Half again as large as Yellowstone National Park, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve can be a conundrum for visitors. If you arrive via cruise ship, how can you possibly get a good taste of this 3.3-million acre landscape of ice, ocean, and forest?
And if you reach Glacier Bay via a flight into Gustavus, what's your best approach for exploring this park that runs from sea level all the way up to 15,300-foot peaks of the Chilkat Range?
Those can be daunting questions. Fortunately, there are some ready answers.
The park's summer season generally runs from Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day. At least, that is, if you're planning to rely on the Glacier Bay Lodge for accommodations and meals. In Gustavus you can find room in a B&B, country inn, or cabin earlier in May.
By and large, most visitors to Glacier Bay arrive via cruise ship, stay on it, spend less than a day in the park, and are gone. For those who fly into Gustavus for a visit, those who stay at the Glacier Bay Lodge typically stay for two-three days, while those who check into a lodge, B&B, or cabin in Gustavus generally stay 4-5 days.
So, let's start with a checklist for those using Bartlett Cove or Gustavus as a basecamp:
* Start with a stop at the park's Visitor Center. Located on the second floor of the Glacier Bay Lodge, here you can find a nice selection of books related to the park or to Alaska, stamp your national park passport, and chat with a ranger about how best to enjoy the day.
* Plan a day to tour the glaciers. The concessionaire offers a day-long, 150-mile roundtrip aboard a catamaran that leaves the dock below Glacier Bay Lodge each morning and travels to the upper reaches of Glacier Bay with stops in front of several glaciers. A ranger-naturalist will take you in tow and, throughout the journey, point out whales, brown bears, mountain goats, tufted and horned puffins and, of course, glaciers! The crew makes sure you won't go hungry, offering a continental breakfast upon departure, a hearty seafood chowder later in the morning, and a selection of sandwiches in the afternoon on the way back to Bartlett Cove.
* If the tour isn't quite right for you, consider going on a paddle. Glacier Bay is considered by many as one of the top five kayaking destinations in the country thanks to the spectacular scenery, the marinelife, and the many inlets and hundreds of miles of coastline you can explore. You can rent a kayak in Bartlett Cove, join a guided tour, or, if you've got the skills and equipment, paddle off into the wilderness for a trip to the Beardslee Islands, which are within a day's paddle of the cove and so make for a quick, easy escape into the wilderness. However, be sure to have a tide table with you so you can time things accordingly.
* Take a hike. Literally. Rangers will be happy to point you to a nice variety of gorgeous hikes that wind along the shoreline, or which dive into the coastal rain forest. In fact, rangers will actually be happy to lead the way, as they lead guided hikes daily through the summer months. If you venture off on your own, there are only four marked and maintained trails, and they range from 1 to 8 miles in length. The aptly named "Forest Trail" is a mile-long loop that winds through rain forest and along the beach of Bartlett Cove. The Bartlett River Trail runs four miles and offers the chance to spy moose, coyotes, and even brown bears on the beach. The longest trail is runs to Bartlett Lake and covers eight miles roundtrip. Weaving through the forest, this trail's payoff is solitude. Your final option is the Beach Trail, a mile-long route best taken at low tide so you can see what intertidal life remains behind the retreating waters. Just be sure to check the tide schedule so you don't have to walk through water on your return!
* Prefer a longer hike, say one that runs several days? Well, the good news is you have 3.3 million acres to explore. The bad news is that there really aren't any well-defined and maintained backcountry trails. That said, there's nothing to prevent you from heading off down the shoreline. Again, obtain the tide charts before you head out so you don't get hemmed in by rising water. Or you can follow rivers upstream into the park's interior with sites set on pitching your tent in an alpine meadow.
* Rafting opportunities are primo in Glacier Bay on the Alsek River and its major tributary, the Tatshenshini River. For all but the most intrepid, experienced, and self-supporting floater, these trips are probably best negotiated with one of the commercial outfitters permitted to operate in the park's waters. You can find a list of those businesses, as well as instructions for applying for a private float permit, at this site.
* Catch some dinner. Head over to the mouth of the Bartlett River, which in late summer runs with pink, sockeye, and silver salmon. If you were hoping for something with a little bit more fight, sign onto a guided fishing charter and try your luck for halibut.
If your visit to the park comes courtesy of a cruise ship, we've got a checklist for you, too:
* Don't sleep in. Get up and pan your binoculars, or a good set of eyes, on the waters near the mouth of the bay for marine wildlife. This time of day often is the best for glimpsing humpback whales, sea lions, harbor porpoise, sea otters, and puffins, according to Tom VandenBerg, the park's supervisory ranger.
* During the height of the day your ship will cruise Glacier Bay. Providing interpretation will be park rangers. The rangers will actually come out to your ship and man an information desk on it. Once you see them, ask about the day's itinerary, route, timing, what glaciers will be visited, and the available ranger presentations. Often the best glacier viewing occurs before noon and late risers will miss much of it.
* Attend the ranger presentations to learn more about Glacier Bay.
* Prepare to be outside as much as possible. This day in Glacier Bay will be the scenic highlight of your Alaskan cruise, so don't miss it.
* For best viewing of the glaciers, find a quiet spot on an outer deck away from the sounds of machinery and other passengers. This will provide the best opportunity see and HEAR the tidewater glaciers as they creak, groan, and calve.
So, whether you cruise or whether you use Gustavus or Bartlett Cove as a basecamp, plan your trip well in advance and things will run wonderfully. And when you get back, share your photos with your fellow Travelers on our flickr page.