How to Visit Beautiful Glacier Bay in Alaska

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Picture turquoise water in your mind. Do you see sandy beaches and palm trees?

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve is the most beautiful place Julie and I have seen. However, you will not find tropical weather, white sand beaches, or palmettos in this paradise.

The Alaskan nirvana offers calm aquamarine waters, snow-capped mountains, rolling hills with evergreens nearly to the shoreline, massive rock mounds, small islands, and magical glaciers that melt your heart.  

As our cruise ship sailed past forested strips of land and enormous mountains rising through the fog, we grabbed our binoculars for a closer look. An unbelievable world came into focus.  

We saw a brown bear emerge from the trees and head to the shore. Shifting our view sharply upward, we observed mountain goats inching along narrow ledges in the mountains.  

Peering into the water, we found sea otters floating on their backs while eating sea urchins. In the distance, towering sprays of water shot up from the surface. A pod of humpback whales came up for air and playfully splashed the water with their tails. 

The whole scene is surreal. As one of our fellow cruise passengers eloquently said, “I keep asking myself if this is heaven?” Overwhelmed by the beauty of Glacier Bay, Julie was moved to tears several times. She was not alone.

If you long to visit the last frontier, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve should be on your bucket list. We will cover everything you need to know about Glacier Bay so you can plan your visit.

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve

Mountains and aquamarine water in Glacier Bay
Mountains and aquamarine waters in Glacier Bay

What is Glacier Bay?

Glacier Bay is designated as a national park and preserve. It includes 3.3 million acres of mountains, glaciers, forests, and waterways. The park is part of a 25 million-acre World Heritage Site.

Not to be confused with Glacier National Park

It is essential to point out that Glacier National Park is not the same as Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. Both are spectacular, but they are separate parks.

Glacier National Park is located in Montana. You can find more information about Glacier National Park here.

Where is Glacier Bay?

Glacier Bay is located along the Inside Passage in southeast Alaska, west of Juneau, the state’s capital.

How to get to Glacier Bay

Glacier Bay is not easily accessible. You will not visit this park as part of a dream road trip. It is only accessible by boat and plane.

How do most people visit Glacier Bay?

Most park visitors enjoy the view from a comfortable cruise ship as part of a longer journey.

What is special about Glacier Bay?

Remote wilderness is rapidly disappearing from our planet. Glacier Bay offers you a rare opportunity to observe remote nature with unparalleled beauty.  

I have never felt this much appreciation for nature and the gift of life from any other place I have visited. The experience is genuinely soul soothing.

Operating hours and seasons

The park is open year-round. Note that services are very limited in winter.  

Alaskan cruises run from May through September. Accordingly, the park receives most of its visitors during this time. 

Entrance fees

No entrance fees or passes are required to visit Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. It is free.

Is Glacier Bay worth visiting?

Admittedly, Glacier Bay is not easy to reach. The journey can also be expensive. The opportunity to see glaciers, untamed wilderness, and a variety of wildlife in the sea and on land make for an unforgettable journey.

There is one potential negative if you are visiting the park by cruise ship. You may feel like you are observing everything from a distance rather than connecting with the park.  

For us, the park’s beauty, abundant wildlife, and glaciers easily outweighed the fact that we were distant observers. Yes, it was worth visiting! I would go again without hesitation.

Glacier Bay Lodge

Glacier Bay Lodge, located in Bartlett Cove, is a 10-mile drive from Gustavus. The lodge has rooms and a restaurant. You will find opportunities here for hiking, kayaking, fishing, and a daily tour boat.

Daily flights are available from Juneau to Gustavus. Glacier Bay Lodge offers shuttle transport for guests between the lodge and the Gustavus airport. Taxi services are also available in Gustavus.

Visitor Center

You will find the park’s visitor center on the lodge’s second floor. It is open daily from late May to early September. Regular hours are 6:00 am to 10:00 pm.  

A park ranger is usually available to answer questions from 11:00 am to 1:00 pm. During this time, you can also purchase souvenirs from Alaska Geographic.

Check the park website to verify visitor center hours and daily ranger-led activities.   

