National Park Guides

From Ice to Ocean: Understanding the Unique Ecosystem of Glacier Bay National Park

POSTED ON November 15, 2022 BY Ralph S.


Introduction

Welcome to Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, a pristine wilderness located in the heart of Southeastern Alaska’s Inside Passage. Managed by the National Park Service, this park boasts a rich tapestry of natural wonders, from towering mountains and alpine tundra to the mesmerizing tidewater glaciers that define its landscape.

The park’s boundaries extend into the Tongass National Forest, creating a seamless blend of terrestrial and marine ecosystems.

For most visitors, embarking on a Glacier Bay day tour is the gateway to experiencing the park’s wonders up close. Cruising through the icy waters, one can witness the grandeur of the park’s glaciers while marveling at the diverse marine wildlife, including seals, Steller sea lions, and humpback whales in the icy strait. Bears at Glacier Bay, including brown bears and black bears, roam the park’s shores, adding a terrestrial dimension to the rich biodiversity.

Bartlett Cove (location) serves as the park’s central hub and is home to the park’s headquarters. From here, adventurers can explore the park’s diverse ecosystems, whether hiking through alpine tundra or kayaking along the shoreline. The Alsek River, meandering through the park, adds another layer of exploration for those seeking a more rugged and immersive experience.

As one of the most popular destinations in Alaska, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve covers a vast and varied terrain that beckons explorers and nature enthusiasts alike.

Join us as we delve into the wonders of this icy wilderness, uncovering the stories behind its glaciers, mountains, and thriving ecosystems that make it a jewel within the National Park system.

History of Glacier Bay National Park

Glacier bay national park and preserve, johns hopkins glacier

Nestled within the rugged embrace of Southeastern Alaska’s Inside Passage, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve stands as a testament to the dynamic forces that shape our planet. The park’s origins trace back to 1925, when it was designated a Glacier Bay National Monument, safeguarding the mesmerizing beauty of its icy wonders.

The evolution of Glacier Bay is intertwined with the relentless march of glacial activity. The monumental retreat of glaciers, notably the iconic Muir Glacier (location), the Grand Pacific Glacier (location), Margerie Glacier (location), and the formidable Johns Hopkins Glacier (location), played a pivotal role in the park’s transformation. As the glaciers receded, they unveiled a landscape in constant flux, fostering plant succession and giving rise to diverse ecosystems.

These icy behemoths captivate visitors with their breathtaking calving displays, a testament to the dynamic forces shaping this ever-changing landscape. The glacial retreat observed here is a poignant reminder of the delicate balance between nature’s power and fragility.

In 1980, the monument attained National Park and Preserve status, expanding its boundaries to encompass not only the tidewater glaciers that captivate many visitors but also the vast wilderness beyond. This move marked a significant stride towards preserving the park’s ecological integrity and ensuring its accessibility to future generations.

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve’s rich history extends beyond its geological marvels. Recognized as a World Heritage Site, the park embodies a harmonious collaboration between the National Park Service and the ecological society it serves. The stewardship of these lands involves monitoring the delicate balance between natural processes and the impact of human interaction.

Accessible via the Alaska Marine Highway System, Glacier Bay welcomes a myriad of explorers each year. The park’s diverse habitats support a variety of wildlife, from mountain goats perched on rocky slopes to Steller sea lions basking in the coastal waters. The call of British Columbia’s wilderness echoes in the air, underscoring the interconnectedness of these northern landscapes.

Today, as we stand on the precipice of environmental consciousness, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve continues to unfold its story. It remains a testament to the power of collaborative conservation efforts, ensuring that this pristine wilderness remains a beacon of natural wonder, open to all and preserved for the ages in the public domain.

Key Facts About Glacier Bay National Park

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve is in the Alaska panhandle west of Juneau.

Size: approximately 3,223,384 acres (13,044.57 km2).

Number of Visitors: 545,758 visitors (2022)

Establishment: Originally designated as Glacier Bay National Monument in 1925, it became Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve on December 2, 1980.

Number of Hiking Trails: 4 designated trails with multiple backcountry hiking spots.

Total Length of Hiking Trails: about 14 miles (23 km) of maintained trails and several miles of backcountry trails.

Lowest Point: sea level, as Glacier Bay is a coastal park.

Highest Point: Mount Fairweather, at 15,325 feet (4,671 meters) above sea level.

