See Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park on an Alaska Tour


When George Vancouver sailed through ice-choked Icy Strait in 1794 to chart the coastline of the Inside Passage, he found a small inlet that ended in a massive wall of glacial ice. Over the next century and a quarter, the ice retreated rapidly to reveal what we now know as Glacier Bay. It was the most rapid glacial retreat ever recorded. John Muir came here in 1879 to test his hypothesis that Yosemite Valley was carved by glaciers. He found the ice face 48 miles from its 1794 location. By 1925, the Grand Pacific Glacier, the main glacier of the west arm of Glacier Bay, was 65 miles from the mouth of the Bay. Since then some of the glaciers have stabilized or even advanced a bit, while others, particularly in the east arm, continue their retreat. The once-spectacular Muir Glacier no longer reaches tidewater. A general view is that the ice pushed forward until it shoved its terminal moraine - the pile of rock rubble that accumulates off the face of the glacier - into deeper water. Then, without the moraine to protect the ice, the warmer seawater caused rapid melting and the glaciers retreated rapidly.

The glaciers of Glacier Bay are born in the surrounding mountains that trap moist air from the Pacific Ocean as snowfall. The glaciers have advanced and retreated many times in the last several million years. In fact, the oral history of the Tlingit people tells of their being chased from Glacier Bay by a previous rapid advance of the ice, and we have learned to take the oral history of Native people quite seriously. Even when a glacier is in retreat, ice is still moving forward, always carving. This action has created the fjords of Glacier Bay to give us the spectacular scenery that we see today on our Alaska tours. The landscape has been shaped by the incessant action of ice.

The retreat has allowed botanists to study plant succession - the return of vegetation to the landscape after retreat of the glaciers. Glacier Bay is equally rich in wildlife. An Alaska cruise that ventures up the Bay (or "up bay") usually yields sightings of black and brown bears and mountain goats, especially in small ships that cruise close to the shore. It is always worth watching for moose, wolves, coyotes, and marmots. Rarely, even an elusive wolverine can be spotted. Humpback whales have been increasing in the water of the Bay, and orca or killer whales are seen cruising through the water in search of harbor seals.

Glacier Bay became a National Monument in 1925, and a National Park and Preserve in the ANILCA (Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act) legislation of 1980. It was declared an International Biosphere Reserve in 1986. The only road to Glacier Bay comes from the nearby, landlocked town of Gustavus, which is served by a small airport. Otherwise, the only access is by boat. Each day during the summer season two large Alaska cruise ships and five smaller Alaska tour boats are allowed into the park.

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