Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve

Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve

Park & Preserve

Navigating through Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve today, visitors sail along shorelines and among islands that were completely covered by ice little more than 200 years ago. This marine wilderness provides opportunities for adventure, a living laboratory for observing the ebb and flow of glaciers, and a chance to study life as it returns in the wake of retreating ice. Amid majestic scenery, Glacier Bay also offers a connection to a powerful and wild landscape.

The park has snow-capped mountain ranges rising to over 15,000 feet, coastal beaches with protected coves, deep fjords, tidewater glaciers, coastal and estuarine waters and freshwater lakes. The diverse land and seascape hosts a variety of plant communities ranging from pioneer species in areas recently exposed by receding glaciers to climax communities in older coastal and alpine ecosystems. Different kinds of marine and terrestrial wildlife also thrive in this native and varied habitat. At the same time, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve offers opportunities for recreation and research that allow visitors to learn more about the natural world.

History of Glacier Bay

When Captain George Vancouver charted his ship, the HMS Discovery, through the waters of Icy Strait in 1794, he and his crew described what's now known as Glacier Bay as just a small five-mile indent in a gigantic glacier that stretched off to the horizon. That massive glacier was more than 4,000 feet thick in places, up to 20 miles wide, and extended more than 100 miles to the St. Elias mountain range. By 1879, however, naturalist John Muir discovered that the ice had retreated more than 30 miles forming an actual bay. By 1916, the Grand Pacific Glacier—the main glacier credited with carving the bay—had melted back 60 miles to the head of what is now Tarr Inlet.

The members of the Discovery were not the first to see Glacier Bay, however. The ship's records mention natives who paddled out in their canoes from what is now Point Carolus to meet the boat and offer to trade. Were these descendants of the people who once lived in the bay, but were forced out by the advancing glacier? Tlingit oral history is corroborated by modern science in that it appears that lower Glacier Bay was habitable for many centuries up until about 300 years ago, when a final glacial surge would have forced the human habitants to flee their homeland. Even as Glacier Bay itself lay encased in ice, native people carried on their activities in many places along the nearby coast. The oldest known site in Glacier Bay National Park, located in Dundas Bay, is about 800 years old.

In 1879, John Muir was the first in a long line of distinguished naturalists to visit the park, perform research and bring this remarkable area to the world's attention. Muir was greatly intrigued with the emerging science of glaciology; he came to Alaska, in part, to witness glaciers in action and substantiate his theory. Largely due to his enthusiastic writings, Glacier Bay became a popular tourist attraction, as well as the focus of scientific inquiries during the late 1880s and 90s.

But this golden age of tourism and exploration in Glacier Bay came to an abrupt halt. In September 1899, a massive earthquake shattered the area. Masses of floating ice prevented ships from closely approaching the glacier for at least a decade, and the steamship companies removed Glacier Bay from their itineraries. Over the next few decades Glacier Bay was accessed only by a hardy assortment of scientists and adventurous entrepreneurs, as well as native seal hunters, fishermen and egg-gatherers.

Scientific interest in Glacier Bay remained high, however. William S. Cooper, a plant ecologist studying the return of plant life to the recently de-glaciated terrain, made numerous trips to Glacier Bay beginning in 1916. He convinced the Ecological Society of America to spearhead a campaign for its preservation. These efforts met with success when President Calvin Coolidge signed the proclamation creating Glacier Bay National Monument in 1925. The proclamation cited the features and values of the area: tidewater glaciers in a magnificent setting, developing forests, scientific opportunities, historic interest and accessibility.

World War II changed the face of Alaska and Glacier Bay, essentially bringing aspects of the modern world right to the doorsteps of this remote region. In 1941, an airfield and associated facilities were constructed at Gustavus; in 1942, an ambitious and highly secret project—the construction of a huge supply terminal just east of the monument boundary—began two months after a Japanese fleet launched an attack on the American military base at Dutch Harbor. By the time the terminal was completed a year later, the main theater of war operations had moved beyond Alaska, and the facility was barely needed. But the airfield—turned over to civilian use following the war—proved to be a windfall for both the monument and the local economy. Bartlett Cove, which could be linked to the new airport by a few miles of road, became the focus of new development plans.

