The Wilderness of Glacier Bay National Park is forged from dynamic change in the wake of powerful seismic forces and dramatic glacial movements. Glaciers have sculpted this landscape, from the sharp brows of its mountain peaks to the deep troughs of its fjords. Even the land itself is rising as the colossal weight of the ice eases off of it. Here, it is almost as if the span of time has been condensed and then neatly unfurled across this landscape. It is a place renowned and protected for its diversity, constant change, and opportunity for study.
Dramatic change and the ebb and flow of nature occur at every scale: within centuries, seasons, and hours. The tides swell and recede dramatically twice a day, oftentimes by as much as twenty vertical feet. Long days in the summer become markedly brief in the winter, as the earth’s axis slants away from the sun. Many species follow this pattern, disappearing from Glacier Bay during the winter, only to return or re-emerge in the spring. The salmon, a sustaining pillar of this ecosystem, return each year to the place of their birth to spawn, die, and dispense valuable proteins and other nutrients. Humpback whales converge on the rich feeding grounds in Glacier Bay in the summer, but in the winter range elsewhere to breed and give birth. People are also an inseparable part of this continuous cycle of disturbance and accommodation; the Tlingit have been here for centuries, and as the glaciers, rivers, and life have advanced and receded through the homeland, so have the clans and the Tlingit ancestors. Since its exploration by John Muir in 1879, scientists from around the world have been attracted to Glacier Bay’s living laboratory of pristine ecosystems dominated by natural successional processes. Visitors congregate in the warmer summer months to witness the calving of tidewater glaciers and contemplate change, resilience, and their connection to this dynamic landscape.
The Glacier Bay Wilderness encompasses more than its namesake; the boundary extends along the Gulf of Alaska to the mouth of the glacial-fed Alsek Lake and areas surrounding the Chilkat and Fairweather Mountain Ranges. The alpine zone in the northern and western portions of the wilderness remain covered in ice fields, a diverse range of successional communities occupy recently ice-bound areas, and unglaciated refugia enfold the park’s outer coast and eastern edge. The outer coast is among the wildest coastlines in the world, and visitors there will be immersed in the purest wilderness imaginable. Glacier Bay National Park preserves one of the largest units of the national wilderness preservation system, encompassing glacially influenced marine, terrestrial, and freshwater ecosystems.
Leave No Trace
How to follow the seven standard Leave No Trace principles differs in different parts of the country (desert vs. Rocky Mountains). Click on any of the principles listed below to learn more about how they apply in the Glacier Bay Wilderness.
Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve is located in the "panhandle" of southeast Alaska. The center of the park is approximately 90 miles northwest of Juneau, the state capitol, and 600 miles southwest of Anchorage, the state's largest city. Park headquarters and visitor facilities are located at Bartlett Cove approximately 9 miles from the small village of Gustavus. There is no road access to the park from other areas of the US or Canada, so visitors either fly or take the Alaska Marine Highway into Gustavus or reach Glacier Bay by cruise ship, commercial tour, charter or private vessel. All visitor information and facilities are located in Bartlett Cove. The park also maintains a ranger station in Yakutat, Alaska along with Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. Whitewater rafting information (reservations, trip planning, permits, etc) for the Alsek River is available at the Yakutat office.
Digital and paper maps are critical tools for wilderness visitors. Online maps can help you plan and prepare for your visit ahead of time. You can also carry digital maps with you on your GPS unit or other handheld GPS device. Having a paper map with you in the backcountry, as well as solid orienteering skills, however, ensures that you can still route-find in the event that your electronic device fails.
Motorized equipment and equipment used for mechanical transport is generally prohibited in all wilderness areas.
This includes the use of motor vehicles, motorboats, motorized equipment, bicycles, hang gliders, wagons, carts, portage wheels, and the landing of aircraft including helicopters.
The vast majority of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve has neither roads nor trails. It is possible for wilderness lovers to spend days in the park's more remote places seeing no people, nor even signs of people. Visitors can imagine they are the first people to set foot in some of the park's pristine places. Indeed, in some places they well could be.
In this remote setting outside assistance may be many hours or days away so wilderness adventurers need to be completely self-sufficient and able to cope with any mishaps by themselves. The isolation, terrain, weather, and wildlife may make exploration daunting but a range of opportunities exists so that almost anyone can adventure into the wilderness under their own power. Those with the will to do so are often rewarded far beyond their expectations.
