Glacier Bay National Park
PO Box 140
Gustavus, AK 99826-0140
Glacier Bay National Park -- Alaska's southernmost park -- is inaccessible by car, but flights to Gustavus from Juneau, Skagway, and Haines are conveniently scheduled. Surrounded by towering mountains, some of the tallest in Alaska, and presenting 16 massive tidewater glaciers to the sea, Glacier Bay is one of the most important wildlife habitats in the state. The park contains wildlife of all kinds, from marine mammals (humpback whales, minke whales, killer whales, porpoises, seals, and river otters) to large land mammals (Yukon moose, Alaskan black and brown bears, wolves, and black-tail deer).
Entrance fees: Admission is free.
Visitor centers: The visitor center is open daily from late May to early September.
Other services: One information center, four park lodges, and one campground.
- Bartlett Cove Campground. Open from May through September. 907-697-2627.
- Four lodges are open variously from mid-May through mid-September.
Visiting Glacier Bay National Park
When John Muir first visited Glacier Bay on his 1879 Alaskan trip, he called the place "a wonderland" and "one of the sublimest spectacles of nature." Glacier Bay is, indeed, just that. It is also a living laboratory where scientists can study the natural processes that occur during the retreat of a glacier. The ice here is moving back from the sea at a spectacular rate; it is the fastest glacial retreat on record.
Visitors to Glacier Bay are awed by the snow-capped mountain ranges, coastal beaches with protected coves, deep fjords, tidewater glaciers, coastal and estuarine waters, and freshwater lakes. Such diversity of natural habitats is one of the reasons Glacier Bay is among the crown jewels of the national park system. On the next page, read more about sightseeing in the park.
Sightseeing at Glacier Bay National Park
Most visitors to Glacier Bay National Park begin their adventures at Bartlett Cove, located in the extreme southeastern corner of the park. From there they can hitch rides on park tour boats and go 40 or 50 miles to the north to fabled regions such as Muir Glacier, where John Muir built his cabin more than a century ago.
Here in the land of gleaming blue ice, ground that has been laid bare for only two or three decades is already starting to nourish new, although sparse, vegetation. Mosses, lichens, and mountain avens can survive on bare rock, and yellow dryad, a low-growing plant with lovely red and yellow flowers, can live in the sand and gravel left by melting ice.
This diversity of emerging plant life creates a habitat for wolves, mountain goats, moose, bears, and an array of smaller wildlife. More than 200 bird species are found in the area, including large colonies of seabirds, and the fishing (halibut, Dolly Varden, and salmon) is among the best in Alaska. Hikers also enjoy some of the best berry picking, specifically blueberries and salmonberries, on the planet.
The bay supports a food chain that begins with microscopic algae, which provide food for krill. These tiny shrimplike sea creatures are themselves fed on by the soaring fish populations. Harbor seals, with a penchant for basking in the sun on small icebergs, and harbor porpoises, nourished by this abundant sea life, make the bay their home for part of the year. At the top of the food chain are killer whales, which feed on fish and harbor seals.
The park's largest visitors, humpback whales, which are as long as 50 feet and weigh more than 40 tons, arrive each summer to cruise the waters for the tiny krill that are the mainstay of their diet. Today, the great bay is a source of endless activity both on- and offshore. This environment is less than two centuries old, but it provides fascinating viewing for human visitors.
The West Arm
Each June, thousands of harbor seals give birth to their pups on icebergs in the small inlets at the head of the West Arm of Glacier Bay.
The icebergs provide a haven from marauding wolves and bears, but they do not always offer protection from the killer whales that glide easily through the frigid waters. Traveling in groups as large as a dozen, the whales often rise up under one of the floating maternity wards, turn it over, and dump its unwary occupants into the water, where they become easy prey.
