Glacier Bay National Park

Glacier Bay National Park sees around a half million visitors a year

Glacier Bay National Park contains tidewater glaciers, mountains, fjords, and a temperate rainforest, and is home to large populations of grizzly bears, mountain goats, whales, seals, and eagles. When discovered in 1794 by George Vancouver, the entire bay was covered by ice, but the glaciers have since receded more than 65 miles (105 km).


The geology of Glacier Bay comes down to the collision zone

The Glacier Bay region’s extreme topography reveals that it is a landscape driven by immense energies. This is a result of the area’s position astride the active collision zone between the North American and Pacific plates. This major plate boundary, the Fairweather-Queen Charlotte Fault system cuts across Glacier Bay’s western edge. For over 50 million years, the Pacific Plate and Yakutat Microplate have been moving northwest along this fault boundary and plowing obliquely into the North American Plate at about the speed your fingernails grow, or about 50 millimeters per year.

Generally, during this collision, the Pacific plate has been forced under the North America plate, but occasional “bits” such as island arcs, pieces of sea floor, fragments of continental margin have been scraped off one plate or the other, shattered, and smeared along the leading edge of North American plate. These geologic bits are called “terranes.” Four such terranes have accumulated in a largely northwest-southeast pattern to form the Glacier Bay region. You may notice this pattern when examining a map of Glacier Bay.

Complex geology of Glacier Bay
At the present time, the outboard-most terrane and the present continental margin are still “closing the gap.” Frequent earthquakes dramatically illustrate that plate motion continues. As these two plates are forced against each other, the compression has pushed the land upward to form mountain chains. Others are forced downward and melted in the process. Molten rock then oozes volcanically through the shattered landscape. When it cools, it welds together one of the world’s most complex geological jigsaw puzzles: Glacier Bay.

One of the mountain ranges formed by this process is the Fairweather Range, which makes up the western portion of the park. With several peaks over 10,000 feet and the tallest, Mount Fairweather, at 15,300 feet, this is one of the highest coastal mountain ranges in the world.

Moisture-ladened air blown in off the Gulf of Alaska collides with these peaks. As the air rises to go over the mountains, it cools. Cold air holds less moisture than warm air so the air drops its moisture in the form of snow and rain. For at least seven million years, snows have accumulated in the uplands and morphed into glacial ice. Many times in the past when the climate has cooled, these glaciers have slid down the mountains invading the lowlands. During the height of the most recent of these Great Ice Ages about 20,000 years ago, an ice sheet covered all of the Glacier Bay region except the highest peaks and certain headlands. Back then, it would have been possible to walk from Glacier Bay to Cape Cod without ever getting off the ice!

The tectonic plates and boundaries between them haven’t always been where we find them today. In Glacier Bay’s west arm you can see evidence of a previous plate boundary exposed at the surface in an area referred to as the Tarr Inlet suture zone. In this zone of faulted and deformed rocks there is evidence of an ancient subduction zone where the oceanic Farallon plate was being driven beneath a volcanic island arc as the arc was making its way to North America during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. Oriented north south through the park it can be seen at the entrance to John Hopkins inlet and Tarr inlet.

The Tarr Inlet suture zone is one of several ancient plate boundaries that can be found in Alaska. The majority of Alaska is made up of fragments of tectonic plates, each of which evolved over hundreds of millions of years as they travelled around the globe to their current position, attached to the North American continent. These slices of the Earth’s crust are called terranes, each one holding evidence of the evolution of the tectonic plates whose movement, creation and destruction have created our continents and ocean basins throughout Earth’s history.

Four terranes have accumulated in a largely northwest-southeast pattern to form the Glacier Bay region, each with a different story to tell. Some of these terranes are made up of ancient volcano chains that were once in the middle of an ocean that no longer exists. Others have been uplifted from the bottom of the seafloor and hold a record of the life that once lived in ancient seas.

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Native American History

Home of the Lapérouse

Lt. Whidbey was not the first to see Glacier Bay. His record includes mention of the natives who paddled out in their canoes from what is now Pt. Carolus to meet his boats and offer to trade. Were these descendents of the people who once lived in the Bay but were forced out by the advancing glacier? Tlingit oral history is corroborated by modern science — it appears that lower Glacier Bay was habitable for many centuries up until about 300 years ago, when a final glacial surge would have forced the human habitants to flee their homeland. A rich oral tradition and detailed place names speak volumes of the history of the area.

How long they might have been there is unknown. There were people living over 9,000 years ago at nearby Groundhog Bay, but we may never know who they were. A site on Baranof Island shows that people with an unmistakable northwest coast culture have been in the region for at least the last 3,000 years.

