Skip to main content

See also:

Glacier Bay: An Alaskan adventure, part three

The National Park Service boat approaching the MS Westerdam on Glacier Bay.
The National Park Service boat approaching the MS Westerdam on Glacier Bay.
Photo by Karen Sweeny-Justice

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve is one of the rare national park sites that the vast majority of visitors cannot drive to. Located west of Juneau, Alaska, visitors must arrive by plane or boat. There is one road in the area, but it connects the park with the small town of Gustavus where an airfield is located.

Passengers glimpse a portion of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve aboard the MS Westerdam.
Photo by Karen Sweeny-Justice

It is cruise ships that bring travelers to Glacier Bay, but with the Alaskan cruise season running only from May to September, visitation is limited. (The park itself is open year-round with limited services for boaters available mid-September to early May.) Not all Alaskan cruises stop by Glacier Bay; some head instead for Tracy Arm, another glacial feature 45 miles south of Juneau, so check itineraries before booking.

Because of the large size of cruise ships, at Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve national ranger-naturalists bring the park to the ship. Arriving by boat, rangers climb aboard and set up displays and Alaska Geographic bookstore items in a large lounge – on the MS Westerdam rangers were in the Crow’s Nest – and present slide show presentations in the ship’s auditorium. As the ship approaches the spectacular Hubbard Glacier, passengers and rangers head to the bow of the ship to look and listen as the glacier calves.

In such a cold region one might not expect to see wildlife, but sea birds find small icebergs perfect for float trips of their own.

Over 200 years ago, the path the cruise ships take was non-existent and covered completely in ice that was 4,000 feet thick in some places. In some ways, visitors take a journey through time in this region: the land with forested growth is older, having been uncovered by the ice first, while vegetation on the exposed land closest to the icy glaciers is younger. Could this be the effects of global warming or a natural progression as the remains of the last ice age recede? Ongoing research in the park continues.

Ships typically spend nine hours cruising the park, including the extended stay at the Hubbard Glacier. When it is time for the rangers to return to shore, the park service sends another boat out and rangers climb down to it.