A beginner’s guide to visiting Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve
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Editor’s note: Glacier Bay National Park and its facilities will be open for the summer of 2021. But many 2021 cruises that include a visit to the park are unlikely to take place due to ongoing, coronavirus pandemic-related U.S. and Canadian restrictions on cruise travel. A large number of 2021 cruises to Alaska already have been canceled.
Among North America‘s best-known national parks, Glacier Bay is a bit of an outlier.
There’s also very little infrastructure within the park. It does have a visitor center and lodge, located at its very edge. But its biggest attractions — its giant tidewater glaciers — are viewable only from the deck of a vessel. At its essence, Glacier Bay is a giant, fjord-like body of water lined with snow-capped mountains, forests and glaciers, and it’s best seen from the water.
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It is for this reason that a large percentage of Glacier Bay’s nearly 700,000 visitors a year arrive on a cruise ship. Indeed, you could almost call Glacier Bay a cruise ship park.
It’s only by arriving by cruise vessel (or taking the park tour boat) that you’ll get to fully experience the park by traveling up the 65-mile-long waterway to a glacier and back.
Even so, you’ll only see a small portion of the park. Established as a national monument in 1925 and elevated to national park status in 1980, Glacier Bay covers more than 5,200 square miles — an area about the size of Connecticut. That makes it nearly as big as Yellowstone and Yosemite combined.
As a long-time travel writer specializing in cruising, I’ve been to Glacier Bay many times, and it’s one of my favorite places in Alaska. Its glaciers are its star attractions, for sure. But it also offers spectacular mountain scenery, wildlife and — for those who make the effort to come for a multinight stay — wonderful hiking, kayaking and other outdoorsy pursuits.
Getting to Glacier Bay
As noted above, a large percentage of Glacier Bay’s visitors arrive by cruise ship. The typical cruise that includes a visit to Glacier Bay is a seven-night Alaska voyage out of Vancouver, B.C., or Seattle that also includes stops at the Alaskan towns of Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan. The visit to Glacier Bay fills just one day of the seven-night trip.
Two major lines with historic ties to the park — Princess Cruises and Holland America — offer the most sailings that include a visit to Glacier Bay. The National Park Service allows just two ships a day into the park, and arrivals are governed by a permitting system that gives preference to lines that operated in the park before the permitting system began.
Norwegian Cruise Line, Seabourn, Cunard Line, Crystal Cruises and Viking also have ships that visit the park, as do small-ship operators UnCruise Adventures, Alaskan Dream Cruises, Lindblad Expeditions and American Cruise Lines.
A trip on a cruise ship isn’t the only way to get into Glacier Bay. Would-be visitors also can fly or take a ferry to Gustavus, a tiny town (population 448) on the edge of the park that’s near the access point for a tour boat that travels into the park daily. Dubbed Baranof Wind and operated by park concessionaire Aramark, the tour boat departs from Bartlett Cove, which is just inside the park boundary and the home to the park’s visitor center.
During the summer tourist season, Alaska Airlines offers daily service to Gustavus (GST) from Juneau (JNU), which is just 48 miles to the southeast. An air taxi company, Alaska Seaplanes, offers small-plane flights to Gustavus from Juneau year-round. Ferry service to Gustavus is through the Alaska Marine Highway System, which sends a ferry to the town on a regular basis from Juneau.
The two main airlines that fly to Juneau are Alaska Airlines and Delta.
When to go
While Glacier Bay is open year-round, visitor services are extremely limited outside of the summer season, and nearly everybody who visits comes between May and September.
Most cruises that include a stop in Glacier Bay take place between May and September, and the Glacier Bay tour boat only runs in the summer months. The park’s visitor center and only lodge (the Glacier Bay Lodge), which share a building, also only are open in the summer.
Summer is the most pleasant time to be in Glacier Bay, temperature-wise. But even at the height of summer, it can be chilly, with temperatures topping out between 50 and 60 degrees during daylight hours. Rain also is common, with the area around Gustavus getting around 70 inches of rain a year.
April, May and June are often the driest months. September and October tend to be the wettest. But the bottom line is that, even at mid-summer, you should be prepared for any sort of weather. Be sure to pack good rain gear, waterproof boots, wool or fleece layers and even a warm hat and gloves.
No matter when you go, there’s no fee to enter Glacier Bay, which is unusual for national parks. Nor are there fees for camping or boating permits. So you can leave your national park annual pass at home.
What to see and do
As the name suggests, Glacier Bay is a park that is all about glaciers. It’s home to more than 1,000 of them, and seeing a glacier up close is the big draw for most visitors to the park.
Specifically, most visitors come to view one of the park’s nine giant tidewater glaciers, which flow down from the mountains to the water. For those visiting Glacier Bay by cruise ship, the experience will revolve heavily around a stop at one of these glaciers to watch giant chunks of ice crash down from its face — a magnificent show.
Cruise ships arrive in the park for the better part of a day, and the experience goes beyond just a stop at one of the park’s glaciers. Sightings of puffins, harbor seals, Steller sea lions and even the occasional humpback whale or brown bear are part of the allure — all while traveling by water through an immense, glacier-carved landscape.
If you come on a big cruise ship, you’ll be doing your Glacier Bay viewing from the deck of your vessel. Big cruise ships in Glacier Bay never dock, and nobody gets off them. Still, you’ll get the full National Park Service experience. Park rangers and often a local Huna Tlingit cultural guide will board the vessel for the day to offer presentations and shipwide commentary over loudspeakers, lead kiddie activities and answer questions.
