How to Make the Most of One Day in Glacier Bay National Park
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Glacier Bay National Park is one of the top attractions in Southeast Alaska; people plan whole trips around the chance to sail up into this relatively inaccessible National Park and see tidewater glaciers up close. But planning a trip to Glacier Bay can be complicated – especially if you’re not visiting as part of a cruise itinerary.
I had the chance to visit Glacier Bay in 2021 as part of my Alaskan Dream Cruises itinerary (like many of you, I specifically chose this itinerary because it included a visit to this park). Thanks to our ship’s small size, fellow passengers and I were able to explore more of the park than most people do – even in a short amount of time.
In this post, I’ll provide my suggestions for how to spend one day in Glacier Bay for those who are short on time as I was on our cruise itinerary. I’ll also make the case for why you should plan a longer trip, especially if you’re traveling independently – and the best way to see the park if you’re really short on time in your Alaska itinerary.
In this post, I promote travel to a national park that is the Lingít Aaní of the Huna Tlingit peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
Planning Your Glacier Bay National Park Visit
Before jumping into what to do in Glacier Bay, it helps to get oriented to the logistics of visiting this remote, undeveloped part of the Last Frontier.
Different Parts of Glacier Bay National Park
Like many National Parks in Alaska, Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve is a huge place – some 3.3 million acres in all. (This is roughly half of the 6.1-million-acre Denali National Park & Preserve, for comparison.)
As such, it helps to get oriented to different areas of the park:
- The Bay – Carved by glaciers in only the last 300 years, this is the main area people will spend time and want to explore in the park. From the Bay you can reach a number of tidewater glaciers by boat.
- Bartlett Cove – This small waterway is the headquarters for the National Park Service in Glacier Bay – literally. Here you’ll find the Visitor Center/Park HQ as well as a visitor information center, and the only docking facilities in the park. There are also hiking trails and the park’s one campground is here.
- Gustavus – The small town of Gustavus is located near Bartlett Cove and is the main gateway to reach the park on your own. It is accessible only by plane or ferry; some smaller cruise ships might stop here, but it’s not common.
- The Outer Coast – The Pacific coast of Glacier Bay National Park is a wild, rugged, and mostly inaccessible place. There are no tours here, so you’ll likely only visit it or pass by on a cruise.
- Dry Bay – Officially in Glacier Bay National Preserve, this area of the park is only accessible by plane from the Alaskan town of Yakutat – and has virtually no visitation, so is a perfect place to escape the crowds.
I always recommend grabbing a map or checking one out online to get a real sense of the scale of Glacier Bay and where these areas are. I definitely referenced mine a ton while visiting Glacier Bay and then double-checking facts for this story.
How to Get to Glacier Bay National Park
“Glacier Bay National Park is essentially roadless.” When the National Park Service says it, you know they’re not kidding around. Even with the very few miles of roads in one small part of the park, Glacier Bay is inaccessible by car: the only way to experience the park is by plane or boat.
The easiest way to reach Glacier Bay National Park is on a short flightseeing trip. There are no glacier landing tours, so this technically doesn’t get you boots-on-the-ground in Glacier Bay – but it is a way to visit, especially if you’re short on time, have the budget, and want to get a real appreciation for how many glaciers there are in Glacier Bay.
Fly or Ferry to Gustavus
If you want to actually explore Glacier Bay National Park, you need to get to Gustavus, Alaska. This small community is home to just about 450 people and is the gateway to Glacier Bay for those who want to visit with a little more freedom – and who have a little more time. There are two ways to get to Gustavus: by ferry or by flight.
Your other option is aboard the Alaska Marine Highway System; ferry service operates from Juneau. Unfortunately, the current summer 2022 schedule shows that the ferry only stops in Gustavus on Mondays and Thursdays. This means that if you choose to take the Ferry, you’ll need to have a minimum of 4-5 days in Glacier Bay National Park – not one day.
If you don’t have 4-5 days to visit Glacier Bay and choose to fly instead, try checking Alaska Airlines or Alaska Seaplanes. Though neither has released their schedules for summer 2022, those are the only two companies that offer flight service to Gustavus.
Glacier Bay National Park Entrance Fees
Guess what: there are no fees to visit Glacier Bay National Park! It’s free to visit.
I guess, when you either need to take a ferry or flight to reach Glacier Bay, you can consider that your entrance fee.
Where to Stay in Glacier Bay
As you might guess from the limited access to Glacier Bay and limited infrastructure in a town the size of Gustavus, there are limited options for where to stay. There are two main ones:
- Bartlett Cove Campground is located, as the name suggests, in Bartlett Cove. The campground is open from May 1st to September 30th each year, and is first-come, first-served for sites.
- Glacier Bay Lodge is also located at Bartlett Cove. There are 56 rooms on the property, which includes both standard rooms and deluxe rooms in outbuildings, as well as a main lodge building (which is also the Visitor Center). You can also book the Glacier Bay Lodge on Hotels.com.
There are a few other independent properties in the Gustavus area too: the Glacier Bay Country Inn, the Gustavus Inn at Glacier Bay, Glacier Bay’s Bear Track Inn, Wild Alaska Inn, the Blue Heron Bed and Breakfast, Cottonwood Lodge & Cabin Rental, and Aimee’s Guest House.
What to Do in Glacier Bay National Park (When You Only Have One Day!)
In this section I’ll cover three ways to visit Glacier Bay, depending on your travel plans. Most people will only be able to do one of these options.
