Thursday, February 6, 2014

Spot starfish, humpbacks at Glacier Bay

A humpback whale flashes its tail in Glacier Bay.
Photo courtesy Glacier Bay NPS.
Beach Trail map, courtesy of Glacier Bay NPS.

Short shoreline day hike
offers opportunities
to see marine life


Families can encounter an array of marine wildlife on the Beach Trail at Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska.

The 1.5-mile round trip runs along Bartlett Cove in southeastern Alaska. There are only four trails total at the park, and children generally will find this the most interesting of them.

Memorial Day through Labor Day weekends mark the best time to visit the park. Summer temperatures generally will in the mid-50s. Still, even on this trail you’ll need wet weather clothing, specifically water-repellent footwear with good traction, raincoat/hat, and waterproof gloves. Also bring additional clothes that can be layered for the cooler mornings and evenings.

You won’t be able to drive to Glacier Bay, however, as the park is only accessible by air or water. A number of air services, commercial carriers, cruise ships, ferries, and tour boats do serve the park, which is about 65 miles north of Juneau, Alaska. This likely means that you’ll be staying overnight at Glacier Bay or making only a brief stop by boat.

The trail is ideal for those making such short visits as it can be picked up simply by heading southwest from the Glacier Bay Lodge and Visitor Center (1.5-miles round trip), the public docks (1.2-miles round trip), or the campground (0.5-miles round trip).

Sunrise over sea
Be sure to obtain a free tide schedule from a park ranger before hitting the trail. You’ll want to go at low tide and return before high tide sets in; if you don’t, you may be forced to hike through frigid water on the return walk.

Low tide also offers the opportunity to see intertidal life. As the waters retreat into the ocean – and water levels here can fall 25 vertical feet, among the greatest extremes in the world – a number of animals and plants are exposed. Don’t be surprised to spot starfish and snails on the sands and grasses.

During summer, low tide typically occurs in the morning. Sunrise usually is best for spotting marine life in the bay, so timing a hike at dawn with low tide is ideal.

During those first moments of sunlight, watch for humpback whales, harbor porpoise, puffins, sea otters, and Steller sea lions, frolicking and feeding in the mouth of the bay. Bring binoculars. If lucky, you’ll also hear the blow of humpback whales.

On shore, a variety of sea birds gather and fly over, often nabbing exposed intertidal creatures for a meal. Don’t be surprised if you see some large mammals, too – moose like to feed on the exposed grass while bears appreciate the water-free passageway.

Summer also brings one other pesky creature to the intertidal flats – mosquitoes. You’ll need insect repellent on calm days.

Watch your time – and your step
While the icy blue waters of Bartlett Cove sit on one side of the trail, on the other side inland is a mature spruce and hemlock rainforest. Beyond that are the great glaciers that the park is named for. A mere 200 years ago, a glacier towered 4000 feet above the Beach Trail, stretching 10 miles wide and 100 miles long to the St. Elias mountain range. That glacier since has shrunk 65 miles from the shore, the fastest on record.

While the trail formally ends about a quarter mile from the campground, be aware that a footpath continues for several miles beyond. Keep track of your distance and time so that you don’t get stuck in high tide.

Because of the high amount of moisture, the trail usually is muddy, and anything on it – from wooden walkways and docks to tree roots and rocks – typically is slippery. Use handrails where available, and walk at a slow pace, watching your step.

After hiking the trail, be sure to check out the park’s visitor center, located on Glacier Bay Lodge’s second floor, for its exhibits about marine life. A Junior Ranger Program also is offered for children.

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.