Alaska's National Parks

MAN September 2016 - Wrangell-St. Elias

Alaska's National Parks

2016 marked the 100th anniversary of national parks in the United States, and Alaska is one of the best places to celebrate. With 8 national parks, some of them covering more land than an entire European country (or two, or three), raw and wild nature is yours to explore. View wildlife such as grizzly bears and caribou herds, gawk at some of the tallest mountains in North America, or discover the history of a region at a comfortable visitor center. And the parks not only protect wild land and ecosystems, but also Alaska's rich cultural history.

We’ve highlighted some national parks from each of Alaska’s regions.

Denali: Alaska’s most famous national park, best known for its namesake mountain, the tallest in North America, covers 6 million wilderness acres of Interior Alaska—all watched over by Denali's massive peak. Carved by glaciers and blanketed with tundra, Denali National Park offers an unlimited number of hiking and wildlife viewing opportunities. One road runs through the park, but visitors can also take a flightseeing tour with a glacier landing, hike a few of the maintained trails or take a rafting tour. On February 26, 2017, the park celebrates its 100th birthday with a few ongoing events. The visitor services are excellent, and the park is easily accessed by road or rail from Anchorage or Fairbanks, although private vehicles are only allowed to Mile 14 or the park's shuttle system.

Glacier Bay: Combine a northern temperate rainforest, calving tidewater glaciers and the sea as a backdrop for this stunning scenery and you’ve likely landed in Glacier Bay National Park. It’s one of the world’s largest protected areas, encompassing 3.3 million acres and part of a 25 million-acre World Heritage Site. The Huna Tribal House, a permanent clan building recently dedicated as an acknowledgment of that heritage, provides a place for tribal members to hold ceremonies and also a place for visitors to learn about the tribe’s culture. Many visitors arrive via cruise ship and the rest pass through either the village of Gustavus or the park headquarters of Bartlett Cove for a variety of adventures. The majority of activities in the park are water-focused, with the most popular being boat tours, kayaking, river rafting, fishing, glacier viewing and whale watching. The park is only accessible by boat or a flight.

Gates of the Arctic: Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, one of the finest wilderness areas in the world, straddles the Arctic Divide in the Brooks Range, America's northernmost chain of mountains. Second only to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in size, Gates of the Arctic covers 13,238 square miles, sprawls 800 miles from east to west and is entirely north of the Arctic Circle. It extends from the southern foothills of the Brooks Range, across the range's ragged peaks and down onto the North Slope.

Katmai: If you’ve ever seen an iconic photograph of grizzlies snapping salmon while jumping up a waterfall, it was probably taken in Katmai National Park. This is the place to book a bear viewing tour, where you can watch grizzlies feed on spawning salmon (and you can catch a few fish yourself, as well). It’s also the site of the Valley of 10,000 Smokes, a surreal sandy landscape created by the 20th century’s largest volcanic eruption. Katmai is located in Southwest Alaska and is therefore a great day trip along along the coast from the Kenai Peninsula or Anchorage.

Wrangell-St Elias: At 13.2 million acres, this is America’s largest national park. Mountains rise from the sea, reaching more than 18,000 feet into the sky. The park, chock-full of raw, untouched beauty, is home to four mountain ranges: the Wrangell, St. Elias and Chugach mountains, and the Alaska Range. Located deep in the heart of this national park, the towns of Kennicott and McCarthy offer visitors a taste of Alaska’s historic mining era and outstanding recreational opportunities. You'll find easy access points at Copper Center, Nabesna, Chitina and Yakutat.

Kenai Fjords: Situated just outside of Seward, Kenai Fjords National Park is an excellent place to take a day trip to see glaciers, whales breaching and busy sea lion haulouts. The park is also home to the Harding Icefield, one of the last remnants of the Ice Age and from where nearly 40 glaciers flow. You can drive up to Exit Glacier, a relatively small river of ice that drops from the icefield, or take a day boat tour into the park from Seward to get up close to tidewater glaciers and exciting marine wildlife. This spectacular park and its scenery is only a couple hours drive from Anchorage.

If you’re starting your trip in Anchorage, stop into the Alaska Public Lands Information Center to get details on parks and other public lands.