Declared as a National Monument in 1925, Glacier Bay is one of Alaska’s first nature reserves (it became a National Park in 1980). Located in southeast Alaska west of Juneau, the park is centered around a long bay that splits to an eastern and a western arm. The glacier that covered this area only two centuries ago has been rapidly receding since, exposing a deep fjord with steep mountains on both sides. The beautiful landscape, towering glaciers and rich wildlife makes Glacier Bay one of Alaska’s premier natural attractions.
In terms of sheer visitor number, Glacier Bay is right there with Denali as the two most visited parks in Alaska, with close to 600K visitors annually. However, almost all visitors arrive at Glacier Bay aboard big cruise ships, allowing the park itself to remain almost completely wild and undeveloped.
The tiny town of Gustavus, located at the bay’s mouth, offers independent travelers some limited services and acts as a convenient jumping point into the park. Park headquarters is in Bartlett Cove, about 15 minutes drive out of Gustavus through a long and straight-line forest road. This is also the location of the Glacier Bay Lodge, the main option for accommodations in the area; the park’s tiny visitor center is located at the second floor of the lodge.
Experience Glacier Bay
Day cruises into the park depart the Bartlett Cove dock daily during the summer. The cruise is 8 hours long and departs quite early, meaning you won’t be able to arrive from Juneau and catch the boat into the park at the same day (unless you charter a plane and leave Juneau very early).
The cruise heads up the western arm of the bay (motorized vessels are not allowed into the east arm). It offers great views, plenty of wildlife sightings and of course, a great chance to witness massive calving activity as the glaciers constantly break off into the water. Wildlife sightings in this area commonly include sea otters, sea lions (there’s a big colony in the bay), plenty of shorebirds and often bears patrolling the coast. Whales can be seen here, too – but the best place to see them is outside the park in Point Adolphus (see below).
Another great way to see the park is via kayak. Most of the park is almost impossible for hiking due to the super-steep terrain, but the water is protected and calm most of the time, allowing kayaks to travel long distances fairly easy. Kayaks short and long term rentals are available in Gustavus and in Bartlett Cove.
About 20 minutes by boat from Gustavus is Point Adolphus, one of best whale watching spots in Alaska. Whales love it here, and many of them spend the summer months feeding here. Since the area is relatively far from cruise port of calls, the number of boat operators here is fairly limited and the scene is quite and non-touristy.
Kayak whale watching trips are also available here. The kayaks are not fast enough to follow the whales, so there’s a bit of a gamble involved – you have to hope the whale comes out close to you (but not too close). That said, if you do get lucky enough, seeing a whale at eye-level from a kayak is a bucket list, once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Getting to Glacier Bay
1) Alaska Airlines offers one regular jet flight a day from Juneau to Gustavus.
2) A number of local air taxis use small aircrafts to run scheduled and charter flights between Juneau and Gustavus.
3) The Alaska Marine Hwy System operates a ferry once a week (about four hours each way).