The Ultimate Guide to Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska
Glacier Bay National Park is a world heritage site and the highlight of your trip to Alaska’s Inside Passage. The park covers 3.3 million acres of ocean, snowy mountains, inlets, tidal water glaciers, rainforests, and deep fjords. Glacier Bay National park is also a home to a wide range of marine creatures that has added diversity and livelihood to the park. Plus, the glacier calving is a unique site to admire. It is a completely untamed place, and North America’s best natural wonders you have ever dreamed of are there.
In this guide, I will take you through the process of getting to Glacier Bay National Park, exploring the park and its nearby locales, and the travel tips.
Getting to Glacier Bay National Park
Glacier Bay National Park is a protected site, and it is inaccessible by road and train. Unless you are onboard with the seven-night Alaska cruise with Princess Cruises that takes you straight to Glacier Bay National Park, you first need to get to its getaway community, Gustavus.
Getting to Gustavus
Ferry – You can book a ferry that takes you from Juneau to Gustavus and back. The ferry travels along the mountainside and the ocean, and you will find that the amazing sites in Alaska never end.
Flight – Wings of Alaska and Alaska Airlines offers daily short flights to Gustavus over the ocean and the mountains from Juneau, Haines, and Skagway.
I have taken Wings of Alaska to Gustavus from Juneau. My pilot welcomed me in the boarding room. We flew over the ocean on my way to Gustavus and crossed the mountains on our return trip. Flying with Wings of Alaska was an interesting experience because I was the only passenger on that plane. I sat next to my pilot, got to see how he flew the plane, and had a bird’s eye view of parts of Alaska’s Inside Passage. I was even told that I can request a pilot on my trip back to Juneau.
Arrive in Gustavus
As aforementioned, your flight and cruise will not take you straight to Glacier Bay National Park, but its getaway community, Gustavus. Gustavus is located in Southeast Alaska with a total population of 442 (2015 and 2016 census).
After arriving in Gustavus, take a cab or free hotel shuttle, and check into your accommodation. From my experience and other travelers, it is impossible to explore Glacier Bay National Park on the day of your arrival. I recommend that you walk around Gustavus and explore this tranquil community.
As it is a very small town, you will not see any traffic lights and large shops. The economy in Gustavus strongly relies on the fish industry, tourism, and natural resources. You will see that many households live the self-sufficient life. They might invite you into their homes, show you their gardens, and how they harvest vegetables.
People in town are trustworthy, welcoming, and they know each other fairly well. There are several hotels and B&Bs in town, and the owners are friends with each other. Locals welcome travelers to their community and you can become a local in just one day.
You can get to Glacier Bay Lodge and take a guided hiking tour on a one-mile loop starting at the Glacier Bay Lodge and ending at the ferry terminal. The tour takes you hiking through the hemlock forest and to the beach. In peak season, such as in June and July, there are birds singing along the trees, and moose running around.
Entering Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park
The next morning, you will take the hotel shuttle to where you ended the hike yesterday. You will board the ferry that takes you on a six-hour journey inside the Glacier Bay National Park. You can bring your own food and drinks, but free lunch, such as seafood chowder and fruit, is offered on-board.
As the ferry enters Glacier Bay, you will cruise along the shoreline and view countless ancient snow-capped mountains, inlets, and fjords along the way. While humpback whales wave their massive flippers and fill the morning coast with their mist, brown bears swim between the small islands and feast on tons of salmon. You will see the seagulls and sea lions that inhabit the small islands midway.
The highlight of the journey takes you to the face of two tidewater glaciers, the Margerie and Grand Pacific glaciers, where you will have a close-up view of their surface, experience the magnificent glaciers melting from up to 250 feet high, and feel the wakes caused by such marvelous calving action.
An alternative way to explore Glacier Bay National Park is through self-guided kayaking and backcountry camping. Fill out the rental forms at the front desk inside the Glacier Bay Lodge, review your kayaking equipment, and participate in the orientation about the kayak and camping, safety, and get to know the tides inside the Glaciers Bay National Park. Be sure to check your kayaking equipment, and bring food and water, other travel essentials, as you are heading off into the wilderness.
If you plan to kayak, you can board the ferry with your kayaking gear and tour the Glacier Bay National Park like other travelers. Halfway through the ferry tour, you will be dropped off at the designated location and start kayaking. The ferry will pick you up at the designated location on your return trip.
After exploring Glacier Bay National Park, you can either leave Gustavus and continue exploring rest of Alaska, or you can stay there for a few days and embark on backcountry hiking trips. If you plan to hike, be sure to follow a group of people and bring bear spray, just in case you will encounter black bears on the mountains.
Where to Stay
I stayed at the Gustavus Inn at Glacier Bay, and it is one of my favorite hotels in the USA. I had a spacious bedroom and private bathroom. The rate included three meals and a free shuttle to the airport and ferry docks. Dinner was a multiple course meal with vegetables picked from the backyard, and fresh seafood such as salmon, halibut, and crab from Icy Strait.
Glacier Bay National Park Trip Tips
Although it is an adventure of a lifetime, one needs to be prepared for the journey because of the fleeting summer season, its overwhelming popularity, and the regulations instituted to protect it. Here are some pre-visit tips to make your Glacier Bay trip a breeze.
– I highly recommend that you visit the Glacier Bay National Park from late May to August, as that is when the daily ferry tour operates. When cruises stop running, your choices are then to kayak it or to take the charter flights. However, please note that at the end of September you will see the beginning of winter – characterized by a reduced number of sea animals, falling temperatures, and shortening of daylight hours.
-For your outfit, bring warm clothes and gloves on board. Even though it is summer time, the temperature could fall to sub-zero inside the park, enhanced by strong wind-chill. Check the weather forecast and ask members of staff at your hotel for suggested clothing and accessories. Some hotels have warm clothes for their guests to borrow.
-Bring your camera and make sure your memory stick has enough space for photos. If you plan to use a DLSR camera, bring a telephoto lens so you can take close-up shots of humpback whales and bears.
-Book the cruise tour, kayaking trip, and campsites in advice via Glacier Bay Lodge or your accommodation in Gustavus. The cruise tour is very popular, so visitors without advance reservations are unlikely to find available spots on a walk-in basis.
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