America’s national parks are this country’s version of Mecca, places where hordes of pilgrims are drawn in search of fulfillment that seems to come from experiencing these shrines of the natural world. Since Glacier Bay’s discovery by John Muir in 1879, the spectacles of stark rocky walls, deep fjords, and giant rivers of ice calving massive icebergs into the sea have never ceased to inspire and humble visitors.
Established as a national park in 1925, Glacier Bay received major additions in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980. The park and preserve now cover more than 3.3 million acres and contain half a dozen glaciers that reach the ocean, making this one of the largest concentrations of tidewater glaciers on earth. These glaciers originate in the massive snowcapped Fairweather Range, sliding down the slopes and carving out giant troughs that become fjords when the glaciers retreat.
Mt. Fairweather, rising 15,320 feet, is Southeast Alaska ’s tallest peak. On a clear day, it is prominently visible from park headquarters, 72 miles away. The vegetation of Glacier Bay varies from a 200-year-old spruce and hemlock forest at Bartlett Cove to freshly exposed moraine where tenacious plant life is just starting to take hold. Wildlife is abundant in the park: Humpback whales, harbor porpoises, harbor seals, and bird rookeries can be seen from excursion boats and kayaks. Black bears are fairly common.
The Park Service maintains a visitors center (daily 11 a.m.–9 p.m. summer) upstairs in the Glacier Bay Lodge at Bartlett Cove. A small museum here contains natural history and geology exhibits. Naturalists lead interpretive walks every day, once-a-week summer camps for children, plus evening talks and slide shows in the auditorium. The park’s backcountry office (daily 8 a.m.–5 p.m. summer) is near the boat dock, a short hike from the lodge. Stop here before heading into the park on an overnight trip. For additional details, contact Glacier Bay National Park (907/697-2230, www.nps.gov/glba ).
Glacier Bay has not always looked as it does today. When Captain George Vancouver sailed through Icy Strait in 1794, he found a wall of ice more than 4,000 feet thick and 20 miles wide. Less than 100 years later when Hoonah Indian guides led John Muir into the area in 1879, he discovered that the glaciers had retreated nearly 50 miles, creating a new land and a giant bay splitting into two deep fjords on its upper end. The bay was shrouded by low clouds, but Muir, anxious to see farther into the country, climbed a peak on its western shore:
All the landscape was smothered in clouds and I began to fear that as far as wide views were concerned I had climbed in vain. But at length the clouds lifted a little, and beneath their gray fringes I saw the berg-filled expanse of the bay, and the feet of the mountains that stand about it, and the imposing fronts of five huge glaciers, the nearest being immediately beneath me. This was my first general view of Glacier Bay, a solitude of ice and snow and newborn rocks, dim, dreary, mysterious. I held the ground I had so dearly won for an hour or two, sheltering myself from the blast as best I could, while with benumbed fingers I sketched what I could see of the landscape, and wrote a few lines in my notebook. Then, breasting the snow again, crossing the shifting avalanche slopes and torrents, I reached camp about dark, wet and weary and glad.
Today’s traveler is less likely to take such pains to see this grand place.
The rapid retreat of the glaciers over the last 200 years has caused the land to rebound, much like a sponge that has been squeezed and then re-forms. The process is astoundingly rapid by geological standards; around Bartlett Cove the land is rising nearly two inches per year, and even faster farther up the bay. Ask the park rangers to point out some of the changes in vegetation because of this rebound effect.
The vast majority of the over 350,000 visitors who come to Glacier Bay each year arrive aboard cruise ships, two of which are allowed in each day; they’re given a talk by a Park Service naturalist as the ship heads up the west arm of the bay and never set foot on the land itself. Most other visitors stay in Glacier Bay Lodge at Bartlett Cove or in nearby luxury lodges in the town of Gustavus , venturing out only to cruise past the glaciers on a tour boat.
The tiny percentage who come to actually see and touch their national park—rather than view it in a naturalist’s slide show—are often prevented from doing so by prohibitive costs. It is somewhat ironic that the park is most accessible to those who would rather look out on its glaciers from their stateroom windows.
The nearest tidewater glacier is 40 miles from park headquarters in Bartlett Cove. To see these glaciers, you’ll spend at least $400 plus food and lodging for a fast two-day trip from Juneau . A visit to Glacier Bay is a wonderful experience, but there are few options for the budget traveler, and you should probably make other plans if you’re pinched for cash; consider a day trip from Juneau to Tracy Arm  instead.
The park concessionaire, Glacier Bay Lodge & Tours/Aramark (907/264-4600 or 888/229-8687, www.visitglacierbay.com ) operates the Fairweather Express II, which heads up the west arm of Glacier Bay daily in the summer, departing at 7:30 a.m. and returning at 3:30 p.m. Tours on this high-speed catamaran cost $193 adults, $96 children under 13. A light lunch is served, and a Park Service naturalist is on board to provide information on wildlife, geology, and cultural history along the route. The boat typically visits Margerie and Grand Pacific Glaciers before July, and heads up to Johns Hopkins Glacier later in the summer.
For a more personal touch, former backcountry ranger Mike Nigro runs Gustavus Marine Charters (907/697-2233, www.gustavusmarinecharters.com ), with multiday ecotours into the park aboard his 42-foot boat with space for six.