Glacier Bay National Park
Gustavus, Alaska, USA
Hours: Glacier Bay is open year-round, but services are extremely limited in winter. The Visitor Information Center at Bartlett Cove is open from May 27 to September 11 from 2 p.m. to 8:45 p.m. (the exhibits are open 24 hours). The Visitor Information Station for boaters and campers is open in May and September from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and in June, July, and August from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Fees: Glacier Bay National Park is free, and does not charge any entrance or camping fees. However, the only way to really see the park is by boat or kayak, which does cost money.
Location: The park is located in southeastern Alaska. Bartlett Cove (the park’s primary port of entry) is 65 miles west of Juneau. There are NO roads to Glacier Bay, and the only road in the park is between Bartlett Cove and Gustavus, AK. Gustavus, ten miles from the park, is accessible by plane (daily flights leave Seattle in the summer), passenger ferry from Juneau, or air taxi.
Activities: Backpacking, bird watching, boating, camping, fishing, hunting, hiking, kayaking, mountaineering, nature walks, whitewater rafting, wildlife viewing
Contact: By mail: Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, P.O. Box 140, Gustavus, AK 99826. By phone: (907) 697-2230, and by fax: (907) 697-2654
Places like Glacier Bay National Park help perpetuate the notion of Alaska as the final frontier of the United States and one of the last great wilds of North America. Although Glacier Bay is a popular stop for cruise ships and has its share of pre-packaged tours, the park is made up of mostly untouched and sometimes savage wilderness. With of glaciers, 15,000 foot peaks, fiords, and tundra, Glacier Bay is almost primordially new. The shorelines and islands of the park were covered in ice less than 200 years ago, and the marine and terrestrial habitats created by the recession of massive glaciers are still in a state of constant flux. The continuing evolution of the park’s ecology has given rise to an incredibly diverse population of natural inhabitants, including humpback and killer whales, sea lions, harbor seals, moose, wolves, coyotes, and black and brown (grizzly) bears.
Glacier Bay was first designated a national monument in 1925, and a park and preserve in 1980. The park itself is over three million acres, and is part of a 24 million acre-block of protected land. For those weary of the commercialized nature of some of the more popular national parks in the continental US, Glacier Bay is a fantastic destination. The park doesn’t even have any roads, let alone a cash machine (the nearest is located in Gustavus). With only seven miles of designated trails and one established campground (which nevertheless requires a backcountry permit), tackling Glacier Bay is not for the faint of heart. Those up to the adventure, however, will have the opportunity to take in some of the most dynamic and ever-changing landscapes in the world, and will likely only have the bears and otters for company.
Most visitors see the park by boat, whether on their own or as part of a tour. The vessel of choice is the kayak, and it’s worth noting that the tidewater glaciers are 50-60 miles from Bartlett Cove – not an insignificant distance when traveling by kayak (most trips range from three to ten days). Camper drop-offs and pick-ups can be arranged through the Glacier Bay Lodge (boat tour reservations are also available). Although many visitors have never kayaked before, most are avid campers and outdoorsman, and come prepared for the unpredictable weather, heavy rainfall, winds, and tides that make kayaking the park such an adventure. Glacier Bay Kayaks rents kayaks and provides instruction during the summer season at 9 a.m., 2 p.m., and 5 p.m. – rates start at $40 for a single and $80 for a double per day, but actually decrease in price the longer the trip. For those not quite ready to strike out on their own, Alaska Discovery offers kayaking, rafting, and glacial trekking trips in June, July, and August. The trips are generally five to eight days, and are approximately $2,000-2,500, depending on the trip and the size of the group.
Most kayakers camp their way up the coast, making camping, in conjunction with boating, the most common way to experience Glacier Bay’s wilderness. There are no designated campgrounds outside of Bartlett Cove, and all camping requires a permit. The permits are free, but they require attending an orientation (that’s also free) at the visitor center and checking out a bear canister. Although the park recently imposed a visitor use limit, they don’t expect a shortage of permits and reservations are not accepted. Due to the unique (and changing) topography of the shorelines, campers often find themselves sharing a fairly small strip of passable land with foraging bears. Consequently, bear safety knowledge is an absolute must when camping – the park’s guidelines are found here. Though Glacier rangers offer orientations and the website provides guidelines, visitors should be aware that they are going to be pretty much on their own (which is precisely the reason many adventurers choose Glacier Bay).
In addition to camping and kayaking, truly hardy souls can try climbing one of the mostly un-named peaks in the park. The highest peak is 15,300 ft, on Mt. Fairweather, and is the least visited peak for its elevation in North America. If you are an experienced mountaineer in search of uncharted territory and high adventure, Glacier Bay could be your next climbing spot. Be prepared, however, to do all your own research and planning – don’t skimp on this step, as the park doesn’t employ a rescue team.
No matter how you decide to experience this park, the pure wilderness of Alaska and the almost prehistoric solitude of the glaciers won’t fail to disappoint.