When it comes to Glacier Bay, I almost don’t even know where to start. I spent a glorious summer working at this amazing National Park in Alaska and I will never be the same because of the experiences I had there. Nowhere else is as wild with the sheer beauty that comes from being untouched by the human hand. It took my breath away just to stand and watch the forces of Mother Nature hard at work, shifting and shaping the landscape. The grand and majestic glaciers move with such force that the rocks and the trees bow down to their power. Living creatures dot every inch of the region, some big and some small, that make me grateful to be a part of this incredible world.
I worked at the Visitor Information Station at Bartlett Cove and met people from all around the world. I patrolled the trails on foot and the waters by kayak. I taught the camping and boating safety orientations for visitors that were heading out into the backcountry. I even worked as a radio dispatcher, answering calls and instructing the boats that were entering the Bay. The thing that people always said was that they wished that they had made it to Glacier Bay sooner, and that it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for them.
I urge you to exercise caution as you put this destination on your bucket list, because sometimes a bucket list is a place where adventures and great ideas go to die. Often a bucket list turns into a list of dreams that were never fulfilled. With a passionate voice, I yearn for you to make this trip happen as soon as you possibly can. You will not regret it! Here is my list of 10 things you can’t miss on your first visit to Glacier Bay.
1. Halibut Fishing
I’ve never been much of a fisherwoman. I mostly blame my dad for taking me fishing when I was an impressionable 12 year old girl and then making me catch and fillet my own fish. He even chased me around with the fish heart in his hand. I was scarred for life (and quite prissy at that age apparently).
I’m not quite as bad as I used to be, so when the opportunity came to go fishing for halibut in the Alaskan ocean, you better believe I was excited! I will never forget the feeling of reeling in not only one, but TWO fish that each weighed in at half of my body weight. What a grueling process trying to wrestle those things into the boat. Oh yeah, and then there was this time that a very rude sea lion ate my fish while I was reeling it in. What a rush!
What You Need to Know
Gustavus (the nearest town to Glacier Bay) is full of fishermen and guided fishing trips. That is the way of life for many of them. I recommend Forrest Braden at True North Sportfishing. He is so knowledgeable and it didn’t take long for all of us on the boat to catch our allotment for the day. You won’t be disappointed.
The seas can get a little rough, so be prepared for that especially if you get sick easily. Also, Glacier Bay is usually rainy and overcast so wear layers underneath a poncho or waterproof clothing and be ready to get wet. Don’t forget to purchase an Alaska State Fishing License before you go, or check with your guide to see if they take care of that for you.
Located in Southeast Alaska, Gustavus is only reached by boat or plane and is most easily approached from Juneau. Check out a few different options: The Alaskan Marine Highway System (ferry), Alaska Seaplanes, Fjord Flying, Wings of Alaska, and for summer-only Alaska Airlines.
Check with your fishing guide or lodging to see if they provide shuttle service to the dock, as many of them do.
2. Bartlett River Trail
Weave through old trees covered in moss and listen to the crystal clear warble of the birds as you hike along this gorgeous trail. This was one of my favorite areas to just sit and watch and listen, taking it all in. In many cases, you will have the trail to yourself (besides the occasional bear or moose), unless it’s fishing season. Then you can expect to find anglers hiking the trail to get to their favorite salmon fishing hole.
What You Need to Know
Whenever hiking in Glacier Bay, I certainly recommend having bear spray somewhere that is quickly accessible. I did see bears along the trail a few times. The Bartlett River is also a great place to see otters, moose, seals, and eagles. Watch your footing. The trail is usually slippery and wet.
The Bartlett River Trail ends when you exit the forest and the landscape opens up to the river and a beautiful meadow beside it. A big rock sits next to the river and is a great place to rest and watch the wildlife or to enjoy a picnic lunch. You can continue along a small trail next to the river, but that area is not usually patrolled or maintained.
This trail is 4 miles round trip.
From Gustavus, take the Mountain View Road and then turn left onto the Park Road toward Bartlett Cove. As the road begins to curve around and head down towards the Park Headquarters, you will see a parking area on your right. This is the trailhead for the Bartlett River Trail. Click here for a map.
I recommend stopping at the Visitor Information Station near the dock (not to be confused with the Visitor Center inside the Lodge) to get information about the area. Glacier Bay is a place that most people are not familiar with, so it’s always good to talk to someone who can educate and point you in the right direction!
3. The Intertidal Zone
The tides at Glacier Bay are a force to be reckoned with and something that should not be taken lightly. Land that is exposed at one time of day can be completely immersed by feet of water within a few short hours. Take advantage of the low tide and discover some of the sea creatures of Glacier Bay by visiting the intertidal zone of Bartlett Cove.
What You Need to Know
The lower the tide, the better the viewing. Stop by the Visitor Information Station (VIS) to check the tide schedule for the day so that you can plan for the best time. Also, the VIS has an amazing guidebook detailing the creatures you may see in the intertidal zone. This book was written by my friend Sarah and she spent hours upon hours compiling information so that the rest of us can appreciate what we are looking at.
From the VIS, head down to the beach and turn right. Walk along the shore until you see a narrow strip of land separating Bartlett Cove and the pond located in front of the Park Headquarters. This is the best and most accessible area to view the intertidal creatures.
4. Forest Loop Trail
The Forest Loop Trail is a great introduction to the rainforest of Glacier Bay and to the unique landscape left behind after a glacial retreat. The whole area of Bartlett Cove was once covered by glaciers, but now the land is being forced to take on a whole new character. Follow the boardwalk to a couple of viewing decks that overlook a peaceful pond. Sit and relax for a while on a wooden bench to take in the sights and sounds of the forest.
What You Need to Know
The beginning of the Forest Loop is on a wheel-chair accessible boardwalk. You can turn around and go back the way you came, or you can continue on a dirt trail that creates a one mile loop.
This area is prime moose habitat so be on the lookout, especially near the ponds.
Take a right as you head out of the VIS and follow the path toward the Glacier Bay Lodge. The boardwalk starts in the Lodge Parking Lot. If you decide to take the full loop, you will end up at the beach and then you can loop back around to the VIS. Click here for a map.
5. Bartlett Cove Kayaking
The magic of Glacier Bay is best seen from the water. Kayaking gives you a chance to be close to the many animals that call this place home, and gives you a greater appreciation for the landscape that surrounds you. I had some incredible encounters with marine wildlife from my kayak. I felt the spray from a humpback whale, was playfully followed by a seal, had harbor porpoises swimming underneath me, and was caught in the middle of an otter play-time.
What You Need to Know
Bartlett Cove is a great place to start if you are not very experienced or if you don’t have enough time to enter the backcountry. Check with the VIS before you leave to learn the tide schedule and to check the wind and wave forecast. Always wear a life jacket, prepare for the weather, and be sure to let someone know where you are.
If you need to rent a kayak, check out Glacier Bay Sea Kayaks. They are located right next to the VIS at Bartlett Cove and also offer guided tours.
As you walk out of the VIS, take a right and walk on the trail just a few paces to find Glacier Bay Sea Kayaks on the left.
Click NEXT to see stops 6-10 (including where to actually find the GLACIERS)!