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.

Cruise inside the Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska
Cruise inside the Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska/photo credit: Julie Cao

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. As a result of the nature of Glacier Bay National Park, nobody can enter the site by just directly walking there. Here are options on how to get to Glacier Bay National Park.

Please note that to get to Glacier Bay National Park, you firstly need to get to its getaway community, 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.

Gustavus Alaska
Arriving in Gustavus Alaska by plane/photo credit: Julie Cao
Flew back to Juneau from Gustavus, AK
Flew back to Juneau from Gustavus, AK

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).

Gustavus Alaska -getaway community to Glacier Bay National Park
Downtown Gustavus, Alaska/photo credit: Julie Cao

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 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.

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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.

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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.

In front of the Glaciers at the Glacier Bay National Park
In front of the glaciers at the Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska/Photo credit: Julie Cao
Glaciers calving fall, Glacier Bay National Park,AK
Glaciers calving fall, Glacier Bay National Park,AK/Photo Credit: Julie Cao

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.

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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.

Gustavus Inn in Alaska
Gustavus Inn /photo credit: Julie Cao

Glacier Bay National Park Trip Tips

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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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Glaciers Calving Fall in Glaciers Bay National Park, Alaska
The Ultimate Guide to Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska

 

Julie Cao

Julie Cao is a travel blogger, travel writer, and global citizen currently living in Toronto Ontario.

20 thoughts on “The Ultimate Guide to Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska

  • November 11, 2016 at 1:37 pm
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    Very nice guide to getting to and seeing Glacier National Park. I have been to the inside passage and taken the ferry from Juneau to Haines and Skagway but have not made it to the park. Thanks for putting together this informative post.

    Reply
    • November 14, 2016 at 4:01 pm
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      Thanks Christine! I have never made my way to Haines and Skagway and I would love to visit both places someday too. Inside Passage is really beautiful.

      Reply
  • November 11, 2016 at 2:51 pm
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    Such a useful and informative post. I love that you included multiple ways to get there, it’s that attention to detail that makes trip planning so much easier. Thank you!

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    • November 14, 2016 at 4:03 pm
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      Hi Meg, your comments really bright up my day. Focus on details is what makes a great travel story. Thanks for the useful tip.

      Reply
  • November 11, 2016 at 10:33 pm
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    That looks like such an epic place to go. I love that it isn’t super accessible just makes it more worth it. Really stunning pictures.

    Reply
  • November 12, 2016 at 1:19 pm
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    Looks absolutely amazing Julie. Now that’s a proper trip. The flight must have been incredible. Also I love these photos. This is one of those journals that really makes me want to go there 🙂 How much was the wings of Alaska flight and how long did it take?

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    • November 14, 2016 at 4:13 pm
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      Hi Andy, welcome back! It is only a short half-hour flight, I forget how much I paid for it but it is a very different trip as the pilot came to the boarding room and introduced himself to me.

      Hows your road-trip? I have lots of catch up to do on your blog as I am so busy running my blog lately, and I am still reading your book Just Turn Left. It seems you had hell a lot of life going on in your first few years there.

      Reply
  • November 12, 2016 at 5:28 pm
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    The park looks beautiful. Alaska is such a wild and untouched place. Let’s hope the glaciers will not continue breaking..

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    • November 14, 2016 at 4:05 pm
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      Glaciers keep retreating and falling every year, it is just the nature activity, and a stunning sight to see. Despite that, I also wish glaciers can remained as it is forever.

      Reply
  • November 13, 2016 at 1:47 pm
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    Very informative post indeed.Thanks for sharing about the accessibility routes and the recommendation for the hotel.A kayaking trip to the Glacier National Park seems adventurous and interesting.

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    • November 14, 2016 at 4:06 pm
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      Thanks Arnav! I am glad this post delivers valuable information to readers like you. Kayaking trip is my dream too.

      Reply
  • November 13, 2016 at 3:41 pm
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    If I ever go on a trip like this, that would be a journey worth million bucks. Thanks for providing a comprehensive guide on Glacier Bay tour. Kayaking and camping sounds like a great choice as one this will be a perfect way to enjoy the surroundings and also an adventure to remember.

    Reply
    • November 14, 2016 at 4:07 pm
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      I dont think anyone can forget that trip. Kayaking trip is pretty cool as it gives you flexibility and enjoy the nature beauty of the park.

      Reply
  • November 14, 2016 at 10:54 am
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    I never get tired of seeing pictures of Alaska. How stunning is the nature?
    That must have been an once in a lifetime experience.

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    • November 14, 2016 at 4:09 pm
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      Hi Neni, have you been to Alaska too? I am obsessed with Alaska too and I am still do. And I have never met anyone who does not like Alaska 🙂

      Reply
  • January 9, 2017 at 8:35 am
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    Really beautiful pictures! I would love to go to Alaska! Thanks for all the infos!

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    • January 11, 2017 at 1:31 am
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      Thanks Midori! Alaska is really a beautiful state and hope you will make it there someday!

      Reply
  • January 10, 2017 at 8:29 am
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    Great post Julie. We went to Sawyer Glacier on a cruise last year. The entire cruise was awesome but the glacier was definitely the stand out!

    Reply
    • January 11, 2017 at 1:31 am
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      I missed the Tracy Arm-Fords when I was in Juneau. I need a return visit and take the cruise to Sawyer Glacier!

      Reply

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