Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve is a United States National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is in the Panhandle of the state of Alaska. The park is best known for its massive glaciers but is also an ideal destination for those seeking wildlife, kayaking, or simply a chance to get away.
Most visitors to Glacier Bay see the park from large cruise ships with thousands of passengers. These visitors do not go ashore in the park; instead, National Park Service naturalists board the ship to share their knowledge about the park and its wildlife during a day-long cruise in the bay.
Glacier Bay was first surveyed in detail in 1794 by a team from the H.M.S. Discovery, captained by George Vancouver. At the time the survey produced showed a mere indentation in the shoreline. That massive glacier was more than 4,000 feet thick in places, up to 20 miles wide, and extended more than 100 miles to the St. Elias mountain range. By 1879, however, naturalist John Muir discovered that the ice had retreated more than 30 miles forming an actual bay. By 1916, the Grand Pacific Glacier – the main glacier credited with carving the bay – had melted back 60 miles to the head of what is now Tarr Inlet.
Efforts for protection of Glacier Bay were made by John Muir and other conservationists, and in 1925 President Calvin Coolidge signed a proclamation creating Glacier Bay National Monument. At the time the monument contained less than half the area of the present park. In 1980, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act elevated the monument to national park status and also extended the park boundary northwest to the Alsek River and Dry Bay. Further protection and recognition of Glacier Bay's significance occurred in 1986 when the Glacier Bay-Admiralty Island Biosphere Reserve was established under the United Nations Man and the Biosphere Program. In 1992 Glacier Bay became part of an international World Heritage Site, along with neighboring Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve and Canada's Kluane National Park.
The park has snow-capped mountain ranges rising to over 15,000 feet, coastal beaches with protected coves, deep fjords, tidewater glaciers, coastal and estuarine waters, and freshwater lakes. Steep, sculpted peaks and scoured, rock-strewn valleys show scars of glacial activity and mark the advances and retreats of glaciers dating back over 115,000 years to before the Wisconsin Ice Age. The sheltered waters of Glacier Bay ebb and flow with the region’s huge tides, which can change as much as 25 feet during a six-hour period. Ocean waves pound the beaches of the wild and remote Gulf of Alaska coast. Between the bay and the coast, snow-clad peaks of the Fairweather Range capture the moisture coming in off the Gulf of Alaska and, in turn, spawn the park’s largest glaciers. At the base of these lofty peaks, deglaciated foothills and outwash plains rapidly turn green as the ice retreats and seeds find their way to the newly revealed land.
Flora and fauna
Each summer humpback whales return to the bay from their wintering grounds near Hawaii to feed on the abundant small schooling fish such as sand lance and juvenile pollack. Minke and killer whales along with harbor and Dall's porpoises also feed in the park's productive near-shore waters. Steller sea lions congregate on rocky islands to mate or to rest. Thousands of harbor seals breed and nurture their pups on the floating ice in Johns Hopkins Inlet and among the rocky reefs of the Beardslee Islands. Sea otters are rapidly colonizing Glacier Bay as well as park waters in Icy Strait and Cross Sound.
Many land animals also use the marine environment for foraging and travel. Moose and bears, for example, are accomplished long-distance swimmers that are frequently seen "dog paddling" their way across the bay. Bears work the beaches when the tide is low turning over rocks looking for tasty barnacles, clams and other intertidal life. Wolves and coyotes find the traveling easier along the edge of tall beach grass rather than fighting through alder thickets. At times, even the most upland of animals like marmots and mountain goats are drawn to the water's edge to nibble seaweed or to lick salt spray off beach rocks.
Mountain goats and brown bears were quick to reinvade after the glaciers' retreat, while coyote, moose, and wolves have moved in more recently. Black bears prowl the forested portions of the lower bay, and the glacier bear, a rare color phase of the black bear, is occasionally spotted. River otters are widespread along with marten, mink, and weasel, while the wolverine is scarcer and rarely sighted. The Alsek River delta in Glacier Bay National Preserve is home to lynx, snowshoe hare, and beaver -- species that have reached the coast from the interior by traveling along the river corridor.
Seabirds spend most of their time searching for food in the marine waters and come ashore only to rest or to breed. Thousands of seabirds nest on cliffs and rocky shores within the bay or on the park's outer coast. Molting and migrating geese and sea ducks find refuge in quiet arms of the bay. Bald eagles nest in tall cottonwood trees or on cliffs along much of the park's shoreline. Newly vegetated hillsides support great numbers of nesting songbirds, including many neotropical migrants. The shallow waters and sloping beaches of the Beardslee Islands are important foraging and breeding areas for shorebirds, seabirds, and waterfowl. Arctic terns and jaegers prefer the barren glacial outwashes near the glaciers for nest sites.
It is believed that nearly 200 species of fish may swim in Park waters. Many, including all five species of Pacific salmon, are well-known, while others have yet to be documented. Many fishes are associated with deep water or "subtidal benthic" communities, and several of these are identified with important fisheries such as Pacific halibut, rockfish, lingcod, Pacific cod, sablefish, and pollock.
Glacier Bay is blanketed by a mosaic of plant life, from a few pioneer species in recently exposed areas to intricately balanced climax communities in coastal and alpine regions. Since virtually all the vegetation in the bay has returned to the land in the past 300 years following the retreat of the glaciers, this area is one of the premier sites on the planet to study plant recolonization.
Glacier Bay has a maritime climate, heavily influenced by ocean currents. The result is mild winter temperatures and cool summer temperatures near sea level. Summer visitors can expect highs between of 50-to-60 degrees F (10-to-15 degrees C). Winter temperatures rarely drop into the single digits, with average nighttime lows of 25-to-40 degrees F (-2 to 5 degrees C).
Bartlett Cove receives about 70 inches of precipitation annually. April, May, and June are usually the driest months of the year while September and October tend to be the wettest. All this moisture helps to create the lush temperate rainforests of the lower bay.
Unlike the areas at sea level, conditions in the mountains are more severe with colder temperatures and more precipitation that takes the form of snow. It’s all that snow falling year after year that goes into creating the magnificent glaciers we love to see.