Some small cruise vessels that spend the night in Glacier Bay do allow passengers to disembark.
For those visitors who travel by plane or ferry to Gustavus, more options are available. In addition to taking the Glacier Bay Day Tour up the bay on the park tour boat ($227.17 per adult; $117.83 for children ages 3 to 12), visitors will find opportunities to hike, kayak and camp.
The day tour on the park tour boat includes stops at two glaciers — Margerie and Grand Pacific. Each towers nearly 250 feet above the ocean and stretches another 100 feet beneath the water. The ice that calves from their faces is, on average, 200 years old.
Hiking trails within the park near Gustavus range from the 1-mile Forest Trail, which offers a leisurely meander through a lush forest, to the 8-mile-long Bartlett Lake Trail, a rugged trek to a tranquil lake. Most visitors head down these trails on their own, but for those looking for interpretation, park rangers based at Bartlett Cove offer guided hikes, too.
Kayak rentals are available at Bartlett Cove, where the park service visitor center is located, for both day trips around the area and multiday outings deep into the park. Kayakers can go off on their own or sign up for a guided tour.
Birdwatching also is a popular activity in Glacier Bay. The park’s diverse habitat allows for a wide variety of species (at last count, 281) including rainforest species such as the American three-toed woodpecker and neotropical migrant warblers, thrushes and other songbirds. There also are island and cliff seabird colonies of gulls, guillemots, puffins and cormorants.
Visitors also can get an overview of Glacier Bay’s mountains, ice and water from a flightseeing tour out of Gustavus or even the Alaskan towns of Yakutat or Haines.
Where to stay
If you’re arriving at Glacier Bay on a cruise, you don’t have to worry about a place to stay. You’ll be spending the night on your ship.
For those planning to visit the park by way of Gustavus, there are several places to bed down. Many visitors stay at the 48-room Glacier Bay Lodge, which is within the park about 10 miles from the town (rooms from $219 a night). Cozy and rustic, the lodge is nestled among Sitka spruce on the shores of Bartlett Cove, which also is home to the park’s headquarters and the jumping-off point for daily tours on the park boat. Glacier Bay Lodge is the only lodging within the park.
Back in Gustavus, there are a handful of small inns, guest houses and bed and breakfasts such as the 14-room Bear Track Inn (from $435 per person, per day, including meals and ground transportation) and the five-room and five-cabin Glacier Bay Country Inn ($350 per person, per day, including meals and ground transportation). Just be warned that Gustavus is not a big place; some of the venues here offer just a few rooms.
You also may face a bit of sticker shock when seeing the rates for lodging in Gustavus. In many cases, this is driven by the fact that the properties operate on a semi-all-inclusive basis with all meals and transportation from the airport included in the base price.
Unfortunately for points and miles devotees, there are no points hotels in Gustavus. There are a few points hotels back in Juneau, such as the Four Points by Sheraton Juneau (rooms in the summer start at $249, or 50,000 points) and a trio of Wyndham Rewards-affiliated properties (a Ramada, Travelodge and Super 8).
The park also maintains a free, walk-in campground in a rain forest setting at Bartlett Cove. Available on a first come, first served basis, it offers bear-proof food storage caches, composting toilets, a fire pit on the beach and a small warming shelter. Firewood is provided.
That said, most camping in Glacier Bay takes place in the wilderness. The park offers more than 700 linear miles of shorelines, beaches and islands that are open to camping. Campers can arrange for the park’s tour boat to drop them off at one of several designated locations within the park and pick them up days later.
Campers must register upon arrival at the Visitor Information Station near the Bartlett Cove dock. Campers can call 907-697-2627 prior to arrival to inquire about space availability at the campground at Bartlett Cove.
Where to eat
Again, if you’re arriving by cruise ship, you’ll be eating on board your vessel.
If you’re staying in the Gustavus area, you’ll probably be eating at the lodge or inn where you’re staying, or at another one of the lodging properties in town. The town is so small that its dining establishments generally are tied to its lodging outlets. They’re also only open in the summer.
Many of the lodging options offer a “full board” plan that includes three meals each day. Be warned that a la carte pricing at eateries can be high in the Gustavus area, as is true in many places in Alaska. This partly has to do with the high cost of getting supplies to remote parts of the state.
For those staying at Glacier Bay Lodge, the in-house restaurant, the Fairweather Dining Room, is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner for both lodge guests and outsiders. The dinner menu includes local Alaska salmon and halibut (entrees from $28 to $37). Lunch brings burgers and sandwiches (including a halibut sandwich) for $14 to $25 a plate.
Also open to its own guests and outsiders, too, is the restaurant at the Glacier Bay Country Inn. It also serves Alaskan cuisine such as salmon, typically offered en croute with a green peppercorn sauce.
A visit to Glacier Bay is one of the iconic experiences of a trip to Alaska, and something you should try to do at least once in your life — if only to see the giant calving glaciers. For most visitors, experiencing the park will involve a voyage on a cruise ship that brings just a day in the park. But for those who want to explore deeper in the park, there are ways to do that, too.
Planning a cruise to Alaska or elsewhere? Start with these stories:
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Featured image courtesy of Princess Cruises
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