Glacier Bay is a land of enormous proportions with glacier cloaked peaks erupting from the sea and icy rivers flowing in great torrents through ancient spruce forests. Most people only see the heavily traveled Glacier Bay, but we want to share Glacier Bay’s wild coast with you this spring.
Glacier Bay’s rugged outer coast is a land of superlatives where everything seems bigger than you thought possible. The broad Pacific beach, pounded by storms all winter, arcs north over the horizon. Above the gray sands, huge logs battered and tossed by the surf are strewn like matchsticks. In the woods, the brown trunks of enormous coastal spruce and cedar stand in contrast to the brilliant green of the mosses carpeting the forest floor. And if we follow the bear trails through the moss inland we quickly enter the mountains.
The Fairweather Range in Glacier Bay National Park rises as steeply as any mountains on earth, gaining fifteen thousand feet in just 12 miles! From these severe peaks flow innumerable glaciers and icefields carving deep lakes, polished spires and ice falls, with ice spilling right onto the coast. We have a full week to explore the beach, forest, and mountains along this wilderness coast. Mountains, ocean, glacier, and forest all in one spot!
We think a leisurely backpacking trip is the best way to explore and enjoy the area. It is less than 20 miles from the La Perouse Glacier to Lituya Bay and if we alternate backpacking days with lay-over days we establish a nice rhythm of moving to see new country and getting to know each camp area intimately. Most of the hiking is on the broad sandy beach between the crashing waves and the dark green woods. But in some areas we negotiate cobbles, and on occasion, need to work our way through the big trees or past a small river.
On the days when we leave our tents set up and explore unburdened by our backpacks, we have a great variety of destinations to choose from. We can walk right up to the ice of the glacier, we can hike through the woods to a deep, gray glacial lake and near trip’s end we can explore into Lituya Bay, made famous by the 1958 tsunami that sent a wave 1700 feet up the mountain. We can also elect to stay near camp and beach comb, or sit in camp and watch birds by the thousands migrate up the beach. There is no end to the adventures we can have and no pressure or rush either.
May is a perfect time to explore Glacier Bay’s lost coast. May is usually the driest month of the year in Southeast Alaska. It is still a rainforest and we can get some epic storms, but we can get good long stretches of sunny weather too.
One of the great joys of spring is watching the birds of the world return to Alaska. Even if you aren’t a “birder” the abundance of migrants is sure to impress. The lengthening days pull birds north from the world over and great skeins of waterfowl migrate along the coast each year occasionally surrounding our camp by the thousands in the evenings. Shorebirds by the millions transit the coast as they head north to the Arctic, while raptors and songbirds wing through the forest.
May is also the best month for hikers along the coast. Cool temperatures in the mountains prevent the glaciers from melting and the numerous creeks and small rivers which cross the beach are much easier and safer to cross at this time of year.
We have 5 full days to explore this remarkable place and only about 20 miles of backpacking. This leaves ample time to day-hike, beachcomb, birdwatch, and relish the wild beauty of the place. Approach the ice of the glacier? Hike inland for mountain views? Search the beach for glass fishing floats or whale bones? Cast a line in a clear creek? Hike the forest prime-evil and nap in a bed of moss? The week is yours to enjoy the wilderness as you like.
Your guide can advise, lead, educate or leave you in peace to enjoy the surf and forest. We will hike carrying packs for parts of 3 days. The beach makes for decent backpacking most places but there are some areas of soft sand, some areas of cobbles and boulders and several creek-crossings which slow progress and present challenges.
Last updated: August 6, 2020
What follows is a general flow of events. Expect the unexpected and prepare to be flexible.
Meet your guide for a pre-trip meeting in Haines, Alaska. Lodging on your own.
Right from the start you know you are in for a spectacular flight! After climbing out of the Chilkat Valley we quickly find the ice fields and jagged peaks of Glacier Bay National Park. Then (in good weather) we get breath-taking views of Mt. Fairweather and north into Canada’s Kluane Park. After an hour of flying we descend and land right on the beach. In perfect conditions you can hear the glacier cracking from our first camp where we sit with views of the ocean swells.
We’ll take the first full day of the trip to day-hike near the glacier. La Perouse is unique in Alaska for flowing into the ocean right across the Pacific Beach. Most glaciers are at the head of a valley or fjord but this one spills onto the beach and great hunks bounce in the ocean waves. We can hike on the moraine to a promontory with unbelievable views of the mountains and ice fields to the east and the broad gulf of Alaska to the west. There is no place quite like it.
Shoulder our packs and hike up the beach. Wolf tracks, bear tracks, and bird tracks by the millions pock the sand. We weave a course down the coast distracted by beachcombing and searching for firm sand, first by the water and then on the terrace. Crossing the aqua-marine creeks chills our feet and challenges our balance, but once across we find a lovely camp in the beach grass with plentiful firewood and a lovely view.
We can take the day to hike inland to Crillon Lake. Bear trails lead us deep into the forest past enormous spruce and cedars. In places cliffs force us to dive into the blueberry tickets, in other areas we stroll through the moss. It is a challenging hike but the views of the canyon and glacial lake are worth the effort.
Packs-on, we resume our hike up the coast. We wind through the rocks, negotiate the cobbles and find the firm sand underfoot where we can. We keep our eyes peeled for bears grazing on the first spring greens and scan the beach for whale bones or other interesting flotsam. If we put-in a full day we can probably cover about 10 miles.
We’ll pack-up again and spend the morning hiking with our packs. When we get to our pick-up spot on the beach, we’ll re-establish camp and head-off on another day-hike. Or if you’d prefer to hang-out on the beach and watch birds winging north, that’s fine too. The weather, wildlife and your desires dictate how we spend our last afternoon and evening on the wild coast.
Weather permitting, our pilot arrives mid-day for the flight back over (through or around) the mountains and back to Haines. It is worth spending a few extra days in Haines after your trip to allow for weather delays and to enjoy the friendly town.
Such a joy to spend days where time was meaningless. A wonderful adventure and I would like to return next year for a longer, more challenging trip.
You mentioned to me in an email that you have terrific guides – you do indeed. Dave is a superb guide. He is personable, knowledgeable about the Arctic, and has excellent group management skills. I appreciated the time he spent teaching me to read the map, which is not easy without trails. He allowed Adrian and me to hike at our own pace and he encouraged all of us to explore the area surrounding our campsites. I know the others would concur in my praise.
Air transportation starting and ending in Haines, AK.
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Rain is likely; snow and frost very unlikely; sunshine very probable. Temperatures are usually in the 50’s and 60’s. Overcast and damp conditions are common but we can also get some gloriously clear and sunny days. The month of May has sunniest weather of the whole year, but being Southeast Alaska, it still might not be all that warm or dry. Expect few to no bugs.