Visitor Information Station

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve has a Visitor Information Station (VIS) at the head of the public-use dock in Bartlett Cove. The VIS is there to serve boaters and campers.  

You can obtain information, permits, maps, and nautical charts. Available services include restrooms, potable water, trash, and recycling containers.

The VIS is open daily from May through September. Regular hours are 7:00 am to 7:00 pm. From 5:30 pm to 7:00 pm, the front desk may not be staffed. You will need to knock on the radio room door to obtain assistance.

Note from Labor Day through the end of September, regular hours change from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm.

Glaciers

Blue glacier ice in Glacier Bay
Blue glacier ice in Glacier Bay

Glaciers are the primary reason many visitors go to Glacier Bay. Here is a little more information about the stars of the show.

What is a glacier?

A glacier forms high in the mountains, where snow is the only form of precipitation. The snow collects in a slight depression in the hill and does not melt away.  

Year after year, more snow piles up, becoming heavier and more compact. Eventually, the snow morphs into solid ice under its own weight.  

Friction between the glacier and bedrock produces meltwater. Eventually, gravity becomes too powerful for the depression to contain the ice.  

The massive ice formation begins to slide down the mountain, taking everything with it and creating a valley. Once the ice moves under the influence of its weight and gravity, it is considered a glacier.

How many glaciers are in Glacier Bay?

Glacier Bay houses over 1,000 glaciers. Some of the more notable glaciers include:

  • Johns Hopkins Glacier
  • Gilman Glacier
  • Grand Pacific Glacier
  • Lamplugh Glacier
  • Margerie Glacier
  • Reid Glacier
  • McBride Glacier
  • Muir Glacier
  • Riggs Glacier

Why does glacier ice look so blue?

When light hits the compacted glacier ice, long wavelength colors (reds) are absorbed, but short-wavelength colors (blues) are reflected.

Tidewater glaciers

There are different types of glaciers. They are defined based on their characteristics. Many people visit Glacier Bay to see tidewater glaciers.

Glaciers that have made their way down the mountain to the sea are considered tidewater glaciers. Some of these glaciers reach the sea only during high tide. Others are at sea level at all times.

Seawater is warmer than glacial ice and is highly erosive. This can cause enormous ice blocks to break off or “calve” into the saltwater. Many park visitors hope to see this firsthand.

We were fortunate to witness a glacier calving. This is something I will never forget.  

The sound of the ice cracking is reminiscent of thunder on the horizon or a shotgun blast.  

This loud crack resonates through the cold, hollow silence of the bay. Then you see ice cascading down the glacier face, crashing into the water, and producing waves. It almost seems too magnificent to be real.

Size and scope

Your sense of size and scope gets distorted in Glacier Bay. A 200-foot high glacier appears to be thirty to forty feet.  

The resulting wave from a calving glacier looks like a small two-foot wave. In reality, these waves are likely over twenty feet high.

Mountains appear to be several hundred feet tall. Some of them are well over 10,000 feet. Mount Fairweather, the park’s tallest peak, is 15,300 feet. 

When you see a boat near the glaciers and mountains, you start to realize the grand size and scope of the gorgeous landscape. It is mind-boggling and takes time to process your surroundings’ scale.  

You can literally see how the glaciers shaped the mountains and formed the valleys. It is like getting a personalized history and geography lesson.

Icebergs

Most glaciers are located in the central and northern portions of Glacier Bay. As you get closer to the glaciers, you will see large chunks of ice in the water.  

These icebergs have broken off the glaciers and got carried out to sea. They often serve as perches for birds or haul-outs for harbor seals.  

You can hear the cracks and pops of the ice melting. It is one more significant aspect that makes the park so unique.

Things to do

Scenes of Glacier Bay from cruise ship
Mountains & blue skies in Glacier Bay

Several activities are available to you if you visit the park other than by cruise ship. Visit the official park website for details on all outdoor activities. Here are the basics. 

Camping

No camping fees are required at the park. However, a backcountry permit is needed for all overnight campers. You must also attend a camper orientation at the VIS to obtain access to Bartlett Cove Primitive Campground.

Boating

A boating permit is required if you plan to visit the park on a private vessel. The pass is free.