Even as Glacier Bay itself lay encased in ice, native people carried on their activities in many places along the nearby coast, places that may have been free of ice for as long as 13,000 years. The oldest known site in Glacier Bay National Park, located in Dundas Bay, is about 800 years old. Natives were at Lituya Bay, on the park’s wild outer coast, to greet Lapérouse in 1786. Although a series of earthquake-triggered tidal waves, the latest in 1959, devastated most of the shoreline of Lituya Bay, a pocket of undisturbed forest still harbors archeological evidence of their life there.

The Huna Tlingit Today
The Tlingit have traditionally occupied much of Southeast Alaska, from Yakutat in the North to Ketchikan in the South. Oral history and scientific findings corroborate that the ancestors of the Huna Tlingit occupied Glacier Bay long before the last glacier advance. This place was their home and was known as S’e Shuyee or “edge of the glacial silt.” Beginning around 1700, the long-stationary glacier surged forward and overran their settlements. The clans survived this time of extreme hardship by dispersing throughout the Icy Strait, Excursion Inlet, and northern Chichagof Island areas. Eventually they settled in the village of Xunniyaa “shelter from the north wind, today known as Hoonah. Later, as the ice retreated they returned to their ancestral homeland, it had been transformed and scraped clean by the glacier. Now it was known as Sit’ Eeti Gheeyi or “the bay in place of the glacier.”

Through glacial advance and western expansion, the Huna Tlingit have experienced setbacks, sadness, and cultural loss. Despite these changes, the Huna Tlingit persevere and embrace a sense of renewal. Today, the Huna Tlingit enjoy a modern life, while also embracing their homeland, its resources, and retaining strong connections to their culture and tradition. Efforts to resume traditional harvesting of gull eggs, and the recently completed Huna Tribal House in Bartlett Cove are examples of a new era of cooperation between the Huna Tlingit and Glacier Bay National Park.

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Park History

How Glacier Bay became a National Park

A journey through Glacier Bay is more than a journey through geography. It’s a journey through time. We begin in the modern age and finish in the ice age, traveling north from the forested lower bay to the rocky, icy upper bay (roughly 65 miles/105km). We pass through hundreds of bold changes and subtle transitions where plants and animals pioneer new ground and surprise even the most seasoned observers of nature. A bear crosses a glacier. A moose swims an inlet. A seedling spruce emerges from granite, reaching for the sky. Life is tough and tenacious here. No wonder Glacier Bay holds powerful stories, and attracts scientists, preservationists, and travelers from around the world.

One of those scientists was a plant ecologist from Minnesota, a quiet man with an easy smile who studied relationships. He came to Glacier Bay in 1916, and over several decades returned many times to make careful observations. His name was William S. Cooper. What he found so inspired him—a wild land, undefiled, untamed, returning to life in the wake of glacial recession—that he shared his findings with colleagues at the Ecological Society of America. Might it be possible, they asked, to preserve Glacier Bay? To keep it wild; as a place where nature can unfold in ways that will teach and enlighten us forever? Cooper knew the history of Glacier Bay. Tlingit people had occupied the area for countless generations, living in the shadows of glaciers, prospering from the bounty of the land and sea. Captain George Vancouver had sailed the area in 1794, and created a rough map that showed the bay filled with a single great glacier. Eighty-five years after Vancouver, naturalist/preservationist John Muir had visited the bay by canoe, and found the glacier receding as fast as a mile per year. Muir wrote about Glacier Bay with such lyrical heart—his words like music—that he changed America’s national perception of Alaska from one of daunting cold to enchanting beauty.

Like the little plants he studied, William Cooper was tough and tenacious. Like John Muir, he found in Glacier Bay a power that inspired him to become something more than what he had been. He wrote letters, made personal appeals, and suffered criticism. No great act of public lands conservation is made without a fight. It paid off in 1925 when Glacier Bay became a national monument. Fifty-five years later, President Jimmy Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act that created Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve…it would have made William Cooper smile and John Muir sing.

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The best things to do in Glacier Bay National Park

Activities in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve are as diverse as the park and preserve itself. Whether you have a few hours or a lifetime, whether your idea of adventure is a leisurely shoreline walk, a kayak tour, or a bivouac in a snow cave, there is plenty to do here!

Explore Bartlett Cove
Bartlett Cove is the only developed area in Glacier Bay National Park. Glacier Bay Lodge, the Park Visitor Center, Visitor Information Station, exhibits, Park Headquarters, several trails, a public dock, kayak rentals, and walk-in campground provide a variety of services surrounded by the Alaskan wilderness. Park Rangers provide regular guided activities, and also board cruise ships and tour vessels to present information about Glacier Bay and answer questions. Learn more about what to do in and near Gustavus, and Bartlett Cove.

