Glacier Bay is a relatively inaccessible national park. No roads lead into Glacier Bay. One must approach by sea or by air.
One popular way to see the park is on a cruise ship. However, to protect marine mammals that inhabit the bay, the number of ships allowed into the bay is limited. Not all cruise lines visit Glacier Bay. And the cruise lines that do visit the bay will not do so with all of their cruises. So if you want to visit Glacier Bay on a cruise ship, make sure that both your cruise line and actual cruise go to the bay. Holland America is one of the cruise lines that do offer cruises to Glacier Bay.
Excursions on ships smaller than a cruise liner are available. These smaller vessels offer an opportunity to visit areas where the larger ships can not go.
Air service is available to Gustavus, which is ten miles from the park’s headquarters at Bartlett Cove. A road connects Gustavus to the park’s headquarters. (Note that this road does not connect to Alaska’s road network.)
There are nor roads into Glacier Bay National Park from the rest of Alaska. To get there, you must fly, or arrive by boat. Most major cruise lines with Alaska cruises visit Glacier Bay (the National Park Service allows in a limited number of cruise ships, subject to various restrictions). You can also visit there on a smaller private boat tour or with your own boat, subject to getting the right permits.
There is limited air service to Gustavus, a small airport about 10 miles from the park headquarters. From there, you can get a boat tour (check the National Park's website for details).
If you are considering which cruise itinerary to follow for your Alaska cruise, you MUST go to Glacier Bay. The towns situated along the pan handle are nice places to visit, but no comparison to the experiences of Glacier Bay.
The cruise ship takes you up close to various wonderful glaciers, noteably the Margarie Glacier and the Grand Pacific Glacier. It will then stop for a considerable period of time to allow the passengers to drink in the sights and sounds. You are likely to see the ice carving from the Margarie glacier, which makes a very loud noise which echoes around the bay. You can stand on deck and watch big chunks of ice float past, maybe with a seal as a passenger, or sit on the balcony of your cabin (staeroom).
If you want to do the cruise ship option for Glacier Bay, one interesting option is the MV Wilderness. Instead of 10 stories, you get only 2, plus a large complement of kayaks are carried along. When the ship pulls into an interesting inlet, the passengers are allowed to offload into the kayaks and putter around. You still get your great meals and your soft bed. The inside cabin/reduced rate is not an option on this smaller ship, however.
Several of the larger cruise lines offer package tours that visit the tidewater glaciers and inland bays of southeast Alaska. For Glacier Bay, the national park service permits only two cruise ships per day. Like other vessels, the cruise ships remain a safe distance from the large tidewater glaciers, normally a quarter-mile. The one disadvantage is scheduling. Cruise ships might enter Glacier Bay when the skies are purpling with rainclouds, which robs the visitor or tourist of flexibility.
Bush pilots can serve the plutocrats of Glacier Bay by dropping them off into areas where even the kayaks can't venture. Flights can originate anywhere from Gustavus or Juneau or any of the other towns within an hour's flight from the park. The outer coves and the deep interior are generally never accessed by those starting from the Gulf of Alaska or Bartlett Cove, but those who wish to visit this way are obliged to pay the price.
If you choose a kayak for your exploration, be aware that kayaks have limited storage space. A backpack will probably not fit into the hold. Instead, your contents will have to be pushed into dry bags and then stuffed individually into the kayak. The outfitter will provide a sponge, a bilge pump, an extra pair of paddles, a flotation device (for outrigger purposes in case of an emergency), a life vest and a tide table. Glacier Bay National Park requires the use of bear-resistant food canisters (available at the ranger information office at Bartlett Cove). These hard-sided containers take precedence over softer materials that might be stuffed around it. Food for a week, a tent and sleeping bag and some other items are about all one can stuff into his kayak.
Several outfitters around Gustavus have kayaks for rent, both single and double boats upwards of 17' in length. For about $35 a day, the sportier types can paddle around Bartlett Cove, or if time permits can paddle along every littoral in the entire park. For those who wish to be dropped off in the park, the park concessionaires like the Baranov Wind will drop "east arm" boaters at either Sebree Island or Mt Wright, or "west arm" boaters at Rendu Inlet or Blue Mouse Cove. The cost for such a dropoff is $189.50 presently, but this cost includes a tour of the west arm or whatever remains of that circuit if you were picked up in the west arm. Warning: Some firms will not rent to solo kayakers under any circumstance. Check on the outfitter's policy at the outset.
One way to see Glacier Bay without lifting a paddle or paying an exorbitant fee is to take the park's concessionaire catamarans, such as the Baranov Wind, part of a small fleet authorized to tour the park. Sojourners can pay the present fee of $159.50 for roughly eight hours of exploration throughout much of the west arm, but obeying tight schedules, the catamarans have little leisure to remain in one area for long. Depending on circumstances, a single half-hour is usually allotted to only one of the tidewater glaciers, with shorter stops during the tour to view the available wildlife. Lunch and snacks are provided with the tour price, and hot chocolate and coffee are complimentary. For nominal prices, snacks and candies are also available.
The kayak lets you get to places and cover ground, in a manner quite in keeping with the still wilderness that surrounds you. The cruise ship has its place, I guess, but the kayak is definitely much more personal. When you beach your boat keep an eye out for the tides. A minute after this picture was taken, the kayak in the picture was afloat!
You can bring your own kayak, though that is not without a bit of expense, unless you have a folding variety. You can, also, with enough leadtime, rent kayaks from the concessionaire for the Park. The kayak rental is not necessarily cheap and the demand is high. To find out who and how, best to get in touch with the National Park Service. The doubles we rented were not 'cutting' edge kayaks, but they worked and got us into areas that you could only dream about.
Your itinerary options are wide open. Depending upon the year, some inlets become choked with ice floes making it difficult to move through. One of our party had been near the John Hopkins Inlet in the past and had said reported the whole length of the inlet had been so choked with ice that they had been unable to make much progress up it. Here in the picture, you can see we had no such problem and were able to go down the 10 mile length of the inlet to the John Hopkins Glacier at the head of the inlet, accompanied by the occasional seal who would surface a meter away from the boat to check us out.
Of course the true vessel to see parts of Glacier Bay that the cruise ships do not venture into is the kayak. Though you need no real experience at kayaking, you should have some backcountry abilities and be confidant in the wilderness.
Day cruises aboard the M/V Crystal Fjord are available from Bartlett Cove and offer great views of tidewater glaciers and astounding wildlife. The real bonus is you can be transported with your kayak and then do the cruise afterward as part of the drop off/pick up fee of $167.50 round trip.
AukNuTours provides ferry service from Juneau to Gustavus for around $90 round trip. It's a beautiful trip of just over two hours. You could alternatively fly one way.
TLC Taxi provides mini van transport from the ferry terminal in Gustavus to Bartlett Cove where the National Park Headquarters is. This is where we stopped for fuel.
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