Paddling and Boating Overview: Glacier Bay National Park

Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska Highlights

  • Sign up with Glacier Bay Sea Kayaks in Glacier Bay National Park for one-day guided and unguided kayak adventures and for kayak rentals and outfitting. The outfit offers both double and single fiberglass sea touring kayaks, provides daily camper/kayaker orientation and instruction programs, and arranges for drop-offs and pick-ups on the tour boat. Experienced campers who bring all their own camping and cooking equipment can enjoy a low-cost kayaking trip throughout the inlets and waterways of Glacier Bay. Camping trips range in length from three to ten days.
  • Try a one-day kayaking adventure: rent a sea-touring kayak and strike out on your own or join a guided day kayaking trip. Bartlett Cove offers the novice kayaker a much protected rainforest environment in which to paddle and explore. Kayakers may traverse the shores of Lester Island and Point Gustavus, where they will have opportunities to spot seals, porpoise, sea otter, black bear, moose, bald eagles, and whales.
  • For a moderately challenging trip, try kayaking Bartlett Cove/Beardslee Islands. Kayaks can be launched into Bartlett Cove and paddled toward the campground or the Beardslee Islands. The Beardslees offer splendid beach camping and viewing of marine wildlife and birds. For placid paddling, solitude, lush beach, forest vegetation, and varied wildlife, the Beardslees make a superb two- to three-day trip.
  • For an adventurous multi-day trip, kayak West Arm and Muir Inlet. The nearest tidewater glaciers to Bartlett Cove are about 50 to 65 miles away in the Muir and West Arms. Kayakers generally should allow five to eight days to paddle each way.

Water is the primary mode of transportation in trailless, roadless Glacier Bay National Park. Truth be told, most visitors to the park see it from the deck of a cruise ship. There is also a fair number of private boaters. But the typical GORP reader is going to want a closer experience of the park.

If you want to get into the interior, the Alsek River and its major tributary, the Tatshenshini River, are both exalting paddling rivers. These are large volume, swift glacial rivers, part of a small number of river systems that breach the coast range, offering boaters uncommon environmental diversity, impressive scenery, and an outstanding wilderness experience.

Most trips begin on the Tatshenshini at Dalton Post, the last road accessible put-in off the Haines Highway in Yukon Territory, Canada. From here it is 140 river miles to the normal take-out at Dry Bay, Alaska. A six-mile-long canyon immediately below Dalton Post offers continuous Class III whitewater, Class IV at high water (International Scale, Class I-VI). The remainder of the river is generally Class II with large eddies and folds at normal volumes. The Alsek River above its confluence with the Tatshenshini is Class III above Turnback Canyon. Turnback Canyon must be portaged by rafters during the summer months. Tatshenshini trips average six days on the water, plus additional layover days.

Large mammals that are often observed include bears (black, and on rare occasions, the glacier bear and brown or grizzly bear), mountain goats, Dall sheep, and moose.

The Alsek River basin has both a long tradition and contemporary use by native people, the Tlingit in the lower reaches of the basin, the Southern Tutchone in the interior. In the middle of the last century, the basin's rich salmon resources supported a relatively large aboriginal population. The Tutchone site known as Shawshe (Dalton Post), used today as the put-in for Tatshenshini River raft trips, was the largest aboriginal village and regional trading center where Tlingit and Tutchone met. The basin's strategic importance, as a route between the interior and coast, was recognized during the early years of European exploration and led to the establishment of Dalton Post adjacent to Shawshe. By this time, most of the Tatshenshini's 19th century aboriginal villages were abandoned as epidemic disease, drowning due to flooding, and shifts in regional settlement patterns reduced the basin's population. Today, Klukshu, Yukon is the only 19th century aboriginal village that is still occupied, though traditional harvesting of various resources continues throughout the upper Tatshenshini and Alsek basins.

Sea Kayaking

Kayaking the shoreline of Glacier Bay National Park is often the easiest way to get around. There are no backcountry trails, but beaches, recently deglaciated areas, and alpine meadows offer excellent hiking. In a kayak, you can pick your own camping spot and terrain to explore. And of course, the quiet kayak, originally designed for hunting, is an excellent wildlife viewing vessel.

There are several options for sea kayaking in Glacier Bay National Park: Take a guided trip, rent a kayak once you arrive, fly to Gustavus with a foldable kayak, or transport a hardshell kayak.

A list of guides is available from the National Park Service as well as a commercial schedule. There is a waiting list for private trips down the Alsek River. Contact the Yakutat Ranger Station for details. Overnight camping permits are required by Kluane National Park on the upper Alsek River.


Glacial sedimentation and rapid land rise cause annual changes in water depth. Nautical charts quickly become inaccurate: Use special care when navigating. Maintain a quarter-mile distance from tidewater glaciers. Waves from ice falls can swamp beached skiffs. Bergs frequently turn over or split apart, giving them a wide berth.

Recommended Boats: Rafts, 12 feet or larger. Rigid kayaks and whitewater canoes with flotation are suitable for the river, for Class II-IV paddlers only. Folding kayaks, such as Kleppers, are not recommended. Open canoes are not recommended. Currently the only available aircraft that can transport a rigid kayak or canoe is a Canadian DC-3, which can fly only between Whitehorse and Dry Bay, due to US Customs requirements.

Private Boats: Vessel permits are required before entering Glacier Bay from June 1 to August 31. Because Bartlett Cove is one of the most heavily used whale feeding areas, a permit is required even to enter the cove to visit park headquarters or the lodge. Vessels entering without a permit may be denied access to the bay, asked to leave, and issued a citation.

Applications for the non-fee permit must be made within 60 days of the proposed date of entry. Permit applications received earlier than 60 days in advance will be returned to the sender. Applications will be reviewed upon receipt and, at that time, a confirmation or response form will be sent to the applicant. Advance application is strongly advised, particularly during mid-season, as permits are limited. Reservations may be made for up to seven days. In planning your trip, please note that pets are not allowed onshore anywhere in Glacier Bay National Park except on a leash at Bartlett Cove. All boaters are required to call immediately upon entering the bay and proceed directly to the Visitor Information Station in Bartlett Cove for a required boater orientation prior to continuing into the bay.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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