Alaska's Off-The-Beaten-Path National Parks
It’s easy to see why some of Alaska’s most iconic destinations are our national parks. From the tallest mountain in North America to large gatherings of bears and caribou to towering glaciers and significant Alaska Native cultural sites, the 8 national parks in Alaska are home to some of the state’s most dramatic landscapes.
With over 56 million acres – that’s about 60% of the United States’ total national parks – there’s no shortage of national park lands to explore in Alaska. And while you may be drawn to visit some of our more popular parks like Denali National Park & Preserve, Kenai Fjords National Park, Glacier Bay National Park, and Katmai National Park & Preserve, Alaska’s other national parks offer even more opportunities to get off the beaten track and find solitude in Alaska’s wide-open spaces.
Lake Clark National Park & Preserve
Visitors to Lake Clark National Park & Preserve will discover dramatic mountain and lake scenery, bear viewing, and fantastic fishing, with about half of the visitor numbers of nearby Katmai National Park & Preserve. Located in Southwest Alaska on the traditional homeland of the Dena’ina Athabascan people, Lake Clark is accessibly by short flight from Anchorage, Kenai, and Homer.
Bear viewing day trips are one of the most popular ways to visit the park. Typically departing from Anchorage or Homer, these trips take visitors into the park on a small plane to remote beaches to spend several hours bear viewing. Look around and you’re likely to see bears in all directions feeding on clams on the tidal flats and salmon along lakes and creeks.
Speaking of salmon, Lake Clark National Park & Preserve is also a prime destination for fishing. Home to the largest lake in Alaska, Lake Iliamna, and three designated Wild and Scenic Rivers, the park features outstanding fishing for salmon, northern pike, trout, and more. Several remote fishing lodges are accessible from the small towns of Port Alsworth on the shores of Lake Clark and Iliamna on the shores of Lake Iliamna.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve
If you’re looking for big adventures, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park has you covered – it’s the largest national park in the United States and is home to the second tallest mountain in North America, Mount St. Elias. Three mountain ranges converge in the park, creating a landscape of jagged peaks, massive glaciers, and 9 of the 16 highest mountains in the country.
Wrangell-St. EIias is relatively easy to get to compared to other off-the-beaten-path national parks. Located along the road system in Southcentral Alaska, visitors can reach the park by driving the 60-mile dirt road to McCarthy (make sure your rental car company allows you to drive the McCarthy Road first!) or by taking a short flight from the town of Chitina. There is also a shuttle service to McCarthy that departs from Glennallen and several other nearby communities. Visit the Wrangell-St. Elias Visitor Center in Copper Center for exhibits, hiking trails, and Athabascan cultural experiences at the Ahtna Cultural Center.
For history buffs and outdoor adventurers, the small town of McCarthy is the perfect jumping off point for exploring the park. From here, visitors can take a shuttle to the Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark for guided tours of the historic copper mine or go for a hike on one of the area’s spectacular hiking trails. Several tour companies offer flightseeing, rafting, hiking, backcountry camping, glacier trekking, and other adventurous excursions from McCarthy.
Gates of the Arctic National Park & PRESERVE
The second largest national park in the United States is also the least visited. In an area the size of Switzerland, Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve encompasses wild rivers, the jagged mountains of the Brooks Range, and vast Arctic tundra.
While the eastern edge of the park parallels the Dalton Highway, the only ways into the park are on foot or by air. From Fairbanks, visitors can book an air taxi to the gateway communities of Bettles, Coldfoot, or Anaktuvuk Pass – a Nunamiut Inupiaq village located within the park – or drive to Coldfoot, and then fly in to the park on guided or independent backcountry trips. Experienced backpackers can hike into the park from the Dalton Highway, but most visitors arrive by plane.
Tour operators offer day flightseeing trips and overnight backcountry trips into the park from the gateway communities. Muiti-day rafting and hiking trips are one of the best ways to experience the park’s rugged landscape, including the jagged granite spires of the Arrigetch Peaks.
Kobuk Valley National Park
The remote Kobuk Valley National Park in the Alaska’s Arctic is home to geological wonders, impressive wildlife migrations, and significant cultural sites. For those looking for a wilderness experience and are willing to put in some extra time and effort to plan, Kobuk Valley rewards with solitude, beauty, and a wide range of recreation experiences.
Inaccessible by road, the primary way to get to Kobuk Valley is by air. Most visitors fly in to Kotzebue or Bettles and hop on a small plane for a day flightseeing trip or a multi-day backcountry adventure for float trips, hiking, wildlife viewing, and fishing. Many flightseeing trips give you the opportunity to land in the park for a short hike.
Two of the most notable areas are the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes – the Arctic’s largest active sand dunes - and Onion Portage. Twice a year, over 200,000 caribou swim across the Kobuk River at Onion Portage on their annual migration. The area is also a signification archeological site of seasonal Alaska Native camps dating back over 8,000 years, still used today by the Inupiaq people.
Alaska’s off-the-beaten-path national parks get you away from the crowds of the more popular parks and offer endless recreation opportunities and unique cultural experiences. Less visitation means less visitor services, so be sure to do your research, plan ahead, and book as early as possible. Unless you have backcountry experience, it’s best to join a guided group so the local experts can provide the right gear, show you the route, and even cook up some amazing meals.
Backcountry trips and remote lodges cater to smaller groups and can book up early. For more availability, consider visiting during the shoulder seasons in May and September/October, when there’s more space and often better deals.
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