Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, Alaska

Visit Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, and watch geologic history unfold before your eyes.
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Photo by: State of Alaska/ Brian Adams

State of Alaska/ Brian Adams

For those who have only dreamed of watching geological history being created before their very eyes, a visit to Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve will make even the wildest of imaginings come true. A mere 200 years ago, this area was capped by a 4,000-foot-thick glacier, which has since retreated at an unsurpassed speed, leaving in its wake a 65-mile-long wilderness of newborn fjords and shores surrounding what has become Glacier Bay. With each passing day, the park's landscape changes, often in ways invisible to onlookers. Yet the sudden, thundering crash as chunks of calving glaciers tumble into the ocean will demonstrate to visitors the awesome, earth-shaping forces of nature that are at work before their very eyes.

Snowcapped mountains rising to 15,000 feet, deep fjords, hidden coves, 10 tidewater glaciers, lakes and beaches mark the pristine wilderness of Glacier Bay. Traveling from the inner sanctions of the bay toward its mouth, and noting the diminishing signs of life as the edge of the receding glacier approaches, will introduce visitors to a newly developing landscape. As the glacier's retreat exposed new shores, a variety of ecosystems emerged including wet tundra (muskeg), coastal western hemlock/Sitka spruce forest, alpine tundra, early postglacial meadows and thickets, and glaciers and ice fields.

Casual visitors to the park are rare. A trip to Glacier Bay involves careful planning and either the physical endurance required to meet the challenges of the wintry landscape, or the money needed to partake in one of the many sanctioned wilderness tours of the region. Once the logistics of the trip, transportation to the park and itinerary are complete, the trouble is more than worthwhile. In the realm of national parks, Glacier Bay is astonishing. The glaciers, whales and mountain ranges encountered here promise an unequaled, and often unseen, exploration of Alaskan wilderness at its finest.

Geological History
The Glacier Bay region once lay entirely under a 4,000-foot-thick glacier, which developed from snowfalls during the ice age. Partially under the glacier were landmasses formed by the pressure of collisions from the North American and Pacific tectonic plates. Eventually, the glacier began to melt and retreat, leaving in its wake rounded hills, and deep, U-shaped fjords surrounded by the jagged peaks of mountains that had been taller than the glacier's depth. Much of the region's development occurred within the last 200 years, as the retreating ice exposed most of the current shorelines, valleys, fjords and estuaries.

Park Activities
Hikers will find themselves in a wonderland of wilderness adventures, following trails along rivers, estuaries and even glacial riverbeds. A camper drop-off service can transport kayakers and campers to various points in the backcountry region of the bay area. Sport-fishing and game-hunting opportunities in the midst of the park's wilderness will dazzle enthusiasts. Numerous wilderness adventure concessioners service guests to the park with opportunities to camp, raft, mountaineer, whale watch, fish, kayak and hike.

Where to Stay
Glacier Bay Country Inn stands out as a luxurious retreat on the outskirts of the park. The lodge features well-appointed rooms, including five guest rooms and five cabins, all with views of the property's verdant woods or grassy glen. The four-star kitchen, featured in Bon Apetit and Food and Wine, will satiate guests with Dungeness crab and halibut entrees. With fly-fishing, whale watching and kayaking at your fingertips, and a staff to guest ratio of 1-to-2, the inn exceeds even the highest standards of hospitality.

Side Trips
To experience the majestic heart of Glacier Bay (and if money is no object), consider Alaska Discovery which offers novice explorers a five-day kayaking, camping and hiking venture through the east arm of the bay. Dropped off near the middle of the bay by floatplane, guests then kayak, hike and camp alongside the glaciers and pristine shorelines.

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