Kayaking

You can take the kayaking trip of a lifetime for a unique and up-close perspective of the glaciers. A backcountry permit and orientation must be completed at the VIS. The orientation covers the tide table, closures, wildlife, and general safety measures.

Hiking

There are several hiking trails within the park.

Tlingit Trail

This is a leisurely 0.5-mile one-way stroll along the forested shoreline near Glacier Bay Lodge.

Forest Trail

Forest Trail is a 1.0-mile trail loop through both temperate rainforests and beaches in Bartlett Cove. Trail surfaces vary along the way, from dirt to gravel to boardwalk sections.

Bartlett River Trail

This is a 4.0-mile round-trip hike that takes you along a lagoon and through a forest of hemlock and spruce trees. You may see coyotes, bears, moose, and otters along the beach. In late summer, harbor seals may be feeding on salmon, trying to swim up the river.

Bartlett Lake Trail

Bartlett Lake Trail is an 8.0-mile round trip hike along a scenic trail that is less maintained than the other trails. Your journey through the wilderness takes you past many moss-covered boulders and lichen-covered trees. This hike typically takes 7 to 8 hours and is for those who enjoy nature’s solitude.

Wildlife

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve houses a variety of wildlife. This is a large part of what makes the park so unique. Here are some of the animals most visitors hope to see and where you have the best opportunities to find them.

Sea mammals

Steller sea lion

Large groups of Steller sea lions may be found on South Marble Island basking in the warm sun.

Harbor seal

In summer, harbor seals often gather in Johns Hopkins Inlet for pupping and mating.

Sea otter

You can typically find sea otters toward the southern end of Glacier Bay. We saw lots of them floating on their backs while feeding on sea urchins.  

If you see something poking out of the water, it is most likely a sea otter. Once you know what to look for, you will easily spot more of them.

Harbor porpoise

Harbor porpoises are small, dark gray dolphins that typically hang out in groups of two to ten. They may be found throughout the bay. You may see a small part of the triangular dorsal fin protruding from the water before the porpoise surfaces for air.  

Unlike larger dolphins, harbor porpoises rarely ride a ship’s waves. They are more likely to be found in calm waters.

Humpback whale
Humpback whale breach - whale jumping out of water in Glacier Bay
Humpback whale breach

These giant baleen whales can be 40 to 50 feet long and weigh over 35 tons. They are most often spotted in the southern portion of the bay. The best way to spot them is to look for their spouts.

If you are fortunate, you may find a group of whales coming up for air and playfully slamming the water with their massive tails. It is such a thrill to see these sea giants.

This is one of the highlights for us. We saw several spouts shooting out of the water. Then the humpback whales took turns splashing water with their tails. Just reminiscing about this brings a smile to my face.

Land mammals

Red squirrel

If you hike in Bartlett Cove, keep your eyes and ears tuned for red squirrels. You may see them scrambling up a tree trunk or gathering spruce cones for winter. Red squirrels chatter when a threat is in the area, like you. So, you may hear them before you see them.

Porcupine

While hiking, you may also see or hear porcupines. They are occasionally spotted in cottonwood trees munching on leaves. Their fur and quills are more yellow than most people expect. In the evening, porcupines are known to make a variety of sounds like grunts and screams.  

Mountain goat
Viewing Glacier Bay through binoculars
Binoculars are a must for close views of wildlife

One of my most surreal experiences was seeing mountain goats as our cruise ship passed an enormous rocky structure protruding from the bay. To the naked eye, they appeared to be patches of snow.  

I broke out my trusty binoculars for a closer view. Those snowy patches were moving along narrow ledges on the mountaintop. As I developed an even greater appreciation for nature, my heart grew three sizes.

Gloomy Knob, near the southern end of the bay, gives you a decent chance for mountain goat sightings. Look at the upper sections of the mountain for white spots that have a slightly different shade than the snow. You will likely need binoculars to see them.

Bear

You can find both black bears and brown bears in the park. Black bears mostly stay in the forested areas of the lower bay. Brown bears have been observed in nearly every part of the bay, including around the glaciers.