Other Interesting Facts About Glacier Bay National Park

  • The park is home to the world’s largest non-polar icefield, covering over 3.3 million acres (about 13,044.57 km2) and containing over 1,000 sq mi (2,590 sq km) of glaciers.
  • Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve has experienced one of the most significant documented glacial retreats in modern history, with some glaciers receding by more than 60 miles (96 km) in just a century.
  • The park is a haven for marine mammals, including humpback whales, who migrate to the area each summer to feed on abundant krill and fish.
  • In addition to glaciers, the park also boasts over 1,000 miles (1,609 km) of coastline, with numerous fjords and bays waiting to be explored.
  • Glacier Bay National Park is home to one of the largest concentrations of tidewater glaciers in the world, with 16 named glaciers and dozens more unnamed.
  • The park is a designated UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, recognizing its unique blend of glacial, marine, and terrestrial ecosystems.
  • Native Tlingit people have inhabited this area for thousands of years and have developed a rich cultural history closely tied to the land and sea.
  • Visitors to the park have the opportunity to witness a wide range of wildlife, including grizzly bears, moose, wolves, bald eagles, and more than 200 species of birds.
  • One of the park’s most popular attractions is the Margerie Glacier calving, where massive chunks of ice break off and crash into the ocean with thunderous roars.
  • Glacier Bay offers a wide range of recreational activities, from kayaking and camping to whale-watching, and fishing.
  • The park is also an important research site for scientists studying glacial processes and climate change impacts in the Arctic region.
  • In 2019, the National Park Service celebrated its 100th anniversary by hosting a nationwide BioBiltz, collecting and documenting species across the park to better understand its biodiversity.

Climate and Weather

Marjorie Glacier, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska

Glacier Bay National Park’s location on the coast of the Gulf of Alaska means that it experiences a cool and wet maritime climate, with temperatures ranging from 40°F (4°C) in the winter to 60°F (15°C) in the summer. However, temperatures can vary significantly depending on location and elevation within the park.

Here’s what to expect in each season.

Spring (March to May)

From late March to May, spring brings milder temperatures and increased daylight hours to Glacier Bay National Park. Temperatures range from 2°C to 10°C (36°F to 50°F).

Snow still covers much of the park, but as temperatures rise, glacial activity increases, creating a dramatic landscape of icefalls and calving glaciers. This season is also a great time to spot marine wildlife, as the whales begin their migration back to the park’s waters from Hawaii.

During this time, most visitors access the park via the Alaska Marine Highway System connecting Juneau and Vancouver or on cruise ships, which dock at Bartlett Cove near the Glacier Bay Visitor Center.

The visitor center is open year-round and offers exhibits, ranger-led programs, and helpful information for planning your trip. The nearby Glacier Bay Lodge also opens in May and provides a comfortable base for exploring the park.

Summer (June to August)

Summer arrives in June and lasts until August, bringing warmer temperatures and longer days to the park. As for weather, expect temperatures to range from 10°C to 20°C (50°F to 68°F), with occasional rain showers.

July is typically the warmest month of the year, making it an ideal time for activities like kayaking or hiking through the park’s lush rainforest.

Summer is also considered the peak tourist season, with most visitors arriving on cruise ships that offer day trips through the park. The most popular spot is the Margerie Glacier (location), where visitors can witness stunning calving events and get up close to tidewater glaciers. The Grand Pacific Glacier (location) also becomes another stunning focal point, and the fairweather range graces the skyline.

Bartlett Cove, the park’s headquarters, offers information about kayak rentals and guided tours for those looking to get out on the water. Feel free to check out the Glacier Bay Sea Kayaks for guided day kayaking and kayak rentals

Fall (September to November)

September marks the start of fall in the park, bringing cooler temperatures and fewer visitors to the area. As summer crowds disperse, the park becomes a peaceful and serene destination for those seeking quiet and solitude. Temperatures can range from 2°C to 10°C (36°F to 50°F), so pack warm layers.

Fall is also an excellent time to witness plant succession in action, as colorful fall foliage gives way to winter’s blanket of snow. This season offers an ideal opportunity to see black and brown bears foraging for food before heading into hibernation.

The Glacier Bay Lodge remains open, providing a cozy retreat for those seeking a more serene experience.

Winter (December to late February)

From December to early March, Glacier Bay Park becomes a true winter wonderland. Temperatures range from -5°C to 5°C (23°F to 41°F). Snow covers the entire park, making it accessible only by plane or boat.

