Glacier Bay National Park
Glacier Bay National Park. Photo Credit: Travel Alaska, Mark Kelley

Alaska’s National Parks: Your Guide to Eight Awe-Inspiring Destinations

Alaska’s National Parks: Your Guide to Eight Awe-Inspiring Destinations

From the immense tidewater glaciers of Glacier Bay National Park in Southeast Alaska to the jagged, remote peaks of the Brooks Range in Gates of the Arctic National Park in the far north, the landscapes in Alaska’s eight national parks are varied and dynamic. Alaska is home to about 60% if the United States’ national parks lands – encompassing 56 million acres. These beloved parks are home to some of the state’s most iconic sights. Massive brown bears perched atop waterfalls catching salmon. Humpback whales spouting in fjords where mountains meet the sea. Caribou migrating across vast stretches of tundra. Glaciers flanked by stunning peaks. And of course: Denali, the tallest mountain in North America.

Any visitor to Alaska should plan to visit at least one of our awe-inspiring national parks. Four of Alaska’s national parks are located along the road system or cruise routes, making them relatively easy to access and add to your Alaska itinerary. The other four parks are remote and accessible only by bush plane, all ranking in the top ten the least visited national parks in the country. This means there are ample opportunities to truly get off the beaten path and immerse yourself in the state’s grand landscapes. 

We’ve outlined each of Alaska’s eight national parks, ranked in order of most visited to least, so you can find your park and choose the outdoor adventure that’s right for you.

Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve

Glacier Bay National Park
Photo Credit: Travel Alaska, Mark Kelley

The lure of Glacier Bay National Park is its namesake glaciers, which number over 1,000 and cover about a quarter of the park. Tidewater glaciers cascade down from the mountains and terminate in the water with dramatic walls of ice 300 feet tall. Glacier calving, where chunks of ice break off and crash into the water, is a sight (and sound) to behold, resulting in booming crashes and spectacular icebergs. Wildlife viewing is another highlight here. The waters provide habitat for humpback whales, porpoises, sea otters, and sea lions, and the land is home to black bears, brown bears, mountain goats, lynx, and more.

Looking at a map of Alaska, Glacier Bay National Park looks truly remote. Perched on the northern end of the Inside Passage and surrounded by mountains to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, no roads lead here, and only one small town can be found near the park’s borders. And yet, Glacier Bay National Park is the most visited national park in Alaska, welcoming 40% of Alaska’s national park visitors. This dynamic park is a top destination on most cruise ship itineraries in Alaska. In fact, 90% of visitors to the park arrive by cruise and don’t actually disembark in the park. Cruise ships travel into the dramatic inlets of Glacier Bay to bring guests face-to-face with towering tidewater glaciers, often welcoming national park rangers onboard to give presentations and answer questions.

Boat tour in Glacier Bay National Park

Independent travelers can get to Glacier Bay through the small town of Gustavus, accessible by plane or ferry. The best way to explore the park is on the water on a full-day glacier and wildlife cruise or kayaking tours that depart from park headquarters at Bartlett Cove. The only designated hiking trails in the park are found here, along with a lodge, campground, restaurant, and the  Xunaa Shuká Hít -  the Huna Tribal House – celebrating local Tlingit art, history, and traditions.

How to Get Here: Cruise ship, Day cruise
Region: Inside Passage
Gateway Community: Gustavus
Traditional Homelands of: Tlingit Peoples

Learn more about Glacier Bay National Park.

Denali National Park & Preserve

Denali National Park

One of the most awe-inspiring sights in Alaska, snow-covered Denali soars above the tundra and the surrounding granite peaks of the Alaska Range at 20,310 feet – the tallest mountain in North America. While the Great One is the crown jewel of this magnificent park, there’s a lifetime of breathtaking sights and wildlife to be seen in this 9,500 square mile park (that’s larger than the state of New Hampshire).  

