10 Impressive Facts About Glacier Bay National Park

A humpback whale breaching in Glacier Bay National Park
Betty Wiley / Getty Images

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve is located on the southeastern coast of Alaska, between the Gulf of Alaska and Canada. One of the largest international protected areas on Earth at nearly 3.3 million acres, this stunning national park contains thundering mountains, temperate forests, a variety of unique protected species, and some of the world’s most iconic glaciers.

Here are 10 impressive facts about Glacier Bay National Park.

Glacier Bay National Park Spans Over 5,000 Miles

Fairweather Mountain Range
Fairweather Mountain Range. Lynn Wegener / Design Pics / Getty Images

The park encompasses a total area of 3,280,198 acres, making it larger than the entire U.S. state of Connecticut (to put it into perspective, it is also less than 1% of the total area of Alaska).

The elevation changes from 0 feet on the Pacific Ocean all the way up to 15,266 feet on Mount Fairweather, one of the tallest mountains in the United States, which also marks the border between Alaska and Canada.

There Are Over 1,000 Glaciers Inside the Park

Grand Pacific Glacier
Grand Pacific Glacier. Chris Rogers / Getty Images

The fjord making up the majority of the park was covered by the 40-mile-wide Grand Pacific Glacier as recently as 200 years ago. As the original glacier continued to retreat over the years, it eventually divided into smaller glaciers, which routinely break off into the water with such force that some of them cannot be safely approached from a certain distance. Today, 27% of the entire park is covered by ice.

There Are 40 Different Species of Mammals Inside Glacier Bay National Park

Sea otters are just one of the many mammal species who live in Glacier Bay
Sea otters are just one of the many mammal species who live in Glacier Bay. Betty Wiley / Getty Images

Thanks to the various distinct habitats inside the park, there is an unparalleled diversity of wildlife that call Glacier Bay National Park home. Not only marine mammals like humpback whales, orcas, porpoises, seals, sea lions, and sea otters, but also terrestrial mammals such as black bears, moose, and wolves.

In total, there are 40 mammal species who live in the icy landscape, including some species considered threatened or endangered outside of Alaska, such as the marbled murrelet and the bald eagle.

The Wildlife Rely on the Glaciers for Survival

Harbor seal and pup in Glacier Bay
Harbor seals birth their pups on icebergs in Glacier Bay. mlharing / Getty Images

Since glaciers have their own ecosystems, their preservation affects the wildlife who depend on the ice for survival.

Harbor seals in Glacier Bay National Park give birth to their young on icebergs to stay safe from orca predators, while seabirds like tufted puffins and rare Kittlitz’s murrelet birds build their nests near glaciers. Glaciers also provide protective habitats for the park’s many aquatic animals.

Glacier Bay National Park Was Once Habitable to Humans

Archaeologists have confirmed that the lower section of Glacier Bay was habitable until about 300 years ago, when they were forced out by the area’s final glacial surge. Before that, ancestors of the Huna Tlingit lived in Glacier Bay for centuries, calling it “S'e Shuyee” or "edge of the glacial silt." After losing their homeland to the advancing glacier around the year 1700, the clans survived by dispersing throughout the Icy Strait, the Excursion Inlet, and the northern Chichagof Island areas.

It’s a United Nations World Heritage Site

Glacier Bay National Park is part of one of the largest internationally protected biosphere reserves in the world and is recognized by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site.

In 1993, the UN added Glacier Bay and Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park in British Columbia to the first bi-national designation to be recognized as an international World Heritage site (it previously included Kluane National Park and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park). Together, the four units make up 24.3 million acres of protected area, one of the largest internationally protected ecosystems on Earth.

John Muir Is Credited With Discovering the Park

World-famous Scottish-American mountaineer John Muir is credited as the first naturalist to visit the park, perform research, and share the discovery with the rest of the world.

Muir first came to Glacier Bay in 1879, led by the local Tlingit guides who traced their ancestors back to the region, in order to study the movement of glaciers. After writing about the beautiful landscape and wildlife he found, Glacier Bay began to attract tourism and scientific attention during the late 1880s and 1890s.

There Are 300 Species of Plants

Coastal forests can thrive in parts of the park with glacial retreat
Coastal forests can thrive in parts of the park with glacial retreat. urbanglimpses / Getty Images

The park’s five major land ecosystems, including wet tundra, coastal forest, alpine tundra, glaciers, and meadows, help present a prime example of plant succession. The spruce and hemlock forests, for instance, began to emerge from the land 300 years ago; as the plant material decomposed over time, it formed a fertile base for new plants to thrive despite the post-glacial conditions.

Because of Glacier Bay’s protection status, scientists are able to study how plant life returns to the land as glaciers retreat.

Botanist William Cooper Was Responsible for the Park's Preservation

American ecologist William S. Cooper, also famous for his professional botanical artwork, led efforts to preserve Glacier Bay National Park as both a place for research and for sightseeing. He first visited the area in 1916 in order to study plant succession, but visited again in 1921. At the time, he was a prominent member of the Ecological Society of America and led a committee of colleagues in a campaign to lobby then-President Calvin Coolidge to protect the area making up Glacier Bay.

The Park Helps Represent Peace Between Nations

In 1932, Glacier Bay National Park became part of the world’s first international peace park, meant to celebrate peaceful relations between the United States and Canada. Known as the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, the international designation joined Glacier with Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada. Because of this designation, the two parks are able to collaborate in their policies for conservation, fire management, and research.

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  5. "Early Peoples." National Park Service.

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  8. "Glacier Bay Plant Communities." National Park Service.

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  10. "Waterton Glacier International Peace Park." United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.