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An Overlander’s Guide to Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve 

 October 2, 2023

By  Patrick @DarkSkyOverland

Glacier Bay National Park and PreserveMajestic snow-capped mountains reflected in icy blue waters. Muskeg meadows dotted with wildflowers. Massive tidewater glaciers calving house-sized chunks of ice. These are the landscapes that await visitors to Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in Alaska.

As one of America’s premier wilderness areas and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Glacier Bay offers adventurers an unparalleled opportunity to experience remote Alaskan wilderness firsthand.

However, reaching this pristine park is no easy feat. Located west of Juneau and surrounded by ocean, Glacier Bay has no roads leading to it. The only way for overlanders to access the park is by boat or plane.

Most visitors opt to cruise Glacier Bay’s famed West Arm, viewing breathtaking glaciers and wildlife from aboard a tour boat. For those seeking a more immersive wilderness experience, flying in by floatplane and backpacking or kayaking through the bay’s icy inlets offers access to Glacier Bay’s most remote reaches.

While driving is not an option, this guide still serves as an essential resource for overlanders planning a Glacier Bay adventure. It provides key insights and tips to help travelers prepare for the challenges of exploring America’s largest protected wilderness area.

From packing gear that is rugged enough for a wet, cold climate to understanding safe practices for kayaking among icebergs, this guide shares hard-won wisdom to help visitors make the most of their time overlanding to magical Glacier Bay National Park.

With these tips in hand, Glacier Bay’s stunning glaciers, abundant wildlife, and untamed wilderness await. Keep reading to learn more.

Getting Started

Glacier Bay National Park & PreserveEmbarking on an overlanding adventure through Glacier Bay National Park is an epic undertaking requiring thorough preparation and planning.

While the payoff of exploring pristine Alaskan wilderness is immense, tackling this remote park demands respect for its challenges.

Spending ample time gathering information, acquiring necessary permits, fine-tuning your rig and gear, and understanding park regulations are essential steps before embarking on your Glacier Bay overlanding journey.

Rushing into this expedition unprepared can lead to devastating consequences in such an unforgiving environment.

Instead, embrace the planning process as an exciting part of the adventure, bringing you one step closer to your Glacier Bay National Park departure.

Planning and Preparation

Meticulous planning and preparation is key when overlanding to Glacier Bay. This untamed park presents unique risks and challenges requiring forethought to overcome.

Consider the following essential areas when planning your trip:

Permits and Regulations

To protect Glacier Bay’s fragile wilderness, permits are required for all backcountry camping, hiking, boating and other recreational activities. Research permit costs, application deadlines, group size limits and other regulations.

Familiarize yourself thoroughly with rules for Leave No Trace principles, food storage, human waste management and wildlife encounters. Acquiring permits well in advance is vital for securing campsites and avoiding illegal infractions.

Seasonal Considerations

Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve in AutumnGlacier Bay’s climate is highly variable and challenging. The best overlanding season is July through early September when rainfall declines and temperatures reach mildly comfortable highs of 60-70°F.

However, even summer sees frequent rain, wind and patches of lingering snow at high altitudes. Sudden extreme weather such as blizzards or dense fog can roll in quickly.

Overlanding is not advised from October to April when epic storms, heavy snowpack and limited daylight create perilous conditions.

Vehicle and Equipment

While Glacier Bay National Park itself has no roads, a rugged, well-outfitted vehicle is still vital for overlanders to reach the park’s remote access points. Reaching the small communities closest to Glacier Bay for boat or plane connections requires driving on rough Alaskan roads and backcountry terrain.

Equip your overlanding rig with sturdy four-wheel drive, high clearance, all-terrain tires and skid plates to withstand potholes, loose gravel and uneven ground. Bring recovery gear for stuck vehicles and tools for roadside repairs far from help.

Proper maintenance and emergency equipment provides peace of mind when driving remote roads leading to/from your Glacier Bay adventure. Don’t cut corners on your overland vehicle even if it won’t enter the park itself.

Route Selection

Quiet highway outside of Haines, Alaska, near Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve in AutumnWith no roads directly into Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve, overlanders must chart creative routes utilizing boat and air travel to reach the park. Several access points provide unique jumping-off spots for Glacier Bay adventures.

Popular options include driving the scenic Haines Highway to Haines, sailing from Juneau or Skagway aboard the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system, or flying directly into Gustavus adjacent to the park.

Carefully research each access point and travel option to determine the best match for your interests, budget and timeline.

