Our Visit to Glacier Bay National Park:
Alaskan morning started early on this late May day as we woke up to a bright, cloudy day aboard our Holland American cruise ship. Sunrise was around 3:30 AM and sunset was around 10:30 PM as we get close to the summer solstice. Majestic mountains that soar into the clouds flanked both sides of the channel as we entered Glacier Bay. The low hanging cloud obscured the mountain but created a peaceful, Shangri-La like misty feel, perfect to just sit on our balcony and enjoy the beautiful Alaskan scenery.
Yes! You can get a stamp on the cruise ship
The cruise ship brought two rangers and a native Tlinglet tribe member on board to give us an excellent orientation about Glacier Bay, as we sat in the Crow’s Nest, with a beautiful 180 degree view, indoors. Now came the most important part of the whole cruise – we got the all-important stamp for our National Park Passport book! After all, if we didn’t get the stamp, we didn’t visit the park! Of course, we also had to get a picture of the sign. In this case, the rangers brought a “sign” with them. I guess this will have to do. By the way, the ranger talk about what to expect during our day was very informative.
The bay was calm with temperature in the 40s. The color of the water changed from ocean gray to aquamarine turquoise as we got closer to the end of the bay. The glaciers ground the rocks into very fine, flour like particles as it flowed into the bay – yes, glaciers actually do flow, albeit at glacial pace. These particles are so fine it suspends in the water, giving it the beautiful aquamarine turquoise color. Soon, we saw little chunks of ice floating in the water.
We rushed outside to the bow of the ship as the ranger announced we were getting close to Margerie Glacier and the Grand Pacific Glacier, some 65 miles from the mouth of Glacier Bay. Grand Pacific Glacier, at the end of the bay, is now a brown valley without ice or vegetation.
The deck was wet from the intermittent drizzle. We bundled up and headed outside with camera and tripod in tow as the ship slowed and approached the highlight of the day – Margerie Glacier. The mile wide face of the glacier reaches right into the bay. The blue ice, formed by the pressure from the heavy weight of the snow, mesmerized me. The jagged edges formed by the flow of the glacier was dramatic in its depth and color. These deep trenches were formed when the pace of flow differs between the middle, where it flows faster, and the edge, where it’s slowed by the mountain.
Why are we with the crowd?
As the ship started to make its 360 degree turn about a quarter mile from the glacier, I said to Loretta “Hey, why are we out here with all the other people, fighting for a camera spot, when we have a perfectly good, private balcony? After all, isn’t this the exact reason why we paid for a balcony room?” We grinned at each other and rushed to our room and our balcony just in time for the glacier to come into view. What a sight to see from the privacy of our balcony!
The air was quiet except for the periodic thunder like sound the natives call white thunder. It was the sound of ice cracking. Even though we were a quarter mile away, it was loud and dramatic. The power of nature was on full display. While the glacier moved very slowly (at a glacial pace, get it?), the forces were tremendous. Thunder like sound was just one, dramatic aspect of it. The grinding of the rocks into find powder was another.
Power of Nature
The most dramatic scene was, without a doubt, calving. We saw many small chunks of ice fall into the bay with loud white thunder. These were “small” because they were “only” the size of a grand piano and “only” caused a big splash. We were lucky enough to see several large ice calving, when chunks the size of a house broke off and fell 100 feet into the bay to create a huge splash and waves big enough to sway a huge cruise ship. The sounds of thunder and splash of the ice into the bay accentuated the total experience. This was purely magic and the highlight of our trip!
The experience of being mesmerized by the glacier and the bay was simply magical. Words, pictures and videos simply cannot convey the feeling fully. It was powerfully quiet in a strange way while white thunder punctuated the serene scene from time to time, as if to remind us the power of nature. This was a case of – you have to be there to experience it!
Natural Rhythm of Advancement and Retreat
Glaciers advance and retreat on their own rhythm. The entire Glacier Bay was one giant glacier in the 1700s, after it advanced rapidly, and displaced the local Tlinget tribe. Then it retreated back 65 miles to its current position. Snow and time are the only ingredients required for a glacier to form. The advancement and retreat of a glacier depends on the amount of snowfall and the snow melt rate. 95% of the Alaskan glaciers are retreating because of a combination of lower snow fall, warmer water temperature, and stronger sun in the summer, all impacts of global warming. There is nothing inherently good or bad about glaciers retreating. It is just nature at work.
