Before we came to the Inner Passage of Alaska, we felt that Glacier Bay was likely the highlight and the place we most wanted to visit. The tricky part was that our cruise did not actually visit Glacier Bay (and as it turns out, if it had been on the itinerary, it would've been scratched due to ice).
We did however have nearly an entire day in nearby Skagway, Alaska. Since the Skagway-based tours via kayak, hiking and even float trips considered our son (who is experienced at all three of those activities) too young to participate, we decided to visit Glacier Bay from Skagway. This is a view of the entirety of Skagway as seen on the approach to the airstrip. It's a compact town in a lovely river valley and as you may be able to see in the distance, there were four cruise ships in port on this day.
There are some things to do in town. The Klondike Gold Rush Historic Park is based here and the museum is worth stopping by. As you may expect, a substantial portion of the town is devoted to cruise ship tourism. Skagway is connected by road to British Columbia and the Yukon and thus, indirectly, to the rest of Alaska.
The White Pass railway is a big tourism draw. There are also networks of hiking trails on both sides of town. On the north side you can still hike the very difficult, 33-mile Chilkoot Trail into Canada. If you aren't quite ready for that level of commitment, you can build your own day hike using a segment of the Chilkoot and one or more of the White Pass train stops along the way up.
We spent the morning in town, early afternoon hiking near the river and then the rest of the afternoon on a flight over Glacier Bay. There are a handful of companies doing this, we went with Mountain Flying Service and loved the trip. This is the fjord leading into Skagway (the Chilkoot Inlet).
Along the inlets by either plane or ship it's easy to see dozens of waterfalls draining the icefields into the ocean.
On the way from Skagway to Glacier, we also flew over the town of Haines. Haines would be an even closer jumping off point to the National Park although they only get a handful of cruise ships compared to Skagway.
See those white specks on the mountain? No, no, not the snow, the tiny ones in the foreground. Those are mountain goats. You'll just have to take our word for it. Glacier Bay National Park is unusual in that there are no official land entrances. There are no maintained trails in the park. You can fly over it (or be dropped off). Boats can enter the bay itself and depending on ice flow, go a considerable distance up either the East or West Arms. The supremely adventurous could hike in from Alaska or the Yukon, although it would be extremely difficult terrain.
This Chilkat River is not quite the dividing line but it's close. Off to the left in this picture would be the National Park. A road runs along the right side of this river connecting Haines to the Yukon. Haines is twenty miles by air from Skagway but about a 7 to 8 hour drive by road.
The Takhinsa Mountains are the real eastern park boundary. Most of these peaks were still completely snow covered in July despite being within a few miles of the Pacific Ocean.
The McBride Glacier was one of four or five glaciers we saw on our flight. It stretches from the peaks just west of Haines down to the East Arm of Glacier Bay.
Does one get tired of seeing glacier after glacier after a while? Perhaps, but we didn't on our trip. There are endless spectacular formations in the ice of glaciers. There's also a reasonable chance of seeing other wildlife on a flight like this (notably bears), although we did not.
Then there are the truly otherworldly landscapes like this one. These lakes feature the same amazing blue color that can be seen deep in glacier crevasses.
Below all the glaciers we visited there were considerable ice chunks clogging the waterways. Our cruise ship tried multiple inlets to the south of Skagway and had to turn back both times due to ice.
This is part of the East Arm of Glacier Bay. We crossed it and came close to the West Arm before we had to turn back due to our ship schedule. Further off in the distance (too far to have a decent picture) is Mount Fairweather which is considered a coastal mountain despite rising to over 15,000 ft. (4600m).
We've seen plenty of receding glaciers from the ground before. Here is what a dying glacier looks like from the air. The ice no longer reaches Muir Inlet except via the small river of meltwater.
On our flight we were generally between 1,000 and 5,000 ft. (300-1500m) above ground level, which of course was highly variable. The views were incredible throughout our flight. This is just a small lake with many of the underwater rock formations visible from above.