Haines and Skagway provide charming mountain towns and historical attractions before accessing Glacier Bay. The ferry allows you to voyage alongside Alaska’s rugged coastline and offers convenient camper van transport.

Flightseeing planes provide unmatched aerial views of glaciers and wilderness, but come at a premium cost. Prioritize what excites you most for your entrypoint into Glacier Bay.

Access Points to Glacier Bay National Park

With no direct roads into Glacier Bay, overlanders must utilize air or sea transportation from nearby towns to step foot into the park itself.

The three main access points each deliver unique scenery and launch points for Glacier Bay adventures. Consider these options:

Haines, Alaska

Haines City near Glacier Bay National Park & PreserveLocated at the northern end of the Inside Passage, Haines serves as a picturesque gateway to Glacier Bay, especially for overlanders.

Its location at the intersection of the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system and the breathtaking Haines Highway makes it ideal for road trippers.

Explore the mountains and fjords along the highway before boarding a ferry to the remote Gustavus or Bartlett Cove park docks.

Juneau, Alaska

As Alaska’s vibrant capital city, Juneau offers a wealth of art, culture, dining and adventure before accessing Glacier Bay.

Drive or ferry your overlanding rig to Juneau’s Auke Bay terminal, then embark on the state ferry to Gustavus or directly enter the park’s West Arm via tour boat.

Scenic helicopter or seaplane tours also operate regularly between Juneau and Glacier Bay.

Skagway, Alaska

At the northern end of the Inside Passage, Skagway provides a historical dose of Gold Rush charm.

Overlanders can traverse the storied Alaska-Canada Highway to Skagway, soaking in mountain vistas before boarding a Glacier Bay-bound ferry or flightseeing tour.

With its trail-laden surrounds, Skagway also serves as a hiking and camping basecamp.

Navigating the Park

Campgrounds and Accommodations

Bartlett Cove campground at Glacier Bay National Park & PreserveGlacier Bay’s remote location limits lodging options within the park itself. However, a range of camping opportunities exist to support overlanders seeking to immerse themselves in Glacier Bay’s wilderness:

  • Primitive Camping: For intrepid overlanders, backcountry camping allows you to experience Glacier Bay’s most secluded landscapes. Sites are scattered along rugged shorelines, mountain passes and winding inlets accessible only by boat or trail. Be prepared to practice strict Leave No Trace principles and bear-safe food storage. Permits are required.
  • Developed Campgrounds: Frontcountry campgrounds like Bartlett Cove provide walk-in tent sites with amenities like picnic tables, food storage lockers and restrooms.

Please note: There are no RV facilities or vehicle camping sites within Glacier Bay National Park. The Bartlett Cove campground is only accessible on foot once you disembark from your boat or plane.

For information on private RV parks with full hook-ups and dump stations near Glacier Bay, please contact the Gustavus Visitors Association or visit RV-friendly towns like Haines and Skagway before entering the park.

Come prepared to camp without your vehicle while exploring Glacier Bay.

The Glacier Bay Lodge

Located in Bartlett Cove just 10 miles from Gustavus, the Glacier Bay Lodge provides the only accommodations and amenities within Glacier Bay National Park.

This riverside lodge operated by Aramark offers simple yet comfortable rooms, a warm restaurant serving local seafood, and an onsite tour boat for daily cruising excursions.

With incredible views of the Fairweather mountains and Bartlett River, the lodge makes an ideal basecamp for accessing Glacier Bay’s treasures like kayaking, whale watching, fishing and guided hiking.

Flights operate regularly between Juneau and Gustavus, with shuttle service to the lodge.

The lodge also provides fuel sales for boats and planes, a camper store, and equipment rentals for biking, fishing and kayaking.

For overlanders without camping gear, the Glacier Bay Lodge allows you to sleep in a bed and enjoy hot showers while still waking up immersed in the park’s majestic wilderness.

Backcountry Camping Tips

Glacier at Glacier Bay National ParkFor overlanders seeking a true wilderness experience, backcountry camping allows you to immerse yourself in Glacier Bay’s remote landscapes. However, extended backcountry excursions require thorough preparation and self-sufficiency. Consider these tips to camp safely in Glacier Bay’s backcountry:

  • Plan your route carefully using topographic maps and tide charts. Many shoreline or inlet campsites become inaccessible at high tide. Consult with rangers to identify feasible camp locations.
  • Pack proper gear like high-quality tents, sleeping bags, camp stoves, satellite beacons and bear-resistant food canisters. Temperatures can dip near freezing even in summer.
  • Carry plenty of spare food and fuel. Resupplying deep in the backcountry is impossible, so bring ample provisions.
  • Practice strict Leave No Trace principles like burying human waste, packing out all trash, and sticking to designated trails and camp areas. Follow all regulations for campfires.
  • Study bear safety precautions. Secure food away from tents, cook away from camp, and maintain a clean site. Make noise when hiking to avoid surprising bears.
  • Tell someone your detailed itinerary and check-in schedule. Glacier Bay’s remote terrain makes rescue extremely difficult. Satellite communication devices are strongly recommended.

