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Alaska is home to eight massive national parks. From the peaks of Denali to the fjords of the Kenai Peninsula to the rugged wilderness of Glacier Bay National Park, there are millions and millions of acres of breathtaking beauty and abundant wildlife.
We recently visited Glacier Bay in the Inside Passage of southeast Alaska. Let’s look closer at this park to help you decide if it’s worth visiting on your next Alaskan adventure!
Where Is Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve?
One of Alaska’s eight national parks, Glacier Bay, sits at the northern end of the Inside Passage. It belongs to the 25-million-acre World Heritage Site that stretches between Alaska and Canada, one of the largest international protected areas.
You can only access Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve by boat or plane. Most visitors take the Alaska Marine Highway System or Alaska Airlines out of Juneau. Cruise ships and tour boats frequent the area. Gustavus, Alaska, is considered the gateway to the national park. One road connects its airfield to Glacier Bay.
How Big Is Glacier Bay National Park?
Glacier Bay National Park is one of the largest protected sites in the country. At 3.3 million acres, it’s the sixth-largest national park in the United States. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is the largest, sprawling across over 13 million acres.
It sits northwest of Glacier Bay. Gates of the Arctic is the second-largest, with about 8.5 million acres, all of which lie above the Arctic Circle.
Alaska also has the 3rd and 4th largest national parks, Denali and Katmai. Death Valley is the only park located in the Lower 48 to make the top five in size. It’s just slightly larger than Glacier Bay at 3.4 million acres.
What is Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve Known For?
As its name suggests, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve protects the ice fields of southeastern Alaska. In addition, the park’s landscape includes rugged mountains, temperate rainforests, and abundant coastlines. It’s a unique park with towering summits and calving glaciers.
This wilderness is remote and undeveloped. It’s a living laboratory and a biosphere reserve. Shades of green cover the forests while white blankets the coastline. In addition to the beautiful, rugged landscape, Glacier Bay is also the ancestral home of the Huna Tlingit people. Travelers can learn more about their culture and history by visiting the Huna Tribal House.
Things to Do in Glacier Bay National Park
With its remote location and limited road services, you may think there’s not much to do at Glacier Bay National Park.
It’s certainly unlike most other protected areas, especially in the contiguous United States. But you’ll still find opportunities to soak up this wilderness through outdoor recreation, tours, and programs.
1. Go Sea Kayaking
One of the best ways to experience Glacier Bay National Park is on the water. Most kayakers will launch from Bartlett Cove. You can book a kayak tour with an outfitter for a day or overnight trip.
Or you can set out on your own. If you kayak without a guide, ensure you understand proper safety precautions when paddling near tidewater glaciers.
2. Go Hiking
Glacier Bay offers miles of hiking trails for visitors who prefer to explore on land. While Barlett Cove is the only developed location within the park, you can venture into the wilderness area for backcountry hiking.
Whether you hike the maintained trails of Bartlett Cove or prefer the alpine meadows and beaches of the rest of the park, make sure to wear appropriate footwear. The moisture in this particular national park can create hazards and slippery conditions.
Pro Tip: Knowing these Hiking Safety Tips could end up saving your life!
3. Book a Rafting Trip
Another option to get into the water at Glacier Bay is through rafting trips. The Alsek and Tatshenshini Rivers provide beautiful scenery and whitewater rapids for adventurers. A permit is required for private trips, or you can book an excursion with a local outfitter.
4. Take a Glacier Bay Boat Tour
For visitors who want to get on the water but don’t want to get wet, they can take a boat tour. In the summer, a tour boat leaves Bartlett Cove and travels 130 miles through Glacier Bay every morning.
A ranger helps spot wildlife and provides the national park’s history to help guests better understand this area. Glacier Bay Lodge and Tours operates this boat tour.
5. Attend a Ranger-Led Program
Finally, as with any national park, participating in ranger-led programs is one of the best ways to learn about the region’s history, geology, wildlife, and culture.
Rangers offer programs throughout the summer at the visitor center and Huna Tribal House. These programs include guided walks, cultural films, night experiences, and more.
Is Camping Allowed in Glacier Bay National Park?
In Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, you can only camp in Bartlett Cove. Even though it’s not wilderness camping, you do have to complete a Bartlett Cove Campground Permit Application at the Visitor Information Station.
This free walk-in campground has bear-proof food storage caches, composting toilets, a fire pit on the beach, and a small warming shelter.
If you need RV hookups, your only option near the national park is Hollywood Farms RV Park in Gustavus. It’s pricey but has the basic amenities. You can read more about our stay in our article “Our Review of Hollywood Farms RV Park.”
How Many National Parks Are in Alaska?
Other than Glacier Bay, Alaska has several other national parks. The state has the second-most national parks, behind California, with eight. As mentioned earlier, Wrangell-St. Elias and Gates of the Arctic are the two largest national parks in the United States.
You can read more about Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in our article “What Is Special About Wrangell-St. Elias National Park?”
Denali National Park is home to the tallest peak in North America, while Katmai National Park is famous for its brown bears and salmon. Kenai Fjords National Park sits on the Kenai Peninsula, not far from Glacier Bay. Kobuk Valley and Lake Clark round out the rest of the national parks in Alaska.
Is Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve Worth Visiting?
In our opinion, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve is beautiful; it’s just hard to get to. The only way to see it is by boat, kayak, or plane, which are all pretty expensive options. Even accessing Gustavus requires a plane or ferry.
We took the ferry and had to stay five days because of the ferry schedule. As a result, we stayed at Hollywood Farms RV Park, which was expensive but convenient. Overall, Glacier Bay is worth seeing, but save up if you want to visit this national park.
If you don’t care to see the particular glaciers in Glacier Bay, you can save some money and see other fantastic glaciers in more accessible parts of Alaska.
Have you ever visited Glacier Bay National Park? Would you recommend it?