Public Lands: The Biggest and the Best
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is the largest national park in Alaska and the United States. It is named for two mountain ranges that form its backbone, and its boundaries include more than 12.3 million acres. This park is prime for wilderness-oriented activities, and is accessible by car from either the Richardson Highway or the Tok Cutoff (another highway) in the eastern portion of the state. The town of McCarthy is located at the end of the McCarthy Road, which snakes back into the park from off the Richardson Highway, and is a charming destination that offers tours throughout the area including the nearby (and now deserted) Kennecott Mine, a national historic landmark. Other activity options in the park include glacier trekking, hiking, camping, flightseeing, fishing, kayaking and much more.
The most visited national park in Alaska is in Skagway, and one history buffs are bound to enjoy. Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park had 797,716 visits in 2010 and receives much of this traffic from cruise ships stopping at the popular port town of Skagway during the summer. The park commemorates the Klondike Gold Rush that began in 1897, and today visitors can take part in a variety of activities that commemorate this history. Hike the 33-mile-long Chilkoot Trail, the main route hopeful prospectors hiked to the Klondike region of Canada’s Yukon, or explore the old boomtown of Dyea, located at the trailhead of the Chilkoot and now recognized as a National Historic Landmark.
When talking national parks in Alaska, it’s impossible to leave out one of the most well known. Denali National Park and Preserve includes North America’s tallest peak, Mount McKinley. Located along the Parks Highway between Anchorage and Fairbanks (as well as on Alaska railroad routes between the same two cities), Denali offers visitors an endless amount of recreation and fun through rafting, hiking and flighseeing tours, wildlife viewing and a cluster of restaurants and overnight accommodations at the park’s entrance. For added adventure, travel into the park on various guided excursions and overnight at one of the lodges situated at the end of the park’s only road.
Other national parks that offer easy access to travelers include the maritime Kenai Fjords National Park. Its gateway community of Seward is a popular port for cruise ships and offers numerous guided excursions, including day cruises and kayak trips. If you’re traveling the Inside Passage, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, located about 10 miles down the road from the town of Gustavus, provides some of the best tidewater glacier vistas anywhere in the state and is easily accessed by boat or plane from nearby Juneau. Katmai National Park and Preserve is renowned for bear viewing, and while it’s not accessible by road, it can be reached via a flightseeing tour from Homer, Kodiak or Anchorage. Feeling even more adventurous? Tour operations from Fairbanks, Bettles and Kotzebue will fly you into Gates of the Arctic National Park, a remote wilderness area above the Arctic Circle, far from any roads and home to the Brooks Mountain Range.
Many of Alaska’s public lands are rich in Alaska Native culture. Totem Bight State Historical Park near Ketchikan displays restored totem poles in the tradition of the Tlingit people of Alaska’s Inside Passage region. The park is a popular shore excursion for cruise passengers visiting Ketchikan. Likewise, the 113-acre Sitka National Historical Park, located in the former capital of Russian-owned Alaska, also features a massive collection of totems. It’s Alaska’s oldest national park and celebrated 100 years in 2010. Totems line the well maintained trails in the park, which meander through a stand of Sitka spruce. The park also includes the Russian Bishop's House — one of the few surviving architectural examples of the Russian colonial period in North America.
More than 200 public-use cabins are available for rent throughout the state of Alaska, in alpine areas or along lakes, streams, rivers, ocean shorelines and trails. They’re managed by different public agencies and maintain their own set of guidelines for renting. Permits for use are typically offered on a first-come, first-serve basis and accommodations are basic, usually consisting of a heating stove, bunks/sleeping platforms, table and chairs and an outhouse. Renters are responsible for providing food, a cook stove and cooking utensils, water and any bedding. Cabins can be rented through the U.S. Forest Service, Alaska State Parks, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and others. The easiest way to get information on cabins is to call the convention and visitors bureau in the area where you want to camp and ask them what’s available and how to make reservations, or contact one of the four Alaska Public Lands Information Centers throughout the state.