The weight of the accumulated snow pushed air out of the snowpack. The lack of air bubbles gave glaciers its distinctive blue color. It took a lot of weight, some 150 feet or more of accumulated snow, to form the blue color of the ice. The same weight forced the glacier to “flow” down, and carried all kinds of debris along the way. This sediment made the glacier look “dirty”. Powerful forces of nature at work!!
Land of Many Glaciers
We saw several other glaciers, each unique in their own way. We had to stay a healthy distance from John Hopkins Glacier due to nesting sea lions. All of them were tidal glaciers, which meant they were on tidal waters and are affected by the tides. Margerie Glacier was by far the most impressive.
Alaska has the largest number of glaciers of any state in the US, and more than any other country in the world. The steep mountains of Alaska coast forces the moisture pattern from the Pacific to rise up rapidly, turning them into rain or snow, which is the why the Alaskan coastline is some of the wettest place on earth, and how glaciers get the required large snow fall to form.
Best Way to Visit
Cruise ship is the best, most comfortable way to see Glacier National Park, but not the only way. There is a small visitor center near Gustav, Alaska with a lodge, a few hiking trails and smaller boats to see the glacier. The entire area is only accessible by air or water. I’d imagine these smaller boats make the glaciers even more majestic.
There are plenty of wildlife at Glacier Bay, such as Tufted Puffins, Sea Lions, Harbor Seals, Humpback Whales and Harbor Porpoise, just to name a few. Wildlife is probably easier to spot with a smaller boat, which provides a more intimate experience.
The National Park Service tightly controls the number of ships and boats allowed in the bay with only two cruise ships per day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Only 25 private vessels are allowed per day. This preserves the tranquility of the bay and protects wildlife for an excellent visitor experience
Thought for Glacier Bay National Park:
More production than consumption advances the accumulation of wealth over time, just like more snowfall than snow melt advances the glacier and produces gems like the blue ice.
Impressions of Glacier Bay National Park:
Glacier Bay National Park is the best place in the world to see glaciers. This park exceeded our high expectations and we got the full glacier experience. The fact that you can see it from the comfort of a cruise ship made it accessible to so many people who otherwise would not be able to enjoy the awesome sights. The sound of cracking blue ice, the greenish color of the bay water, and the majestic mountains all combined to make a memorable experience.
Have you visited Glacier Bay National Park? Leave a comment below on your experience.
Glacier Bay National Park Rating:
(Note: Ratings are on a bell curve, which means there are as many 5 star ratings as 1 star ratings. All National Parks are wonderful, which makes this a very strict rating scale)
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Guide to Glacier Bay National Park:
Top Attractions at National Park:
- Margerie Glacier
- Johns Hopkins Glacier
- Lamplugh Glacier
- Glacier Bay itself
- Bartlett Grove
One Day Visit Plan:
- Take the cruise ship and spend lots of time outside.
- Click here for the typical cruise ship route
Practical Info for Visiting Glacier Bay National Park:
- Plan ahead! You can really only see this park by boat.
- Cruise ship is the most comfortable way and an excellent way to see Glacier Bay
- Get a balcony on the ship! Spend most of the day there and be awed by the scenery
- If you visit the land portion (Bartlett Grove), know you have to fly in or take the ferry. No road access.
- Plan ahead for the tours from Bartlett Grove. The ships are smaller but your chance of wildlife encounter is greater. The glaciers will look bigger too.
- Be prepared! Dress in layers. Be sure to have warm coats and prepare for rain. Most visitors will encounter rain!
Glacier Bay National Park Facts:
- Size: 3,224,840 acres, ranked 6th
- Visitors: 89,768 in 2021, ranked 54th. Record was 672,087 visitors in 2019. The pandemic impact on Alaskan cruises severely impacted visitation in 2021.
- Peak Month in 2021: 28,998 visitors in August
- Low Month in 2021: 173 visitors each month November to March. This is a little suspicious but that’s what NPS says
- Entrance Fee: None or included in cruise fare.
Date Visited: May 25, 2018
I actually worked in Glacier Bay during a college summer, at the lodge in Bartlett Cove. I was fortunate to be able to take free cruises into the GBNP on my days off (on the “smaller boats” you mention), and was also dropped off numerous times up the bay for hiking and kayaking (to be picked up 1-3 days later when the next boat came up the bay). A magical place, and I feel very fortunate to have lived there for 3 months!
Wow! That must have been a fantastic experience. To be able to hike after getting dropped off and be in the wilderness with these massive glaciers nearby and experience it in a small boat!! Probably 10 times more magical than from a cruise ship!!