With proper precautions, Glacier Bay’s backcountry allows you to experience wild Alaska in profound ways. But ultimately, safety hinges on your own good judgment and preparedness. Enter the wilderness thoughtfully.

Wildlife Viewing

North American Porcupine at Glacier Bay National Park & PreserveGlacier Bay’s protected habitat provides a sanctuary for an abundance of wildlife, from bears to whales. Overlanders with a passion for responsible wildlife viewing will find a treasury of creatures here.

However, be sure to educate yourself on safe and ethical viewing practices to protect both you and these wild animals.

  • Iconic Species – Glacier Bay hosts an array of charismatic megafauna like humpback whales, gray wolves, mountain goats, Steller sea lions and all three North American bear species – black bears, brown bears and coastal grizzlies. Seeing these majestic animals in their natural habitats is a primal thrill.
  • Responsible Guidelines – Always maintain a safe distance from wildlife using binoculars and telephoto lenses to avoid disturbing them. Never surround, approach or feed animals.

Follow all park regulations for keeping food secure and giving whales, bears and nesting birds ample space. Your respect allows future visitors to enjoy wild encounters.

Glaciers and Icefields

Glacier breaking apart at Glacier Bay National Park & PreserveGlacier Bay National Park earns its iconic name from the towering glaciers flowing from the St. Elias Mountains down to the bay’s fjords and inlets. These rivers of ice shaped the landscape and continue advancing, receding and calving today.

Overlanders have ample opportunities to witness Glacier Bay’s icy splendors:

  • Tidewater Glaciers – Massive glaciers like Margerie, Grand Pacific and Muir offeraccessible waterfront viewing. Watch and listen as they crack, crash and drop house-sized chunks of ice into the sea on boat tours or kayaks. Each glacier has its own unique personality.
  • Glacier Trekking – Guided day hikes let you explore glacial landscapes, stepping foot on the ancient ice. Or enjoy aerial views on a flightseeing tour over Glacier Bay’s glaciers and backcountry. Guides provide context to help understand the wonder.
  • Paddling Among Icebergs – For an immersive glacier experience, book a multi-day sea kayaking trip through icy fjords and channels choked with brash ice and bobbing icebergs left behind by the calving glaciers.

Hiking and Outdoor Activities

Flightseeing at Glacier Bay National Park & PreserveFrom leisurely nature strolls to rigorous backcountry treks, Glacier Bay National Park serves up abundant hiking opportunities to satisfy any ability level.

Many trails originate from the Bartlett Cove area, allowing hikers to soak in forest, mountain and coastal scenery accessible by the lodge or campground.

For more adventurous routes, backpackers can access remote valleys, alpine passes and coastal inlets across the park’s backcountry.

Notable Hiking Trails

  • Bartlett River Trail – An easy 5-mile loop traversing riverside forest and beaver ponds with views of the lofty Fairweather Mountains.
  • Forest Loop Trail – A 2-mile wooded trail encircling Bartlett Cove with shoreline vistas, freshwater wetlands and remnants of historic Tlingit settlement.
  • Point Gustavus Trail – A 4-mile ridge trail overlooking Icy Strait, the Fairweather Range and park islands. Offers excellent wildlife viewing opportunities.
  • Geikie Glacier Trail – A challenging 7.4-mile trail to an icy fjord dotted with icebergs calved from Geikie Glacier. Rewards hardy hikers with close glacier views.

Beyond Hiking

From tranquil paddling to battling oversized salmon, Glacier Bay National Park also entices visitors to try:

  • Sea Kayaking – Paddle through fjords and observe tidewater glaciers, icebergs and marine life up close on multi-day excursions.
  • Sportfishing – The bay’s nutrient-rich waters teem with all five species of Pacific salmon plus halibut, trout and rockfish. Book charter trips from Bartlett Cove or Gustavus.
  • Flightseeing – Take an aerial tour by plane or helicopter to admire Glacier Bay’s peaks and glaciers from breathtaking new angles.

