With mountains in the distance, golden light reflects off calm ocean water as the sun descends beneath a high layer of cloud cover.

A golden sunset at Tracy Arm fjord. Photo © Noël Zia Lee, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Map of Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness, Alaska

Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness

Located 50 miles southeast of Juneau, the 653,000-acre Tracy Arm–Fords Terror Wilderness contains country that rivals Glacier Bay National Park but costs half as much to reach. The wilderness consists of a broad bay that splits into two long glacially carved arms—Tracy Arm and Endicott Arm. (Fords Terror splits off as a separate channel halfway up Endicott Arm.) Within Tracy Arm, steep-walled granite canyons plummet 2,000 feet into incredibly deep and narrow fjords. We’re talking rocks to the waterline here. The fjords wind past waterfalls to massive glaciers, their icebergs dotted with hundreds of harbor seals. Humpback whales are a common sight, as are killer whales. Look closely on the mountain slopes and you’re bound to see mountain goats, especially near North Sawyer Glacier. John Muir noted that the fjord was:

…shut in by sublime Yosemite cliffs, nobly sculptured, and adorned with waterfalls and fringes of trees, bushes, and patches of flowers, but amid so crowded a display of novel beauty it was not easy to concentrate the attention long enough on any portion of it without giving more days and years than our lives can afford.

Modern-day visitors come away equally impressed.

Two glaciers—Sawyer and South Sawyer—cap the end of Tracy Arm. Sawyer Glacier is retreating up the bay at 85 feet per year, while South Sawyer is losing over 300 feet per year. South Sawyer is larger and more interesting, but ice often blocks access. Other treats include get-wet visits to waterfalls and the chance to view seals lounging on the ice. Contact the Forest Service Information Center in Juneau (907/586-8751) for details on Tracy Arm.

Getting to Tracy Arm–Fords Terror Wilderness

Boat Trips

Visit Tracy Arm on board Adventure Bound Alaska (907/463-2509 or 800/228-3875, May–Sept.) vessels. Owner Steve Weber has been doing this for more than 15 years and knows the best places to see mountain goats, seals, and whales. The company operates two boats in mid-season, the 56-foot Adventure Bound and the 65-foot Captain Cook. The boats typically stop for at least an hour at the face of one of the glaciers, providing a fantastic opportunity to witness the calving of icebergs. All-day cruises are offered every summer day for $150 adults, $95 children ages 5–17; younger children are not permitted. Fresh sandwiches, drinks, and snacks are available on board for a few bucks more, and kayak drop-offs are available. This trip is highly recommended.

On Your Own

There are no trails in the Tracy Arm–Fords Terror Wilderness, but experienced sea kayakers—this definitely isn’t for beginners— discover spectacular country to explore. Unfortunately, kayakers in Tracy Arm should be prepared for a constant parade of giant cruise ships leaving large wakes and plenty of engine noise to contend with. (Sound travels a long way over the water. Wilderness rangers report being startled to suddenly hear loudspeakers announcing, “Margaritas will be served at 16:30 in the aft lounge.”) You can, however, escape the boats by hiking up ravines into the high country, or by heading into the less-congested waters of Endicott Arm, where cruise ships and powerboats rarely stray. Adventure Bound Alaska (907/463-2509 or 800/228-3875) provides kayaker drop-offs, and rentals are available through Alaska Boat & Kayak Rental (907/789-6886).

If you plan to go into Tracy Arm in a kayak, check ahead with the Forest Service’s Juneau Ranger District (907/586-8751) for good campsites. As you approach the glaciers at the upper end of Tracy, these become harder to find. Many boaters anchor in No Name Cove near the entrance to Tracy Arm. Kayakers will probably prefer to head to the middle part of the fjord and away from the motorboats. Ambitious folks (with a topo map) may want to try the steep half-mile cross-country climb up to Icefall Lake (1,469 feet above sea level).

Massive Dawes Glacier jams the top of Endicott Arm with thousands of bergs of all sizes and shapes, making it tough to get close to the face of the glacier. Fords Terror is a turbulent but spectacular inlet that angles away from Endicott Arm. Tidal changes create wild water conditions near the entrance, so kayakers and boaters need to take special precautions. Only run the narrows at slack tides, when the water is relatively calm. (The narrows are named for the terror felt by H. R. Ford, who rowed into the inlet one day in 1889 when the water was calm, but nearly died fighting the currents, whirlpools, and icebergs on the way back out.) Fords Terror has no tidewater glaciers, but numerous hanging glaciers and craggy peaks are visible.

Chuck River Wilderness

Twelve miles south of Tracy Arm is Windham Bay, entrance to the Chuck River Wilderness. This small wild area receives very little use but offers good fishing for salmon and a chance to explore the ruins of the Southeast’s oldest mining community, Windham Bay. You can hike up the mile-long Taylor Creek Trail from Windham Bay to Taylor Lake.

Endicott River Wilderness

Although it encompasses 94,000 acres, this is one of the least-visited wilderness areas in the United States. Located some 60 miles northwest of Juneau, the wilderness borders on Glacier Bay National Park and includes the Endicott River watershed along the eastern slope of the Chilkat Range. The country is spruce and hemlock forests mixed with alders. Trails are nonexistent, and access from Lynn Canal is virtually impossible. Visit the Forest Service’s Juneau Ranger District office (907/586-8751) for more on this decidedly off-the-beaten-track area.

Excerpted from the Tenth Edition of Moon Alaska.