Tips for Visiting Alaska's National Parks
National park fans have some big decisions to make when planning a trip to Alaska. There are a total of 24 sites affiliated with the National Park Service in Alaska, though only eight have official national park designations.
While this map may make it look like you can hop, skip and jump between our parks, they’re spread far and wide across the state and most visitors are lucky to visit two or three in a vacation. In a state with more national parklands than any other, how do you choose which ones to visit?
Ask any Alaskan to pick a favorite, and the conversation turns personal pretty quickly. So we decided to talk to the folks who know Alaska’s eight national parks best for their *very subjective* thoughts. What’s so special about each park? And what do they think you shouldn’t miss during a visit? Warning: their impassioned insights may not help to eliminate any parks off your must-visit list.
Dominated by Alaska’s most iconic landmark, the tallest mountain in North America, Denali National Park is the six-million-acre heart of Interior Alaska. Denali ATV General Manager Evan Orfanidis explains that the park’s pristine wilderness — snowy mountains, deep valleys, taiga forest and high alpine tundra — is so vast that “an album full of pictures doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface.”
“Whenever I think of Denali, I’m always reminded of the [famous quote by local] John Allen, ‘Trying to record Denali in photographs is like going to a party through a keyhole,’” Orfanidis says. “To this day, that sentiment resonates with me.”
Beth Brandon, a senior manager of marketing at Pursuit Collection, which manages Denali Backcountry Lodge, recommends two must-sees for visitors. “Eielson Visitor Center at Mile 66 of the Park Road has fantastic views of Denali and amazing interactive exhibits for visitors to learn more about the park. They also have a gallery featuring work from the artists-in-residence programs, which I love to spend time in. Secondly, Fannie Quigley’s Cabin in Kantishna was recently restored by the National Park Service and is now open to visitors on select tours — it’s a great way to learn about the role mining had in Kantishna, what it took to survive in the wilderness, and the resilience of one of my favorite ‘tough ladies’ in Alaska history.”
Choose your Denali adventure here.
A note for visitors from 2023 - 2026:
The Denali Park Road will be open until mile 43 from 2023 - 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. Please check with Kantishna-area businesses about their operational plans for lodging and excursions from 2023 - 2026. 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.
“Gates of the Arctic is basically our backyard,” says Bettles Lodge owner Eric Fox. “Gates is huge, more than eight million acres. Many pristine rivers and deep water, clear mountain lakes run through this huge swath of unspoiled Mother Nature.”
Fox also says Gates of the Arctic is one of the least visited of the national parks because its remote location in the Arctic bush requires a flight and an adventurous landing on water or a gravel/sand bar by the river. But the journey is worth it every time.
“Visitors should experience the midnight sun over the tundra, putting out heat and intense light through an Arctic night that never comes,” says John Gaedeke, owner of Iniakuk Lake Wilderness Lodge, located near the park.
Learn more about the gateway communities and jumping-off points for any adventures into Gates of the Arctic here.
Glacier Bay’s natural beauty has made it a star attraction on most cruise line itineraries as ships sail through the Inside Passage. But what really makes this dynamic, glacier-studded, marine wildlife-packed fjord special is its history as the ancestral homeland of the Huna Tlingit clans.
“For me as a Huna Tlingit person to go over there, it’s really like going into a spiritual place,” says Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve Management Assistant Ken Grant. “The whales are a part of the Tlingit family. The bears are a part of our culture. The mountain goats. The birds. The salmon. It’s all part of our culture. We have stories that make it a part of our culture. When we go, we are going into our community.”
For travelers to learn more about that culture, he recommends visiting the Huna Tribal House in Bartlett Cove. “The whole Glacier Bay experience from our perspective is written there on the totem poles and the screens,” Grant says.
“Katmai is remote and rugged. It has a beautiful coast studded with coastal meadows, mountains, many dormant volcanoes with glaciers on their sides and big wild rivers to float or fish,” says Chris Day, manager of Emerald Air Service, which runs bear viewing tours into the Southwest Alaska park. “But what makes the park special and unique to us and most other visitors are the bears. Katmai has the largest concentration of brown bears of any park in the United States. They are a population of bears that is easy to watch because they congregate on the sedge meadows along the coast in the spring and on the salmon streams later in the summer. In 30 years, I've never tired of spending the day with them.”
