temperate rainforests, mighty glaciers and rugged coastlines, yet the park only has one paved road that is just 10 miles long.
If you’re looking for a place to really get a taste of why Alaska is known as the last frontier, Glacier Bay is the place to visit.
Despite its remoteness, there’s still plenty to explore in this park even if you aren’t a rugged backpacker. From scenic boat tours to kayak adventures to hiking trails to history and culture, read on to learn more about this stunning southern Alaska park.
About Glacier Bay National Park
Do you think the last ice age was millions of years ago? Well, you’re wrong. The Tlingit people lived in what is now Glacier Bay National Park from time immemorial to the late 1700s when the Little Ice Age forced them out, thanks to advancing glaciers. A 1794 record showed a bay that measured just five miles inland. Today, the fjords that were once filled with ice are 65-miles-long.
The Tlingit people began to return to the area after the ice retreated, but when the area became a national monument in 1925, thanks in part to conservationist John Muir, the Tlingit people were denied access to their lands. Today, the National Park Service and the Tlingit tribal government are working to restore relationships between each other and the land, including reviving traditional activities and allowing traditional harvests in the park.
There are three main parts of the park that visitors see. First is the developed Bartlett Cove area, which is home to the park’s only lodge, a visitor center and hiking and cultural opportunities. Second, are the two “Y”-shaped arms of the bay. The west arm is open to motorized vehicles and is where cruise ships sail. The east arm is strictly for non-motorized vehicles and can be accessed via kayak.
In 1992 Glacier Bay was designated as part of the world’s largest UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today the park is an important place for climate change research.
Glacier Bay is home to abundant wildlife from humpback whales and seals in the waters to mountain goats, moose and bears on land, to puffins and bald eagles in the skies.
The only way to reach Gustavus, the small gateway community to the park, is by plane or boat.
In the summer, you can fly from Juneau to Gustavus on daily Alaska Airlines flights, which take approximately 30 minutes. Other charter flights are also available to and from the Gustavus airfield.
Many Alaska cruises stop in the waters of Glacier Bay to see the glaciers, views of the mountains and to spot wildlife. Cruise ships do not dock anywhere in the park, but park rangers do board the ships to offer interpretation of everything you’ll see.
The last way to get to Glacier Bay is via the Alaska Marine Highway System (dot.alaska.gov/amhs/). This ferry system runs all the way from Bellingham, Wash., and covers 3,500 miles of Alaska coastline. The ferry system offers price points for everyone from those looking to camp on-deck in their tents, to those who want a cabin to sleep in with a private bathroom. Book ferry passage out of Juneau, or check out our Inside Passage itinerary to ride the ferry to three of southeast Alaska’s most charming small towns.
Lodging at Glacier Bay National Park
Glacier Bay has one hotel and one campground inside the park’s borders. Both are located in the developed Bartlett Cove area, which is accessible via the road from Gustavus.
Glacier Bay Lodge is in a forest of spruce trees with stunning views of the Fairweather Mountains. The park’s visitor center is on the lodge’s second floor. Here, you can see exhibits, watch films and listen to ranger talks at 7 p.m. each day.
You won’t find televisions in the lodge, but you will have your own private bathroom and cozy national park lodge accommodations. There are room styles suitable for couples, families and those who need ADA accommodations.
The on-site restaurant, the Fairweather Dining Room, serves breakfast, burgers and sandwiches for lunch and local seafood for dinner. Dine on the deck to take advantage of long Alaska evenings.
Bartlett Cove Campground is a free, walk-in campground a quarter mile from the parking lot at the dock. It has bear-proof food storage caches, composting toilets and a warming shelter for chilly nights. Wheelbarrows are available to help shuttle your gear to your campsite.
All campers must fill out a permit application May 1 – Sept. 30. This does not guarantee you a campsite, however. Campsites are first come, first served. An orientation is required prior to camping.
The nearby town of Gustavus, which is 15 minutes away, also offers lodging and dining.
Things to Do
Take a Boat Tour
Glacier Bay Lodge runs a boat day tour every day during the summer season to the west arm of Glacier Bay. It’s a great way to see the park from the magnificent Margerie and Grand Pacific glaciers, which you might spot calving. This is when chunks of ice break off the glaciers and fall into the ocean. Even if you don’t spot calving, the glaciers are constantly in flux and you’ll hear them cracking and groaning. From the boat you’ll also see beautiful peaks and wildlife such as whales, sea lions, puffins and bears. The tour boards at 7 a.m. and returns at 3:30 p.m. and lunch is served on board. A park ranger will narrate the entire tour and be available for questions.
Reservations for the 2022 season open on Dec. 1. It’s best to book as early as possible as these tours are popular.
Go for a Hike
From the Bartlett Cove area there are several trails to explore the beauty of Glacier Bay by foot. For an easy hike, the 1-mile Forest Trail winds through temperate rainforests and beaches. Hikers looking for an intermediate trek can hike to the Bartlett River estuary via the 4-mile round-trip Bartlett River Trail. If you’re looking for an all-day adventure, the 8-mile round-trip Bartlett Lake Trail will give you incredible solitude.
Always be bear and moose aware when hiking in Alaska.
Learn About Tlingit Culture
In 2016, the Huna Tribal House was built to help restore relations between the National Park Service and the Tlingit people whose ancestral land the park now occupies. The 2,500 square foot Tribal House was designed in partnership between the National Park Service and the Hoonah Indian Association, which is the tribal government to reflect the Tlingit’s traditional architecture style. The building serves as a way for visitors to learn more about the Tlingit and also as a way for the Tlingit community to reconnect to their homeland. Cultural interpreters from both organizations lead programs at the Tribal House throughout the summer.
Don’t miss the Yaa Naa Néx Kootéeyaa, the Healing Pole totem which resides outside of the Visitor Information Station. This unique totem pole tells the story of healing between the park service and the tribe.
Glacier Bay Sea Kayaks offers kayak rentals and guided trips from Bartlett Cove. If you’re an experienced kayaker, you can rent boats to explore the cove for a few hours. Or, opt for a day or multi-day guided tour. Glacier Bay’s east arm is only open to human-powered vessels so exploring it via kayak is an incredible experience. Guides are naturalists and will provide insights on everything you’ll see. There’s even a citizen science trip where you’ll help contribute to National Park Service data collecting.
Kayakers can also be dropped off for backcountry camping trips by the day tour boat. Learn more at www.nps.gov/glba/planyourvisit/kayaking.htm.