The park boundary is open year-round for those brave enough to endure the cold and willing to explore the untouched wilderness. While cruise ships are scarce, the park remains accessible for those seeking a tranquil escape. The Glacier Bay Lodge may be closed, but the stark beauty of the icy landscapes is no less captivating.

Finally, winter is an ideal time for backcountry skiing, snowshoeing, and ice fishing on nearby lakes. It’s also a great time to spot wolves and moose, who are more easily visible against the snowy landscape. For those looking to warm up, the nearby towns of Juneau (map) and Sitka (map) offer cozy lodges and restaurants with delicious local cuisine.

Always check the park’s website for current weather conditions

Best Time to Visit Glacier Bay National Park

View of the mountains [Fairweather Range] from a cruise ship docked in Glacier Bay, Alaska. - Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve

Overall, the best time to visit Glacier Bay National Park is from June to August. During this time, temperatures are milder, and there is a greater chance of experiencing calving glaciers and seeing marine wildlife like humpback whales.

However, if you prefer a more serene experience with fewer crowds, September through November can be an ideal time to visit as well.

The park transitions into a peaceful winter wonderland from December to February, offering a unique opportunity for backcountry skiing and snowshoeing.

No matter what time of year you visit, Glacier Bay National Park offers breathtaking scenery and an abundance of outdoor activities for all types of travelers. Plan and check the park’s website for current weather conditions and visitor information before your trip

Recommended Gear

a tidewater glacier in Glacier Bay, Alaska, in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.

When planning a trip to Glacier Bay National Park, it is important to be well-prepared with the right gear. The park’s location in southeastern Alaska means that visitors can expect varying weather conditions and rugged terrain. Here are some recommended items to bring when visiting the park:

  • Hiking boots: With miles of backcountry trails, hiking is a popular activity in Glacier Bay National Park. So, make sure to bring a sturdy pair of hiking boots for the best support and traction on the trails. Luckily, we have a guide to help you choose the correct pair of boots.
  • Rain gear: The park is located in one of the rainiest regions in North America, so it’s important to come prepared with waterproof jackets and pants. This will keep you dry and comfortable when exploring the park’s glaciers and mountains.
  • Binoculars: Glacier Bay National Park is home to a diverse range of wildlife, including mountain goats and black bears. Bring a pair of binoculars to get a closer look at these animals and their natural habitats.
  • Layers: The park’s weather can be unpredictable, with temperatures ranging from below-freezing in the winter to mild in the summer. It’s important to bring layers, including a warm jacket and fleece, to stay comfortable in changing temperatures.
  • Camera: With stunning views of tidewater glaciers, the Fairweather Range mountains, and wildlife sightings, you’ll want to capture your trip to the park. So, don’t forget to bring a camera or phone with a good camera for those picture-perfect moments. You can also check out our guide to capturing nature’s beauty on a hike
  • Bear spray: While encounters with brown or black bears are rare, it’s always best to be prepared. The park recommends carrying bear spray and bear-resistant food canisters when hiking in the backcountry. Also, it would be best to understand the basics of wildlife safety when hiking and also check the park’s website to learn more about bear safety, identification, and signs.
  • Camp gear: For those planning on camping in the park, make sure to bring all necessary camping gear, such as a tent, sleeping bag, and cooking supplies. The Glacier Bay Lodge also offers camping cabins for those who prefer a more comfortable camping experience.
  • Insect repellent: Insects can be abundant in the park, especially during the summer months. Pack insect repellent to protect yourself from bites while exploring.
  • First aid kit: While the park does have medical facilities, it’s always a good idea to bring a first aid kit with basic supplies for minor injuries or ailments.
  • Sun protection: The sun’s rays can be strong in Alaska, even on cloudy days. Don’t forget to pack sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat to protect yourself from the sun’s harmful UV rays.
  • Water bottle: Staying hydrated is crucial when exploring Glacier Bay National Park. Bring a reusable water bottle to refill at the park’s visitor centers or streams, and help reduce waste in the park.

Have a look at the park’s map.

Find more resources in our guide to single-day hiking and multi-day hiking checklist

It’s also important to note that some gear can be rented at the Glacier Bay Lodge or purchased at the park’s visitor center. The National Park Service also offers guided tours and outdoor gear rentals, making it easier for visitors to explore the glaciers and wilderness.

What To Do in Glacier Bay National Park

This view shows the bright color of the water in this arm of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in the panhandle of Alaska.

