It is no coincidence that remote and inaccessible is virtually synonymous with stunning wilderness and incredible scenery. A lack of people tends to let nature grow and maintain itself as nature intended. The wilds of the eight Alaska National Parks are no exception to this rule.
Alaska is arguably one of the best places on Earth to witness nature in action, from slow-moving glaciers on their millenia-long journeys to bears engaged in lightning fast salmon fishing at waterfalls.
And with relatively easier access than more inhospitable regions across the world, these eight Alaska National Parks are in a prime position to show off the breathtaking beauty of nature.
What’s better is that while they contain large amounts of remote areas, with a little bit of commitment it is possible to visit each one of these national parks. Whether it be part of a tour, like the ones offered by Artisan Travel, or in an independent fashion you are guaranteed one thing, an epic adventure.
Alaska National Parks
Denali National Park and Preserve
Located near Anchorage, it’s named after Denali, the highest peak in North America, previously known as Mount McKinley (20,310 feet). It was established as Mount McKinley National Park in 1917, and changed to its Athabascan name Denali (meaning “tall one”) in 2015.
Since the building of a highway linking the park to Anchorage, visitor attendance has soared. Due to it’s accessibility from a major road, it is no wonder that Denali is the most popular and most visited of the Alaska National Parks. With an area of 6,075,107 acres, people are attracted to Denali for glimpses of wildlife such as caribou, moose, and grizzly bears.
Then there’s hiking, either on one of few marked trails, or off-trail in any direction; one of Denali’s draws is the fact that while accessible it is still a trail less wilderness. It’s best to visit the Denali Visitor Center to talk to a Ranger before you set off.
Camping is an epic way to experience the park, alongside rivers and lakes in the stunning beauty of this natural wonderland. There are various ways to get there from Anchorage, including the train (7.5 hours, glass-domed carriages, meals), the bus (between 5 and 6 hours, great views on the Denali Park Road), or to drive yourself. “Flightseeing” on a small aircraft is possible but very expensive.
It is also possible to have a Heli-Hike adventure, where you board a helicopter in the Denali Village and are then flown deep into the park where you are dropped. You’ll spend the day navigating by compass and topography maps, moving with the lay of the land and exploring before radioing back to base and being retrieved again by a helicopter.
Read about our Heli-Hiking adventure in Denali State Park.
Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve
In a land where the sun doesn’t set for 30 days during the summer, here is a veritable sanctuary for wildlife, where you’ll find more than 145 species of bird and many mammals including musk oxen and caribou, as well as wolves, grizzlies, wolverines and foxes.
It’s named after two of the area’s peaks, Mount Boreal and Frigid Crags, flanking the Koyukuk River like a gate.
Established as recently as 1980, the park is a massive 8,500,000 acres of jagged country and forest lowlands, an inhospitable landscape located entirely within the Arctic Circle. Where the road ends, the real Alaska begins, and no road through this park.
You can however drive there from Fairbanks, but it’s a hard hike to Gates of the Arctic’s interior; most people choose to make the 250-mile flight from Fairbanks. Just remember, this is the least visited of all the Alaska National Parks for a reason. It’s remote.
The weather can be very unpredictable, with snow and rain in any given month, and August is particularly wet and mosquito-ridden. This is real wilderness: no visitor facilities and no marked trails, so bring with you what you need. And a map.
Take care to keep this pristine environment intact – increased visitor numbers have left a negative impact on the park thus far. Contact the Bettles Ranger Station for more information to help you plan your trip.
Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve
True to its name, Glacier Bay is home to seven tidewater glaciers, as well as 1,045 terrestrial glaciers. Very close to Canada, approaching within 15 miles of the border, it’s part of a larger area formed by a UNESCO World Heritage Site spanning the two countries.
At 3,223,384 acres in size it is home to icefields as well as alpine coastal forests and tundra.
In-park accommodation includes lodges where you can base yourself for activities such as kayaking, fishing, birdwatching and – of course – hiking. Wildlife to see includes not only land but sea mammals with seals and whales not being uncommon.
Established in 1980, the park is also home to two Tlingit ancestral homelands, still important both culturally and spiritually to the living communities.
There are no roads leading into it. Despite this, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve still receives over 500,000 visitors per year: the park can be reached by airplane, and some make their way via white water rafting trips, but 80% of visitors arrive via cruise ships.
From Juneau the easiest (and most scenic) way to get there is by ferry, when in summer the Ferry LeConte stops twice weekly in Gustavus, gateway to the Glacier Bay.
Katmai National Park and Preserve
Located on the Alaskan Peninsula, this National Park is home to Mount Katmai, the stratovolcano after which it is named; in fact, including Katmai, the park boasts 6 active volcanoes.
Established like many of the Alaskan National Parks in 1980, this park is famous for its brown bear population (estimated at 2,200) who feed on the salmon in the park’s wild rivers.
But most of all they like to congregate at Brooks Falls viewing platform when the salmon spawn in summer and are easy-pickings for the bears.
