Ranger Tom VandenBerg
Protecting 3.3 million acres of marine and terrestrial wilderness in Southeast Alaska, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve is the ultimate escape for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers. You’ll find snow-capped mountain ranges, ocean coastlines, deep fjords, freshwater rivers and lakes, and of course, tidewater glaciers – some of the glaciers are even calving icebergs into the bay! And in addition to being one of our national parks, Glacier Bay is also part of the largest internationally protected Biosphere Reserves in the world, and it is recognized by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site.
To help you plan an adventure in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, in 2012 we talked with Tom VandenBerg, Supervisory Park Ranger at Glacier Bay.
Why did you become a park ranger?
As a child, my parents would load up our gear into an old station wagon and head to every western National Park, monument, and historic site that we could visit. Invariably I would work towards earning my Junior Ranger badge. As I grew older, I realized that some of my greatest family memories revolve around parks and wilderness, eventually manifesting themselves in fueling my desire to spend my career working for and in them. Now I’ve worked for the NPS for almost 20 years, but I wake up every day and cherish the incredible opportunity I have to work for the National Park Service and the conservation mission I believe in.
Can't Miss Activities
Tour the Glaciers
Take the day tour to the glaciers. Every morning during summer months, the “day boat” departs Bartlett Cove and heads into Glacier Bay for an all-day trip covering 150 miles. Sightings of puffins, sea lions, humpback whales, brown bears, harbor seals, immense glacially carved landscapes, and of course glaciers and icebergs make the day an exhilarating experience!
Hike along the Shoreline
A hike along the shoreline from Bartlett Cove is another highlight that every visitor should experience. An all-day or overnight trip can be made by heading south towards Gustavus Point. Just a short distance from Bartlett Cove, and you are immersed in a very wild place. Look for whales, sea otters, porpoise, and a variety of seabirds on one side, and black bears, porcupines, bald eagles, and moose on the other!
The absolute best way to experience Glacier Bay is from a kayak. There are very few trails here, yet thousands of square miles to explore. A kayak will allow you to explore places that are unreachable by foot, observe more wildlife, and cover more territory. A day trip into the nearby Beardslee Islands from Bartlett Cove is a nice start, but a multi-day trip into the amazing backcountry of Glacier Bay could possibly change your life. Kayak rentals are available in Bartlett Cove and then you can arrange with the daily tour boat to provide camper dropoff/pickups in the backcountry.
South Marble Island
One of my favorite locations in Glacier Bay is South Marble Island, a tiny limestone outcrop miles from any land, yet surrounded by fertile waters and covered with lounging sea lions and nesting seabirds. It represents to me the incredible richness of life at Glacier Bay…a land that was covered by a massive glacier only 250 years ago, now filled with wildlife. Puffins, sea lions, kittiwakes, oystercatchers, harbor seals, sea otters, and eagles are all part of the experience at South Marble Island.
Glacier Bay is famous for whales. Rich waters attract humpbacks each year from their wintering grounds in Hawaii. Glacier Bay is an important feeding area for them and on just about any summer excursion in the bay, spouts and flukes of humpbacks can be observed as they follow and feed on schooling fish. This summer will be the 27th year of humpback whale monitoring in Glacier Bay National Park, and we are seeing a healthy 5-7% increase in numbers each year. A whale’s flukes have unique markings, just like a fingerprint. In 2010 the park’s whale biologist, Chris, identified 192 individual humpbacks in Glacier Bay and surrounding waters…that’s the highest number since monitoring began!
Other types of whales that are occasionally observed include Orca (killer) whales and sometimes a sharp-eyed visitor will spot a Minke whale.
The only developed area in Glacier Bay is located near park headquarters in Bartlett Cove. There is one walk-in campground. Thirty-three campsites are nestled among the Sitka spruce along the shore of Bartlett Cove. There are outhouses, a warming shelter, firewood, and a bear-proof food cache. Campers can sometimes view and hear humpback whales, otters, bald eagles, and harbor porpoise from their tents!
The Glacier Bay Lodge is open during the summer months and provides 48 comfortable rooms, a restaurant, gift shop, showers, and wonderful views from the porch. The park visitor center is located upstairs and park rangers present evening programs and guided walks daily during summer. There are also a number of bed and breakfasts within Gustavus.
Most camping in Glacier Bay is in the wilderness. Glacier Bay is 65 miles long, but there are over 700 linear miles of shorelines, beaches, and islands open for camping. You can arrange for the daily tour boat to drop you, your friends, a couple of kayaks, and all your gear off in a couple of designated locations within the bay and you can arrange for later pickup. Imagine loading your gear in a sea kayak and heading out into the beautiful waters of Glacier Bay, charting your own path into the wild.
Camping in Glacier Bay National Park means camping in a tent. There currently are no facilities for campers at Glacier Bay. With some polypro and fleece layers combined with adequate rain gear, even camping in a tent can be comfortable and cozy.
Getting to the Park
Without any roads connecting the park to the outside world, getting here is always an adventure…but sometimes a big part of the fun! The main visitor season is from late-May through early-September with the peak being the month of July. Alaska Airlines even provides air service to Gustavus from Juneau mid-June through August. The Alaska Marine Highway travels twice weekly to Gustavus during summer and cruise ships travel to Glacier Bay May through mid-September. The park is open the rest of the year, but visitor services are very limited.
No roads lead to Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, so air and sea travel is required to visit. As of winter 2012, the Alaska Marine Highway (State Ferry) does now provide regular service to the small community of Gustavus, Alaska. Located 10 miles from park headquarters, Gustavus is a tiny Alaskan town with approximately 300 year-round residents. In Gustavus you will NOT find a movie theater, RV park, a shopping mall, a stoplight, fast food, or a bowling alley. In Gustavus you WILL find quaint family run B&Bs, lodges, a small store, post office, school, library, public dock, a few restaurants, an airstrip, boat charters, whale watching, great fishing, and friendly Alaskan people. Gustavus is literally on the doorstep of the Alaskan wilderness. From nearby park headquarters you can arrange for a day tour trip into Glacier Bay, rent kayaks, hike a trail, join a ranger on a guided walk, check out the visitor center, or go fishing.
What to Pack for Your Trip
Glacier Bay has a maritime climate, heavily influenced by ocean currents. The result is mild winters and cool, moist summers near sea level. Summer visitors can expect highs between 50 and 60 degrees F (10 to 15 degrees C). Rain is the norm in southeast Alaska. Bartlett Cove receives about 70 inches of precipitation annually. You may find yourself thinking it’s all coming down during your visit! Good rain gear is essential here. April, May and June are usually the driest months of the year. September and October tend to be the wettest. It is best to be prepared to enjoy the park in any kind of weather, especially rain. I suggest waterproof rubber boots (XTRATUF boots are considered Southeast Alaskan “sneakers”), rain gear, a hat, gloves, and wool or fleece layers.