Denali National Park is one of the more accessible of Alaska’s national parks. Located west of the George Parks Highway, most visitors reach the park by road via a rental car or on a motorcoach tour. By road, Denali is about two hours south of Fairbanks and 4.5 hours north of Anchorage. The Alaska Railroad also has a stop at the entrance to the park with connections to Anchorage, Fairbanks, and several other communities along the railbelt. The park is a popular destination on pre- and post-cruise land packages.

The best way to experience Denali National Park is on a bus tour that travels the Park Road into the heart of the park. This 92-mile road is closed to private vehicles after mile 15, offering uncrowded and unparalleled sightseeing opportunities across its seemingly endless tundra and mountain landscapes. The park offers some of the best wildlife viewing in the state and is home to Alaska’s “Big 5” wildlife – bears, moose, caribou, Dall sheep, and wolves – just a fraction of the 39 mammal species and 130 bird species that can be seen here. In addition to narrated bus tours, the park offers hop on / hop off transit busses that allow visitors to explore on their own by foot or bike. There are very few established trails in Denali, making it a prime destination for visitors interested in backcountry hiking or camping.

Caribou in Denali National Park
Photo Credit: Travel Alaska, Michael DeYoung

The majority of the park’s hiking trails, along with two Visitor Centers, a campground, and the Denali Sled Dog Kennels, are located at the entrance to the park.  Also near the entrance to the park in an area known as Denali Park are a variety of visitor services including hotels, restaurants, and shops, serving as an ideal base camp for several days of soaking up the grandeur of Denali.

A note for visitors from 2024 - 2026:
The Denali Park Road will be open until mile 43 through 2026 due to road improvements. Narrated bus tours and transit buses will continue to be available for guests visiting the park and will travel as far as mile 43. The main visitor center will remain open along with four campgrounds and numerous trails accessible via the Park Road. Free shuttle bus service will run every 15 minutes during peak visitation times between the Denali Bus Depot / Denali Visitor Center to the Mountain Vista and Savage River Trailheads.

How to Get Here: Drive, Train, Motorcoach
Region: Interior
Gateway Communities: Fairbanks, Denali Park, Cantwell, Healy
Traditional Homelands of: Athabascan Peoples

Learn more about Denali National Park.

Kenai Fjords National Park

Kenai Fjords National Park

The coastal beauty of Kenai Fjords National Park is thanks to the slow movement of glaciers over tens of thousands of years, carving and sculpting deep u-shaped valleys that filled with ocean water to become fjords. Glaciers once covered this entire area, and today about half of the park is still covered in ice. The massive Harding Icefield stretches 700 square miles and is the source of 40 named tidewater glaciers that flow down among the mountains to the ocean. The nutrient-rich waters are home to a wide array of marine wildlife including humpback whales, orca whales, fin whales, Dall’s porpoises, sea otters, Steller sea lions, and over 190 species of birds. 

Erosion from flowing glaciers has created a dramatic landscape of rock spires, islands, etched cliffs, deep bays, and river valleys. With much of the park inaccessible by land and only a few miles of hiking trails, Kenai Fjords National Park is best explored by water. A scenic 2.5-hour drive or motorcoach ride along the Seward Highway from Anchorage brings you to the coastal town of Seward, the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park. Seward is also the starting point of the Alaska Railroad, which connects to Anchorage, Fairbanks, and other communities along the railbelt. The proximity to Alaska’s largest city by road and the multitude of visitor services in Seward makes Kenai Fjords National Park one of the most easily accessible parks in Alaska. 

Humpback whale breaching in Kenai Fjords National Park
Photo Credit: istockphoto, sboice

The most popular way to explore the park is on a day cruise from Seward. Cruises range from a few hours to full-day and highlight the park’s tidewater, piedmont, and alpine glaciers. Along the way, you’ll watch for whales, marine wildlife, and land mammals like mountain goats and bears along the coastline. Tour operators also lead single day and multi-day kayaking trips to paddle among the otherworldly formations of icebergs. For those that prefer to stay on land, the Exit Glacier area is accessible by road from Seward and is the starting point of the only designated hiking trails in the park. Visitors can hike to just below the glacier’s terminus or climb alongside the glacier for views overlooking the Harding Icefield.