Stargazing in Glacier Bay National Park

Stargazing at Glacier Bay National Park & PreserveWith minimal light pollution and wide open skies, Glacier Bay provides phenomenal opportunities for stargazing. The park’s remote wilderness locations offer front row views of the cosmos that are unrivaled.

Plan a stargazing adventure in Glacier Bay to gaze in awe at the following celestial wonders:

  • The Northern Lights – Glacier Bay’s higher latitudes increase your chances of witnessing the magical aurora borealis, especially around the autumn equinox. The eerie green glow dancing across the night sky is an unforgettable sight. Head away from shoreline fog for best visibility.
  • Milky Way – On clear, moonless nights, Glacier Bay grants stunning vantage points to observe our spiral galaxy arching overhead. The Milky Way’s dense core looks close enough to touch. Photograph it reflecting off glacial lakes.
  • Planets & Satellites – With the naked eye or binoculars, identify celestial neighbors like Jupiter, Saturn, Mars and Venus. Watch for manmade satellites and the space station traversing the stellar backdrop.
  • Meteor Showers – Position yourself for prime viewing of meteor shower events like the Perseids in August or the Geminids in December. Lie back as shooting stars streak overhead.
  • Unique Celestial Phenomena – Glacier Bay also offers the possibility of witnessing rare northern events like theAurora Borealis, sun dogs, moon halos or the midnight sun around the summer solstice.

To maximize stargazing, head to dark sites away from shoreline fog and artificial light. Ensure clear skies overhead and dress warmly for frigid nighttime temperatures.

Share this profound experience with someone special underneath Glacier Bay’s boundless sea of stars. Even if you’re alone, I promise you—it will be a night you’ll never forget!

Weather and Safety Concerns

Glacier Bay’s remote wilderness environment demands respect and caution. Weather conditions can change suddenly, bringing intense winds, rainfall, fog and frigid temperatures even during summer. Overlanders should take the following precautions:

  • Check forecasts and be prepared for quick-changing weather. Carry extra warm and waterproof clothing.
  • Beware of large waves and tidal surges near glaciers, which calve unpredictably. Keep safe distance from glacier faces.
  • Tell someone your plans and beacon check-in times. Glacier Bay’s isolation makes rescue extremely difficult.
  • Avoid steep slopes and outlet streams prone to rockfall and icy jökulhlaups. Respect warning signs and closures.
  • Bring navigation aids like maps, compass/GPS to avoid getting lost in quickly obscuring fog and storminess.
  • Watch for hidden crevasses, moulins and thin ice when hiking on glaciers or frozen terrain. Only cross with proper training.

Exercising good judgment is key to safe backcountry travel in Glacier Bay, where help is distant. Respect the power of this wild landscape. Adventure smartly.

Environmental Responsibility

Glacier Bay National ParkAs overlanders explore Glacier Bay’s natural splendors, it is imperative to minimize your environmental impact on this fragile place. By strictly following Leave No Trace ethics and traveling thoughtfully, we can protect Glacier Bay for future generations.

Leave No Trace: All visitors, including overlanders, must uphold Leave No Trace principles such as packing out all trash, properly disposing human waste 200 feet from water sources, not disturbing wildlife or historic artifacts, and sticking to designated trails and camp areas. Read up on all LNT guidelines before your trip.

Ethical Practices: Beyond baseline LNT rules, overlanders should embrace proactive stewardship:

  • Obey all permits, limits, regulations, wildlife closures and other restrictions.
  • Ensure vehicles, RVs and equipment are clean and leak-free before entering the park to avoid introducing invasive species.
  • Avoid loud noises or disruptions that disturb wildlife or other park users.
  • Do not collect “souvenirs” like rocks, crystals, antlers, wildflowers or other natural objects. Leave the park untouched.

By overlanding responsibly, we experience Glacier Bay’s wonders unimpaired while passing them on to future generations. This fragile place depends on us.

Cultural and Historical Highlights

Glacier Bay’s human history stretches back over 10,000 years to the first indigenous groups crossing the Bering Land Bridge. Traces of ancient cultures and more recent history reveal our complex relationship with this ever-changing landscape.

Indigenous Heritage

For centuries, the Tlingit and Huna people flourished in this harsh climate through their profound knowledge of Glacier Bay’s lands and waters. Many places in the park hold spiritual significance and evidence of their past settlement can still be found.