Post-war prosperity and pride, (and a rising interest in outdoor recreation) led to a heightened interest in developing parks nationwide and Glacier Bay further benefited from this momentum. This momentum led to the construction of the lodge (which opened in 1966), as well as the dock, employee residences, an administration building and other facilities at Bartlett Cove.

For decades there had been talk of elevating Glacier Bay's status to that of national park—a goal achieved in 1980. At the same time, the park's boundaries were extended northwest to the Alsek River and Dry Bay. In 1992, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve became part of an international World Heritage Site, along with neighboring Wrangell- St. Elias National Park and Canada's Kluane National Park.

Since 1925, the national and global significance of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve has been widely appreciated. The human challenge of the park has always focused on finding an equitable balance between preserving this irreplaceable natural treasure, defining and accommodating legitimate local uses, and providing for the needs of the visiting public. Fine- tuning this delicate balance will continue to challenge park managers, and enliven life at Glacier Bay, into the foreseeable future.

Planning Your Visit

There are many ways to enjoy a visit to Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve: You can experience the Glacier Bay Tour an 8-hour adventure up the west arm of Glacier Bay to the face of the Grand Pacific and Marjorie Glaciers, explore the park in a kayak—either guided or unguided, camp in the backcountry, charter a fishing boat or experience a thrilling Whale Watch and Dinner Tour just outside the park boundaries. There are several ranger-led guided hikes from the Glacier Bay Lodge daily in the summer, or choose to explore the area on your own. Both park staff and concessioners are here to ensure a safe, pleasant and memorable visit.

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve is open year round (though services in the winter are extremely limited) and the Visitor Center is open from mid-May through mid-September. There are two ways to get to Glacier Bay National Park, either by plane or by ferry (in the summer.) Year round flights are available from Juneau to Gustavus. Summer jet service is available from June to the end of August, otherwise, most air travel is by small plane. Small plane service is also available in the summer from Skagway and Haines to Gustavus. Transportation is available from Gustavus to Glacier Bay (11 miles). The Glacier Bay Lodge provides transfers for guests at their hotel or for the Glacier Bay Tour for a minimal fee or taxi service is also available. Summer ferry service is also available from Juneau directly to Bartlett Cove. This is the best option for passengers with kayaks or backcountry equipment who want to avoid excess baggage fees.

The only road in the park—paved in 2002—runs 10 miles between Bartlett Cove and Gustavus. Cars may be rented in Gustavus. Seven miles of trails wind their way along the beaches and through the rainforest in the Bartlett Cove area.

Glacier Bay Lodge

For visitors who want to stay in Glacier Bay National Park and experience the pristine beauty, there is one lodge located inside the 3.3 million acre park.

The Glacier Bay Lodge is a full service lodge located inside Glacier Bay National Park, approximately 11 miles from the town of Gustavus. This 49-room lodge features spectacular views of the Fairweather Mountain Range, overlooking Bartlett Cove. The National Park Service visitor center is located in the upstairs of the lodge and the park service offers daily guided hikes around the property. There is one full service restaurant at the Park, the Fairweather Dining Room located inside the Glacier Bay Lodge, serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. A camper store and gift shop is also available for travelers. For more information, visit or please call (888) 229-8687.

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve is most easily seen by boat. The distance between Bartlett Cove and the tidewater glaciers is 65 miles. A passenger ferry operates between Juneau and Gustavus/Bartlett Cove on a limited schedule. Tour boat, cruise ship and charter boat services are also available. Pleasure boats are welcome (a free permit is required). Taxi or bus service is available between Gustavus and Bartlett Cove.

For more information, write to: Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, P.O. Box 140, Gustavus, AK 99826-0140; or call General Information (907) 697-2230; after-hours emergency (907) 697-2651; recreational boater information (907) 697-2627; Alsek River Hotline (907) 784-3370; Yakutat Ranger District (907) 784-3295.