You can’t drive to the small community of Gustavus AK (population ~400), which serves as the gateway to Glacier Bay National Park (GBNP). Not a problem if you have your own boat or plane, but other options include the ferry (twice a week during the summer), an air taxi (in good weather) or a commercial flight on a once-daily, fully loaded Boeing 737 from Juneau (summer months only). We selected the third option. It was, at most, a 20 minute flight.
Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve is one of the lesser visited national parks, with about 600,000 annual visits in non-COVID years. Ninety-five percent of tourists travel through GBNP by cruise ship without ever setting foot on land.
For the remaining 30,000, adventurous visitors often choose to explore the park by kayak. Others (like us) stay warm, dry and well-fed at Glacier Bay Lodge and sign up for the all-day boat trip, with interpretive and educational commentary provided by a friendly park ranger.
Our turnaround point for the boat trip was Margerie Glacier, located about 60 miles up the bay just a stone’s throw from the U.S.-Canadian border. The boat ride covered more miles than the round trip flights from Juneau to Gustavus.
During the first hour or so, we shared the waterway with sea otters and humpback whales. (If you have ever tried to take photos of these marine mammals with your phone, you’ll understand why I didn’t bother. More fun to just watch!)
A little further on, we paused to enjoy the sights and sounds of the Stellar sea lions and thousands of birds at South Marble Island.
Tufted puffins were a highlight on the island stop. The photo below is from the National Audubon Society.
Our next stop was near Muir Point, where the boat captain ran aground (intentionally) to pick up 20 hardy kayakers, who had been out on an eight-day excursion. We were impressed.
Although not visible in the photo, we saw quite a few mountain goats on this huge rocky outcropping called Gloomy Knob.
The day began with high clouds and became increasingly foggy throughout the morning.
We (meaning our NPS guide) spotted a couple of brown bears in this area near Russell Island.
Finally, we approached Margerie Glacier, where we spent a good amount of time surveying the gigantic river of ice from various angles. It calved several times while we were there. By then, it was flat out raining.
On the way back, we stopped briefly at Lamplugh Glacier – also impressive but technically not a tidewater glacier any longer.
It rained hard most of the way back to the boat dock, so visibility was limited. Time for a quick nap.
There’s More to Glacier Bay than Meets the Eye
(Photo galleries briefly interrupted by more words than usual. Bear with me!)
Miles and Miles of Wilderness
At just over 5,000 square miles, Glacier Bay is huge – comparable to the size of Connecticut. The park contains about 1,000 glaciers, including 11 tidewater glaciers. We saw two during our visit. Most of the park is preserved as wilderness and not readily accessible. That’s a good thing, but unless you’re a hard core kayaker or backpacker, there’s not much to do.
There are a couple of good day hikes, but we weren’t keen on hiking by ourselves in a dense rainforest that has a large population of brown bears. We stayed two nights, which was just the right amount of time to do the boat tour, walk the short loop trail, listen to an interesting ranger program, and enjoy the humpback whales that hung out just offshore.
Images from our walk through the rainforest:
“Just 250 years ago, Glacier Bay was all glacier and no bay” (quote from National Park Service brochure). And before that, it was a fertile valley inhabited by the Tlingit people for thousands of years until they were forced out around 1750 by the rapidly advancing Grand Pacific Glacier. during the Little Ice Age. The massive glacier originated in British Columbia and eventually extended south and west all the way to the ocean. By geologic standards, the Little Ice Age came and went pretty quickly. When John Muir visited the area in a canoe in 1879, Grand Pacific had already retreated 45 miles, leaving the newly formed Glacier Bay in its wake.
It’s pretty fascinating to see the succession of vegetation that has occurred during the past 150 years as the glacier retreated. At the mouth of the bay, the rainforest has returned as if nothing happened. As you travel further toward the end of the bay, however, the hillsides and shoreline are still largely bare.
Loved by Scientists
Glacier Bay was protected as a national monument in 1925, largely due to the efforts of an ecologist named William S. Cooper and others who saw a tremendous opportunity to study the natural restoration processes of flora and fauna following glacial recession. In other words, Glacier Bay was to become a giant, living laboratory.
That work is ongoing. The National Park Service conducts research in the park, as well as many other public and private organizations. Hundreds of scientific papers about various aspects of Glacier Bay are available through the NPS website for those who are so inclined.
You can read more about the importance of Glacier Bay as a research site here.
The Huna Tlingit Connection
Although the Huna Tlingit relocated during the Little Ice Age, they continued to view the Glacier Bay area as their spiritual homeland and conducted subsistence hunting and fishing activities as the glacier retreated. They weren’t part of the conversation in 1925 when the U.S. government created the national monument, or in 1980 when it was expanded and named a national park. Huna Tlingit access for traditional hunting and fishing activities was denied, leading to many decades of resentment and periodic confrontations.
Tensions boiled over sometime in the early to mid-1990s, and a new spirit of cooperation began to emerge, with significant progress made not only in restoring the right to conduct traditional indigenous practices inside park boundaries but also in fostering an appreciation of the Huna Tlingit history and culture among visitors.
A momentous milestone was celebrated in 2016 upon completion of a 2,500 square foot traditional Huna Tlingit tribal house on the shores of Glacier Bay. This excellent article by the National Parks Conservation Association brings the significance of this development to life, as well as the subsequent installation of three totem poles in the park. It’s short and worth a read.
Constructed from giant red cedar logs, the supporting posts inside the main gathering room represent the four primary Huna Tlingit clans. Each depicts important stories and events of that particular clan.
It was a short, but worthwhile, visit to Glacier Bay. Two days was perfect for us, but those wishing to embark on a multi-day kayaking or backpacking trip would need more time.
Photos from Juneau – Gateway to and from Glacier Bay
When we arrived in Juneau for a quick overnight stay before departing for Glacier Bay, here’s what we found just a two-minute walk from our hotel.
Blue skies and sunshine the next morning, so we made the best of it before our late afternoon flight to Gustavus.
First, a ride up the side of a mountain on the Mount Roberts Tramway, and a short hike at the top with beautiful views.
Afterwards, a whirlwind, self-guided tour of downtown Juneau.
And that wraps up our visit to Glacier Bay National Park that included just a taste of Juneau.
Next up in the Alaska series – Wrangell-St. Elias National Park!