Alaska delivers the goods in Glacier Bay National Park

62 Parks Traveler started with one simple goal: to visit every US national park. Avid backpacker and nerd Emily Pennington saved up, built a tiny van to travel and live in, and took to the streets. The parks as we know them are changing fast and she wanted to see them before it was too late.

Pennington is committed to following CDC guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic to keep themselves and others safe. She visits new parks, strictly following best safety practices.

Huge tongues of blue ice crept over the desolate faces of the mountains and fell headlong into the sea. For miles I could see the jagged edges of crevasses and glaciers 400 feet deep in slow motion towards the salty waters of Muir Inlet. It was earth like I had never seen it before – angry, huge, unyielding. This was my first impression of Alaska – on a small plane hovering over Glacier Bay National Park – and it was everything I had dreamed of.

Glacier Bay is one of those rare national parks that can only be reached by air or water. There are no roads to this southeastern part of the state. When visiting the park, most travelers arrive by boat from the tiny town of Gustavus and spend a full day on a ranger-told cruise around the West Side, or West Arm. However, due to the pandemic, most of the commercial boat trips had been canceled so I had to get creative.

Eager to see the famous area On ice fields, I wrote to Paul Swanstrom, a seasoned bush pilot and founder of Mountain Flying Service. I told him my details, flew to the nearby town of Haines, and prayed for a good weather window. If everything went according to plan, this would be my first experience with bush planes.

The author (right) in a bush plane heading for the park (Photo: Emily Pennington)

However, when I arrived at the end of July, the prognosis was not particularly good. Rain was announced for every day. “The predictions are more entertainment than accurate,” a local told me. I crossed my fingers and waited.

Sure enough, on the second day the clouds opened up and Swanstrom suggested that we hop over there. Within an hour, I was catapulted into the air in a tiny metal plane with huge hanging glaciers below and to my right. I had never felt so vulnerable in the air. We drove over the Davidson Glacier and the wind rattled us on the high mountain pass. I took a deep breath, tensed every abdominal muscle, and tried to concentrate on the photos.

We were hit with water from the ocean in all directions as magnificent ice rivers sloped down towards the ocean. That sudden shock to the landscape somehow healed my nerves and I relaxed in the breathtaking beauty of the place as Swanstrom pointed out the more notable glaciers in the park’s less trafficked East Arm.

“The McBride Glacier is the only one still in contact with the water. Everyone else has been declining quickly since the 1960s, ”he said, curving the plane closer to its colossal ice cliffs. According to a map provided by the Park Service, the Muir Glacier did not extend well into the Muir Inlet until 1976– –but not anymore. The nearby Riggs Glacier has receded 20 to 30 feet per year and finally retreated from the water in the late 1990s due to climate change.

So much of the majesty of this landscape is related to these dynamic layers of ice. I shuddered at the thought of what would happen to the ecosystem if they disappeared entirely.

With clouds we jumped over the west arm of the park and made a spontaneous photo stop to land on a gravel bank at the gates of Haines. In peace on solid ground, I fell in love with the electric pink fireweed that popped out of almost every opening in the trees. This was Alaska, a wild land of dazzling earthen drama. Although I was worried about his future, I was grateful to explore his ever-changing present.


62 Parks Traveler Glacier Bay Info

Size: 3.3 million acres

Place: Southeast Alaska

Created in: 1925 (national monument), 1980 (national park)

Best for: Boat trips, air travel, whale watching, kayaking, glacier views

When to go: Summer (43 to 63 degrees) and early fall (29 to 54 degrees) are really the only times boats and planes can be chartered into the park. The visitor center is usually open from late May to early September. Summer is also the best time for whale watching and other wildlife viewing.

Where to sleep: The park operates a walk-in campsite, Bartlett Cove. Permit applications can be found on the park’s website. For those coming from the quaint, artistic town of Haines, the Aspen Suites Hotel is a wonderful home base.

Where should we eat: While there is no food – only drinks – I wouldn’t be sure if I didn’t mention the Haines Brewing Company. It offers a selection of home-brewed beers from Monday to Saturday and is centrally located in the city.

Mini adventure: Take a flight excursion and soar over huge glaciers with the Mountain Flying Service. These inexpensive tours (from $ 200) start in Haines or Skagway and offer visitors a unique perspective by showing the incredible expanse of the sky.

Mega adventure: Take a multi-day tour of bays, islands, and ice. The park has authorized several companies to offer small, intimate cruises to Glacier Bay and the breathtaking scenery of Southeast Alaska.

Main photo: Emily Pennington

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