Keep your binoculars close if you are visiting the park by cruise ship. Use them to scan the beaches and shorelines. We were fortunate to see a brown bear emerge from the woodlands and head out onto the beach.

Moose

Bear sightings are more common than moose sightings in the park. A few visitors have observed moose on the forested beaches or in the bay just off those same shores. 

While scanning the horizon for bears, you may stumble upon a moose. Focus on the wooded shores rather than the rocky shores.

Birds

Thousands of seabirds nest on rocky cliffs along the shores of Glacier Bay. You may see gulls, guillemots, puffins, and cormorants.  

We saw quite a few gulls flying around. The rocky cliffs of the northern bay echoed with bird calls, but we could not see them. 

South Marble Island is an excellent spot for puffins in the bay’s lower portion. You will likely need binoculars to see them.

Glacier Bay is inhabited by land birds as well. Many visitors hope to see bald eagles. These beautiful birds are occasionally observed along the forested shorelines within the park.

Visiting Glacier Bay by cruise ship

View of Glacier Bay from a cruise ship
View of Glacier Bay from the back of a cruise ship

Julie and I have visited several national parks, but we have never done so by cruise ship. How was our experience?

It was fantastic! From the ship’s comfort, you have an unforgettable view of the most beautiful landscape we have ever seen.

The night before your arrival, you will receive a copy of the park map and guide in your stateroom. You will have a great idea of what to expect.

Cruise ships typically spend nine to ten hours in Glacier Bay. This includes a lengthy stop and a 360-degree spin in front of a tidewater glacier.

Park rangers board the ship the morning of your visit. The rangers narrate essential aspects of the park, give special presentations, staff an information desk, answer questions and help point out key things such as wildlife.

It is important to note that the ship does not dock anywhere in Glacier Bay. The experience is called scenic cruising.

During the summer, the National Park Service only permits two cruise ships to enter the park daily. This protects park resources and ensures that visitors have a great experience.

Which cruise lines go to Glacier Bay?  

Check out each official cruise line site to verify itinerary options. Holland America and Princess offer the most sailings to Glacier Bay.

Weather

Alaskan weather can be unpredictable in general. Glacier Bay gets a lot of rain due to the influence of ocean currents.  

The area typically has mild winters and cool, moist summers. The temperature typically peaks between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit in summer. 

April, May, and June are the driest months. September and October are the wettest months.  

No matter when you visit, pack rain gear and lots of warm, light layers. Be prepared to add or shed layers throughout the day as needed.

Wrap Up: Visiting Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve

Although not easily accessible, Glacier Bay is worth visiting. The setting is beautiful and wild in its purest form.  

Alaska’s last frontier is on full display. The glaciers are stunning, and opportunities for wildlife sightings are plentiful.

Visiting by cruise ship is the easiest way to see the park. Although you will be viewing everything from a distance, the front-row seat makes the experience special.

Pack your binoculars. I used mine more than any other trip we have taken. You will need them to get a closer view of the wildlife.  

I will take this one step further. Every person should have their own binoculars. Since the cruise ship is moving, your window to see “the amazing” is small.  

Trust me. You do not want to miss an opportunity to see a humpback whale breach the water, a mountain goat inching along a narrow ledge, or a glacier calving.

Relax and enjoy the show of a lifetime. Glacier Bay just might be heaven.

About the author

We are Scott and Julie at Miles with McConkey. After nearly 30 years, we took a leap of faith out of the corporate world to enjoy a life of travel and adventure. We hope to inspire you to find ways to travel more and enjoy life now.

2 thoughts on “How to Visit Beautiful Glacier Bay in Alaska”

  1. Hi,

    I was wondering what time of year you cruised to Alaska. Will be taking a cruise in the near future and am looking for ideas of timing.

    Thanks,

    Reply
    • We went early to mid August. Weather was comfortable. There are typically more mosquitoes from mid-June to the beginning of August. We were advised that your odds of seeing the northern lights improve a bit as you head into late August and early September. We had already locked in another trip during that timeframe. If you have not seen any of our YouTube videos on Alaska, please check them out. You will get a better sense of the weather and scenery. Let me know if you have further questions. Hope you have a great time!

      Reply

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