How to Get Here: Drive, Train, Motorcoach
Region: Southcentral
Gateway Community: Seward
Traditional Homelands of: Sugpiaq Peoples

Learn more about Kenai Fjords National Park.

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
Photo Credit: Travel Alaska, Michael DeYoung

Immense Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is the largest national park in the United States, encompassing 13 million acres – that’s six times the size of Yellowstone National Park. It’s a landscape dominated by mountains where four mountain ranges converge (including the Wrangell Mountains and St. Elias Mountains - hence the name). Located within the park are nine of the sixteen highest peaks in North America. Glaciers, tundra, boreal forests, mighty rivers, and abundant wildlife make up this varied park that stretches from the Alaska Range in the north to the Gulf of Alaska in the south.

Despite its location along the Alaska road system, Wrangell-St. Elias is not the easiest to access. Two roads lead into the park: the 42-mile Nebesna Road and the 60-mile McCarthy Road, both of which are seasonal, remote, and unpaved. In fact, many rental car companies don’t let you drive the McCarthy Road due to its infamous potholes, rough grading, and the occasional old railroad spike, along with the lack of visitor services and cell service. Several companies offer van shuttle service on the McCarthy Road, or you can fly into the park on a bush plane from Chitina or Anchorage.

What will you find at the end of the road? A pedestrian-only bridge spans the churning glacial waters of the Kennicott River. From there, walk, bike, or take the shuttle about a half mile to the town of McCarthy, where you’ll feel transported back in time. Once a booming copper mining area, McCarthy and the nearby ghost town of Kennicott offer fascinating insight into another era and serve as basecamps for adventures further into the park such as hiking, packrafting, flightseeing, glacier trekking, and backpacking. Tour operators in McCarthy lead guided trips for all of these adventures and more. From McCarthy, a 5-mile shuttle down a dirt road will take you to Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark, the site of the historic copper mine, with its striking red buildings with white trim that are slowly merging with the landscape over time. Visitors can go on guided tours of the old mine buildings or explore high alpine mine ruins on several hikes that depart from the area.

Kennecott Mines National Histprical Landmark

If all of this sounds like too much adventure, you can get a glimpse into the park without straying too far off the beaten track at the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Visitor Center in Copper Center. Located along the Richardson Highway, the visitor center features exhibits, a theater, a large interactive map, and the Ahtna Cultural Center that highlights the culture and traditions of the Ahtna Athabascan people. A short hike leads to views of the spectacular Wrangell Mountains. For those looking for more adventure, Wrangell-St. Elias is a popular destination for backcountry treks, where you’ll be dropped of by bush plane into remote destinations for days of wilderness hiking, glacier trekking, and packrafting.

How to Get Here: Drive, Fly
Region: Southcentral
Gateway Communities: Copper Center, ChitinaMcCarthy ​​​
Traditional Homelands of: Athabascan Peoples

Learn more about Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.

Katmai National Park & Preserve

Bears in Katmai National Park

Situated at the top of the Alaska Peninsula, where the land that becomes the Aleutian Islands begins its long arc into the Bering Sea, sits Katmai National Park. The area is world-famous for its iconic salmon-snapping bears, but the park itself was originally created to preserve its unique geologic features. In 1912, the Novarupta Volcano erupted, spewing ash and volcanic matter for 60 hours in what became the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century and one of the five largest ever recorded. A 40 square mile area was covered in magma and ash, attracting the attention of scientists interested in studying the effects of volcanoes on the landscape and climate. Thanks to the scientific significance of this area the park was created in 1918. The volcanic landscape was named Valley of 10,000 Smokes.