Day continues, “Katmai also offers world class catch-and-release rainbow trout fishing and there are many wild rivers that rafters love to float. But perhaps in a broader sense, it’s the park’s complete, untrammeled, healthy ecosystem — there aren’t many places left like this on Earth.”
Learn more bear viewing in the park here.
“Kenai Fjords National Park was created in 1980, but most of us who lived in Alaska at the time knew very little about it. The reason: we didn’t have a boat,” says Kirk Hoessle, president and chief exploration officer at Alaska Wildland Adventures, which operates the Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge in the Southcentral park.
“It takes a stout vessel to traverse the open ocean on the way to its many fjords, bays, glaciers and teeming wildlife. In 1984, after leading trips all summer, I wanted to explore somewhere new that I knew nothing about. A friend and I hired a float plane to drop us off in a sheltered lagoon in Aialik Bay. We didn’t see a soul, and paddled the bays, inlets and islands by kayak for a week and a half and had incredible wildlife experiences. At one point, a whale surfaced just ahead of where we were paddling. The entire trip was such a magical experience and guess what? You can have those same magical experiences today. There are a few more visitors, sure, but you can still find your private seacoast paradise. Paddle a kayak amidst bits of glacier remnants with a tidewater glacier and snow-capped peaks as a dramatic backdrop. It’s a stunning experience and that memory will last a lifetime.”
More information about visiting the park can be found here.
Only accessible by air taxi from Kotzebue or lodges like Bettles Lodge and Iniakuk Lake Wilderness Lodge, Kobuk Valley National Park is one of Alaska’s lesser-visited parks. “This spectacular park is a giant sand deposit (over 1.7 million acres) left by the glaciers that receded some 15,000 to 30,000 years ago, out in the Arctic and many miles from the west coast of our great state,” Fox said. “The Kobuk River flows through this park and in late summer the hard fighting sheefish run up from the saltwater, to the place of their birth to spawn.”
Gaedeke added, “It’s special to me because of the sand dunes and the nearby villages that have lived off the land for thousands of years. As you fly or float along the Kobuk River systems, you see wide open spaces changing with the seasons instead of the impacts of man. Visitors shouldn’t miss the sand dunes, shifting and moving across the tundra, consuming on one end and revealing on the other.”
Read more about the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes here.
“Lake Clark is my favorite national park in Alaska, by a long shot,” says Dan Oberlatz, owner of Alaska Alpine Adventures, which guides trips into the park in Southwest Alaska. “Not only is Lake Clark where we guided our first trip 21 years ago, it’s also where we run most of our summer adventures. Lake Clark has been called, ‘Alaska’s epitome,’ a description that is both fair and accurate. From the rugged coastline along Cook Inlet, past the steaming volcanoes of the glaciated Aleutian Range, to the salmon-choked lakes and rivers in the park’s interior, Lake Clark is without equal. Seeing bears on the coast, at Silver Salmon Creek or Chinitna Bay, is always a slam dunk. But if you find yourself in Port Alsworth, on Lake Clark itself, take the hike to Tanalian Falls. It’s spectacular. And if you’re feeling more ambitious, do the rugged, all-day hike up Tanalian Mountain, which offers astounding views of Lake Clark, Kontrashibuna Lake, and the vastness of the Aleutian Range. And it should almost go without saying, but a visit to [naturalist and conservationist] Dick Proenneke’s log cabin at Twin Lakes is well worth the expense of getting there. Twin Lakes exudes the true essence of Lake Clark National Park!”
Learn more about places to go in the park here.
“Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is an epic wilderness,” says Neil Darish, owner of McCarthy Lodge and Ma Johnson’s Historical Hotel, located in the small town of McCarthy in the Southcentral Alaska park. “The old copper mine and Kennecott Mill site have many artifacts and mining-related buildings to explore. The hiking is world class and the variety of nearby hiking opportunities means you can get extreme views that anyone willing to hike a few miles can enjoy. Bikes and walking, as well as the local shuttle system, means getting around is easy enough, but the glacier hiking is my favorite easy-access thing to do here. It's what makes the park special to me. The toe of Root Glacier is less than a mile from my home. But if I was going to suggest the one very favorite thing, it's getting in the air and seeing the landscape. A 50- or 70-minute flight gets you into some of the most remote and most impressive backcountry in Alaska. The mountains go on and on forever.”
Plan your visit here.
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