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How to Best Explore Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska

How to Best Explore Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska

More than half a million people make their way to Glacier Bay National Park in a typical year. That’s pretty impressive, considering there’s not a single road leading into this amazing wilderness area. What do they see? The way things used to be, before colonization and widespread development transformed much of North America.

The vast preserve has hundreds of glaciers, snow-covered mountains, narrow fjords, and lush rainforest. The environmentally sensitive marine-and-mountain environment is protected as a World Biosphere site. It’s also culturally significant as the home of the Huna Tlingit tribe. 

Let’s find out how we can explore this incredible national park.

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Where Is Glacier Bay National Park?

Under federal protection since 1925, Glacier Bay National Park covers 3.3 million acres in southeastern Alaska west of Juneau. It’s on the northern end of what’s called the Alaska Panhandle.

The Gulf of Alaska on the west and the St. Elias Mountains of British Columbia on the east mark the park’s boundaries. The body of water, Glacier Bay, formed from a retreating glacier. The 15,300-ft Mount Fairweather is the park’s highest peak.

margerie glacier
The Margerie Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park

How Do You Enter Glacier Bay National Park?

Most of the park’s visitors come by water, and others arrive from the air. Let’s look at the three main options for getting to this magical place.

Cruise Ships

In photos, cruise ships sometimes look like a tiny speck against the massive mountain backdrop. In reality, these ships have a few thousand people on board. That’s why they account for 80 percent or more of Glacier Bay’s visitors. 

They don’t dock anywhere in the park but do a slow cruise through so passengers can take in the sights. The tours, which last four to eight hours, are typically part of a larger Alaskan cruise experience. A park service naturalist boards the ship as a guide who can point out the natural features and diverse wildlife.

Seaplanes

You can also swoop in from the air. Several operators offer air taxi services from Gustavus,  just 10 miles away, and other nearby communities. As a bonus, the quick flight in gives you a fantastic bird’s-eye view and lands you dockside near the headquarters.

Boat Service

You can also get in on smaller boats. The tour vessels that leave every morning from Glacier Bay Lodge in Bartlett Cove create a more intimate alternative to the large cruise ships. 

Again, a park service expert boards to make the experience more like a personal guided tour. One of the most popular activities is seeing what’s called “glacier calving.” You can observe the awesome natural phenomenon of parts of glaciers breaking off and crashing into the icy waters.

Pro Tip: Don’t miss out on a great national park adventure while in Alaska with our Complete List of Alaska National Parks.

Boat heading to Glacier Bay National Park
Visit Glacier Bay National Park by sea.

Explore the Park Your Own Way

Maybe you don’t want a guided tour and want to set off on your own course. Here are four ways to navigate Glacier Bay National Park on your own.

Take a Kayak Tour

You can launch a kayak yourself at Bartlett Cove and paddle at your own leisure along the shoreline. Keep reading to find out about another kind of kayak adventure you can pursue at Glacier Bay National Park.

Flightseeing

“Flightseeing” is a catchy name for sightseeing from a plane. It’s truly a memorable experience because you get a perspective you can’t see from the land or water. Take flight for an aerial tour from the airport at Gustavus or the towns of Yakutat and Haines.

Glaciers in Glacier Bay National Park.
For the outdoor enthusiast, Glacier Bay National Park is a must-see!

Catamaran

A high-speed catamaran leaves Glacier Bay Lodge every morning at 7:30 and returns at 3:30 p.m. Along the eight-hour, narrative tour you’ll travel through a series of dramatically different ecosystems.

A highlight of the ride is arrival at iconic tidewater glaciers. These massive snow and ice formations reach heights of nearly 250 ft.

Hike to the Beach

The park might seem intimidating, but you can take an easy stroll along the shoreline. The park has miles and miles of trails, but one of the best ones starts right outside the lodge. 

A one-mile loop circles through a forest of hemlock and spruce trees and along the cove’s shore. Set out on your own or join a group that assembles each afternoon at 1:30 for a walk led by a ranger. The walking surface varies between dirt, gravel, and wooden boardwalk.

Best Things to Do in Glacier Bay National Park

There’s so much to do at Glacier Bay that it might be helpful to list some of the top activities. This way, you can prioritize the types of things that appeal to you most.

Explore Bartlett Cove 

The adventure starts right outside the lodge, Glacier Bay’s welcome center. Head down the trails and keep a watchful eye out for an amazing variety of wildlife. 

You can see river otters, coyotes, moose, and bears in the beach area, as well as ducks, geese, and other waterfowl. Toward the end of the summer, the salmon in the river attract harbor seals.

Flightseeing

Seeing the area from the air gives you a broadened view of the enormity of the landscape. You can see rivers flowing for miles from mountaintops and gaze into deep, scenic canyons and crevasses. Many of the planes land, too, so you can plant your feet on beaches and glaciers.

Boat in front of glacier in Glacier Bay National Park.
View Glacier Bay National Park by land, sea, or sky.

Sea Kayaking

It’s simple to paddle the fairly calm waters of Bartlett Cove. For even more adventure, load up your kayak onto the morning tour boat and catch a ride toward rougher waters. The captain can drop you off closer to the towering tidewater glaciers and pick you up on the way back in.

Boat Tours

Many people enjoy the daily boat tours, one of the best ways to experience Glacier Bay. It’s a communal experience, and you get to take advantage of the park ranger’s expert narration and insight. These nine-hour excursions include a trip to the tideland glaciers and back.

Pro Tip: Plan your time in Alaska accordingly by knowing How Big Is Alaska? It’s Hard To Believe.

Kayak in front of glaciers
See the glaciers of Glacier Bay up close in a sea kayak.

When Should You Visit Glacier Bay?

Summertime is the best time to visit the park. The park service says the main visitor season ranges from late May to early September, with most visitors coming in July. 

Even in the summer, it gets cool, with temperatures between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit. It also rains a lot, so pack accordingly. The park does remain open year-round but has fewer services in the colder months.

Is Glacier Bay on your bucket list? Drop a comment below!

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Is Glacier Bay National Park Worth Visiting?

This incredible area is absolutely worth a visit. Because of its location in the southwestern part of Alaska, it serves as a natural gateway for exploring America’s Last Frontier. There’s also an inviting attitude. You can even find free tent camping sites at Bartlett Cove, near the park headquarters.

A visit to Glacier Bay National Park will open your eyes to the wildness and grandeur of Alaska. The landscapes and terrains themselves are unforgettable, and you can’t predict what kind of wildlife you’ll see. 


The park has brown bears, black bears, moose, mountain goats, and wolf packs. You might see seals, sea lions, and even humpback whales offshore. Whether you arrive by sea or by air, it’s definitely worth the effort.

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