Alaska's awe-inspiring National Parks and Monuments
Glaciers, bears, mountains and trinkets await you
June 1, 2023 | View PDF
Recently, a press statement came in from online travel guide Travel Lemming that reported on national parks ranked by affordability, accessibility, biodiversity, crowds, reviews and weather.
The overall rankings of Alaska's National Parks are: Kenai Fjords, No. 13; Katmai, No. 21; Denali, No. 36; Wrangell-St. Elias, No. 39; Lake Clark, No. 43; Glacier Bay, No. 48; Gates of the Arctic, No. 62; and Kobuk Valley, No. 63.
All eight of Alaska's National Parks were in the top 15 for crowds. Gates of the Arctic, a remote wilderness area in the Brooks Range, ranked No. 1 for the least crowded. This is a no-brainer because the park is so hard to get to and visitors rarely come across anyone else.
Alaska's national parks were all over the map when it came to reviews. Reportedly, weather was a determining factor in the low rankings of Alaska's parks. Kenai Fjords, Katmai, Denali, Wrangell-St. Elias, Lake Clark and Glacier Bay all tied at No. 53 for weather. Meanwhile, Gates of the Arctic came in at No. 63, and Kobuk Valley at No. 62.
I have to ask, where did these people think they were visiting-Bermuda? And why didn't they take the age-old advice given out to every tourist - "dress accordingly and in layers"?
The diversity of Alaska's parks
Head in any direction in Alaska and you'll hit a national park, and each one offers distinctly different geography and choice of adventure from adrenaline crazy to on-your-seat safety.
Bering Land Bridge National Preserve
Welcome to its 2.7 million acres on the Seward Peninsula in Northwest Alaska, and one of the most remote protected areas of the United States.
There are no roads so access to the preserve is by small airplane, boat or foot, and in the winter by snowmachine.
Visitors to the preserve find themselves in the midst of natural hot springs, ancient lava flows, and the largest maar lakes in the world. A maar is a broad, low-relief volcanic crater caused by an explosion occurring when groundwater comes into contact with hot lava or magma, then fills with water to form a shallow crater lake.
More than 114 beach ridges provide evidence of human use for 5,000 years. The Inupiat people continue to use the area today.
It's a perfect place for you to camp, bird watch the 170 species of migratory birds, hunt, gather berries, trap, fish, and in peaceful isolation soak in the Serpentine Hot Springs.
Denali National Park and Preserve
One late winter, I drove from Anchorage to Fairbanks in severe minus temperatures so cold that my engine sounded like a dying airplane engine, but I was rewarded by seeing a meteor zoom over the top of Denali.
One of Alaska's most accessible and spectacular parks, Denali National Park and Preserve has the nation's highest peak at 20,310 feet, which comes with its own weather system. The six million-acre-wilderness landscape ranges from dense forests to high alpine tundra. Grizzlies, caribou, wolves, porcupines, ptarmigan, and many other species roam the land and some pass by if you drive in or take a bus.
Aside from the wild animals and awesome views, Denali has an abundance of lodging, restaurants and souvenir shops. There are tours galore.
When is a good time to visit? The National Park website says all summer, but I prefer spring before the tourists and when the land is just waking up along with the groggy bears.
Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve
Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve above the Arctic Circle has no roads – it's fly-in, walk-in, or come by river.
In the summer, the sun barely sets, which can be confusing, and in the winter there's hardly any light, which can be depressing. But with no lights to obscure the view of the skies, northern lights dance and the Milky Way and the Big Dipper shine bright.
In the Brooks Range, with peaks ranging from 4,000 to 9,000 feet, it extends east to west about 600 miles. The mountains are so high that your sense of distance becomes scrambled.
When visiting Anaktuvuk Pass, translated from Inupiaq as "the place where caribou poop," do go to the Simon Paneak Museum. Paneak was an early contributor and collaborator to visiting wildlife biologists and the author of several books. Find more info at the museum website, http://www.north-slope.org/departments/inupiat-history-language-culture/simon-paneak-memorial-museum/.
There's hiking and backpacking, camping, river kayaking, and wildlife viewing – especially of the Western Arctic caribou herd.
Katmai National Park and Preserve
You may have seen the film "Grizzly Man" abut Timothy Treadwell, who, with his girlfriend was killed and eaten by a grizzly bear. However, be advised that tours are professionally guided and this will not happen to you.
It has been managed by the National Park Service since 1918 to protect the abundant sockeye salmon that spawn in its wild rivers, as well as the bears that catch the salmon. You can watch them fish Brooks Falls on its webcam https://explore.org/livecams/brown-bears/brown-bear-salmon-cam-brooks-falls.
You will have to fly in to visit in person. http://www.nps.gov/katm/index.htm.
Kenai Fjords National Park
This very accessible park 126 miles south of Anchorage on the Seward Highway has nearly 40 glaciers flowing from the Harding Ice Fields all the way to the sea. You can take a tour out to see them.
Like Denali, the jumping off point of Seward has plenty of places to stay, and lots of shopping for trinkets.
For hardier souls there's kayaking or fishing tours to take you out on the water.
Kobuk Valley National Park
There may be no truer example of what makes national parks in Alaska so unique than Kobuk Valley National Park. The park is not only home to wild rivers and conifer forests, but also vast swaths of sand dunes that wouldn't look out of place in the Utah desert. Enormous herds of caribou migrate across the park every year, and native people hunt them just as they did thousands of years ago. There's sightseeing and flightseeing, backpacking and backcountry camping, fishing, and floating and boating. You'll have to fly in.
Sitka National Historical Park
Take an Alaska Marine Highway ferry from Juneau to Sitka, a nine-and-a-half hour ride. But with a senior discount ticket in hand, you'll be able to wander the boat and sleep on one of the lounge chairs on the solarium deck. But stay alert to see the parade of marine mammals and eagles along the way.
In Sitka, Tlingit and Haida totem poles stand watch along the coast and visitors can tour the battle site where invading Russian traders once clashed with indigenous Kiks.ádi Tlingit people.
There are ranger-guided programs and tours, hiking and sightseeing, and children's programs.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve
The largest national park in the United States, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is also one of the country's most diverse. With 13.2 million acres that range from temperate rainforest to frigid tundra, this is a park not for the faint of heart. The Wrangell and St. Elias Ranges contain some of the largest volcanoes and greatest concentration of glaciers in North America. It also contains the Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark (www.nps.gov/wrst/planyourvisit/kennecott-visitor-center.htm).
Visitors are encouraged to visit the Chitina Ranger Station. Services available at Chitina include a post office, gas station,food store, café and telephone.
Beyond Chitina, the 61-mile gravel road follows the abandoned Copper River and Northwest Railroad bed to the Kennicott River, where the McCarthy Road ends and you can walk into the park. http://www.nps.gov/wrst/index.htm
Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park
While the historic Chilkoot Trail may be closed for repairs, the town of Skagway is open for visitors. Stroll down Broadway and visit the park's restored Klondike Gold Rush Era buildings, including a saloon and Soapy Smith's notorious parlor where he fleeced cheechakoes.
Do you think you may have ancestors who took part in the Klondike Gold Rush? Stop in at park headquarters to ask for information.
Take a ride on the Klondike Gold Rush Era White Pass and Yukon Route Railway for a ride up the White Pass or into Canada.
There's lots to do here and lots of stores.
Reachable by a six-hour ferry for a plane from Juneau, or an 18-hour drive from Anchorage.