A Guide to Glacier Bay National Park
Yes, you could go to New Zealand, Patagonia, or Iceland to hike spectacular glaciers, but the United States has its own icy behemoths. In fact, “just 250 years ago [this park] was covered by an extensive glacier more than a mile thick,” supervisory interpretive ranger Laura Buchheit of Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve told Travel + Leisure.
Although that gigantic ice mass has receded, several smaller glaciers remain, and it’s “one of the few places in the world where you have relatively easy access” to them, said Buchheit.
If you’re planning a trip to this national wonder (and World Heritage Site), the 20-year National Parks Service veteran shared her top tips for visiting, and things to do while there. After all, this frozen preserve—at 3.3 million acres—is the size of Connecticut.
Come by sea
A good portion of the park includes waterways (including Glacier Bay itself). “The majority of visitors come by boat,” said Buchheit, including some 40,000 by cruise ship. “Ninety-five percent come here for one day, and spend it winding through the glacier fjord…up to the highlights: tidewater glaciers.”
Since the huge boats can’t come ashore, rangers will board the cruise ships “just like pirates,” laughed Buchheit. Like a traveling visitor center, giving children an opportunity to learn about the “junior ranger” program, and generally answering questions.
Related: How to Use A National Parks Pass
Or by land
Many people do come to camp and to kayak, Buchheit said, and “it’s hard to go wrong with the campground.”
Though this is a challenging place to explore, a lot of folks will rent a kayak, travel by water, and camp overnight at Bartlett Cove. As long as you’re careful with where you store your kayak and stake your tent (well above the high-tide line!) and you’ve found a moss-covered area that’s relatively soft, protected by the trees, and “off a wildlife trail so you don’t have surprise visitors during the night,” you should be in good shape, said Buchheit.
Camper orientations are free and required, given the ubiquity of animals and the changeability of weather conditions. Hanging food from trees is common practice elsewhere but not practical here, given the limited number of sturdy trees. Bear-proof canisters for food are provided free of charge by the park.
For something a bit more upscale, book a room at the log cabin-style Glacier Bay Bear Track Inn, where innkeepers can arrange dogsled rides, ice climbing, and fishing excursions. There’s always a roaring fire in the lobby to cozy up by after.
Check out the animals
Speaking of bears, black and brown bears are among the many types of wildlife visitors can spot at Glacier Bay. There are also salmon, moose, mountain goats, humpback whales, raccoons, sea lions, orca, puffins, gulls, eagles, oystercatchers, to name a few. This seemingly hostile land hosts an “incredible diversity” of wildlife, said Buchheit.
As remote as this part of the world is—and as quiet as it often is, thanks largely to restriction of motorized vessels in the summertime—sea lions get noisy.
“They’re huge,” Buchheit said, with males often exceeding 1,200 pounds. “They’re loud, [and] as opposed to California sea lions that make a barking sound, these truly roar.”
Buchheit said you can hear them from miles away as they cluster on islands together, since their roar carries straight across the water.
Learn about the native peoples
The Huna Tlingit people have lived in this part of Alaska for many hundreds of years, and soon visitors will be able to learn more about their ancestral homeland and culture at the Huna Tribal House, a collaboration with the National Parks Service.
Workshops, ceremonies, camps, and a large central fire pit will serve as a gathering area: and it will be the first permanent clan house in Glacier Bay since the Tlingit villages were destroyed by the glacier 250 years ago.
Take a hike
There are about a dozen miles of hikes, Buchheit said, all originating in Bartlett Cove. She’s particularly partial to a “marvelous one-mile trail that’s partly boardwalk through the rain forest,” some of which is wheelchair-accessible. “It’s wonderful for families,” she said, and is “a favorite trail for my children. My son was one year old when we arrived. He’s been able to…stretch his legs on this trail and explore it as he has grown.”
Travelers can also set out into the forest, leave the designated trails, and simply trace the shoreline. Look for whales spouting close to shore, Buchheit said, or eagles flying overhead. Anybody interested in rocks will note some amazing fomrations, carved by glaciers many years ago.
Bundle up and stay safe
It’s a rainforest, so expect a “tremendous” amount of rain, Buchheit warned, along with low visibility. Always have raingear, so you can better experience the lush forest and the views. And be certain that if you’re hiking on the shore, you won’t have to swim home to your campsite:
“Make sure your route back won’t be covered by high tide,” she said, so stay aware of the current and tides.
Be prepared to disconnect
This is a remote part of the world. Cell service is minimal, and it’s extremely easy to unplug from social media, e-mail, and text messages. Try to come with the mindset that this is an opportunity, suggested Buchheit, to “engage in your surroundings.”
Travel back in time
Buchheit worked here for four summers a full 20 years ago, and has recently returned with her family in tow, because her first exposure to Glacier Bay left her smitten. “It really is an experience to go back into the Ice Age,” she said, still awed, “[to] a land that is resilient and gives us an opportunity for us to see how adaptable life can be in such a hard landscape.