Glacier Bay National Park encompasses 3.3 million acres of prestigious land and water. The waters in Glacier Bay are some of the richest on earth, and because of this, it’s one of the largest protected preserves in the world. It’s very common to visit Glacier Bay via cruise ship, and although cruises are able to visit the bay, they are not allowed to dock. In addition, they have a limit of two cruise ships per day in the bay per day. If you don’t pass through Glacier Bay via cruise ship, you can take a ferry or flight from Juneau to Gustavus. Gustavus is a service town just outside the park, and is unreachable by road. From Gustavus, shuttles travel the short distance (15 min) to Bartlett Cove, which is where the visitor’s center and lodge of Glacier Bay National Park are located.
Bartlett Cove is the only developed area within Glacier Bay National Park. Busy season is June-August, with limited services available outside those months. The only scheduled boat tour in the park is the Glacier Bay Tour through Glacier Bay Lodge. The tour is 8 hours long, and National Park Rangers are on board, narrating the tour. Throughout the tour you’re able to take in a wide variety of wildlife and stunning glaciers.
We arrived back to Anchorage from Wrangell St. Elias late at night, and unfortunately my friend had to emergently fly back to Utah. This left me flying solo (literally) for the last park of the trip, but the silver lining being that everything was easy to navigate alone. Early the next morning I flew from Anchorage to Juneau, had a layover in Juneau, and then took another flight from Juneau to Gustavus. This was my first time to southern Alaska, and let me tell you, the views from the plane window were magical—flying over the deep blue waters with mountains dispersed throughout was something out of a magazine. After landing in Gustavus, there was a park volunteer outside the “airport” with a shuttle bus to transport us all to the lodge in Bartlett Cove. The process was pretty seamless, which was relieving because I didn’t have any cell service to fall back on if something didn’t work out.
Once arriving to the lodge, I made dinner reservations and then wandered off to check out my room. My room was rustic, but well kept, and honestly all I cared about was that there were blackout curtains! After eating a delicious halibut dinner at the Fairweather Restaurant, I went for a short hike around the area. The forest trail is a 1-mile loop and starts right outside the visitor’s center. The trail takes you through a lush rainforest then across the beach and back to the lodge. There were a couple different displays along the trail—one of an orca whale named Snow, who was hit by a cruise ship and washed up to shore, and another educating on the local Huna Tlingit tribe. While walking along the beach, I also had a clear view of the Fairweather mountain range. This hike was the perfect after dinner activity before retreating for the evening.
The next morning, I had a hearty breakfast at the lodge before heading to board the St. Juvenaly, which was the name of our tour boat. It was an 8-hour tour, which is probably the longest boat tour I’ve been on, but I was so looking forward to it. The water is my element, and I always feel at home when I’m around the water.
Unlike my previous evening of clear, blue skies, the morning started off rainy and completely overcast. Unfortunately we didn’t have much of a view of anything while leaving Bartlett Cove. We stopped along the way to observe sea lions and puffins swimming on and around different islands. However, much to my surprise, throughout the day we ended up seeing more bears than whales. The bear activity was so active along the coast line- which was way cool and honestly so unexpected (for me).
A few hours into the tour we eventually came upon some glaciers. Like I said earlier, it had pretty much been overcast up to that point. However, as we were pulling up to our first glacier, the clouds parted and the sun came shining through. It was spectacular. Alaska was smiling at us 😊.
During the tour, I learned there are a variety of glaciers: alpine, valley, and tidewater glaciers. We had an amazing view of one of the more popular glaciers, John Hopkins glacier. This glacier is 12 miles long, and is a tidewater glacier, which means it naturally calves into the ocean. Glaciers always have retreating and growing phases, however nowadays their retreating phases seem to be longer and more frequent ☹.
As we left the glaciers and headed back towards Bartlett Cove, the skies became overcast again, like they were waving us goodbye. Unlike other boat tours I have been on in the past, most of the trip was spent inside the cabin area of the boat. The cabin area was large, most likely because the weather is unpredictable here, with rain and wind being the norm. When the boat slowed or stopped for wildlife, we could go on the upper deck for better views. Our boat arrived back just in time for the shuttle back to the airport. I took a flight back to Juneau, spent the night in Juneau, and then the next morning was on a flight back to Salt Lake City. I left with a sense of accomplishment from having visited and explored all eight of Alaska’s rugged, yet breathtakingly beautiful national parks.