Glacier Bay is a nature lover’s paradise, offering a variety of activities for all types of travelers. The park’s rugged terrain and diverse ecosystems make it the perfect destination for hiking and backpacking adventures.

For those looking for a more immersive experience, camping in the park’s backcountry is a must-do. But don’t worry; you can also take boat tours, fish in nearby waters, or go sea kayaking and rafting.

Hiking and Backpacking

Hiking and backpacking are some of the most popular activities in Glacier Bay National Park, offering visitors a chance to explore the park’s vast wilderness and get up close to its glaciers. There are several hiking trails for all levels of hikers, from short-day hikes to multi-day treks through remote backcountry areas.

Here are some of the main trails and attractions in the park:

The Best Hikes

  • Forest Trail: This 1-mile (1.6 km) loop trail takes you through the heart of Bartlett Cove, the park’s main visitor area. The trail features a mix of dirt paths, gravel, and boardwalks, making it an easy hike suitable for all ages and skill levels. Along the way, hikers can enjoy scenic views of the cove and surrounding mountains. Check out a guided walk along this trail
  • Bartlett River Trail: For a more challenging hike, the 4-mile (6.4 km) round-trip Bartlett River Trail is a must-do. This moderate-level trail takes hikers through the park’s spruce and hemlock forest before emerging at the Bartlett River estuary. Expect to spend around 4-5 hours on this hike, including time for breaks and taking in the gorgeous views.
  • Bartlett Lake Trail: This 8-mile (12.8 km) round-trip hike is a longer and less-maintained option for experienced hikers. The trail offers stunning views of the surrounding mountains, forests, and lakes, but be prepared for some steep inclines and rough terrain. It’s recommended to allow 7-8 hours to complete this hike.
  • Tlingit Trail: This 1/2-mile (800-meter) one-way easy stroll is perfect for those looking for a quick and effortless walk. The trail takes hikers along the forested shoreline edge in front of the Glacier Bay Lodge, offering beautiful views of Bartlett Cove and opportunities for wildlife sightings.
  • Wilderness hiking: For the more adventurous hikers, there are several unmaintained backcountry trails along glacial riverbeds or intertidal beaches. Nonetheless, it’s essential to research and prepare accordingly before embarking on these multi-day hikes.

You can also check out the Bartlett Cove Trail Guide for a detailed guide to the available trails.

Camping

Regal Glacier (left), Chimney Mt. (center), Rohn Glacier (right)

With its location in the Tongass National Forest, Glacier Bay is a great place for camping and backcountry adventures. However, visitors and campers must always check with park rangers and obtain any necessary permits before venturing into the backcountry.

Bartlett Cove Campground is the only designated campsite along the trail. However, visitors must complete a permit application form at the visitor information station to have enough time to spend multiple days exploring the park.

Overnight backcountry

All overnight backcountry users (including kayakers) must register and complete a free backcountry permit at the Bartlett Cove Visitor Information Station before visiting the park. Also, camping permits are required for both the  and the Glacier Bay wilderness and the backcountry

Boat Tours

One of the best ways to experience Glacier Bay’s vast and diverse landscape is by taking a boat tour. These tours offer visitors an opportunity to see glaciers up close while learning about their history, geology, and wildlife from experienced guides.

Several companies, including the Glacier Bay Lodge, offer different types of boat tours in summer. This could be day trips or overnight excursions. Some even provide meals and lodging on board, allowing you to spend more time exploring the park. Book your tour in advance, as they tend to fill up quickly during peak season.

You can learn more about cruise ships in Glacier Bay and private boating. Also, you should note that a permit is required before traveling to Bartlett Cove by boat. These permits are applied for in person at the Bartlett Cove Visitor Information Station (VIS).

Rafting and Sea Kayaking

glacier bay national park and preserve

Glacier Bay National Park is a popular destination for sea kayaking and rafting. Visitors can embark on guided day trips or multi-day overnight trips, allowing for a truly immersive experience in the park.

During the summer months, visitors and campers can arrange with Glacier Bay Lodge to be dropped off and/or picked up by the daily tour boat, making it convenient to explore different areas of the park. For those looking for a more independent adventure, Glacier Bay Sea Kayaks offers guided day kayaking trips as well as kayak rental services for both single and tandem kayaks.

The park also offers designated campsites specifically for sea kayakers, allowing them to camp along the shore and experience the park from a different perspective.