Option 1: On Your Own
If you’re planning to visit Glacier Bay National Park on your own – that is, not as part of a cruise or on a flightseeing tour – you will probably need (or have) more than one day in Glacier Bay (as mentioned due to the ferry/flight schedules). That said, here are the things to do in Glacier Bay if you only have a short time to visit.
Visit Park Headquarters in Bartlett Cove
On a DIY visit to Glacier Bay, you’ll be based out of Gustavus/Bartlett Cove. That makes a stop at the Visitor Center/Park HQ a must. Inside you can chat with rangers about the park, go on a ranger-led walk, browse the bookstore, or just sit by the fire inside this gorgeous lodge. The Visitor Center is also the main building for Glacier Bay Lodge, so if you’re staying there, you would check in here.
Take a Glacier Cruise into Glacier Bay
The best way to see glaciers in Glacier Bay is by boat! Luckily, the Park Service contracts a company to offer daily cruises into the Bay for visitors in the park on their own. It typically leaves in the early morning (around 7am) and returns in the mid-afternoon (around 3:30pm) making it a great activity for one day in Glacier Bay that doesn’t consume the whole day.
Along the way, keep your eyes peeled for wildlife; on our trip in the park, we saw whales, bears, eagles, sea lions, and otters – plus plenty of harbor seals resting on the ice right near the glaciers.
Some companies are also permitted to operate day cruises and charters in Glacier Bay; here’s the list of those companies if you’d rather arrange your own Glacier Bay day cruise.
Visit the Huna Tribal House & Snow Skeleton
Back on land near Park HQ, there are a few other must-see sights in Glacier Bay.
Specifically, you should definitely check with park rangers to see if there will be any presentations or events at Huna Tribal House during your visit. This traditional Tlingit home was completed in 2016 to honor the traditional peoples who once called this land home.
(For a quick history lesson, the Tlingit people were pushed out by the glaciers that carved Glacier Bay; once the glacier began receding, the local people returned but were eventually restricted when Glacier Bay became federally protected land. This lead to strained relations between the Huna Tlingit and the National Park Service; the Huna Tribal House helped mend those issues somewhat by honoring the people who lived here long before it was a National Park.)
You can also visit the impressive skeleton of Snow, a humpback whale who was killed after being struck by a large cruise ship. Her remains were processed traditionally, and now her skeleton is on display to visitors who want to learn more about whales in the waterways of Glacier Bay – and why boats have a responsibility to protect them.
Go Hiking near Bartlett Cove
Finally, you can stretch your legs in Glacier Bay after a day on the boat: there are a few hiking trails in the Bartlett Cove area.
- The Forest Trail is an easy one-mile loop that shows you the variety of flora in the area, as well as along the beach.
- The 4-mile Bartlett River Trail is a good easy-moderate hike with great opportunities for wildlife – especially bears at the end since they love fishing in the estuary at the far end of this out-and-back hike.
- Bartlett Lake Trail is an 8-mile out-and-back hike that is best as a half-day or whole day activity; it climbs up over the glacial moraine to end at a lake with plenty of solitude.
After all that, you will have packed a lot into a single day in Glacier Bay, so then it’s time to retire to your overnight accommodation in Glacier Bay Lodge or Gustavus, or your campsite.
Option 2: On a Cruise Ship
Almost every Alaska cruise – on ships big or small – that passes Glacier Bay will make a trip up the Bay to see the glaciers. This usually takes a full day, so it’s often obvious on your itinerary if your ship will spend one day in Glacier Bay.
In terms of where you’ll go in Glacier Bay National Park on a cruise ship, that depends. Specifically, it depends on the size of your ship and the permissions they have about where they can go. It also depends on the glaciers themselves; cruise ships typically go to two tidewater glaciers, Margerie and Grand Pacific glacier, but may also go up Johns Hopkins Inlet for a view of John Hopkins Glacier. For the 9-10 hours most ships spend in the park, most spend at least one hour at a glacier.
It’s important to note that mega cruise ships do not dock anywhere in Glacier Bay; you won’t be able to visit the Visitor Center or go hiking in Glacier Bay as part of a cruise. Instead, a Park Ranger will board the ship to be a guide for the day.
On my Alaskan Dream Cruises trip in September 2021, we actually spent almost two days in Glacier Bay, including time at Johns Hopkins Glacier, an overnight in Geikie Inlet (where I saw the northern lights!), and a half-day on land at Bartlett Cove. For this reason – and many others–, I think small ship cruises are a superior way to cruise in Alaska.
Option 3: From the Air While Flightseeing
As I mentioned near the top of this post, there’s one other day to spend one way in Glacier Bay: flightseeing. As I’ve long said, flightseeing is one of the best ways to experience Alaska since it allows you to see so much more – and get a sense of the grand scale of this huge state. You should plan to go flightseeing (at least) once during your Alaska trip.
There is a surprising number of companies that offer flightseeing tours over Glacier Bay National Park; they’re all based from Gustavus, Juneau, Haines, Skagway, or Yakutat. Most flightseeing tours are 1-2 hours long.
For most people, the most convenient place to plan a Glacier Bay flightseeing trip will be Juneau – you can also try from Haines or Skagway if you’re planning a visit to either of those towns during your trip. If you’re already planning to be in Gustavus, you can enjoy Glacier Bay as I described in the “Option 1” section and save your budget to go flightseeing in Denali instead.
Okay, that covers it! Do you have any other questions about spending one day in Glacier Bay – or visiting Glacier Bay National Park? Let me know in the comments!
What about Glacier Bay Lodge in Gustavus?
Thanks for asking. That actually didn’t have any info about when they were planning to open when this post was written. I’ll be updating it soon with more info about Glacier Bay Lodge.