As its name implies, Glacier Bay National Park is largely water. Whether on a cruise ship with thousands of other passengers or in a single kayak, most visitors experience Glacier Bay from a boat. Learn more about cruise ships, tour vessels, charter boats, and bringing your own boat to Glacier Bay.

Wilderness Adventures
Glacier Bay is above all a wilderness park and saves its greatest rewards for those who are willing to sweat a bit and sleep on the ground. Learn more about camping, hiking, backpacking, kayaking, rafting, and mountaineering.

Glacier Bay National Preserve
Glacier Bay National Preserve, northwest of the park, is managed differently than the park. Hunting, trapping, and commercial fishing are allowed here. Learn more about Dry Bay, the Alsek River, the gateway community of Yakutat, and hunting, fishing, and rafting, and mountaineering in the preserve.

Other Activities

Flightseeing from nearby communities gives an amazing aerial perspective (weather permitting).

Birdwatching is a popular activity given the 274 species sighted in the park.

Sport fishing opportunities abound for both fresh and saltwater fish.

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Glacier Bay is blanketed by a mosaic of plant life, from a few pioneer species in recently exposed areas to intricately balanced climax communities in coastal and alpine regions

Glacier Bay is blanketed by a mosaic of plant life, from a few pioneer species in recently exposed areas to intricately balanced climax communities in coastal and alpine regions. Since virtually all the vegetation in the bay has returned to the land in the past 300 years following the retreat of the glaciers, this area is one of the premier sites on the planet to study plant recolonization.

In the classic story of plant succession, spores or seeds are blown into a new area by the wind or carried in by birds or other animals. Lichen spores that land on the appropriate rocky surface will anchor themselves to the rock using root-like structures called “rhizomes.” Unlike most plants, lichens absorb essential nutrients from the air and rain rather than through roots in soil. As they grow, lichens secret an acid that dissolves the rock around them, creating soil.

As soil develops, more seeds and spores arrive, such as those of mosses, avens (Dryas), horsetail and fireweed. In time, these pioneer communities can develop into dense thickets of nitrogen-fixing alder and cottonwood that enrich the soil and provide shelter for other colonizing species such as willow.

Farthest away from the glaciers in time and space, the lowlands near the mouth of Glacier Bay have become cloaked in a spruce/hemlock rainforest and lush, spongy tracts of muskeg. In the surrounding mountains, thick mats of flowers and heath carpet the alpine hills and meadows.

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Animal Life

Animal life is abundant in Glacier Bay National Park

The ocean and land environments in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve are closely intertwined. Marine waters make up nearly one fifth of the park and no point of land is more than 30 miles from the coast. This means that the lives of virtually all the animals at Glacier Bay are tied to its productive marine waters or the biologically rich shorelines.

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Hiking Trails

The best hiking trails in Glacier Bay National Park

Forest Trail:
Distance: 1 mile loop/Time: 30 min.-1.5 hours.
This loop trail will take you through both the temperate rainforest and the beach environments of Bartlett Cove. Begin your walk either in front of the Lodge (just off the parking lot) or south of the boat ramp between the docks. The trail surface varies between dirt, gravel and boardwalk. Two benches and viewing platforms along the way beg you to pause and take in the sights and sounds of the spruce/hemlock forest. To discover the stories of this amazing area, join a park ranger for a guided walk along this trail every afternoon.

Bartlett River Trail:
Distance: 4 miles round-trip/Time: 4-5 hours.
This trail meanders along an intertidal lagoon and through the spruce/hemlock forest before emerging and ending at the Bartlett River estuary. Watch for coyotes, moose, bear and river otter along the beach. Ducks, geese and other water birds concentrate in the intertidal area during migrations and molting. Salmon run up the river in the latter part of the summer, which attracts hungry harbor seals.

Bartlett Lake Trail:
Distance: 8 miles round-trip/Time: 7-8 hours.
Begin walking on the Bartlett River Trail. In about ¼ of a mile down the trail at a signpost, the lake trail will branch off and begin to climb the moraine. This trail is less maintained than the other trails so use caution to not lose the route. The chatter of red squirrels will accompany you as you wind your way over and around moss-covered boulders and lichen-covered trees before reaching the shores of Bartlett Lake. During this full-day journey, you may be richly rewarded in solitude and the perhaps even the call of loons. Bring water, lunch and raingear.

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