But back to the bears. The vast majority of people who visit Katmai National Park come for the over 2,000 brawny bruins who spend their summers here fattening up on salmon in preparation for winter hibernation. An area called Brooks Camp is situated around the highest concentration of bears thanks to large runs of sockeye salmon that travel up the Brooks River to spawn. Of particular fame is Brooks Falls, where dozens of bears can be seen at one time above and below the waterfall feasting on salmon. Bears are viewable here mid-June through September, though the numbers fluctuate based on timing of the salmon run.  

Given Katmai’s remote location in Southwest Alaska it may come as a surprise that the Brooks Camp area can be quite bustling. Day tours on float planes from Anchorage, Homer, and Kodiak bring visitors to spend several hours watching the bears from viewing platforms. Overnight visitors also stay at Brooks Camp at the area’s lodge and campground. However, you don’t even have to travel to Katmai to enjoy the magic of Brooks Falls. Several live webcams stream all of the action during the summer months. In the fall, the Katmai Conservancy hosts the increasingly popular Fat Bear Week, where the public gets to vote on which bears were most successful packing on the pounds in a bracket-style competition.

Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, Katmai National Park
Valley of 10,000 Smokes. Photo Credit: istockphoto, christiannafzger

Beyond the bears, there’s plenty of other things to do in Katmai National Park. The area is a popular destination for anglers seeking out salmon, rainbow trout, Arctic char, northern pike, and more from rivers and lakes. Hiking, backpacking, river trips, and remote backcountry lodges get you away from the crowds to more remote areas of the park. Valley of 10,000 smokes also continues to draw visitors today. A day trip from Brooks Camp brings you to the edge of the flow, where you can hike down to panoramic vistas of the otherworldly volcanic terrain.

How to Get Here: Fly, Boat from King Salmon
Region: Southwest
Gateway Communities: King Salmon (for overnight trips), Anchorage, Homer, and Kodiak (for day trips)
Traditional Homelands of: Sugpiaq Peoples

Learn more about Katmai National Park.

Kobuk Valley National Park

Kobuk Valley National Park

This remote park is located entirely above the Arctic Circle, bordered by vast swaths of protected lands including Gates of the Artic National Park to the east, Noatak National Preserve to the north, and Selawik National Wildlife Refuge to the south. There are no roads, campgrounds, trails, or facilities within the park. Adventurous visitors are attracted to the area for backcountry float trips along the Kobuk and Salmon Rivers, along with backcountry hiking and camping, fishing, and flightseeing.

In addition to its Arctic landscape, two things set this park apart: sand dunes and caribou. The Great Kobuk Sand Dunes are located in the southeast corner of the park and are the largest active sand dunes in the Arctic. The dunes rise up to 100 feet in stark contrast to the surrounding tundra. This surprising landscape is one of the most popular spots for hiking and camping within the park.

Edge of the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes
Edge of the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes. Photo Credit: National Park Service Alaska Flikr

The Western Arctic Caribou Herd, the largest caribou herd in the state with over 150,000 animals, migrates across Kobuk Valley National Park in their annual 600-mile migration. Their route takes them across the Kobuk River twice a year at Onion Portage. This culturally significant area has been used by Iñupiaq people for around 10,000 years as a place to gather and hunt, and continues to be an important place for subsistence practices today.

Kobuk Valley National Park is not a destination for your average visitor. You must have backcountry experience, be self-sufficient, and be prepared for rapidly changing weather. For a less extreme adventure, flightseeing trips from Kotzebue and Bettles can give you a bird’s eye view of this dramatic landscape. The Northwest Arctic Heritage Center in Kotzebue provides information about the park and Iñupiaq culture.

How to Get Here: Fly
Region: Arctic
Gateway Communities: KotzebueBettles
Traditional Homelands of: Iñupiaq Peoples

Learn more about Kobuk Valley National Park.

