Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve encompasses an enormous 3.3 million acres of land and water—that’s larger than the state of Alabama. Its craggy, snowcapped mountains, towering spruce and cedar trees, and rich waters are hardly unique in Alaska, but this park is remarkable for several reasons.
The first is the pristine nature of the waters and lands; the waters, in particular, are some of the richest in the world, and Glacier Bay is one of the largest protected biosphere preserves in the world. Second, the solitude—cruise ships do visit the bay, but they never dock, and access during peak months is controlled by a free permit system.
Third, it’s been less than 300 years since an enormously thick glacier covered much of this land. The bay was uncovered by a stunningly fast series of advances and retreats. Finally, this place is a rich, integral part of the Tlingit Alaska Native tradition, and park officials work closely with the tribes. One of their most notable successes was the opening of the Xunaa Shuká Hít clan house in August of 2016; this is the first permanent clan house in Glacier Bay since Tlingit villages were destroyed by a rapid glacier advance more than 250 years ago.
Activities in Glacier Bay
The only scheduled day tour in Glacier Bay National Park is the Glacier Bay Tour out of the Glacier Bay Lodge (179 Bartlett Cove, 888/229-8687), which also offers a water taxi for backpackers and kayakers heading deep into the park. Glacier Bay Adventures (907/697-2442) offers a cruise aboard the park-permitted research yacht, the Steller.
Whale watching is phenomenal in the waters of Glacier Bay and Icy Straits; from late June through September, humpback whales focus on nothing but eating as much as they can, stocking up on blubber before they migrate to their warm-water breeding grounds, where they’ll fast until their return next year. You’ll see many fascinating behaviors, from lunge feeding to breaching, spy hopping, lob-tailing, and even bubble-net feeding, a learned, cooperative behavior that only happens in this part of the world. You have great odds of seeing other wildlife too, from orcas to sea lions, Dall porpoises, and numerous waterbirds.
Two of the best whale watching tours in these waters are the half-day, naturalist-narrated “Taz” Cross-Sound Express (888/698-2726 or 907/321-2303), which also offers water-taxi services for kayakers and backpackers (the deck is large enough to handle large groups of kayaks), and the half-day Wild Alaska Charters tour (855/997-2704 or 907/697-2704, from $140), which never takes more than six passengers at a time.
Sea kayaking is also enormously popular, both in and around the park. Glacier Bay Sea Kayaks (907/697-2257) has a concession for full- and half-day trips inside the park and also provides gear rentals and trip-planning assistance to paddlers who are experienced enough to go without a guide. The Beardslee Islands are a popular destination, with great beach camping and wildlife viewing. Another great destination is Muir Arm in the park; you can use the daily Glacier Bay Tour boat from Glacier Bay Lodge as a water taxi to cut days off your paddling time in these glacier-clad waters.
On the other end of the spectrum, the folks at Alaska Mountain Guides (800/766-3396 or 801/742-0100), based in nearby Haines, are renowned for their guided expeditions of five days or more. Spirit Walker Expeditions (800/529-2537) is also very popular for longer trips throughout the northern portion of Southeast Alaska. If you book with a different provider, make sure they have the proper permits to actually go into the waters of Glacier Bay.
The waters of Glacier Bay and Icy Straits are enormously productive, so it’s no surprise that this is one of the best places in the world for fishing. Better yet, the isolated location means you won’t have to battle crowds. If you don’t want to commit to an all-inclusive, multi-day fishing trip with Glacier Bay Sportfishing (907/697-3038, lodging at the Gustavus Inn, from $2,400 for 3 days/4 nights), you can book anywhere from a half-day to five-day trip with Taylor Charters (801/647-3401).
Permits for Boating and Camping
Glacier Bay is a very popular destination for private boat owners. During the peak months, June-August, private boat owners must secure a free permit to enter the waters of Glacier Bay and Bartlett Cove. Each permit is good for up to seven days, and you must apply within 60 days of your planned arrival date. Don’t dillydally, though—permits often “sell out” quickly from mid-June to early August.
If you want to camp in Glacier Bay May-September—whether in the established campground or the backcountry—you need a free permit too. See nps.gov/glba for more information on both types of permits.