Amazing pictures are easy-pickings for amateur photographers too, with it being quite simple to take out your camera and effortlessly snap a National Geographic-style photo here.
You might need to take a Bear Etiquette class beforehand, as chances of being close to one of these animals are likely.
Commercial flights or daily air taxis are the best way of getting in and around the park (PenAir and Alaska Airlines).
Kenai Fjords National Park
Here is a land where glaciers and icecaps meet the ocean in a dramatic coastline of fjords – the Norwegian word for deep-cut inlets formed by millenia of glaciers carving through rock.
Established in 1980 the park is only 669,984 acres, with the United States’ largest icefield, the Harding Icefield (which dates back over 10,000 years to the last Ice Age), taking up almost a third of that area (192,000 acres).
For a scenic and serene hiking experience you can trek the Harding Icefield trail, which is strenuous but worth every step. You can see puffins, mountain goats, sea lions and otters.
On a boat tour you can even catch a glimpse of humpback whales and orcas. Even in the rain this place is breathtakingly beautiful. 4 hiking trails and 1 campsite and 3 reservation-only cabins are at your disposal here.
Located just outside the town of Seward, south-central Alaska, you can access the Kenai Fjords National Park via car or bus from the town to Exit Glacier. Cruises also often begin or end their journeys in Seward.
Kobuk Valley National Park
A fantastic swathe of wilderness, an arctic desert and beautiful forests and streams makes for an otherworldly landscape. Located in Alaska’s North West, 40 KM north of the Arctic Circle, you can get dropped off here by bush plane and not see anybody or anything else for miles around.
It’s named after the valley through which the Kobuk River runs (Kobuk is an Inupiaq Eskimo word meaning “big river”).
The protection of the Bard and Waring mountain ranges, which encircle the valley, creates a bowl where a unique feature can be formed: the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes. The sand is created by the grinding action of glaciers.
It’s an hour-long hike through the park to get to the dunes. But be warned: in all of its 1,795,280 acres there’s not a single marked trail, and with no facilities the only accommodation is backcountry camping.
As for wildlife, around half a million caribou migrate through Kobuk Valley National Park two times a year (up in spring, down in fall). Low-gradient and slow-moving, boating down the Kobuk River is a great way to see this amazing landscape and should be undertaken in the summer months.
It takes 5-7 days to float west to east from Ambler to Kiana through the park.
Commercial airways take you to Kotzebue (from Anchorage) or Bettles (from Fairbanks) and from there it’s possible to get into Kobuk Valley National Park via authorized air taxis.
Lake Clark National Park and Preserve
Said to be one all of the best parts of Alaska rolled into one, this 4,030,015 acre National Park offers various environments for backpacking, fishing, hiking, photography, to name a few.
At 42 miles long and 260 meters deep, Lake Clark itself is the sixth largest in Alaska. The park also features two volcanoes: the active Redoubt and the dormant Iliamna.
Fishing is permitted in both park and preserve, but sport hunting may only be done in the preserve. Though remote, there’s a wide variety of accommodation located within the park itself, from campgrounds to bed-and-breakfasts and inclusive lodges with tour options!
Most large Alaskan animals make their home in the park, including brown bears. And as with most wild locations in the state, there’s no road access so plane and boat, or even by floatplane, is the only way to get there.
By boat, several charter tours operate along the Kenai peninsula, which includes a portion of the Lake Clark coastline. By air, it’s best to look up authorized air taxi services to the park.
Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve
This is the largest National Park in the USA at 13,175,799 acres, or around six Yellowstones, roughly the size of Switzerland. Along with Glacier Bay it makes up part of the same binational UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s tallest peak is Mount St. Elias (18,008 feet), the second-tallest in both the US and Canada.
It’s packed full of things to do with relatively easy access to walk on glaciers, ice-climbing or hiking, allowing you to take in amazing 360 degree views and stunning landscapes. There’s a lack of facilities, so you’ll need to plan for backpacking trips.
It’s off the beaten track: the place to see the real Alaska. It gets only 30,000 visitors annually so it’s a great place to come if you want to avoid tourists of any kind. It’s remote, wild and untamed.
Beginning at Chitina, the unpaved McCarthy Road winds deep into the national park, a great way to see a slice of the spectacular scenery. There are no fuel services within the park so come prepared. Going to the Wrangell-St. Elias Visitor Center, located along the Richardson Highway, for advice ahead of your trip is wise.
Visiting Alaska National Parks
We visited four of the eight Alaska National Parks during our last visit to Alaska. No matter which one you choose to explore, you’re going to experience some pretty epic landscapes and wildlife.
Be sure to follow all the rules of the National Park System, stop into the ranger stations when you arrive to pay for the entrance ticket and get advice from the rangers before entering any of the parks.
While it might be easy to get a false sense of security at the entrance to the park, remember that these areas are protected wilderness, meaning it’s wild and pure nature out there. Practice safety first, embrace it and bring your camera. Alaska has some of the most remote and stunning parks in the United States.
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