Rafting at the Alsek River is another popular activity in Glacier Bay National Park, offering thrilling rapids and stunning views of the glaciers. Guided rafting trips are available for those looking for a more structured experience, while experienced rafters can opt to rent equipment and plan their trip down the river. Check out the Rafting Permit Application and Information

Mountaineering and Climbing

Marjorie Glacier, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska

For the more adventurous visitors, the park also offers opportunities for mountaineering and climbing.

With towering peaks and glaciers to conquer, experienced climbers can plan their trips or join guided tours offered by companies like Alaska Alpine Adventures.

Here is a list of currently authorized mountaineering guides to help you plan a successful trip. But note that Fairweather Range is reserved for the most intrepid explorers.

Birdwatching and Recreational Fishing

Glacier Bay is also a prime location for birdwatching and recreational fishing. With over 200 species of birds, including bald eagles and puffins, the park is a bird lover’s paradise.

Recreational fishing is allowed in designated areas within the park, but be sure to check with park rangers for any restrictions and obtain necessary permits before casting your line. Review all the relevant regulations about recreational fishing on the National Park Service official link page.

Where to Stay

Glacier Bay National Park offers a variety of lodging options for visitors, ranging from rustic campsites to comfortable lodges.

The Glacier Bay Lodge offers the only hotel accommodations within the park boundaries. It offers comfortable rooms, a restaurant, and stunning views of Bartlett Cove. Reservations are highly recommended, especially during peak season. You can book it here.

For those looking for a more rugged experience, the park offers one designated campground (Bartlett Cove Campground). This campsite provides basic amenities such as picnic tables and fire pits, perfect for those looking to truly immerse themselves in nature. However, you need to fill out a permit application form and email it to the park to make a reservation.

If you prefer more luxurious accommodations, there are several private lodges and hotels located outside the park boundaries. These include the Glacier Bay Country Inn at Glacier Bay, which offers cozy rooms and delicious meals made with locally sourced ingredients.

Other options include the Hollywood Farms RV Park, The Annie Mae Lodge, and Cottonwood Lodge & Cabin Rentals

How To Get There And Getting Around

Glacier flowing into Icy Bay

Embarking on the adventure of a lifetime to Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve involves navigating the pristine landscapes of Southeastern Alaska.

Here’s a detailed guide on how to get to this remote haven and the best ways to explore its wonders.

Nearest Airport:

Gustavus Airport (GST)

Located in Gustavus, a small community near the park, Gustavus Airport is the primary gateway to Glacier Bay. Reaching it requires connecting flights, often from Juneau or Anchorage.

From Juneau to Gustavus:

  • Alaska Airlines: The most common way to reach Gustavus is via Alaska Airlines, which offers regular flights from Juneau International Airport (JNU). The flight itself provides breathtaking views of the rugged Alaskan landscapes and sets the tone for the adventure ahead.

From Anchorage to Gustavus:

Alternative Routes:

  • Small Plane Flights: For a more intimate experience, small plane flights are available from Juneau, providing not only convenience but also stunning aerial perspectives of the park.
  • Ferry Service-Alaska Marine Highway System: The other alternative is to arrive by sea using the Alaska Marine Highway System. Day cruise ships offer a majestic approach, with British Columbia and the park’s boundary serving as scenic waypoints.

Getting Around:

  • Bartlett Cove Shuttle: Once at Gustavus, a shuttle service transports visitors to Bartlett Cove, home to the Glacier Bay Lodge and Visitor Center. This hub is the starting point for various adventures within the park.
  • Cruise Ships: Many visitors opt for day cruises or longer excursions on a scheduled day cruise ship, which navigates the icy straits and provides unparalleled views of tidewater glaciers.

Local Transportation: Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve Connection

  • Wrangell St. Elias National Park Connection: For those looking to extend their exploration, connections are available to Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve, allowing visitors to experience even more of Southeastern Alaska’s wonders.

Conclusion

No matter how you choose to explore Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, one thing is certain – it’s a journey of a lifetime.

With endless opportunities for adventure, stunning landscapes to discover, and diverse wildlife to observe, this remote wonderland will captivate your heart and leave you in awe.

Plan your visit today and embark on an unforgettable experience.

For more fun locations to travel to, check out our page on National Park Guides. Continue after this.


RALPH S.

Ralph S. is the founder of Silverlight, an avid hiker and trail runner he enjoys spending time outdoors, riding his motorcycle and swimming at the beach when he's not busy replying to customers or developing new Silverlight gear.

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