Guided trips make it possible for almost anyone to experience Glacier Bay's wilderness on its own terms. Outfitters supply all equipment and food, handle logistics and meal preparation, and keep the group relatively safe while sharing local knowledge.
Sea kayaking is the easiest and most popular way to travel into Glacier Bay's wilderness under your own power. Kayaks can be brought to the park by ferry, rented locally, or provided on guided trips. Local rental companies provide instruction and do not require previous kayaking experience. Kayaks have space for plenty of gear and supplies for traveling along Glacier Bay's hundreds of miles of wilderness coastline.
Backpacking is much more strenuous than paddling because of the absence of trails, the mountainous terrain, the vegetative obstacles, and the need to carry all your equipment and supplies on your back. But in alpine meadows, remote river valleys, and pristine rain forest the park's wildest rewards await those with the necessary stamina and experience for navigating the trackless wilds.
Rafting the Tatshenshini and Alsek rivers from Canada to Dry Bay in Glacier Bay National Preserve is a world-class float trip on glacial rivers slicing through one of the world's highest coastal mountain ranges. Whether you bring your own raft, rent from an outfitter, or join a guided trip, you can bring along many of the comforts that kayakers and backpackers must leave behind.
Mountaineering in the Fairweather Range is reserved for the most intrepid explorers. The coastal climate and long approaches make these mountains among the least climbed for their elevation.
Almost all park visitation occurs in Glacier Bay proper. Motor vessel cruising, sea kayaking, charter and private fishing, wildlife watching, beach camping, hiking, mountaineering, and berry picking are popular recreational activities. There are no maintained visitor facilities outside of Bartlett Cove. The wilderness area has no maintained trails, shelters, campgrounds, or interpretive sites. Motor vessel use in the Bay is controlled by daily and seasonal quotas. Human powered vessels such as kayaks are not limited by quotas. Fishing, sightseeing, guided and private group kayaking, wildlife viewing, camping and hiking are popular activities. Subsistence and sport hunting and trapping are permitted only within the Glacier Bay National Preserve at Dry Bay. Firearms may be carried, however discharge of firearms is not permitted within Glacier Bay National Park and will be investigated. There are no maintained trails for hiking or backbacking and terrain accessible from the water can be steep and rugged. There is little route-specific information available for hikers.
Climate and Special Equipment Needs
Glacier Bay's climate is cool and rainy, even in summer. A hot day in July can reach 70 F but this is uncommon. Driest months are May and June. Wettest months are September and October. Spring and fall days average in the 50s to low 60s F. The maritime climate monderates temperatures in winter so they rarely drop below zero, however the Fairweather Range on the west side of the park can receive heavy snow, high wind and subzero temperatures at almost any season. There are no visitor support services or tours available from mid September through early May. Hypothermia is always a concern. Be prepared for days of heavy rain and strong ocean winds at any time. Water temperatures are very cold especially near tidewater glaciers. Kayakers are encouraged to bring drysuits and extra clothing in case of a capsize, as hypothermia will occur very quickly. Both black and brown bears can be found almost anywhere so bearproof food containers are required and use of deterrents are recommended. In summer be prepared for biting insects such as mosquitos, no-see-ums, and biting flies. Summer days are long; 18 hours of daylight can mean many hours of sun on the water. Don't forget the sunscreen and extra treated drinking water!
Safety and Current Conditions
For the most current conditions and safety information please visit the park website or contact the park at:
Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve
1 Park Road, PO Box 140
Gustavus, AK 99826
907-697-2230 (main office)
The Visitor Information Station in Bartlett Cove is staffed From May until the end of September each year. The VIS can give specific boating, kayaking, and regulatory information directly. You may reach the VIS by calling 907-697-2627.
The Yakutat Ranger Station may be reached at:
Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve
Yakutat Ranger Station
PO Box 137
Yakutat, AK 99686-0137
907-784-3370 (rafter hotline)
Want to Volunteer for Wilderness?
Citizens who volunteer their time to steward our wilderness areas are an essential part of wilderness management. Contact the following groups to inquire about volunteer opportunities.