Overlanders should educate themselves about this indigenous heritage. Here are a few points to consider:

  • Learn about the history, lifestyle and traditions of groups like the Tlingit, Huna and Kaagwaantaan clans who stewarded this homeland for millennia.
  • Treat culturally significant sites with great respect. Do not remove any artifacts, disturb archaeological remnants or trespass on sacred ground without permission.
  • Support indigenous communities through purchasing locally made handicrafts and artwork, hiring Tlingit guides, and donating to heritage organizations and youth groups.

Recent History

In just 250 years, Glacier Bay has transformed more than perhaps anywhere on earth as its glaciers rapidly advanced then receded over 70 miles. Traces of prospectors, early explorers, commercial fishing, and park founders reveal our evolving relationship with wilderness. Discovering this history enhances our experience in the park today.

Early Explorers and Park History

While indigenous peoples inhabited Glacier Bay for thousands of years, European explorers only discovered the area in the late 18th century. These pioneering voyages kicked off the historical events that eventually led to establishing Glacier Bay as a national park.

John Muir

The most pivotal figure in Glacier Bay’s conservation was John Muir. After founding the Sierra Club in 1892, Muir visited Glacier Bay in 1879, 1899 and 1900. His eloquent descriptions of the area’s stunning glaciers helped draw scientific interest. Muir’s legacy provided the foundation for protecting Glacier Bay.

Park Establishment

After early surveys by teams like the Harriman Alaska Expedition, Glacier Bay was designated a national monument in 1925 to protect its unique geological values.

As knowledge expanded about the area’s diverse ecosystems, wildlife and Native heritage, the monument transitioned to national park and preserve status in 1980 under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

This designation safeguards 3.3 million acres for science and recreation.

Glacier Bay continues to be at the forefront of park service efforts today as one of America’s premier wild areas. Understanding its early exploration and conservation history lets us fully appreciate this park as overlanders.

Final Thoughts About Glacier Bay National Park

Fishing at Glacier Bay National ParkAs overlanders, few adventures can compare to the allure of exploring America’s wild frontier. And few wild places offer raw beauty and untouched grandeur like Glacier Bay National Park.

After your Glacier Bay overlanding journey, you’ll carry profound memories of this national treasure.

Cruising alongside breaching humpback whales beneath snow-capped peaks. Witnessing tidewater glaciers thunder as they calve massive ice chunks. Tracking a curious grizzly ambling along the beach at low tide.

Absorbing the vibrant colors of wildflower meadows and river valleys untouched since the glaciers receded. These experiences stay with you, reminding you of nature’s power and humanity’s small place within it.

Yet with this privilege of exploring Glacier Bay’s wonders comes responsibility. We must protect its magic through responsible stewardship and education.

By strictly adhering to Leave No Trace ethics, supporting Native communities, and sharing Glacier Bay’s story, we play a role in conserving this park for future generations.

Although our time here is fleeting, the impressions Glacier Bay leaves on us are indelible. Let’s honor this profoundly beautiful place by passing it on, undiminished, to those who follow in our wandering tire tracks.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I drive into Glacier Bay National Park?

No, there are no roads or trails into the park. Overlanders must access the park via ferry, plane, or boat.

What is the best time of year for overlanding in Glacier Bay?

Summer months, from May to September, offer the best weather and conditions for overlanding in Glacier Bay.

Are there any guided tours available for overlanders in Glacier Bay?

Yes, Glacier Bay offers a range of guided tours, including glacier cruises and kayaking excursions.

How can I obtain the necessary permits for camping and recreational activities in the park?

You can obtain permits through the National Park Service’s official website or in-person at park visitor centers.

What should I do if I encounter wildlife while visiting Glacier Bay National Park?

Always maintain a safe distance, do not approach or feed the animals, and follow park guidelines for responsible wildlife viewing.

Are there medical facilities within the park in case of emergencies?

Medical facilities within the park are limited. It’s essential to carry a wilderness first aid kit and know how to use it. In severe emergencies, seek help from park rangers or local authorities.

Prepare, explore, and embrace the untamed beauty of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. Your overlanding adventure awaits!

Have you visited Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve? If so, what did I miss in this overlander’s guide?

Share your thoughts in the comment section below. Thanks for your input! It is greatly appreciated!

Patrick @DarkSkyOverland


Dark Sky Overland is an overland lifestyle brand that was created to support the various trips I take to National Parks and other designated Dark Sky Parks within the United States. It was also born out of a strong desire to simplify life after my wife of over 24 years passed away from a three year battle with inflammatory breast cancer (IBC). You can learn more about my story at https://darkskyoverland.com/about/.

Patrick @DarkSkyOverland

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