The seals spend much of their time in Johns Hopkins Inlet. This is the wildest area of the West Arm. Here, seven huge glaciers flow down to the sea between mountains that rise 8,000 feet above the water. The other inlets of the West Arm -- Tarr, Reid, and Blue Mouse Cove -- offer still more spectacular scenery that includes the park's most active tidewater glaciers and its highest mountains. On clear days there are wonderful views of the distant Fairweather Range, which is capped by the mighty 15,300-foot Mount Fairweather. It is named for the only weather condition in which the peak is visible.
Glacier Bay National Park Photo Opportunities
The terrain at Glacier Bay National Park encompasses monumental glaciers, snow-capped mountains, bays, and narrow fjords, creating endless possibilities for album-worthy photos. Here are a few suggestions:
- George Island: Looking out over Glacier Bay from George Island, the camera-armed visitor can capture an exquisite view of land meeting sea at dawn.
- Muir Inlet: The eastern arm of Glacier Bay is called Muir Inlet, after naturalist John Muir, who was one of the first scientists to study glaciology. From various points on the inlet, boaters are treated to spectacular views of several ice formations. Traveling north, visitors pass Casement Glacier, McBride Glacier, Riggs Glacier, and Muir Glacier.
- The West Arm: All of the inlets of the West Arm offer views of at least one glacier. From Johns Hopkins Inlet, gaze at Johns Hopkins Glacier. Tarr Inlet's waters flow past Margerie, Ferris, and the Grand Pacific glaciers. The towering mountains framing the glaciers make these inlets truly picturesque.
One of the fascinating features of Glacier Bay National Park is how the glaciers have rapidly retreated. Whereas today there is ice, next year there could be grass. For an explanation of the natural processes that occur during the retreat of a glacier, see the next page.
How the Glaciers at Glacier Bay National Park Were Formed
The 16 glaciers that wind their way down the valleys of Glacier Bay National Park like tremendous white highways were formed during climatic periods when more snow fell during the winter than melted and evaporated in summer.
As snow builds up in layers winter after winter, its own vastly increasing weight causes the snow to compact into small grainy pellets that become crystals of ice. Eventually, this level of ice reaches such a great depth and weight that it begins to move downhill in the direction that is dictated by gravity.
The compacted ice crystals deep beneath the surface function like frozen ball bearings, gliding over one another and enabling the entire mass of ice to slide. As one of these glaciers inches its way into the waters of Glacier Bay, fissures that have developed in the ice along with the rough motion of the sea causes huge chunks to break away, or calve, with a resounding crack that can be heard miles and miles away.
In 1794, when British sea captain George Vancouver sailed up the Alaska coast, Glacier Bay did not exist. Vancouver saw only a great wall of ice, several miles wide and thousands of feet thick, where the bay now lies. In the intervening two centuries, the ice receded more than 65 miles, leaving in its wake a spectacular fjord-rimmed bay, surrounded by forested mountains that only now are returning to life following a long hibernation.
At the southern end of the bay, where the ice first departed, the land is now covered with a lush rain forest of spruce and hemlock. Looking today as though it had been there forever, the forest of great trees, rising from a spongy moss floor, has been able to sustain rampant growth because of moisture-bearing winds from the Pacific that supply year-round precipitation. Farther north, in areas of the bay more recently deglaciated, the vegetation is sparser and the terrain more rugged.
At its head, the bay branches into two great arms, Muir Inlet and West Arm. They in turn are feathered by numerous small inlets. Alder and willow forests today grow on slopes that were covered by glaciers only 50 years ago. But at the heads of the small inlets, glaciers calve icebergs, which drop into the water with the roar of distant cannon. This sound is called "white thunder" by the Tlingit Indians.
There are 16 tidewater glaciers that flow down from the mountains to the sea at Glacier Bay. Most of the glaciers in the park's eastern and southwestern ends are receding at rapid rates, but some glaciers on the west side are advancing. Scientists believe the depth of the water in the inlets, which affects air temperature, plays the crucial role in determining whether a glacier retreats or advances.
When the sun breaks through the clouds, the icebergs scattered throughout the park are struck with light. It truly is an awesome sight. For hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, Glacier Bay is a place of pure epiphany and revelation.
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