National parks are a defining feature of Alaska. Incorporating vast tracts of mountains, forest, ice, and tundra, the state’s eight main protected areas are colossal in both beauty and scale, dwarfing anything in the Lower 48.
Wrangell-St Elias is the world’s second-largest national park covering an area larger than Switzerland; Gates of the Arctic is so remote that it only gets around 7000 annual visitors; while easily accessible Denali is, arguably, the best place in North America to view big fauna.
Be you a first-time cheechako or an experienced sourdough, visiting at least one of these pristine wildernesses is practically de rigueur. Most national parks are open and accessible between May and September. Here’s the lowdown on six of the best.
Best national park for wildlife-watching
If Alaska has a symbolic heart, Denali is it. Located approximately halfway between Anchorage and Fairbanks and anchored by the tallest mountain in North America, it marries easy accessibility with the raw, seductive pull of the wilderness, for those who crave it.
Within four driving hours of Anchorage and often included as the land-based part of a cruise tour, the park is well set up to receive visitors of all types. Special buses (with driver-guides) ply its one arterial road penetrating deep into the interior through a sweeping landscape of empty tundra – empty except for wildlife. Count yourself extremely unlucky if you don’t witness regular sightings of roaming bears, moose, caribou, and Dall sheep framed by the giant icy dome of what locals call “the mountain”.
Scaling 20,310ft Denali is a serious feat of mountaineering. Lesser mortals can take advantage of a compact lattice of well-marked trails near the entrance gate or chance their arm pitching across the tundra from random points on the 93-mile-long “Park Road” with just the sun and stars (and a GPS) to guide them.
2. Wrangell-St Elias
Best national park for mining history
Larger than nine US states and several European countries, but with a permanent population of less than one hundred, Wrangell-St Elias gives new meaning to the word remote. Welcome to one of the most off-the-beaten-track national parks in the US, but one that, with some insider knowledge, is surprisingly accessible.
From May to September, it’s possible to reach Wrangell-St Elias on a shuttle bus from the town of Glennallen along a single unpaved road that branches off the Richardson Hwy near Copper Center.
Aside from the spectacular natural scenery, the main reason to visit the park is to see the twin outback villages of Kennecott and McCarthy. The former is a copper mining ghost town whose part-ruined, part-restored buildings, including a retro hotel, are protected by the national park service (which runs tours). The latter was a one-time den of iniquity for off-duty miners that is, today, a gritty subsistence-hunting community with a slew of clapboard buildings, including a couple of saloons and a hotel called Ma Johnson’s that could come straight out of the 1992 movie Tombstone. It’s arguably the closest thing to a genuine frontier town in the US.
Beyond a handful of trails to disused mining shafts and a glacier you can walk on, the rest of the park is 99.9 percent empty and yours for the taking if you like fly-in hiking, scaling unclimbed mountains and seriously adventurous backcountry camping. Unless you’re a hardened hermit, book your trip with the superb St Elias Alpine Guides.
Best national park to view brown bears
If you’ve ever seen one of those majestic photos of a 1000lb bear standing in a cascading river about to snap a live salmon between its jaws, chances are it was probably taken in Katmai National Park. At certain times of year (July and September), Brooks Falls – the park’s watery nexus and main entry point – is a veritable traffic jam of bears lured by the tasty promise of spawning salmon.
To witness this extraordinary natural spectacle safely, expect to pay a chunk of change. Katmai is a fly-in-only park (your first big transaction) and the rustic all-inclusive accommodation at Brooks Lodge will relieve you of another generous slice of your savings. The trade-off – the kind of spirit-reviving, once-in-a-lifetime experience few others get to see. Trips can be organized out of Anchorage.
4. Gates of the Arctic
Best national park for off-the-grid adventurers
If Denali represents America’s hard-bitten frontier, Gates of the Arctic is the frontier on the frontier. Things are served bigger, brawnier, and more basic here. Trails? There are none. Cell phone coverage? Forget it. Accommodations? Bring a tent and don’t expect to find anything as luxurious as a campground.
This is a park for hardcore adventurers and/or people comfortable with organizing the logistics of a full-blown expedition. For non-expert travelers hungry for a slice of Alaska at its most savage, you can make things simpler by arranging a week-long guided trip with Arctic Wild.
5. Kenai Fjords
Best national park for hiking and kayaking
Kenai Fjords is Alaska’s most accessible and popular park after Denali. Located 2½ hours south of Anchorage in the Kenai peninsula, its most dramatic feature is the Harding icefield, a Luxembourg-sized reservoir of snow and ice that feeds over 40 glaciers. The giant ice floes spill ponderously off the Kenai mountains before colliding thunderously with the frigid waters of the Gulf of Alaska.
Boat cruises and kayaking trips are the park’s premier draw and are easy to organize in the hub town of Seward. Vessels tentatively track the coast, diverting into deep inlets to get close to giant tidewater glaciers as they discharge their enormous chunks of ice into the sea. The surrounding marine life is both diverse and abundant.
Back on land, Kenai’s main attraction is the Exit glacier, a rapidly retreating river of ice just north of Seward that acts as an important barometer of climate change. Drive-by visitors can get close to the glacier’s melting snout on a short interpretive trail guided by park rangers, but the area’s headline hike is a much steeper climb to the lofty lip of the Harding icefield. The moderately challenging but well-trodden trail tracks through several layers of ever-changing ecosystems to a land eerily reminiscent of Antarctica.
6. Glacier Bay
Best national park for cruise ships
Glacier Bay in the northern reaches of the Alaskan panhandle is famed in the cruise ship industry for its elemental tidewater glaciers and myriad marine life (whales are a star feature). As a result, the park gets over 700,000 visitors a year, although the vast majority never put their feet on dry land.
If you arrive on a cruise liner, a national park guide will join you on board to give a detailed lowdown of the natural surroundings. For indie travelers, the main park nexus is Gustavus, a classic Alaskan outback town where bears are as common as raccoons and the gas pumps look like relics from the 1930s. In nearby Bartlett Cove, you’ll find a free campground, a recently rebuilt tribal house belonging to the Huma Tlingit (with regular events and happenings), and the means to organize rugged kayaking and whale-watching trips that head deeper into the wilderness.
National Historical Parks: Sitka and Skagway
The National Park Service also manages two National Historical Parks in the towns of Sitka and Skagway. Compared to their larger counterparts, these small units are easy to reach, user-friendly, and crammed with fascinating nuggets of pioneer history. Sitka catalogs Tlingit and Russian-colonial history with totem poles, carving workshops, and buildings dating from the 1840s. Skagway relives the Klondike Gold Rush with museums, historical reenactments, and a chance to hike the iconic 33-mile Chilkoot Trail.