Lake Clark National Park & Preserve

Fly fishing in Lake Clark National Park

A hidden gem of Alaska’s national parks, Lake Clark National Park is surprisingly easy to get to despite its status as the second least visited park in the state. The park is located across Cook Inlet from the Kenai Peninsula, making it accessible via a quick flight from easily accessible communities like Anchorage, Kenai, and Homer. There are also more facilities here than some of the other least-visited parks, with a ranger station, several miles of hiking trails, a campground, lodging, and outfitters found in the small village of Port Alsworth located within the park boundaries. A surprising array of wilderness lodges are scattered throughout the park, catering to anglers and wildlife viewing enthusiasts looking for a remote backcountry getaway.

The park’s landscape is a mosaic of mountains, active volcanoes, tundra, forest, and coastline, and its lakes, rivers, and streams provide important spawning habitat for over 200,000 sockeye salmon annually.  Like its sister park to the south, Katmai, the fish attract both bears and people. Sportfishing on the cold and clear lakes and rivers is a popular activity here, along with float trips along the park’s three designated National Wild & Scenic Rivers. Bears gather at lakes and rivers to feed on salmon and can be seen digging for clams along the coastline. Day bear viewing trips departing on small planes from Homer, Kenai, and Anchorage are a great introduction to Lake Clark National Park and provide a less busy alternative to bear viewing in Katmai National Park.

Bear in Lake Clark Naitonal Park
Photo Credit: Travel Alaska, Chris McLennan

Most overnight visitors travel through the park’s hub communities of Port Alsworth, located on the eastern shore of Lake Clark, or Iliamna, a small town just south of the park located on Alaska’s largest lake – Lake Iliamna. Both towns are accessible by a quick flight from Homer, Kenai, and Anchorage.

Learn more about Lake Clark National Park.

How to Get Here: Fly
Region: Southwest
Gateway Community: Port Alsworth and Iliamna (overnight trips), Homer, Kenai, and Anchorage (day trips)
Traditional Homelands of: Athabascan Peoples

Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve

Woman backpacking in Gates of the Arctic National Park
Photo Credit: Alamy, Nature Picture Library

Alaska’s least visited national park is also its northernmost, located entirely above the Arctic Circle within the mighty Brooks Range that extends through the heart of Alaska’s Arctic region. Wide glacier-carved valleys, jagged granite spires, rugged mountains, swift rivers, and treeless tundra make up the landscape of this stunning park. The Western Arctic Caribou Herd – the largest in Alaska – traverses this park on their annual migration. Gates of the Arctic is the second largest national park in the United States, second only to Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias, encompassing an area the size of Switzerland.

With no roads, campgrounds, or designated hiking trails in the park, backcountry adventures are the most popular way to explore Gates of the Arctic. Float trips down rivers such as the Koyukuk, Noatak, and Kobuk are popular, along with backcountry hiking along open valleys and climbing in the dramatic Arrigetch Peaks. Backcountry experience is necessary for exploring the park on your own, and several outfitters offer guided hiking and float trips if you’d rather let the experts leads the way.

Anaktuvuk Pass in Gates of the Arctic National Park
Photo Credit: Travel Alaska, Michael DeYoung

Most visitors access Gates of the Arctic National Park on a bush plane from the gateway communities of Bettles and Coldfoot. Anaktuvuk Pass, an Iñupiaq community located within the park, also serves as a basecamp for backcountry trips. The eastern border of the park parallels the Dalton Highway and is just 5 miles away at its closest, making it possible to hike into the park. Flightseeing trips from the gateway communities and Fairbanks are an excellent way to appreciate the park’s grandeur without the challenge of backcountry travel. General information about the park can be found at the Public Lands Information Center located in the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center in Fairbanks and at the Arctic Interagency Visitor Center in Coldfoot.  

How to Get Here: Fly, Hike
Region: Arctic
Gateway Community: BettlesColdfootAnaktuvuk Pass
Traditional Homelands of: Athabascan and Iñupiaq Peoples

Learn more about Gates of the Arctic National Park.


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